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Sturm: Here’s what really held the 2018 Cowboys back, and what Kellen Moore’s 2019 offense must solve

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  • Sturm: Here’s what really held the 2018 Cowboys back, and what Kellen Moore’s 2019 offense must solve


    By Bob Sturm 3h ago

    Nothing angers a fan base like an offseason full of contract talks for players on an offense which often underwhelmed.

    If you want to pay players off that phenomenal defense from 2018, fine. But the offense? Weren’t they already getting the lion’s share of the money before underachieving most of the year while the Dallas defense tried to drag them along to victory? That might be overstating things, but such widespread bewilderment suggests not everyone seems on board with the Cowboys opening their checkbook for the same offensive cast and crew. While the Chiefs, Rams, Patriots, and Saints were the four highest-scoring teams and also the NFL’s final four teams last year, the Cowboys bobbed along as the 22nd-best scoring team in the league and were dismissed in the Round of 8.

    You pay Pat Mahomes and Jared Goff. You definitely pay Tom Brady and Drew Brees. But what about Dak Prescott? For what, exactly? Did you see this offense?

    The Cowboys’ issues extend beyond their quarterback. They’ve also paid huge money for their running back, No. 1 wide receiver, tight end (again), left tackle, center and right guard. The right tackle makes a lot, too. Soon, there may not be a team with a more expensive offense than this one. Is it too much to expect an elite offense to go with the elite paychecks?

    It is reasonable to suggest that if you have poured most of your draft and contract resources into an offense, at some point you should have a great offense. And, the Cowboys absolutely did have a great offense in 2014 and in 2016 with two different quarterbacks and two different running backs. Both years, they were a top-five team in offensive points scored, ultimately winding up as divisional champions and playoff teams.

    Unfortunately, though, things happen. The Cowboys never strung two seasons of “great” scoring offenses together. Their QB/PGA golfer broke down the next season in 2015. The wide receiver who helped make a lot of this happen also saw his body diminish greatly and was gone after 2017, the star RB got suspended in 2017. The league also figured out what Scott Linehan liked to do and took it away.

    It didn’t help that the Cowboys decided to enter 2018 without a single receiver capable of scaring defenses. They told themselves that “you don’t need a No. 1 wide receiver to win.” That could be true in some cities, but if you watched the first seven games last year, you realized Dallas wasn’t one of them. They desperately needed a No. 1 wide receiver to accomplish anything. So they got one.

    Amari Cooper changed the Cowboys’ season. To quantify just what that means, here is a graphic that first appeared in my extensive piece about Amari Cooper a few weeks back.

    2018 Cowboys before and after the Cooper trade

    Giveaways per game1.1 (10th)1.0 (5th)
    Points per game 20 (26th) 22 (19th)
    Points per drive 1.82 (22nd) 2.09 (13th)
    3rd Down % 31.9% (29th) 48.4% (1st)
    Pass Yards Per game 183.1 (29th) 250.7 (11th)
    Total Yards Per game 339 (28th) 386 (12th)
    Red Zone TD % 55.6% (16th) 43.7% (30th)
    Red Zone Trips/game 2.57 (27th) 3.55 (7th)
    Explosive Plays 22 (29th) 29 (25th)
    Sacked per game 3.29 (27th) 3.67 (27th)
    In nearly every category, Amari Cooper helped the team shoot up the list quickly. Points per drive, third downs, passing yards per game and total yards all received a huge boost.

    However, this offense still had issues. They didn’t score enough points per game to get into the top half of the league (only 19th), made more explosive (20 yards or more) plays but were still awful (25th), gave up far too many sacks (27th), and then the big one: Almost nobody (29th) was more inefficient at scoring touchdowns in the red zone than the Dallas Cowboys.

    At 29th for the entire year – and 30th after the trade for Cooper, they were flat-out terrible at turning red-zone trips into seven points. Only the Jets, Jaguars and 49ers were worse. If you examined their offenses, that would hardly make you feel better about being above them. The Cowboys scored on 48% of their regular-season red-zone possessions, and 52% for the season if you include both playoff games. Either way, they were lousy.

