(Editor’s Note: DallasCowboys.com senior writer and pro wrestling aficionado Rob Phillips’ new column, “Figure 4,” identifies four key statistics each week that impact the Cowboys’ on-field performance.)
FRISCO, Texas – Anytime a team wins more games than it lost, there’s at least some good in there, even if it’s hard to see three days after a season reaches the bitter end.
Yet, the Cowboys (9-7) will face some difficult self-evaluation over the coming weeks. Why aren’t they playing in January?
“Ultimately it was not good enough,” head coach Jason Garrett said Tuesday.
Specifically, it wasn’t good enough in the games without three All-Pro caliber players. The Cowboys went 3-3 without running back Ezekiel Elliott, 1-5 without linebacker Sean Lee (counting the final three-plus quarters he missed in Week 10 against the Falcons) and 1-3 without left tackle Tyron Smith (counting the final three-plus quarters he missed in Week 16 against the Seahawks).
This week in the stats column, we’re taking a closer look at what went well, what didn’t go well, and what can improve on offense and defense:
1. Offense: A Dominant Stretch
I view the offense’s performance like our podcast structure here on DallasCowboys.com: broken down into three segments.
There’s the opening month in which the Cowboys went 2-2 against four excellent defensive fronts: the Giants, Broncos, Cardinals and Rams. The offense averaged only 23.4 points and topped 30 just once: the 35-30 home loss to L.A.
There’s the final eight games in which the offense struggled to maintain its identity during and after Elliott’s six-game suspension. Left tackle Tyron Smith essentially missed four games due to injury, too – he played only three snaps in the Christmas Eve loss to Seattle that knocked Dallas out of playoff contention.
Yet, here’s what the offense must replicate in 2018: Segment Two of Three.
It’s the four-game stretch from Oct. 8 to Nov. 5 in which Scott Linehan’s group repeated its 2016 dominance until Elliott was ruled ineligible.
The Cowboys went 3-1 against the Packers, 49ers, Redskins and Chiefs while averaging 33.0 points. Prescott was excellent – he completed 65.5 percent of his passes with 844 yards, eight touchdowns and one interception while also rushing for three more scores.
Elliott still faced crowded fronts but appeared to regain a rhythm with his offensive line. In those four games, Elliott rushed for 506 of his 983 total yards in 2017 (4.4 average) with five touchdowns and another receiving score.* *He’s the engine for the entire operation. When he’s rolling, Dallas is hard to beat.
Based largely on the efficiency of their offense, the Cowboys looked every bit like contenders halfway through the season. Then everything changed. So…
2. Offense: Two Areas For Improvement
The final eight games in particular didn’t measure up to the Cowboys’ standard on offense. It’s easy to assign blame to one person or facet: injuries, the scheme, the quarterback, the running back, the receivers, the offensive line.
The truth is, everyone shares in it.
With that said, two areas clearly can improve: pass protection and big plays in the passing game.
Much has been made about Prescott’s on-field rapport with Dez Bryant, but again, it’s not just about one or two players. The entire passing game needed more chunk plays. The offense had 34 pass plays of 20 yards or more, tied for the fourth fewest in the league.
Time in the pocket matters, too. Prescott has acknowledged he must continue to get better across the board, but there’s no question he faced more pressure in his second season, particularly when Smith was out. Prescott’s 32 sacks ranked 14th in the league. In 2016, his 25 sacks ranked 23rd. He also got hit 81 times, which ranked 20th out of 32 teams. In 2016, his 69 hits were the sixth fewest in the league.
3. Defense: A Top-10 Surge
Now, to defense. By the end of the season, Rod Marinelli’s group was playing its best football. The Cowboys secured their first top-10 ranking (8th) since 2009 and its highest ranking since 2008 (8th) and 2003 (1st).
Even more impressive was their scoring defense, tied for 13th (20.8). Last year the defense gave up only 19.1 points per game, but you have go back to 2009 to find a better Cowboys scoring defense (15.6) than this season.
With a more dynamic pass rush led by DeMarcus Lawrence and a promising young secondary, there’s plenty to build on in 2018.
4. Defense: Two Areas For Improvement
Marinelli demands takeaways. The defense’s goal was 40, double their total of 20 last season, but they ranked mid-pack with a slight improvement (21) this season*. *As well as the defense played, the Cowboys overall had a minus-1 turnover margin this season compared to a plus-five margin in 2016.
The Cowboys also dipped in third-down defense, from 15th last season to 29th this season. 2016 opponents converted only 39.1 percent on third down; 2017 opponents converted *42.9 *percent, despite Dallas holding the Eagles to 2-of-11 in the season finale.