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Grading first-place Cowboys after season’s first half

One half of the season is in the books and the Dallas Cowboys sit atop the NFC East. Before the second half can be traversed, it’s time for a progress report.
Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys' Sean Lee (50), head coach Jason Garrett, center, quarterback Dak Prescott (4) and wide receiver Amari Cooper (19) stand on the sideline as members of the armed services unfurl a flag during the playing of the national anthem before a NFL football game against the New York Giants in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)


The Dallas Cowboys have completed the second quarter of their schedule, which makes it an opportune time to hand out grades. There will be red marks and gold stars to give out for the defense and special teams, who helped Dallas go 2-2 during the period and regain control of the NFC East. 

Here are the grades:


Defensive line

The front four for the Cowboys has played at the formidable level the organization has sought since 2015 when they drafted Randy Gregory and signed Greg Hardy. Robert Quinn has been a force off the edge with 3.5 sacks, four quarterback hits, three tackles for loss, and seven combined tackles in this stretch. 

The former 2011 first-round pick has also batted down two passes. DeMarcus Lawrence has also started to come alive on the other side with 2.0 sacks, 11 combined tackles, three tackles for loss, and four quarterback hits. 

With stars getting the job done off the edges, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has been able to add in a rotation with Dorance Armstrong getting 2.0 sacks in a reserve role, and now Michael Bennett has come over from the New England Patriots in a bye week trade to play the Tyrone Crawford role of inside and outside. 

Christian Covington, the former Houston Texans defensive tackle, has notched two tackles for loss. The Dallas defense has allowed 3.95 yards per carry, the 13th-best, in that span. The Aaron Jones game in Week 5 really hurt their totals for rushing touchdowns with five surrendered, but Dallas only allowed one more after that to where they are now riding a two-game streak of zero rushing touchdowns allowed. The Cowboys' 12 sacks are tied for 12th-most in the second quarter of the season.

Grade: B


The Cowboys have an embarrassment of riches at linebacker with Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Sean Lee. Of course, in the first game of the second quarter, Week 5 versus the Green Bay Packers at AT&T Stadium, it hardly looked like it — again, the Aaron Jones game where the Packer RB found paydirt four times. 

The Cowboys needed their studly linebacking corps to patrol the line of scrimmage, but they weren't able to get the job done. However, there was only one other rushing touchdown allowed thereafter, and they have not allowed a 100-yard rusher since then, and they have played the likes of Le'Veon Bell and Saquon Barkley, the best the Big Apple has to offer. 

Smith and Lee have knocked away two passes each, tied for the most by a Cowboys defender in this span. In fact, there are only 12 other players in the league who have broken up more passes over the last quarter of the season. 

The linebacking unit recovered from a very poor outing against Green Bay, but it does have a profound impact on their grade. The positive take is they have corrected those issues and weathered the loss of Vander Esch against the Giants in Week 9 very well with Lee having a renaissance performance.

Grade: B-


Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie remain a viable cornerback tandem, even though the latter still seems to be Shawn Bradley for highlight catches against the Cowboys. Still, the former 2017 second-round pick has been productive with two pass breakups, 21 tackles, a tackle for loss, and a quarterback hit. 

Jones and Awuzie get the vote of confidence from passing game coordinator and defensive backs coach Kris Richard because of their size: 6-1, 200 for Jones and 6-0, 201 for Awuzie. However, if you're looking for defensive highlights at cornerback, Jourdan Lewis leads the team with an interception and a fumble recovery, which he returned for a touchdown against the Giants in Week 9. 

Though he only has 13 combined tackles, a tackle for loss, and a pass breakup, Lewis has made the most with his 129 snaps in that span, which includes a goose egg against the Packers. The hamstring injury to Anthony Brown in the Eagles game in Week 8 opened up the opportunity for Lewis to shine. It will be interesting to see if the Cowboys coaching staff again reverses course and minimizes Lewis' role.

Grade: B+


Cowboys fans and some in the media wanted Dallas to trade for New York Jets safety Jamal Adams. After all, he is from the Metroplex, is a playmaker, and is just what the Cowboys have been missing at safety since the NFL cracked down on horse-collar tackles in 2005 and effectively ended Roy Williams' career. 

However, it can be argued they have such a game-changer already on the roster. Enter Xavier Woods, their 2017 sixth-round pick from Louisiana Tech. Woods snagged two interceptions and knocked away two passes to go along with his 20 combined tackles in the past four games. 

In fact, Woods is tied with Seattle's Tedric Thompson for the most interceptions over the past five weeks in the NFL. He has been the perfect ballhawking complement to go along with Jeff Heath's hard-hitting on the back end. Darian Thompson was in the right place at the right time against his former team in Week 9 with the fumble recovery, which incidentally, was also forced by Woods. 