    A branch off the red-zone tree makes them look even worse: No team (32nd) was more inefficient at scoring touchdowns after a first-and-goal than the Dallas Cowboys.

    You mean to tell me with this running back and this offensive line (not to mention Prescott and Cooper) Dallas can’t punch in a first-and-goal? The Cowboys scored touchdowns after 52% of first-and-goals. The Saints led the league at 85%. Do you know how many points that accounts for? Seven different NFL teams were over 80% in this category! Minnesota was 19th in the league, and their rate was 75%!

    If league average is 76% and you sat at 52% in a scenario you encounter at least 25 times per season, that means you left between six and eight touchdowns on the field last year. Let’s meet in the middle and call it seven. Since the Cowboys were so bad here, we can easily suggest that they kicked six field goals for 18 points, with the last attempt including a stopped fourth down or takeaway. That is a 31 point difference, roughly two points per game. Two points per game would vault a team from the 22nd-best scoring offense (where they finished the year) to about the 15th-best without changing a single other thing.

    That illustrates how vital it is to be efficient in the red zone and inside the 10. You must take your chances and make them count. Yes, the Cowboys need a more explosive and diverse attack and that is being addressed in a number of ways. But the clearest and most obvious reason Scott Linehan was fired was that this offense was better at scoring from midfield than it was at scoring from the eight-yard line. And that is what Kellen Moore has been tasked with fixing.

    I spent the last week or so examining every Cowboys red-zone opportunity in 2018 and wanted to share my findings, in hopes of offering an overview of what Kellen has probably found as he certainly has done the same thing. Since he probably won’t discuss the details in public, you will have to settle for mine.

    So, here they are:

    1. Dak Prescott is not quite the same passer inside the Red Zone as he is outside of it.

    I assume most readers know where I stand on Dak Prescott. I believe in his ability and think that while he has some obvious weaknesses, the pragmatic approach I have is simple; he is better than most people will admit and he is clearly better than any available alternative. I would rather have Prescott as my QB than quite a few of the non-elite starting quarterbacks in this league and I expect he can still improve. He plays winning football, which is more than just showing you he has won 67% of his career starts (which he has). He takes care of the ball, he is risk-averse, he can make very big plays at very big moments and his team absolutely loves fighting for him.

    All of that is true. But, there are certain things he is far from mastering and I would argue this is one of the very big ones. Throughout his career, and particularly in 2018, he has been a better passer outside the red zone than inside of it.
    2016 98.9 100.3
    2017 81.8 80.4
    2018 95.7 84.5
    Career 92.1 87.7
    NFL Avg 2018 85.9 95.5
    The reasons for this are a bit varied — accuracy, willingness to take risks and coaching disposition — but they all get amplified in the red zone. This won’t surprise any QBs reading this because of the simple space confines of the red zone which get even more extreme the closer a team is to the goal-line. For a player like Prescott, who resists small-window throws and feeds off safer throws with room for error, the red zone is an unwelcoming territory. There is less space and therefore less comfort. Prescott also really enjoys throws off play-action and while that can be effective in the red zone, its advantages are diminished.

    What does seem interesting to me is that most quarterbacks are better at passing inside the red zone than outside of it. I have theories on why this is, and almost every one of them goes back to scheme. But this is certainly not an easy thing to prove without going to the tape, which we will get to here in time.

    Either way, you can see that things move very fast in the red zone, many throws are a bit more dangerous and the Cowboys QB is certainly a conservative when it comes to red-zone heroism. So helping Dak Prescott see the red zone better, thus making throws to get this team in the end zone, would probably be the greatest point of emphasis for coaches.

    Wait. How does this make sense, then?
    2016 3rd 5th
    2017 6th 12th
    2018 29th 32nd
    How was the red-zone offense that effective in 2016 and 2017 before falling off the earth in 2018? The easiest answer is that although he may not be the best passer, we certainly have reason to believe that Prescott’s legs are probably the best weapon this team does have inside the 20. For whatever reason, there were fewer plays called in which he played to that strength. Here’s another ridiculous statistic.

