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Why Did the Cowboys Offense Struggle Down the Stretch? A Deep Dive into the Cowboys Offense

Why Did the Cowboys Offense Struggle Down the Stretch? A Deep Dive into the Cowboys Offense

The Dallas Cowboys offense has plenty of talented players and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore is widely considered to be one of the best young play callers in football. So why did the Cowboys offense struggle down the stretch? This article aims to investigate the large-scale picture of the Cowboys offense and how it may or may not have changed after Dak Prescott came back from injury, as well as investigate specific scenarios that Dallas struggled with or could improve upon.

Dallas began the season 5-1 and the offense was rolling. After 7 weeks Dallas averaged 0.15 expected points added per play (EPA), ranking 4th. Week 7 was the Cowboys bye week and Dak Prescott missed week 8 due to a calf injury. For the rest of the season the Cowboys offensive efficiency steadily decreased besides for blowouts against the Falcons and Football Team. By the end of the season Dallas’ EPA had decreased to 0.096, which still ranked 5th, but the offensive production had regressed. 

Did Dallas make large schematic changes as a result of Dak being hurt? In weeks 9-18 Dallas actually began to throw the ball more frequently from both shotgun and under center. 

Pre Dak Injury (Week 1-6) Post Dak Injury (Week 9-18) 
Play Rate EPA Success Rate Play Rate EPA Success Rate
Under Center (42% of plays) Under Center (39% of plays)
Run 72% 0.024 52% Run 64% -0.16 35%
Pass 28% 0.316 67% Pass 36% 0.25 63%
Shotgun (58% of plays) Shotgun (61% of plays)
Run 21% 0.005 50% Run 16% 0.25 47%
Pass 79% 0.273 57% Pass 84% 0.06 45%

Dallas’ offense was incredibly efficient from both shotgun and under center. Their offense under center included efficient running and heavy play action usage (79% of pass plays) for an explosive 0.316 EPA per pass and 8.9 yards per drop back. They paired this with an equally efficient pass game out of the shotgun. However in weeks 9-18 Dallas was dreadful running the ball under center and passing out of the gun. Two staples of the offense had become weak spots. The lack of success running the ball put the offense in more bad situations on 2nd and 3rd downs. This can not explain all of the regression in the passing game, but adds context in that we should expect some fallback in passing efficiency, perhaps just not as significant. 

Offensive Line Shuffle

What happened to the Cowboys run game, particularly under center in the second part of the season? Some may cite injuries on the offensive line. The Cowboys had some significant shifting at offensive tackle. Terrence Steele played well, posting a 72.1 grade while filling in for RT La’el Collins who missed weeks 2-7. Collins did not miss a beat when he returned and finished the season with an outstanding 89.8 run blocking grade. However, 91.4 PFF graded LT Tyron Smith missed 5 games during weeks 8-18 and when Terrence Steele filled in on the left side he did not play as well, with a PFF grade of 52.2 at LT. This could explain some of the fall off in the run game towards the end of the season. 

A Simple Yet Difficult Fix

The Cowboys have heavily invested in RB Ezekiel Elliott, first by selecting him at 4th overall in 2016 and then by giving him a 6 year $90 million ($50 guaranteed) contract. The truth though appears to be that 26 year old Elliott has been outplayed by 4th round pick Tony Pollard.

Pollard has been more explosive and efficient on every run concept besides man blocking. It seems as though a quick way to improve the run game would be to give Tony Pollard a heavier workload as well as running less outside zone with Elliott. Elliott’s EPA being below -0.2 on outside zones is dreadful yet it was the Cowboys 2nd most common run play. 

Passing Concepts/Scheme

Now to finish with passing. I used PFF route data to classify half field concepts on each passing play. The following table displays the top 7 concepts before and after Dak’s injury. 

Pre Dak Injury (Week 1-6) Post Dak Injury (Week 9-18) 
Concept EPA NFL Average Concept EPA NFL Average
Outside Screen 0.159 0.011 Iso-Vertical 0.06 0.02
Iso-Vertical 0.203 0.02 Flood 0.175 0.02
Vertical Smash 0.40 0.007 Vertical Smash -0.053 0.007
Flood 0.047 0.02 Iso-Crosser -0.15 -0.04
Iso-Crosser 0.35 -0.04 Outside Screen 0.02 0.011
Mills 0.374 -0.003 Stick -0.054 -0.043
Shock 0.668 0.081 Iso-Curl -0.13 0.016

(Appendix for route concepts included at the end of the article)

The Cowboys ran screen, iso-verticals, vertical smash, flood, and iso-crossers frequently in both parts of the season, but their efficiency dropped when calling these concepts towards the end of the season. Early in the year the Cowboys were far and away above league average in terms of EPA when calling their favorite concepts. The increase in stick concepts and curl routes follows how Nate Tice of the Athletic has described the Cowboys offense – static. Especially on early downs this seems to hold true, where Dallas targets curls/hitches 22.4% of the time, compared to league average of 17.2%.

Another takeaway from the route concept data is consistent with another popular football analyst. On YouTube Brett Kollman broke down how the Denver Broncos made the Cowboys have their worst offensive performance of the year. Much in part due to high usage of Cover-1 Hole, which is man coverage from a two high shell, with one safety playing overtop and one coming down in the hole to pick up crossers or middle of field routes. Cover 1 Hole is adept at stopping crossing routes and the Cowboys were much less effective hitting these routes at the end of the season. The table below really displays how this was a significant weakness for the Cowboys in the passing game. When Dak was able to clearly see man coverage pre snap, the Cowboys were effective, but they were dreadful when it was disguised with 2 high shells.

Cowboys Pass Attack vs Cover 1
Pre Snap Look EPA Success Rate
Cover 1 – MOF Closed 

(1 High Safety)

0.285 49.1%
Cover 1 – MOF Open

(2 High Safeties)

-0.741 16.7%

Dak’s Rollercoaster Season

We can see that after a productive start, Dak had some weeks near the bottom of the league in EPA. However mixed in with that are two weeks against the Falcons and Football team where Dak led the league in EPA.

I can’t answer why the Cowboys faced extreme regression when throwing the ball out of the gun without more rigorous film study. Although we’ve seen that the Cowboys passing scheme/tendencies had some interesting changes when Dak returned from injury. I think that Dak should take some blame for the underwhelming end to the season. However, I have confidence in Dak moving forward and think he can still elevate this offense to its full potential in 2022, but he needs to play better than he did at the end of 2021.

Route Concept Appendix

  • Iso-Vertical/Crosser/Curl: One single go/crosser/curl route on one side of the field.
  • Flood: #1 to the outside runs a go, #2 to the outside runs an out
  • Vertical Smash: #1 runs curl, #2 runs vertical
  • Stick: #1 runs vertical, #2 runs out/curl, #3 runs out/curl
  • Mills: #1 runs a post/deep dig, #2 runs a dig
  • Shock: #1 runs vertical/post, #2 runs curl