DALLAS — The Dallas Cowboys may be at .500 in 2019, but they are still leading their division three quarters of the way through the season with a one-game lead.
No matter how you slice it, a division lead and a shot at a home playoff game is exactly where they would have wanted to be before the season began. How they’ve gotten there is a different matter entirely.
In fact, it hasn’t been pretty for the boys in blue as they went 1-3 in their last four games with their sole win being against a lowly Detroit missing their starting QB sandwiched in between dropping games to playoff contenders Minnesota, New England and Buffalo.
Even so, with how poor the rest of the division has played, the Cowboys miraculously still control their own playoff destiny with a 6-6 record. Even with the less-than-stellar performance of late, Dallas still has a chance. With that in mind, it’s time to once again divvy out grades and team awards.
The Cowboys offense has carried the club all season and has been one of the better groups in the league this year. According to Football Outsiders, Dallas has the second-ranked offense according to offensive efficiency.
The offense ranks first in total offense (total yards), eight in scoring (25.8/game), first in passing yards, eight in rushing, and fourth in points per drive.
Overall, the offense has been a nice surprise and one of the major pluses keeping Dallas in the playoff race. With all that considered, one would think that the Cowboys would have a record above .500. Alas, when a team goes 1-3 over a whole quarter of a football season, the grades will reflect that.
Being the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys means you will be in the spotlight at all times, and Dak Prescott has performed those duties with a good head on his shoulders. Thus far this season, Prescott has matched his career-high in touchdowns (23) and is about to break his personal best of passing yards in a season with the final leg to go. Prescott has four games to eclipse 107 yards to break his career-best 3,885 yards set in 2018.
On the downside, Prescott will also likely set a career high in interceptions. With 11 already this year, Dak is just two behind the mark he set in 2017. Prescott could do a better job of protecting the football, but one can’t really fault the higher number with a more aggressive mentality. Dak is taking more opportunities to push the ball downfield with a good success rate.
The running game has really been lacking over the last few weeks with Ezekiel Elliott posting his worst output in a four-week span than at any point of his career. However, to look at the larger picture, the Cowboys have needed to throw the ball more in hopes of rallying from deficits as slow starts have haunted them all season.
Over the course of the season so far, the Cowboys have handed the ball off to Ezekiel Elliott for an average of 18.9 times per game. For a team that was built to get a lead and milk away the clock with Elliott, it just hasn’t happened this year with Dallas often playing from behind and taking to the air to try to get back in games.
Not everything about this recent drought has been dictated by game circumstances, however. In fact, when he has been called upon, Elliott just hadn’t had the same kind of impact as he did in the first three years of his young career. The two-time NFL rushing champion is posting a yards per carry average of just 4.4 this year. The only season where he saw a worse clip was the 2017 campaign when he was suspended for six games.
The Cowboys receiving group has been much improved from a season ago thanks in large part to the contributions of rising sophomore Michael Gallup, free agent chain mover Randall Cobb, and the elite efforts of Amari Cooper. Gallup is enjoying his best year statistically and has shown growth in his second year.
With four games remaining, Gallup has the opportunity to have over 1,000 yards. He would need to average a little over 50 yards per game. He has also already set personal bests in receptions (49) and touchdowns (3).
Cobb has been very productive from the slot for the Cowboys. He won’t get near his career best numbers that he posted in 2014 with Green Bay, but he isn’t being asked to be the number two man or go to when they need a big play. He is, however, taking a lot of pressure off of Cooper and Gallup, this allows Prescott to have options when they need to convert on third down.
What can you say about Cooper that hasn’t already? His presence has transformed the offense into a more modern approach. Cooper is one of the best pure route runners in the game, and he has been what the Cowboys have needed in a first-option receiver in the Dak Prescott era.
Statistically, this could very well end up being Cooper’s best year as a pro in a contract year. He has matched a career-high in touchdowns and has the opportunity for more. He currently sits 182 yards away from his career high in yards. An additional 29 yards at any point over the next four weeks will give Cooper 1,000 yards for the fourth time in his five seasons as a pro.
Ultimately, the Cowboys are getting production from all three in a year where the running game just hasn’t been there. The only knock on this group that is holding them back has been dropped passes.
Despite that, more often than not, when called upon, this group has risen to the task. If the Cowboys are going to make it to the postseason and beyond, the wide receivers will need to continue to be the best group on offense.