    The average red-zone run from 2016-2018 yielded just 2.64 yards per carry. Yet Prescott averaged a ridiculous 4.46 yards per carry and scored 18 touchdowns. There is no other player in the NFL with anything close to over four yards per carry in the red zone and over 10 touchdowns. Not even close.

    Dak Prescott isn’t just good at running in the red zone. He is the best in the NFL. But they didn’t utilize him enough to get anywhere in 2018.

    While his incredible running ability helps a great deal, his propensity to take sacks certainly hurts. We will get to that a bit down the list.

    Let’s keep looking for reasons.

    2. The 2018 Cowboys offense had none of the same red zone threats they featured in 2016-17

    Perhaps the most obvious reason the Cowboys struggled so badly in 2018 was the absence of both Dez Bryant and Jason Witten from their red-zone offense. From 2012-2017, there wasn’t a single wide receiver in the NFL with more touchdowns than Dez Bryant (35) in the red zone. He was a back-shoulder fade monster and you could argue that while certain skills were diminished, he was still able to do that at a very high level until his last game.

    Jason Witten did not rank so highly among tight ends during that span; he was just 10th. But his 19 touchdowns are pretty impressive considering the guys who had more were primary threats on their team, while Witten was the clear backup plan when Dez was double-teamed.

    The 54 touchdowns those two scored in the red zone were more than every other Dallas Cowboys player combined in that six-year span (46). Cole Beasley scored 17 during that stretch and then the list dropped to Terrance Williams with 10. Gavin Escobar (6) was the only other Cowboys target with more than two.

    Regardless of the numbers, the Cowboys actually thought that they could subtract their two best red-zone threats, add replacement-level receivers and achieve similar results. They have high hopes for Michael Gallup in the red zone (and so do I), but their optimistic appraisals of their tight end group down in the red zone still boggles the mind (the Rico Gathers back shoulder fade project continues). Their wide receiver group was no better to start 2018, mostly featuring smallish receivers who could not create separation.

    We can’t argue the receiving group of Bryant, Williams, Beasley and Witten had grown stale and then complain when the Cowboys try to overhaul it. But they did make the transition particularly difficult on themselves by waiting until late October to find Bryant’s successor and never actually finding Witten’s at all until Witten decided to fix that himself.

    This area still is a work in progress, to say the least.

    3. The quality of the Cowboys offensive line took a massive step backward in 2018.


    (Photo: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)

    Based on what I saw, I believe the offensive line was the primary culprit.

    Yes, losing Bryant and Witten surely led to Prescott lacking security blankets and thus slowing down his processor in the locations on the field where it actually needs to speed up. But the Cowboys’ offensive line was their greatest strength in 2016, and became a burden by 2018.

    The largest reason is that Travis Frederick played zero snaps in 2018 due to illness. Joe Looney filled in admirably, but there are certain things Frederick does that Looney simply can’t. Diagnosing defenses on the fly and dominating the guy in front of you while making line calls until the snap are some of his specialties. Near the goal line, the pressure looks increase and players can be exploited.

    Add the issues at left guard, where Connor Williams, Xavier Su’a-Filo and even Adam Redmond made starts with none of them coming close to the team’s high standards. La’el Collins continued to experience growing pains at right tackle and the revolving door at tight end saw an overall drop in blocking and receiving. Add all of this up and the mighty reputation of the big boys up front took a significant hit.

    The effects of this drop in quality and health were felt everywhere. Pass protection, run blocking, and the simple manhandling of opponents. But nowhere was it more apparent than when the Cowboys had a run play from near the goal-line. We mentioned they were 32nd on first-and-goal touchdown efficiency. Let’s be clear on what this stat means. It doesn’t just apply to a single play, but through the end of the drive.

    Here is why no team was worse than Dallas in those situations. They couldn’t run the ball inside the five-yard line. Look at this frightening graphic.

