DALLAS — After three games into the 2018 NFL season there are plenty of ways to point the finger as to why the Dallas Cowboys are 1-2 and sharing the basement of the division with New York. Optimistically, the Cowboys are only a game out so why is there so much panic? Well, if you look at the last 11 games with Dak Prescott behind center, there is a lot of cause for concern.
Prescott just hasn't been the same quarterback from his first season and a half when he was coming off becoming the NFL Rookie of the Year after a legendary debut season. Some could point to injuries or suspensions around the team as to why that is.
Head coach Jason Garrett always preaches next man up in these types of scenarios, but it hasn't worked out well. Heading into this season the team lost 132 receptions, 1,398 yards and 11 touchdowns from last year’s team.
Brice Butler has returned but has yet to play. The team added Allen Hurns, Deonte Thompson and Michael Gallup but they have yet to bloom for the offense in Dallas. Tavon Austin has been used sparingly but with great success. Austin has five receptions and the only two receiving touchdowns for the Cowboys in the first three games.
So the question becomes, is this all on Prescott? Certainly not, but he shoulders some of the blame. Poor execution and some head scratching play calling deserves blame as well.
On 33 first downs plays through three games, the Cowboys have run the ball for an average gain of 7.57 yards per play. The Cowboys have dropped back to throw on 40 first down plays for an average gain of 4.65 yards per play. These numbers do not factor in various penalties of which there have been many drive-killers.
Of the 40 passing plays the Cowboys have attempted, Dak has been sacked five times with one touchdown and two interceptions. In year’s past, the Cowboys ran it on first down behind Ezekiel Elliott and their big offensive line to an extreme degree compared to the rest of the league on first down play calls.
Teams know that Dallas likes to bully them with runs on first down now and have are geared up to stop Zeke in the early downs, so Dallas has been to mixing it up. Needless to say, there needs to be better execution on first down play calls.
If there is one statistic that is extremely telling of team success it would be 3rd down conversion rate. In 2016 the Cowboys were the 9th best at converting 3rd downs with a rate of 43%. The following year the Cowboys were the 6th best with a rate of 42.9%. Thus far this season, Dallas comes in as the second worst team in the NFL with a rate of 23.5%. That is only .2% above Arizona who is dead last. In their last losing season (2015) the Cowboys were 7th worst at 34.6%.
Looking at the 3rd downs for this team through 12 quarters the offense has needed to make 8.5 yards for first downs with the team only gaining 3.6 yards per play. Of their 34 third down plays which excludes penalties, Prescott has completed 4 of 12 passes for 21 yards has been sacked four times. Fixing their down and distance numbers and converting on 3rd down should be a major point of emphasis heading into the Detroit game.
The defense has been one of the major positives through the first three games, but they have been on the field a lot. With the offense being unable to sustain drives, the defense has been wearing down later in games as Dallas beings to lose the time of possession battle. Possessing the ball was a major theme for the Cowboys during their successful 2016 season.
Where the defense can help is by creating turnovers. Turning the ball over on offense has attributed to the defense being on the field more than they'd like but they also haven't created the turnovers to get themselves off the field as of yet.
The Cowboys defense has forced two fumbles but haven’t been able to intercept any passes. With a turnover differential of -2 as a team, and with the offense turning the ball over four times, the team needs the standout play by the defense to continue but it's become clear that the defense also needs to help itself get off the field.
The biggest positive for the defense has been that they are giving up only 17.6 points per game, which is 7th best in the league. In today’s NFL that should be good enough to win on most nights. However, the offense has averaged 13.7 points per game. Should this trend continue, there will be more pressure on the defense or special teams to score to pick up the slack if the offense continues to sputter.
The coaching staff needs to right the ship – especially on offense – heading into the Detroit game on Sunday or this season can unravel quickly and the front office could have no choice but to start making wholesale changes.
Who do you feel is most responsible for the Cowboys' 1-2 record through three weeks of the season? Make your thoughts known to Patrick on Twitter @DraftCowboys.