The Cowboys tight end group has really just been Jason Witten. In the offseason, upon his return from retirement, it was said that the first ballot future Hall of Fame TE wouldn’t take a majority of the snaps, but ultimately that is exactly what has happened.
On the plus side, Witten has brought some stability to the position that was a weakness in 2018.
However, with two young guns waiting in the wings, Witten has been on the field like he never left. Nevertheless, he took back his role as the dependable receiver over the middle despite a lack of big plays that youth could bring the team at the position.
Blake Jarwin has shown flashes this year, much like he did a year ago for the Cowboys. Jarwin and Witten have both provided three touchdowns apiece but Jarwin is the more explosive athlete and his ability to stretch a defense can’t go unnoticed.
Dalton Schultz has become the forgotten man with just one reception on the year used mostly as a blocker in three tight end sets. Overall, the group has been underwhelming and a spot the Cowboys need to allocate resources to during the offseason to take pressure off both the wide receivers and running back.
For the better part of the last decade, the Cowboys offensive line has been viewed as the gold standard in the NFL. Dallas allocated first round picks to All-Pros Tyron Smith (2011), Travis Frederick (2013) and Zack Martin (2014).
Add in second-round pick last year in Connor Williams and La’el Collins, who would have been a first-round selection had it not been for an off-the-field issue prior to the draft.
After a season without Frederick in 2018, the Cowboys’ line has returned to being one of the best units in football, especially at protecting Dak Prescott during his breakout campaign. In fact, this year, the Cowboys have allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL.
In the passing game, this offensive line has given Prescott plenty of opportunities to get the ball down the field with great success. After all, the Cowboys statistically have the league’s best passing attack.
The drawback has been the run game. While they don’t run the ball as much as of late, they aren’t generating the opportunities for their running back like they did over the past few years.
Plain and simple, that is where the Cowboys need to improve. When Elliott and the offensive line get the run game clicking, it makes this offense that much more difficult to beat.
There were some good performances for the Cowboys defense, but most of them were lost amid the mediocre coaching and shoddy execution of the whole. Here are the third quarter defensive and special teams grades for the Cowboys:
The good news is they allowed a 3.99 yards per carry over the third quarter of the year, the 12th-lowest in the NFL. That is the benefit that defensive lineman Michael Bennett brought with him from the New England Patriots.
In fact, Bennett has added 2.0 sacks in the third quarter of the season, but those sacks came exclusively against the Lions.
Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence has had a half-sack over the past four games, but he has provided five tackles for loss, tied for the fifth-most overall in that span for a defensive lineman. Defensive end Robert Quinn provided 3.0 sacks and continues to be a consistent performer for the pass rush.
The defensive line allowed four rushing touchdowns, tied for fourth-most overall, and 499 yards, the seventh-most in that span. On the season, the Cowboys give up 4.1 yards per carry, tied with New Orleans and Denver for the 11th-most in the NFL.
When talented second-year linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is missing two games during a key November stretch, it isn't good news for the linebacking corps, no matter the positive spin coaching and ownership try to put on it with Sean Lee and Joe Thomas providing depth.
The best example of the linebacking corps not being what it was in 2018 is Lee not finishing the play on Kyle Rudolph's toe-touching, tip-drill touchdown catch against the Vikings. Jaylon Smith tied San Francisco's Fred Warner for the most tackles over this span with 44, but the corps overall doesn't seem to be making the big plays or stopping the run to give the Cowboys an advantage.
Vikings running back Dalvin Cook was able to generate 183 scrimmage yards on the Cowboys, and his backup, Alexander Mattison, carried eight times for 52 yards. Against Buffalo, quarterback Josh Allen managed to rush 10 times for 43 yards, and running back Devin Singletary had 14 carries for 63.
Compared to a year ago, Vander Esch racked up the most tackles in the NFL with 103 through the first 13 weeks, and Smith had the eighth-most with 87. Smith has ostensibly improved with 112 on the season, but the nearest Cowboy is Vander Esch with 72. In total, the young duo is providing 184 to 190. In a game decided by inches, and with two games decided by a score or less, how big could those lost six tackles be?
Opposing quarterbacks have combined for a 104.1 passer rating against the Cowboys over the past four games, the third-highest in the NFL. The only teams worse than the Cowboys are the Broncos and Lions.