    Rushing average, inside the 5-yard line:
    2018 1.01 0.45 0.78
    2017 0.92 1.25 2.01
    2016 1.11 1.15 1.75
    This shows that in the “Emmitt zone”, where you load up your generational RB behind your generational OL, the 2018 Cowboys could not run the ball. Elliott exceeded the NFL average in 2016 and 2017, but couldn’t get anywhere in 2018. How badly was he stifled? He ended the season with 11 carries for five yards. Dak was better – and he always is – at this spot on the field. Is it because he is more gifted? No, it is because every defender focuses on the running back. Dak has the element of surprise; Zeke does not. It makes intuitive sense.



    In fact, you could argue that even with all of the money and talent pushed into this offensive line, this team did nothing worse than running inside the five-yard line all year. Red-zone sacks were another significant issue, and they also came down to the offensive line.

    The following is a Sportradar chart showing all 18 Cowboys games this year by their red-zone success. When you look at this chart, you can see things from different perspectives, of course. I saw the season as three distinct segments:

    1) The first seven weeks, where they seldom got to the red zone.

    2) The weeks after the Cooper trade and bye week until the Colts disaster.

    3) The last month of the season immediately following everyone talking about nothing but the red-zone offense for several weeks.



    The numbers dance around quite a bit. I believe that middle rung was where the Cowboys built their reputation of being lousy this year in the red zone and then, while under-reported, I think the final month of the season (including the two playoff games) showed some light at the end of the tunnel.

    The NFL average Red Zone TD% was 59% over 2018 and 56% over the three-year average. Really strong teams can break 70% for the year and lousy teams can drop below 50%. (Dallas did!)
    1 thru 7 18 10 56% (16th) 3 1 23.3
    8 thru 15 25 9 36% (31st) 7 6 29.4
    16 thru 19 13 10 77% (5th) 0 1 16.7
    Totals 56 29 52% (26th) 10 8 24.4
    Dallas started the season with 2.57 trips to the red zone per game and cashed in at a league-average rate. As you can see, in that first segment, they had very few negative plays and were really an extension of their normal offense: Poor both in and out of the red zone.

    The overall offense improved dramatically after the team acquired Cooper, but the red-zone offense went south fast. I realize we want to attach everything to that trade (I am guilty), but I was shocked at the negative runs, sacks, and offensive line penalties we saw during this stretch. As you can see, the Cowboys went to the red zone 3.12 times per game (way more) but cashed in their touchdowns at only a 36% rate. Prescott took six sacks in the red zone and that was absolutely the source of angst from post-game show callers and writers who were pointing right at Prescott for taking too many sacks.

    For every sack, however, there were also negative runs. There is nothing worse than a 1st and 10 becoming 2nd and 13 because Zeke just got thrown backward after a missed block, and we saw plenty of that. Now it’s 3rd and 13 and you want Prescott to get the ball out before he gets sacked, but he has to wait for his guys to get open past the sticks. They can’t, because the defense is sitting on it, and here comes another sack.

    The Cowboys featured seven negative runs, six sacks and three offensive line penalties in the red zone from Week 8-15 and any offensive momentum dissipated every time they reached the red zone. It was a disaster and probably the top reason Scott Linehan was fired.

    In the last two regular-season games and two playoff games, the Cowboys got going again, scoring 10 touchdowns in 13 red-zone drives for a ridiculous 77%, which would have led the league if they could have done it all year. What was different? Not a lot, except they cut the negative runs down to zero and the sacks to just one. The offensive line did take three penalties.

    This is why everyone left 2018 feeling a bit better about Connor Williams. He returned in Week 17 and the playoffs, Joe Looney was better late, and the OL finished the season a bit better. They certainly looked exhausted against the Rams, but the Seahawks game was a proud offensive performance and the offensive line had a real hand in that.

    Which leads us to the big one:

    4. By all accounts, Scott Linehan was unable to help this group with schematic advantages in the red zone.


    (Photo: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)

    Since this piece has gone long enough already, this part will be the genesis of our film study for next time. We definitely need to go over some plays and drill down into what we didn’t like about that stretch of putrid red-zone play.