Through the past nine weeks, Dallas' secondary continues to allow the third-fewest yards to receivers (1,029) but tied for the sixth-most receiving yards to tight ends (523).

Grade: A

Special teams

Kicker Brett Maher missed two field goals against the Packers in Week 5, a 34-24 loss. Let's say he makes the 54-yard attempt late in the second quarter. That means the Cowboys' final drive is to tie the game, not give Maher a chance to try a 33-yarder, that he misses, and then hope for an onside kick, an impossible proposition in today's NFL. 

Then ,a week later, Maher misses another one at the New York Jets, a 24-22 loss where the miss loomed larger. Maher also missed against the Giants in Week 9, but it was glossed over because the team fell the Giants 37-18 to get the series sweep. Maher is at 72.2% for the season, worse than his 80.6% for 2018. The good news is he has connected on all 26 of his extra points.

Punter Chris Jones had a 33.3 average for the Green Bay game, which once again demonstrates what a total team failure the Week 5 game was, but rebounded to produce three consecutive 40.0-plus performances. 

The holds from Jones for field goals and extra points have looked clean. He has not yet been utilized for a fake, and it is worth mentioning that the Cowboys have entered the part of the season where Jones gets utilized for fakes. In 2016, it was Week 8. In 2017, it was Week 10 and Week 15. The Cowboys have not run a fake with Jones since Dec. 17, 2017, when he rushed for 24 yards on a fourth-and-11 at the Oakland Raiders.

No one wants to hear about the team's long snapper; no news is good news on this front, unless he is becoming a citizen of the United States. Over the bye week, L.P. Ladouceur completed a six-year process to become a US citizen. 

The former Cal Bear, a native of Montreal, Quebec, came to the Cowboys as a mid-season replacement for Jon Condo in 2005. Coach Bill Parcells pinpointed the former Maryland Terrapin as the problem for Dallas' field goal and extra point issues through the first three games of the season and brought in Ladouceur for a workout while the club was in between Bay Area games in Week 4 with the club staying in Oxnard, Calif. Ladouceur took over that week at the Oakland Raiders and has not missed the past 229 games.

Grade: B-

Now it’s time to take a look at how the offense is performing over the last quarter in Kellen Moore’s first season calling the plays as the new offensive coordinator in Dallas.



The quarterback in the NFL will forever be a hot topic, not just locally but nationally as well. From the talking heads like Mike Greenberg to Dan Orlovsky and everywhere in between, how your QB is performing will usually dictate how your team is doing in the eyes of many. 

Luckily for Dallas, Dak Prescott has been one of the top quarterbacks in the league this year. You don’t have to just take my word for it as Prescott is having a career season statistically and sits near or atop most analytics in 2019. For example, he ranks second to current NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes in yards per attempt, killing the narrative that he is just a dink and dunk passer.

Prescott has surpassed any expectations to this point that were made when he was selected with the 135th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Given how he has been able to raise his game and, in doing so, has elevated the offense, he should most certainly be in the discussion for NFL MVP this year should Dallas continue their winning ways in the division and march into the playoffs.

The only blemish for Dak over the last four weeks is the five interceptions, including three overall in that cursed game against Green Bay. Those turnovers come with the territory of a player testing the boundaries of a new offense, however. Prescott has earned the right to take chances and, by and large, those chances have been paying off for Dallas.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Cowboys rely heavily on their running back in this offense, even while the passing game has become more of a weapon over the last 16+ games dating back to the acquisition of Amari Cooper. Ezekiel Elliott is still the man that helps make this offense roll down the field. His consistency in all three phases of the game (rushing, receiving and blocking) show why he is one of the best running backs in the NFL. The numbers aren’t quite there in terms of being the number one runner in the league, but his impact cannot be undervalued.

Zeke is averaging just over 92 yards a game, and as the season has gone on he seems to only be getting stronger. Over the last four games, Elliott has rushed for 417 yards and three touchdowns. He averaged nearly five yards a carry during this span. He is helping do his part to keep this offense moving and is the number one threat to finish off a win once Dallas takes a lead.

Rookie backup Tony Pollard has had his ups and downs with limited playing time and a couple mental mistakes here and there, especially in the return game. He is still learning his role but when he has the ball in his hand and running downhill, he provides electric runs. 