The only two cornerbacks on the team who have batted down passes are Byron Jones (three) and Chidobe Awuzie (one), and needless to say the interceptions have been barren with opposing quarterbacks combining for seven touchdowns against the beleaguered unit in Dallas.
Jones isn't playing to his 2018 Pro Bowl level, and even Jourdan Lewis, a fan favorite for his knack to make big plays, has been silent as of late. Bills wideout Cole Beasley was the only receiver to record 100-plus receiving yards against the Cowboys in the past four games, though Julian Edelman was seven yards away and the Vikings game could have been a different story if Adam Thielen were healthy enough to play.
Nevertheless, the Cowboys will need their cornerbacks to have a positive impact over the last four games.
When Jeff Heath is missing time, it isn't good for Dallas. The Cowboys managed a 1-1 record without Heath over the four-game stretch, and he was knocked out in the Vikings and Patriots losses.
Darian Thompson has filled in adequately with two pass breakups, the same number as Xavier Woods. But the Cowboys need Heath back to be a part of a rotation that makes their safety situation work. Without Heath, the Cowboys don't have an enforcer to take down opposing ball carriers or break up passes.
The safety group hasn't had a slew of good to great tight ends to go against, aside from Rudolph, who counts more as a good tight end and collected two touchdown grabs against Dallas. Like the cornerback group, the safeties have not logged an interception over the past four games, contributing to the dearth of takeaways on defense.
Brett Maher should not have a job anymore. That's the evaluation. His missed field goals against the Vikings and Patriots turned quarterback Dak Prescott's failed game-winning drives into endeavors to score touchdowns rather than get close enough to let Maher attempt field goals.
Against the Bills, Maher's troubles were markedly worse as he missed two field goals that would have given Dallas a chance to win the game rather than lose 26-15.
Throughout the complexion of the game, if his misses were instead good, Dallas would have been down 13-10 at halftime rather than 13-7 and later 16-10 rather than 16-7 with 7:37 to go in the third quarter.
It's true that Maher is 64.3% on field goals from 50-plus yards out, the second-highest in the NFL over that span with at least 10 attempts. But is it worth it when he is air-balling field goals from 35 to 49 yards out? If Dallas is to keep Maher for his big leg, then they need to bring it out when they're in that 50-plus range and go for it in the 35-49 range where it would probably miss it.
If the offense fails the fourth down attempt, what's the difference?
Chris Jones has the second-lowest yards per punt in the league at 41.7, and he is one of eight punters to have suffered a block so far. The Cowboys have not called upon him to fake a punt just yet. For what it is worth, he has also not provided a big hit on any returners. Nonetheless, Jones is a player that fans would rather see holding on field goals or extra point tries rather than constantly punting.
The same goes for long snapper L.P. Ladouceur. As long as he is keeping his name out of the paragraphs and only being mentioned as a Cowboy who, along with Jason Witten, was the last active player to face X opponent 10-plus years ago, that's good news for the Cowboys.
The unit overall is not being done any favors by being led by Keith O'Quinn, who is clearly in over his head as the special teams coordinator. In just his second season as a special teams coordinator, the inexperience shows with his unit's play.
The most telling stat about how dismal the special teams play has been is the average starting field position for the Cowboys offense. It's their own 25.6-yard line, the worst in the NFL. As good as the Dallas offense can be, that is a tall order to task them with mounting 75-yard drives on every possession. In fact, the only team with a winning record in the bottom-10 of average starting field position are the Green Bay Packers, and they're at No. 9 at the 27.1-yard line.
The season totals will look bottom-10, but a strong finish from O'Quinn's unit may be the difference between Jason Garrett getting fired Dec. 30 and the club preparing for their home wild-card game instead.
MVP — QB Dak Prescott: The two-time Pro Bowler should have earned his first comeback of the season against the Vikings. He has given Dallas a shot to win every game.
Newcomer — DE Robert Quinn: The former 2011 first-round pick continues to provide a consistent pass-rushing presence.
Most improved — WR Michael Gallup: Amari Cooper has 971 receiving yards. He'll get his 1,000. Gallup is at 796. Can he get to 1,000 over the last four games?
Comeback player — TE Jason Witten: Millennial Mr. Cowboy's one touchdown catch versus the Bills is tied for the ninth-most by a tight end in the third quarter of the season.