    Let’s be honest: This offense makes things look difficult enough, but when they march all the way down the field, they have to be efficient in the red zone for this team to win games. They can’t settle for three points and dust off their hands. The biggest points of concern would certainly be the stretch of games in early December when they played the Saints at home, the Eagles at home, and the Colts on the road. During that three-game span, they marched into the red zone 11 different times and scored touchdowns just twice. 2 for 11! One was the screen to Zeke against the Saints and the other was the overtime winner to Amari Cooper to end the Eagles game. That was it. Every other time their drives yielded either a field goal, a turnover or a turnover on downs.

    If you want to know why the Cowboys made changes, I submit that this stretch was probably when they decided enough was enough. In a league where red-zone success is way up, the Cowboys went way down and just about everyone pointed to their complete lack of creativity. Very few will go on the record, but off-record sources all point to the team’s stubborn nature. Their philosophy amounted to pounding Zeke behind a line that wasn’t holding up well and into the face of obvious run blitzes, then turning to the passing game when it was 3rd and long and their plan was telegraphed to the defense. It’s easy to see why they came up short.

    When things improved late in the season, I don’t feel like they fixed their problems. They just found a few ways to score touchdowns without Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Travis Frederick and Ron Leary. It was a long time coming.

    When the Rams game was over, the front office simply couldn’t get this out of their heads:

    Nobody in football (32nd) was more inefficient at scoring touchdowns after a 1st-and-goal than the Dallas Cowboys in 2018.

    They had seen enough to turn the page to a young mind with his own plans.

    New offensive coordinator Kellen Moore now has the steering wheel. He may get Frederick back at full strength. He will have Witten, albeit at the age of 37. He also has a new set of toys to work with and a fresh tablet of ideas.

    I don’t know what he is thinking, but after doing the work, here are my principal thoughts:
    • The Cowboys absolutely must utilize Dak Prescott on his feet more. In conjunction with Ezekiel Elliott, for sure, but designed runs must be more of a go-to move in the red zone and inside the 10. He is too gifted to ignore, and if Carolina makes Cam Newton the leading rushing threat deep in enemy territory, I think the Cowboys should, too.
    • Dallas resisted the urge to use mesh concepts or rub and crossing routes. Too much of the Cowboys’ passing game has been used in isolation and it is too easy to defend. This should change immediately, especially with Randall Cobb and Tony Pollard now in the mix.
    • The offense must work quickly and on schedule. When they’re in the red zone, Prescott should take a three-step drop and get rid of the ball. The longer he holds it, the less likely success will occur and the more likely protection will dissolve. But this hinges on the right routes, which goes back to meshes on crossers.
    • The offensive line must be better, but not because they filled the box with more tight ends (and thus defenders) but simply better as a five-man group. It would still be best to have the defense spread out horizontally against 11 Personnel (maybe even 10 Personnel) and to empty the box rather than fill it. This also makes Prescott more of a running threat.

    The objective is as clear as it ever was: When you get in the red zone, especially when you get inside the 10-yard line with a first down, you must be no worse than league-average at ending the drive with an extra point. And preferably, with the best running game in the industry and certainly one of the best running quarterbacks, punch it in at a high rate.
    2016 DCC LOTY Fantasy Football Champion

  • #2
    Here's one way to improve the red zone offense: stop fucking running so many plays out of the shotgun from inside the 5 yard line!

    If Kellen Moore runs more plays from under center and calls more runs when we're down near the goal line, then that alone will be a huge improvement from before.

    It is infuriating to see how often we pass first or go to the shotgun when we're a couple yards away from the endzone.

    2013 DCC Fantasy Football Champeen

    Comment


    • #3
      I think telegraphing run/pass with formation is a bigger issue. I don't know what the stats are but I'd be shocked if we weren't way above the league-average in terms of running the ball when Prescott is under center and passing when he's in shotgun. We seem to very rarely pass the ball when Prescott is under center, which ties into the lack of play-action.

