Sports

Cowboys Blueprint: Dallas needs wins in 2021, not more offensive balance simply for the sake of it

If you want balance, pull up a chair at your local yoga studio or head to a Barnum & Bailey show to enjoy the trapeze act. For the Dallas Cowboys, and every other team in today’s NFL looking to track down the ever-elusive Lombardi Trophy, it’s not about striking balance — it’s about winning games. And to do so means a relentless commitment to adapting to what’s right in front of you, in real-time, and every single time. So when the Cowboys walked off of the field in Week 1 with a 31-29 loss to Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it wasn’t because they weren’t balanced in the run/pass game.

It’s because despite having an excellent flight plan, they ran into self-inflicted turbulence. That said, pointing out reasons the Cowboys actually lost isn’t the same as manifesting reasons for why they might’ve, and that’s why where here: to separate the two.

Entering the contest, the Cowboys knew they’d be up against the best run defense in the NFL. That was set to be a challenge in and of itself, but let’s expand upon this point a bit. Ezekiel Elliott, the two-time league rushing champ who looks quicker, faster and in the best shape of his football life, was still set to run up against Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea, William Gholston and Jason Pierre-Paul on Thursday night, and Travis Frederick wasn’t running out of the tunnel for the Cowboys — leaving the task to a second-year talent in Tyler Biadasz to avoid being bullied by a wildly underrated Vea. 

Additionally, perennial All-Pro Zack Martin wasn’t going to jog out of the locker room either, reserved to the COVID-19 list just ahead of Thursday and, as such, leaving a capable (but not Martin-esque) Connor McGovern to tandem with Biadasz in trying to carve lanes through a steel wall with steak knife. And this is in no way, shape or form a knock to Biadasz or McGovern — two very good players with tremendous upside — but rather to point out they were simply outmatched, which means the Cowboys had to look for a vulnerability somewhere else.

Spoiler alert: They found it in the secondary and it led to every single yard of Prescott’s evening being meaningful.

The protection at the edges for the Cowboys was mostly stellar, with the return of starting tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins holding true to form, and that allowed Dak Prescott to unleash hell in the passing attack. Despite having not played meaningful football (or much of any) in the 333 days prior, and recently overcoming a strained shoulder in August, Prescott lit up the Buccaneers for 403 passing yards and three touchdowns. His lone interception was a frozen rope through a keyhole into triple coverage to wideout CeeDee Lamb, but it became one of several drops by Lamb and was flipped into a tip drill takeaway for the opportunistic Buccaneers defense. 

To the wire, it was Prescott and Amari Cooper taking the Super Bowl-winning scheme of defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to task, and often, to the point of visible frustration and anger on the face of Bowles at many points during the contest. If you would’ve asked Bowles during the game if he’d like the Cowboys to have more balance, and to instead peel back on the onslaught by Prescott to instead run Elliott more and more into a wall with no windows or doors, he would’ve given you a resounding “yes.”

And that’s why the Cowboys didn’t, because it was the wrong thing to do, and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore knew it. So did Prescott, and that’s why although Moore did initially have 28 run plays called, he allowed Prescott to go off-script and change 12 of them — Moore said on Monday — based upon the defensive look at the line of scrimmage.

Ah, adaptation. 

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Moore and Prescott hinted at a seemingly fluid game plan in the first scripted plays of the game, when Prescott was marching down the field on the first offensive drive, mixing in motion and a variety of routes that threatened a touchdown if not for two key drops by Lamb and a false start penalty that stalled the drive and resulted in a punt. Prescott moved the ball with relative ease from the Cowboys’ 2-yard line to the Buccaneers’ 44-yard line on a series that included six pass attempts to only three runs, a 2-to-1 ratio that put Bowles and the Buccaneers on notice that they’d have to shoot their way out if they wanted to survive Prescott’s return.

Was the punt because Elliott wasn’t given three more handoffs to strike a perfect balance? No, it was because Lamb didn’t catch the ball when he was targeted and open, and because the offensive line landed a penalty. Brady and the Buccaneers went on to score a touchdown on the next possession, after having been stopped on their first one, on a nine-play drive that went 94 yards in four minutes and nine seconds and included seven pass attempts and only two runs — essentially doing what Prescott nearly did, the exception being his receivers (Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin) all made their catches.

