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Writer's Blocks: Chunk Plays & The Dez Dilemma


FRISCO, Texas – You've got to love the drawing power of the Cowboys.

We're one month into what has been an up-and-down campaign to this point, and I've said this a number of times: I don't remember the mood turning so sour, so quickly. From the time the Cowboys finished off their 16-8 debacle in Carolina, there's been this sense of anger.

I'm not saying I'm surprised. That's to be expected when you make a bunch of offseason changes, call on a bunch of new faces to step up and not see immediate results. I'm not suggesting fans should be happy with what the Cowboys have looked like through four games.

It is interesting to me that the mood surrounding this team – on the outside, at least -- is that of a doomed season, rather than a .500 record

And yet, as mad as everyone seems, we're all still fascinated to see what's next. TV ratings for the month of September were released this week, and the results weren't surprising – utter Cowboys domination.

Even for a team struggling to meet expectations, the Cowboys saw three of their four games ranked among the top five programs of the month. All four of their games were ranked in the top 10.

The Cowboys might still be figuring things out on offense, but there are clearly a lot of people who want to watch the process.

That's where I'm starting this week: the always interesting, always surreal, never duplicated spotlight of the Dallas Cowboys.

1.  This team draws so much interest that we're in the middle of our third or fourth news cycle about a player who is no longer on the roster.

Going back to the time he was released, Dez Bryant has popped onto the Cowboys' radar several times because of attention-grabbing tweets or comments. This week, it was his assertion that he'd prefer to play for the Dallas Cowboys when he makes his return to the NFL.

The tweet set off a predictable uproar from a fan base that has watched the Cowboys' passing attack stutter to 30th in the league in its first month of the post-Bryant era.

2. First and foremost, Dez Bryant was easily my favorite Cowboy player to watch over the last decade, and he was among my favorite to cover. I've got zero ill-will toward the guy, and I'd have preferred it if the Cowboys had re-worked his contract, rather than simply releasing him.

But once you move on from the particulars and focus on the present, why exactly does this make sense? Please remember that at this point last season, Dez had caught 16 of 40 targets for 212 yards. He averaged 53 yards per game last season, catching just 51 percent of his targets. On top of that, finished with 838 receiving yards on 133 targets – which is an average of just 6.3 yards every time he was targeted in the passing game.

Compare that to the peak of his powers in 2014. That season, he caught 64 percent of his targets for 1,320 yards and an absurd 16 touchdowns. He averaged 15 yards per catch and 10 yards per target.

Simply put, Dez isn't bringing that skillset to the Dallas offense in 2018. He'd probably be leading this team in receiving – but he'd also need a ridiculous number of targets to get there.

And that was the whole point, wasn't it? For better or for worse, the Cowboys wanted to work around a multitude of complementary receivers, rather than one guy they'd have to force feed.

Which brings me to the next point.

3. What exactly is different for the Cowboys right now? What has changed between when this team released Dez Bryant and where they sit at 2-2?

The passing game has looked bad, to be sure. Worse than we expected, with just one wide receiver currently sitting over the 100-yard mark for the season. Even still, that's probably a risk the Cowboys foresaw when they started this journey. And as we saw last week, that model can work just fine if your All-Pro running back is featured correctly in the offense.

Back to the point: what exactly is different? The front office hasn't changed one bit since the decision was made to release Dez. The coaching staff is the exact same. With the obvious exception of Jason Witten, most of those so-called "Garrett Guys" are still in that locker room.

Perhaps most importantly, the quarterback is the same. All last season, the narrative was that Dak Prescott wasn't the right quarterback for Dez Bryant. Throughout the offseason, we said he'd function better without having to satisfy a true No. 1 receiver.

To be clear, this passing game is not functioning properly. To date, it has only looked good in one of four games. But man, it'd be quite a knee-jerk reaction to go back on a months-long plan because of four bad games.

The Cowboys made this bed in the spring. For better or for worse, they might as well stick to it.

