Thursday, January 26, 2023 Jan 26, 2023
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The Cowboys’ Jekyll-and-Hyde Offense Went Cold at the Worst Time

Dallas' explosive attack was also very inconsistent. That's not a recipe for taking down a tough defense in the playoffs.
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Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys' offense sputtered out in San Francisco. Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

For the second straight year, the Cowboys’ season came to an early end at the hands of the 49ers. The good news is that this year we don’t have to spend the week discussing how the Cowboys were done in by a barrage of self-inflicted wounds in the form of penalty flags. The bad news is that there’s still plenty of disappointment in the air in Dallas after a second consecutive postseason exit in which the offense failed to crack 20 points. A lot of things went wrong in this one. But there is one number that we can point to that sums it all up fairly simply: 4.7.

That’s how many yards the Cowboys’ offense averaged per play. It’s not a ridiculously low mark in the NFL—the Giants, for example, had a worse number in their playoff loss to the Eagles —but it is an important one. Dallas had splashes of great defense in 2022 (mostly Micah Parsons), but that unit trailed off toward the end of the year, leaving the heavy lifting to Dak Prescott and the offense. In 2022, when the Cowboys put together above-average performances on offense, they won. On average, NFL offenses gained about 5.4 yards per play in 2022. In weeks where the offense exceeded that number, the Cowboys went 10-2. When they were below that number, they were 3-4.

Looking only at Prescott’s starts, the impact of having a good offense is even more stark: when the Cowboys averaged more than 5.7 yards per play, they won every game. When they gained less than 5.7 yards per play, they went 1-5.

Which brings us back to the divisional playoff rematch in San Francisco. The 49ers have arguably the best defense in the NFL, and it was always going to be a job for Prescott and Co. to punch their ticket to the conference championship game. But after the previous week’s historic performance against the Bucs, there was reason for optimism. Instead we got a version of the offense closer to that of the Week 18 Cowboys, who mustered only six points against the Commanders.

This offense failed in large part because it doesn’t have the abundance of skill position players other playoff teams do, as Mike touched on Monday. And worst of all, one of the biggest pieces of the offense left the game late in the first half with a broken fibula. Tony Pollard’s impact on the offense is hard to overstate, even from the analytical “running backs don’t matter” point of view. Pollard reached the 1,000-yard mark this season not because of an uber-talented line (it was ranked 11th by Pro Football Focus in run blocking) and not because of a workhorse level of opportunities (Ezekiel Elliott had 38 more carries than Pollard). Pollard reached that mark by breaking long runs when they were least expected. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Pollard accumulated 265 rushing yards over expectation, which is based on the speed and location of every player at the time of a handoff.

The Cowboys dearly missed that explosive player for the second half of this game, which forced them to rely instead on Elliott, who gained only 26 yards on the ground despite an expected rush yard total of 45. Running below expectations was par for the course for Elliott this year.

The rest of the supporting cast was essentially unchanged, and we witnessed what was probably the second-worst outing of Prescott’s season, behind only the regular-season finale against the Commanders. (We’re excluding the Week 1 loss to the Bucs, because he didn’t finish that game.) Aside from Week 18, his 5.6 yards per pass attempt was the lowest of the season. Even adding more context to his passes doesn’t help—his EPA/play was also lower than every week but the regular-season finale, and EPA takes into account things such as down, distance, and field position. His completion percentage above expectation, according to the Next Gen Stats, was minus-10.3 percent, worse than every performance but  the Commanders game and the Week 14 win over the Texans. No matter how we slice it, the efficiency simply wasn’t there.

That strange disconnect between the sputtering offense in the divisional round and the dominant offense of the wild card round wasn’t a new phenomenon for these Cowboys. They have been consistently inconsistent all year long. If we look at the variance in each team’s offensive efficiency by week, Dallas ranks as the single-most volatile offense of the bunch.

This high variance isn’t in and of itself necessarily a bad thing; note that the Eagles and 49ers are in the top 10 as well. The problem is that those two teams were so efficient all season that an average day on offense could dramatically skew the variance number. For others, this generally isn’t a great statistic in which to be at the top of the class.

One main takeaway from the game is that the Cowboys are  a high-variance offense that can’t be expected to handle a stout defense. San Francisco started a rookie quarterback who was drafted in the seventh round, and didn’t reach 20 points. But Dallas couldn’t take advantage. Prescott was sacked only once, on a play that lost no yards, and the Cowboys got in 60 plays. But there was no rhythm to be found, no consistency in how they moved the ball to be found, and no consistency with which they could move the ball. In the end, it was just another performance in which the yards per play was below average, and like most every other such outing this year, it resulted in a loss. Sometimes, playoff football isn’t so different from the regular season after all.

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Dan Morse

Dan Morse

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Dan covers the Cowboys for StrongSide. He is a Pacific Northwest native & self-described nerd who has been covering the…

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