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Science Lab: Here's why Cowboys have road woes


FRISCO, TX — It's one thing to enjoy home cooking, which is something the Dallas Cowboys have done better than any other team in the entire NFL as of late, but the problem is they're sprinkling rat poison in their own pasta when trying to dine at someone else's table.

No team in the league is as dominant at home as the Cowboys, who currently own a 15-game win streak — the longest in 42 years — and own a cosmically charged point differential of 279-108 (+171). On the road, however, that point differential flips massively to 152-156 (-4) and their home record of 7-0 flips to 3-4 on the season.

Dr. Jekyll, meet Mr. Hyde.

Is there a reason for this split personality in the Cowboys this season? Of course there is. And with the turbocharged Dolphins up next in Miami, now's the time to both identify it and to fix it.

"There's just too big of a gap on our road games." — Mike McCarthy

Type and Timing

This is a very big problem, folks.

If you didn't watch the embarrassing loss against the Buffalo Bills and simply scanned the stat line and box score, little would point you toward penalties being a reason the Cowboys got handed a 21-point loss in Orchard Park. After all, Mike McCarthy's bunch suffered only five accepted penalties in that contest, one of their lowest marks of the season for Dallas.

What you need to understand is that when it comes to penalties, however, I'll always stick to my rule of "Type and Timing".

In other words, what was the penalty and at what point in the game did it occur? Was is a false start whilst enjoying a 20-point lead late in the fourth quarter or was it a false start on a possible game-winning drive — 1st-and-goal from the opponent's six-yard line?? One of those is fairly innocuous, but the other helped cost the Cowboys a game.

Type and timing matters.

Of course, the Bills having suffered only one penalty is as laughable as it is impossible when dissecting the film (various uncalled infractions, e.g., holding, illegal contact downfield, etc.), but the quality of officiating at this point is not going to improve, so control what you can control.

That brings us to Sunday evening in Buffalo, when four of the five penalties handed to the Cowboys decided the game, and before halftime. Three personal fouls spotted the Bills a total of 18 points to lift them to a 21-point first half, while a holding penalty on Dallas' first drive turned a quality drive (the overthrow to Brandin Cooks notwithstanding) into nothing more than a punt.

Speaking of, Bryan Anger went from having only one punt in his previous two games to five in Buffalo; but I'll explain why that was the case here shortly.

Stick with me on the penalties for now though, thanks.

The type and timing of the flags in Buffalo buried the Cowboys, including Zack Martin drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty after a 13-yard scramble by Dak Prescott on 3rd-and-6, on the first drive that also featured the aforementioned holding call on Tyler Smith, that deleted a would-be 15-yard unnecessary roughness call against Taylor Rapp for his hit on Prescott — the two penalties offsetting.

Along with the penalty on Smith, that's a 25-yard bullet the Cowboys were forced to bite.

And I'll be clear in that I love (adore, even) an offensive lineman protecting his quarterback, but do so in the realm of understanding the situation at-hand, and the environment, and that goes to controlling what you can control.

By now, you're wondering how the Cowboys fare overall in penalties, aren't you? Of course you are, as you should be.

"We can't be two different teams." — Dak Prescott

Laundry Day

Hold onto your bloomers, because there's a ton of laundry in Dallas this season.

Through 14 games this season, the Cowboys are the most penalized team in the NFL with 102 heading into Week 16 against the Dolphins, for a total of 872 yards (nearly nine football fields worth of penalty yardage). For contrast, the San Francisco 49ers have been penalized only 83 times and the Philadelphia Eagles are even lower with just 80 penalties accepted this year.

In looking more deeply into how this is impacting performances on the road, it's chandelier-clear that someone needs to empty the hamper.

  • Wins: 57.4 penalty yards per game
  • Losses: 74.5 penalty yards per game

  • Home: 47 penalties (409 penalty yards)
  • Away: 55 penalties (463 penalty yards)

This reveals the added problem, in that not only is there an issue with type and timing, but also, overall, the sheer number of yards being gifted to the opposing team when the Cowboys are on the road — more than 17 added yards per game. And if you don't think that's sizable, consider the difference between trying to score from the 18-yard line versus the one-yard line.

It's kind of a big deal.

'Tis the season to give, sure, but not when it's football.

Take, take and take some more.

There's the added context that penalties are more "forgivable" at home, because the Cowboys' production/scoring at home has masked so many of their faults in this metric, but the margin of error is so razor thin on the road, especially against top teams, that the mask is much more difficult to construct.

That brings me to the next issue Dallas has to figure out if they want to flip the switch when they're not in the comfortable confines of AT&T Stadium.

"Honestly, it's unacceptable at this point. There's no excuse for it." — Micah Parsons

Settling the … Score

Through the first five weeks of the 2023 season, the Cowboys' offense was forgettable as it tried to find its groove to match serve with one of the best defenses in the league.

The pivot point arrived in their Week 5 loss to the 49ers, because there's clear-and-present evidence that tweaks were made (e.g., pre-snap motion) that helped fuel an explosion of offensive production. And while that's true, it's also true that most of those detonations occurred in Arlington and not on the road, the home-road splits revealing all in this realm.

Overall production:

  • Home - 279 points, 3,022 total yards, 6.1 yards per play
  • Away - 152 points, 2132 total yards, 4.9 yards per play

Good grief, Charlie Brown.