4. The Dez Cycle threw me off track with what I originally wanted to write about, which is the Cowboys' secondary – specifically their safety play.

For years, I've credited this team and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli for not giving up back-breaking plays, even when its defense has been subpar. So, consider me concerned that the Cowboys have surrendered three back-breaking plays in their past two games – a 52-yard touchdown to Tyler Lockett in Seattle and touchdowns of 45 and 38 yards to Golden Tate last weekend.

That seems uncharacteristic, so I went back to double-check.

From the time Marinelli took over coordinator duties, I went back to look at every explosive play the Cowboys have allowed since 2014. For the very unscientific purposes of this column, I'm considering an explosive play to be a 16-plus yard run or a 20-plus yard pass. On top of that, my very unscientific definition of a "back-breaking" play is a touchdown from 30 yards out or more. You can't play "bend but don't break" defense if opponents are scoring from halfway down the field.

5. The results are pretty interesting, in my very biased opinion.

Going back through these past few years, it's pretty obvious that the Cowboys have given up their fair share of explosive plays. But, going back to my point, they don't often let those explosive plays become back-breaking plays. If you go chart the play-by-plays of these games, you'll see the Cowboys surrender explosive play after explosive play down the field – only to buckle down and force a field goal at the end of the possession.

Case in point: the 2014 Dallas Cowboys surrendered 59 explosive plays – but only six that I would consider as "back-breaking." In 2015, the number of explosive plays jumped up to 68 plays, but the number of back-breaking plays only increased to 10.

As the talent level on defense improved in 2016 and 2017, the results improved, as well. The 2016 team that finished 13-3 allowed 58 explosive plays, but a mere four back-breaking plays. The 2017 team improved that number to 54 explosive plays, but still only allowed four back-breakers.

Now, compare that to what's happening in 2018.

The Cowboys have only surrendered 13 explosive plays to this point in the season. That puts them among the best defenses in the league when it comes to limiting big plays. What's troubling, though, is the back-breakers – which we mentioned above. In one month of this season, the Cowboys are one back-breaking touchdown away from matching their tally from the past two years.

6. It'd be unfair to put that blame on a single person, but it points toward a troubling inability to clean up big gains.

We saw it firsthand last week. On his first touchdown of the day, Tate caught the ball 10 yards downfield. Thanks to some regrettable safety play, he strutted the final 20 yards into the end zone. It was reminiscent of Keenan Allen's touchdown on Thanksgiving last year, when he weaved his way through about six missed tackles on the way to the end zone.

At this point, it feels useless to beat a dead horse. The Cowboys opted not to address the safety position in free agency, whether it was because of scheme fit or price tag or some other reason. Tyrann Mathieu, Tre Boston and Kenny Vaccaro, among others, were all available at some point this year, and the Cowboys weren't interested. Their draft board didn't fall the right way for them to address the position with a rookie.

So here we sit. The Dallas defense has shown some incredible promise during this first month, but these big gains are not a trend that any good defense can sustain. Here's hoping they can find a way to clean it up in the coming weeks.

7. Clearly, I'm no good at this. My record picking Cowboys games is pretty solid at 3-1, but I have no idea how to pick the rest of this league. My record has gotten better as the season has gone, but that's really just a testament to how much I sucked to start the year.

Undaunted, I press on.

PATRIOTS (-10.5) over Colts

Titans (-5) over BILLS

BENGALS (-5.5) over Dolphins

Ravens (-3) over BROWNS

Packers (+1) over LIONS

Jaguars (+3) over CHIEFS

Broncos (+1) over JETS

Falcons (+3.5) over STEELERS

PANTHERS (-6) over Giants

CHARGERS (-5) over Raiders

EAGLES (-3) over Vikings

49ERS (-4) over Cardinals

SEAHAWKS (+7) over Rams

Redskins (+6.5) over SAINTS

LAST WEEK: 5-7-2

THIS SEASON: 22-37-3