Did the Bucs score on that drive because of balance? 

No. It was because nobody dropped catchable throws from Brady on that possession. 

And so it went, that Prescott and Brady went on to have a shootout that saw the former outplay the latter in every category except the win column, but the loss doesn’t hang on how many attempts Elliott didn’t get. Not only was Elliott mentally fine with letting Prescott cook, he was down in the trenches providing support as a pass blocker in the absence of Martin to make sure Prescott could cook — adapting his role for the benefit of giving the Cowboys a very real chance at shocking the world in Week 1.

Elliott finished with only 33 rushing yards on 11 attempts, and staring solely at the stat line would have you believe that’s unacceptable in a loss from a $100 million running back. 

But what if I told you the Cowboys would’ve likely lost by two or more scores against the Buccaneers rushing defense if they handed it off to him 25 times, and without Martin in tow, simply for the sake of balance and likely seeing him finish with fewer than 100 yards anyway; something that itself would’ve spawned a list of critical headlines that accused the Cowboys of being unwise in trying to hammer away at the run game when Prescott was playing well, which then leads to speculation that Prescott wasn’t 100 percent healthy, or the team would’ve otherwise let him exploit the weaknesses in the Buccaneers defense?

It’s a spiderweb of illogic that suits only the casual, and kudos to Moore and head coach Mike McCarthy for not reverting to the decrepit 50/50 splits of Jason Garrett and former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan who, ironically, were regularly skewered for forcing the issue with Elliott when that’s not what the opposing defense was giving them. 

Yet, suddenly, the ways of Garrett and Linehan are … missed?

That’s strange fruit, so don’t eat it. Brady threw 50 times and the Buccaneers attempted only 15 carries, in comparison to Prescott throwing 58 times and the Cowboys finishing with 18 attempts, but there’s no one saying Tampa Bay should’ve been more balanced — seeing as they won. The thing is, however, they almost lost with that run/pass split, and that means it’s not actually about the run/pass split, but instead the execution therein (something the Bucs bested the Cowboys in on Thursday night). Also consider Godwin himself made mistakes that nearly cost the Buccaneers the game (similar to Lamb for Dallas), but one controversial potential OPI in the waning moments of the game erased them and put his team in position for a game-winner by kicker Ryan Succop.

You’re starting to see more and more how balance had nothing to do with the tone or outcome of this game.

Playmakers did.

And with Collins presumably set to serve a five-game suspension, Prescott and the Cowboys better continue their adaptable ways, and not force the issue as they have in years past, but rather demand playmakers get more consistent at making plays (including Zuerlein). I’d also be remiss if I didn’t have you wonder how odd it would’ve been to see Brady — who essentially tortured cornerback Anthony Brown all night — scale back after seeing an obvious advantage there and saying to himself, “You know what? I think we should run more.” That wasn’t going to happen anymore than Prescott scaling back against a defense that graded out with a 59.1 in pass coverage, per PFF. 

While they’re currently 0-1 to start the first-ever 17-game season in the NFL, and while there are no moral victories in football, there’s still a lot of positive to take away from the Cowboys being less than 90 seconds away from giving Brady a Super Bowl hangover on his own field, and from seeing it take uncharacteristic drops by Lamb and a poor day from a returning Greg Zuerlein to somehow make them worse than the team that won the Super Bowl in February. 

The Cowboys are all in on what Moore has done with the offense and they’ve now put the NFL on notice that Prescott is completely healthy, something that will ultimately allow Elliott to thrive yet again as one of the most talented weapons in the NFL; but when it’s time to do so, and not when it’s not. So, no, they don’t need more balance. What the Cowboys desperately need is wins, and taking what the defense gives you in any given week, in any given quarter and on any given play is the way to best assure they achieve that mission. Losing remains unacceptable in the NFL, so be not mistaken there.

Refusing to adapt, however, will guarantee that’s all you’ll ever do at this level of the sport: lose.

And often.



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