Spagnola: Don't Be Afraid Of These Self-Evident Offensive Struggle Truths

FRISCO, Texas –This is pretty elementary, really. Not nearly as hard as those might think trying to figure out …

         Why did the Dallas Cowboys offense malfunction in 2017?

         Oh, the easy answer is to blame the quarterback: Dak Prescott regressed this season. Bad technique. Inaccurate. Poor decisions. All this after that fabulous rookie season when he led his team to 13 victories with a 104.9 QB rating, making him the toast of the town.

         Then there is this one: Dez, not an elite receiver anymore. Can't get deep anymore. Can't catch the ball anymore. Not on the same page as Dak. All this after finishing off the final eight games of the 2016 season, including the playoff loss to Green Bay, catching 43 passes for 636 yards and eight touchdowns. Factor that over a 16-game season and we have 86 catches for 1,272 yards and 16 touchdowns. Hmmm, maybe that page got ripped out of the book over the offseason.

         Then this: Scott Linehan can't call plays anymore. Doesn't know how to coordinate an offense. Too simple. All this after the Cowboys finished fifth last season in total offense, scoring an average of 27 points a game before punting the final game of the season with nothing to gain (13 points), and doing so with a rookie QB who wasn't supposed to be any more than the third-string guy.

         Oh, and of course this: Jason Garrett just plain can't coach. All this after leading the Cowboys to a 13-3 record last year, earning Coach of the Year honors, along with a 12-4 record in 2014, the last year Tony Romo was healthy.

         Mysterious, right?

         So what the hell happened?

         Well, easy, and let me tell you what happened to this offense:

         Tyron Smith's back happened. Tyron Smith's groin happened. Tyron Smith's sprained knee happened.

         Yes, Tyron Smith, the five-time Pro Bowl left tackle. The perennial All-Pro. The absolute best left tackle in football. He missed four games and part of a fifth with injuries. And here are the facts in those four games for the Cowboys:

  • Scored no more than 12 points in any of those games.
  • Averaged 8.5 points in those four games.
  • Dak threw one touchdown pass.
  • Team scored two touchdowns.
  • Cowboys go 1-3, and struggled to win that one, the final game of the season when the Eagles began resting for the playoffs.

Oh, now why is all that? Why, suddenly, did a team that had averaged 28.3 points a game in the six previous games before Tyron missed the Atlanta and Philadelphia games suddenly fall flat on its face?

Why did a team that had scored at least 28 points in those six consecutive games suddenly struggle to get out of its own way?

Why did the NFL's eighth-ranked offense at the halfway point, averaging 370.5 yards a game now struggle to gain a mere 250?

Why did the kid quarterback with a 97.9 QB ranking at the halfway point suddenly forget his technique, lose his accuracy, grow afraid to throw the ball down the field, all that B.S. that has been piling up?

Well, if you are a reasonable person, at least as reasonable as I proclaim to be, and not intent on just firing and cutting people left and right, sink your teeth into this:

Over the first eight games of the season, with the Cowboys offense humming along, Dak had been sacked 10 times. Total! Had 16 touchdown passes and four interceptions.

Then Tyron's absence coincides with the start of Zeke's six game suspension. Talk about an offensive brown out. Suddenly a team scoring 28 touchdowns in the first eight games could only score 14 the rest of the way, and nine of those came in the two games against the Giants and Redskins.

Now, maybe I'm being too reasonable here, using too much common sense to tie a whole lot of these offensive struggles to the absences of the NFL's defending rushing champion and the best offensive tackle in pro football.

OK, fine, but how about smoking this one in your pipe:

In the 11 full games Tyron Smith played – he missed the final 24 snaps in the victory over Oakland, too – Dak was sacked 13 times, an average of 1.1 a game.

But – now pay attention, this is important – in the four full games he missed – Atlanta, Philly twice, Seattle and that portion of the Oakland game, meaning five – Dak was sacked 19 times. Nineteen, now, nearly four a game.

Suddenly defenses were treating him like a birthday piñata, not only sacking him but registering 28 more quarterback hits in those four games.

Tell you what, you try playing quarterback with your teeth getting bashed in.

Why, during that three-game losing streak (Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chargers) he was sacked 14 times and hit another 19 times. Then sacked another four times by Seattle in the 21-12 loss when the Cowboys failed to score even one touchdown. And Zeke played in that game, and the Philly one, too, when the Cowboys barely squeezed out one touchdown.

Now I'll be darned if you tell me that's a coincidence, and don't forget in that Chargers game the Cowboys lost Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin in the second quarter (concussion) and La'el Collins was playing through back issues, with Tyron coming back likely at less than 100 percent.

And let me leave you with one last number. Remember, pointed out Dak's QB rating at the halfway point was 97.9. Well, he finished at 86.6. Know what his rating was those four games Tyron completely missed? Try 61.5.

Again, mere coincidence?

Me thinks not. The purported *best offensive line in football *was not at its best. Not even close.

The Cowboys just couldn't find someone, anyone, to step in for Tyron Smith. First Chaz Green, and he failed miserably in Atlanta, giving up four sacks, another mystery since he filled in so admirably in the two games he started for Smith in 2016. What in the world happened? Was it missing the final 12 games last year with injury? Was it working a whole lot at guard during training camp, actually starting and playing well in the first three games there this season before getting injured, allowing Jonathan Cooper to then take over?

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But his replacement at swing tackle wasn't much better. Bell mercifully replaced Green that final quarter in Atlanta, we thought, and then he gave up two more sacks. The Cowboys stayed with Bell during Smith's ensuing absences. He wasn't much better. He was beaten three times for sacks against Seattle. And on that interception Dak had against Seattle that was returned for a touchdown, Bell getting driven into Dak caused the ball to fly way over Zeke's head since he was forced to reach way up to throw the ball.

Look, in the final game, and I know it was cold, Bell was called for holding three times, from a yardage standpoint as bad as sacks, minus getting to repeat the down.

Sometimes the fault lies in just not being plain good enough.

So when you start asking what the Cowboys' No. 1 priority is this offseason, do not stray too far away from finding a competent backup offensive tackle. This can't happen again. They cannot let one position hold this offense hostage. They can't go cheap here, and I know there is only so much they can spend on a backup when you are paying four starters like Pro Bowlers. But gosh almighty, you can't keep playing offense basically 10 on 11 if you constantly have to double on the left side if the best offensive tackle in football is injured.

It's unlikely Bell, who was on a one-year deal, will be back. Green, the former third-round pick in 2015, has one year left on his original contract. Might they try to resurrect him in the offseason? Fine, try and hope it works. But don't put all your eggs in that basket again.

And there really is no one else, not on the 53, and they don't even have an offensive tackle listed on their practice squad, since Kadeem Edwards, who worked at tackle during training camp, now signed to the 53-man roster last week has a G next to his name.

Free agency? Maybe.

Draft? Well, ideally you find an offensive tackle who just might be good enough to challenge for the starting left guard spot, but could move outside to tackle in a pinch. Now look, that's asking for a lot from a rookie, first to be that good immediately, then to be that versatile.

Oh guard, yes, there is another offseason project for sure.

Yep, the Cowboys have their work cut out for them this offseason, and the meat and potatoes of the work is not necessarily all the sexy stuff so many are consumed with. I'm right, aren't I?

         So if you are being honest in all your final analysis of why this team finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs, then do yourself a favor:

         Do not, I repeat, do not stray too far from this O-Line truth. It's self-evident.

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