      Comment


      • #4
        Originally posted by Simpleton View Post
        I think telegraphing run/pass with formation is a bigger issue. I don't know what the stats are but I'd be shocked if we weren't way above the league-average in terms of running the ball when Prescott is under center and passing when he's in shotgun. We seem to very rarely pass the ball when Prescott is under center, which ties into the lack of play-action.
        When we run at the goal line its some of the most obvious predictable shit. And last year we were stoppable when a team knew we were running up the gut. Probably because we had Looney and Williams in there.

        Comment


        • #5
          They also telegraph what they're going to do on 4th and short, we basically ran Elliott between the tackles into the ground with no thought of trying to stay ahead of the opponent. Calling for Elliott between the tackles two times in a row against the Rams is what ultimately ended our comeback bid. It worked in the first half, so of course they ran it again in the 2nd half when everybody and their mother expected it, it was stopped, and then the next time they were faced with a 4th and short they actually used Elliott as a decoy and it worked out perfectly.

          Comment


          • #6
            Sturm attributes the lack of red zone efficiency to "stubbornness" on the part of Linehan. But Linehan was never anything more than an extension of Garrett's philosophy. And maybe stubbornness is really just another way of saying clueless.

            Garrett's offensive philosophy has long consisted of mano-a-mano match-ups: I'll line my guy up against yours and may the best man win. But when the Rams put 8 or 9 guys in the box, that doesn't work. Or when your WRs' patterns are limited to nothing but come-back routes, it doesn't work. (Cooper and Dak finally had to improvise on a play in order to overcome the predictability.)

            Or, when there is no pre-snap deception, it doesn't work. Or when they don't employ rub routes or picks, it doesn't work.

            It will be interesting to see how the child-genius, who was begat from Linehan/Garrett, changes all that.

            Comment


            • #7
              Originally posted by deadrise View Post
              Sturm attributes the lack of red zone efficiency to "stubbornness" on the part of Linehan. But Linehan was never anything more than an extension of Garrett's philosophy. And maybe stubbornness is really just another way of saying clueless.

              Garrett's offensive philosophy has long consisted of mano-a-mano match-ups: I'll line my guy up against yours and may the best man win. But when the Rams put 8 or 9 guys in the box, that doesn't work. Or when your WRs' patterns are limited to nothing but come-back routes, it doesn't work. (Cooper and Dak finally had to improvise on a play in order to overcome the predictability.)

              Or, when there is no pre-snap deception, it doesn't work. Or when they don't employ rub routes or picks, it doesn't work.

              It will be interesting to see how the child-genius, who was begat from Linehan/Garrett, changes all that.
              Right on.

              And the same goes for all the pass-happy, shotgun stuff.

              That was happening long before Linehan arrived so people need to temper their expectations if they are thinking Moore is going to be some genius.

              If all he's doing is being asked to run Garrett's system or stick to Garrett's philosophy like Linehan was, it'll just be more of the same.
              2013 DCC Fantasy Football Champeen

              Comment


              • #8
                Originally posted by Texas Ace View Post

                Right on.

                And the same goes for all the pass-happy, shotgun stuff.

                That was happening long before Linehan arrived so people need to temper their expectations if they are thinking Moore is going to be some genius.

                If all he's doing is being asked to run Garrett's system or stick to Garrett's philosophy like Linehan was, it'll just be more of the same.
                I can’t see a repeat of Linehan.
                defense wins championships

                Comment


                • #9
                  A
                  Originally posted by p1_ View Post

                  I can’t see a repeat of Linehan.
                  Nor do I. I think Moore will use some innovations to put a new face on the offense.
                  Since Day One

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    We all thought Linehan was innovative when he got here, too.

                    The philosophy comes from Garrett and has directed the investment in talent based on the great Cowboys teams. Millions and high picks up front and strong to elite talent at RB, a pass-catching TE, and a big physical WR who wins jump balls, all built around a QB who can make all throws from the pocket.

                    But where his mentor Norv Turner keeps evolving, Jason seems fixated on the 1990’s straight up philosophy.

                    We aren’t good at injecting speed anywhere, we utterly suck at faking or any other deception, and we religiously over-use star players.

                    Comment

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