Your eyes do not deceive you, ladies and gentlemen. Yes, the Cowboys have scored 127 fewer points on the road than at home, 890 fewer yards and are averaging more than a yard fewer per play. This also goes to the defense as well, who has been stellar at scoring points this season, though not consistently, as it all feeds the same scoreboard and, as such, applies pressure to the opposing team to try and throw themselves out of a deficit — feeding into the hands of the most dominant pass rush around.

Without the big leads, or any lead at all, the pass rush can't be earned and the Cowboys find themselves trying to defend the run (and the clock) more often than not (see Buffalo, as one example).

  • Home (defense) - 158 attempts, 606 rushing yards allowed, 3.8 yards per
  • Away (defense) - 227 attempts, 1,038 rushing yards allowed, 4.6 yards per

Consider what I noted in the first couple of paragraphs regarding the point differential and you'll start to see why the rushing yards allowed is so lopsided.

There's a reason why James Cook racked up 179 rushing yards (221 yards from scrimmage, the most against the Cowboys since Todd Gurley did it in Week 4 of 2017), and that's because the Bills were spotted 18 of their first 21 points while the Cowboys stalled and, stop me if you've heard this before, but both things were fueled by costly penalties.

Oh, and missing 12 tackles will never get the job done, against anyone, ever.

The formula Dallas uses to pummel opponents at home is being used against the on the road: get a big lead, force the other team into throwing and not rushing, slowly constrict more and more like a boa until the clock reaches zero.

Ah, we've come full circle, now let's color it in.

From an offensive production standpoint, Prescott and the Cowboys — after cleaning up the penalties — must find a way to communicate more efficiently (which also helps to clean up the penalties) and get on the same page in the passing attack.

Quiet as it's kept, Tony Pollard and Rico Dowdle have been a steady hand through all of this as of late, the only part of the offense that doesn't turn down on the road; and that is at least promising.

  • Home (offense): 902 rushing yards, 4.2 yards per attempt
  • Away (offense): 729 rushing yards, 4.1 yards per attempt

One thing that can travel in the playoffs is a solid rushing attack, and the Cowboys do at least have that going for them, so for as many questions have been lobbed at Pollard, Dowdle and the offensive line for the majority of the season, they're answering loudly, albeit quietly at the same time.

The passing attack, though? Not so much.

  • Home (offense) - 2,216 passing yards, 8.4 yards per pass,14 sacks allowed
  • Away (offense) - 1,537 passing yards, 6.4 yards per pass. 19 sacks allowed

Eek, the cat.

Google that reference.

Prescott rightfully remains a frontrunner for MVP despite the struggles against the Bills, but there's no hiding the reality of the matter in that the passing attack can't consistently find the volume knob to turn up on the road. It also goes to the fact Prescott is pressured more often on the road (19 sacks for 134 total yards lost) versus at home (14 sacks for 96 yards lost), and he was under siege against the Bills — despite only six blitzes being sent at him.

There is, has been and will always be a difference in the ability for offensive linemen to communicate to each other in pass protection on the road over the ease of chemistry on their own field, but that makes it that much more paramount to not allow the other team to force you into being one-dimensional when, as stated, it's going to be more challenging in pass protection than it will be in carving lanes for the rushing attack.

Pollard and Dowdle's abilities are needed to keep the defense playing honest and second-guessing in the trenches, which makes everything easier. If they know they can just pin their ears back and run full speed at Prescott, then it's routinely going to be a long day when you're also up against crowd noise and possible weather conditions as well.

By the way, that communication issue can extend to the defensive side of the ball as well.

"This stretch lays up well for us. It gives us three tough road games" — Mike McCarthy

Infinity Gauntlet

You'll hear the term "complementary football" a lot nowadays, and rightfully so.

One hand washes the other that washes both feet, and the sooner the Cowboys figure out where someone has hidden the Old Spice body wash on their road trips, the sooner they can cleanse themselves of the stench that has attached itself to some of their travels.

It's all to-be-determined as far as their final playoff seeding, considering the Eagles' three-game losing streak has kicked the door open to possibly take the No. 2 seat and the NFC East throne with a shot at the No. 1 seat still in play. But if the Cowboys, who have clinched a playoff spot, regardless, are to enter the tournament as the No. 5 seed, that means they'll have to go on the road first and then hope things fall their way to give them a shot at playing at home.

As a related aside, I also wonder if they will show the same resilience now that they showed after being handily throttled by the 49ers, winning seven of their next eight games that included a five-game win streak. Mathematically speaking, another five-game win streak would put them in the NFC Championship Game if they enter the playoffs as anything other than the top seed.

And if they entered as the top seed, it puts them in the Super Bowl.

Hmm, don't mind me, I'm just thinking out loud.

"It's a huge difference and, really, that's what these next couple weeks are about — is figuring out that difference, and trying to close that gap," - Dak Prescott

I'll offer one final point, though.

Even if the Cowboys somehow pulled off the improbable and landed the No. 1 seed, with help from the 49ers' and Lions' opponents (one of which being the Cowboys), sure, that would garner them home field advantage all the way to the Super Bowl and, given how dominant and relentless they've been at AT&T Stadium, it would spike their odds of reaching The Big Game.

But, guess what? No, not "chicken butt". The Super Bowl, should the Cowboys reach it, is … say it with me … on the road.

Fix the issues now, or later will either not exist, or exist and not matter.

Dread it. Run from it. Destiny arrives all the same.

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