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Spagnola: Zoning In On The Offense


FRISCO, Texas – The Red zone.

Might as well of late be the Twilight Zone for the Dallas Cowboys.

No joke. Not trying to be funny. I'm serious.

This Cowboys team suddenly is turning the corner on offense. There is evidence. First, the young Cowboys growing up before our very eyes have won five consecutive games. They have shrugged off a 3-5 start to stand 8-5, a surprise to many, and are on the precipice of clinching their second NFC East title in three years and their third in five years with three games to go – the first of which comes up at noon on Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts (7-6) at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Win and they are in.

They have upped their scoring average from 19.25 points per game over the first eight outings to 24.5 points during this five-game winning streak. The running back, Ezekiel Elliott, with four 100-yard rushing games in the past five, now leads the NFL in rushing.

The quarterback, Dak Prescott, has jumped his eight-game QB rating of 87.4 to now 96.7, thanks to playing at a 106.6 rating over the past five games.

And the most-welcomed new wide receiver, Amari Cooper, leads the NFL in receiving over the span of the six games he's played with the Cowboys – 40 catches, 642 yards and six touchdowns, a pace that factors out over 16 games to 107 catches, 1,712 yards and 16 touchdowns.

Yet, the Cowboys have found themselves during this five-game winning streak with just 20 points going into their final possession in the 27-20 victory over Philly; only 22 points after dominating Atlanta in a three-point win; managing to beat New Orleans with just 13 points; and the 23 fourth-quarter points allowing the Eagles to force an overtime victory.

Just seems as though the Cowboys have been beating teams offensively up and down the field for the past five games, but not by much on the scoreboard.

In fact, over the past five games, enough to vault themselves into the current fourth seed in the NFC playoff picture and just one game in back of the third-seeded Bears (9-4), the Cowboys have averaged 404.2 yards a game. That average would rank them fifth in the NFL. Yeah, they've been that good.

But maybe the only thing holding them back from being a dynamic offense, like the one they were over the 2016 season and the first eight games of the 2017 season when their points per game average hovered right around 28 both times is …

Yep, you guessed it, red zone efficiency, and more specifically, goal-to-go touchdown efficiency. For some reason, they can go up and down the field, up and down the field, but once they reach the opponent's 20-yards line, and again, more specifically the 10, it's like football paralysis sets in.

Acting as if their offense is putzing around in some school zone.

Indicative of this deficiency that at some point could get in their way is what head coach Jason Garrett had to say after the Cowboys' 29-23 overtime beating this past Sunday of the Eagles: "We have the ball I think for 45 minutes (45:33). I don't know that I've ever been in a game where that happened. And we had a lot of success doing things in all three phases of our team, but it wasn't being reflected on the scoreboard."

Sure wasn't. Cowboys control the ball 21:14 of the 30-minute first half. Yet led just 6-0. Cowboys rack up 233 total yards, hold Philly to a measly 70 in the first half. Yet were only able to kick two field goals, and at that needed a 62-yarder for the second to end the half.

How come?

First quarter, first-and-goal at the 9. End up fourth-and-goal at the 10, Brett Maher kicking a 28-yard field goal.

Second quarter, first-and-10 at the Philly 15. End up fourth-and-22 at the 22, this time Brett Maher missing a 45-yard field goal.

Third quarter, first-and-goal at the 5. End up fourth-and-goal at the 3, Maher hitting the 21-yard field goal.

Got to score touchdowns when first-and-goal; got to at least make a field goal once reaching the 20. You don't, and that leaves a good 11 points on the field. Instead of being up a potential 20-0, the Cowboys led 9-0, and what happens? A Philly interception returned to the 2-yard line leads to a walk-in touchdown, and now it's 9-6 (missed extra point).

Game on.

Funny thing I heard the other day, someone came up with each team's potential playoff kryptonite, something that would eventually do them in. Stated the Cowboys' was "dependence on Amari Cooper." Say what? Of course, they've become dependent on Cooop. That's why they are where they are right now.

No, their current kryptonite is this:

The Cowboys ranked 30th when it comes to red-zone touchdown efficiency. So far, they have scored just 19 touchdowns on 41 trips once reaching the 20. That's a frightening 46.3 percent. Only San Francisco and the New York Jets are worse. On those other 22 trips, they have made 15 field goals (missed two), had two passes intercepted, lost one fumble and killed the clock at the end of the New Orleans win.

Now, they are scoring on 82.9 percent of their trips into the red zone, ranking them 24th in the NFL. By comparison, the likes of a Kansas City scores touchdowns 71.7 percent of the time and points on 58 of their 60 trips. Or New Orleans, at 69.5 percent on touchdowns and 93.2 percent on points. And the league-leader? Pittsburgh, scoring touchdowns on 31 of 40 red zone trips, kicking just four field goals.

Weird thing is, the Cowboys have not improved their red-zone production during the five-game winning streak. On 19 trips, they have scored just eight touchdowns and kicked eight field goals. Missed a field goal, lost a fumble and then drained the clock at the Saints 4.

Yet they still win.

And when it comes to the goal-to-go situations, for the season they have scored touchdowns after reaching the 10-yard line on just 10 of 21 trips (47.6 percent) – with the other 11 trips ending up in nine field goals, a lost fumble and the end of the Saints game.

You say, well, that must have improved over the five-game winning streak?

Not so fast. Actually worse.

And if we eliminate the kneel-down possession to end the Saints game, the Cowboys have scored touchdowns on just four of 11 trips, just 36.3 percent, with seven field goals. And in the last two games, they are oh-fer scoring touchdowns on four trips – again, both wins.

"Hopefully, we improve. We certainly have to do better in the red zone. That's an important area," Garrett says.

Here, this might highlight how important: If we just take the goal-to-go trips, and we'll count just the 11 (Saints excluded), when you score only four touchdowns on 11 trips and then make seven field goals, that means you have scored just 49 of a potential 77 points. That's an average of 4.45 points per goal-to-go possession. That's leaving 28 points on the field.

Both Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan point to execution problems, especially from the 10 in. Remember the first Philly game. Dak misses Zeke, ball behind him. On another, Dak gets sacked. Field goal, field goal.

Then Atlanta, Cole Beasley has the uncommon drop on a sure TD pass from the 4. Washington, Noah Brown is wide open in the end zone but the Cowboys missed a blitz pick up and Dak has to do all he can do to backpedal out of harm's way, leaving his desperation throw-up pass to Brown well short, and then a down later gets sacked. Field goal.

New Orleans, couldn't overcome a sack. Field goal.

Philly again, Dak on a read-option keeper, loses 4 from the 9. Field goal. Then on another, the read-option on third down from the 5 is stuffed. Field goal.

Need more guys than just 4 and 21 to step up once inside the 10. And as you can see, they've tried a variety of approaches.

Garrett is right, they've got to "eliminate the minus plays … got to make 'em work."

In the red zone. In the goal-to-go zone.

To reach the needed TD zone.