With Moore and Prescott still finding ways to work him in, Pollard should have more opportunities to pressure opposing defenses. The Cowboys rarely use the fullback in this offense but when called upon to block, Jamize Olawale is not making mistakes and doing his job in the scheme.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The wide receivers group has had their fair share of ups and downs. While the main target Amari Cooper has provided many explosive plays, the group as a whole has not been as consistent as they could be. Fumbles and dropped passes have really hurt their grade. Michael Gallup, Amari Cooper and Randall Cobb have all contributed to this. In fact, that is why Dak Prescott leads the league in dropped passes with 19, tied with Baker Mayfield. 

Despite the drops, this group has really made Prescott’s job a lot easier given the fact that over 900 of the passing yards from Dak have come after the catch. He is setting his guys up to make plays with the ball in their hands and they have delivered.

Jason Witten’s return has really been a blessing for the Cowboys. He doesn’t have the big numbers, but he has been ol’ reliable once again for Dak Prescott and company. You won’t often see a ball come his way and not end up caught. Witten has been rewarded in his return by adding a couple of touchdown catches to his ledger to inch closer to Dez Bryant’s franchise record. 

Meanwhile Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin have seen their fair share of snaps but the production hasn’t been there yet. Jarwin, however, remains the stronger of the two and perhaps the best hope for the future. The two young TEs will need to be more consistent moving forward to give Dallas some sort of confidence in life after Witten.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The offensive line remains backbone of this team. No team has poured as much draft capital into the position group as the Cowboys. With four top-50 picks in Travis Frederick, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Connor Williams, Dallas has invested heavily in the unit and have been rewarded with one of the top groups in the league. 

In all reality, if it wasn’t for an unfounded off-field concern leading up to the draft, La’el Collins would have been a top 50 selection as well. Even so, the line is lauded for a reason but they also needed to step up after surrendering 56 sacks a season ago. That number was more than the 2016 and 2017 seasons combined. 

All-Pro center Frederick missed all of the 2018 season which speaks volumes to the dip in production last year and the revival the unit is seeing in 2019. This year the Cowboys are on pace for their lowest sacks surrendered since Prescott became the starting quarterback. 

The o-line has given this fresh offense time to develop, open holes for the running back, and, most importantly, keep Dak upright. Given how their performance has matched their pedigree, they received the highest grade for the offense.

Grade: A

Overall, the second quarter of the 2019 season began with a swoon that saw Dallas lose three straight but ended on a high note with the Cowboys putting 37 points apiece on the Eagles and Giants to maintain their lead in the NFC East. 

That rebound is worthy of some awards:

Midseason Awards

MVP: Amari Cooper

As with all MVP awards, it would be easy and perhaps appropriate to give it to the quarterback for any successful team, but Amari Cooper has been dynamic for these Cowboys. Without him, this offense looks pedestrian. Dak Prescott is having his best season, sure, but he only looks the part when he has Cooper on the field with him. 

Cooper makes everyone else around him better. He commands attention and defensive respect which allows Gallup, Witten, Cobb and Elliott to see favorable matchups. In addition, Cooper has become that needed outlet for Prescott on third downs and goal-to-go situations. With Cooper, the Cowboys have become a top ten scoring offense.

Newcomer: Robert Quinn

Much like the quarter season awards we have to recognize Robert Quinn. He has really stepped up his game to give Dallas a pass rush threat outside of DeMarcus Lawrence. Now with Michael Bennett in the fold, expect more from both Quinn and Lawrence over the next eight weeks.

Unsung Hero: Connor Williams

The Cowboys offensive line as a whole has played better this year and Connor Williams is no exception to that. He has improved ten-fold from his rookie season where he struggled to play up to the standard of the line. Williams still has had some issues with picking up stunts but the improvement is there and that shows in how well the line has played as a whole. With the return of Frederick as the anchor in the middle, he should only get better.

Comeback Player of the Year: Travis Frederick

There’s no question about this one even with the Cowboys returning a future Hall of Famer in Jason Witten. Travis Frederick is the only selection worthy. He has shown the ability to overcome Guillain Barre Syndrome, miss an entire NFL season, and return to an All-Pro level. With Frederick back in tow, the Cowboys have been better able to protect their quarterback and allow Elliott to find holes with good success.

Trash Talker: Jourdan Lewis

It’s tough to out-do Tank Lawrence in this category but Jourdan Lewis is getting the job done. On more than one occasion this year, Lewis has gotten under the skin of opposing players and then backed up his talk with a big play. The latest example is egging on Giants wide receiver Golden Tate last Monday and then punctuating his night with a 63-yard fumble return for a touchdown to put a cap on a Cowboys win.

How do you think the Cowboys have performed during the season’s first half? Share your grades with Patrick (@DraftCowboys) and Mark (@therealmarklane) on Twitter.