The biggest story through the first three weeks of the NFL season, at least around Dallas, was the emergence of Dak Prescott and his red hot start.
Prescott started the year by completing 70 of his 94 pass attempts for 920 yards and 9 touchdowns against just 2 interceptions. He also ran 11 times for 88 yards and added another touchdown on the ground. Not only had Prescott led Dallas to its first 3-0 start since 2008, but he was also leading the league in quarterback rating and was second to only the reigning MVP, Patrick Mahomes in touchdown passes.
With Kellen Moore calling the plays, talk of a Dak Prescott MVP campaign was beginning to brew across the country. The only caveat was the caliber of the opponents in which Dak and company had thrived. As such, the team’s first true test didn’t arrive until Sunday night when it headed to New Orleans to take on the Saints in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Much like last year’s game, it was a defensive slugfest throughout, but as the game wore on, it became clear for whatever reason that the Cowboys coaching staff did not believe in Dak Prescott to go out and win the game in a hostile environment.
Despite three consecutive dazzling offensive displays to start the season, wherein Dallas employed substantial pre-snap motion, a heavy dose of play-action, and frequently attempted passes on first downs, the coaching staff seemed to revert back to its conservative play-calling nature from the past few seasons under Scott Linehan. According to Warren Sharp, Dallas ran the ball 11 times on first down for a measly 1.9 yards a carry, but whenever they decided to throw the ball on first down, they saw significantly more success moving the ball.
The Cowboys first down play balance prior to the final drive: 11 runs @ 1.9 YPC 8 passes @ 7.3 YPA First half only: 7 runs @ 2.1 YPC (14% success) 3 passes @ 6.7 YPA (67% success) On first down Kellen Moore went extremely conservative (70% run in 1H). It was a big mistake.— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) September 30, 2019
Between this conservative nature and a fantastic defensive game plan by the Saints, the Cowboys totaled just 257 yards and 10 points. Throughout the game, they lowered their heads and tried to run the ball against eight and nine man boxes on early downs, often putting themselves in third and long situations and ultimately converting just 4 of the 11 third downs they faced.
Prescott might not have been perfect for the night but he was far from the reason Dallas lost. Prescott went 22/33 for 223 yards with an average of 10.1 an attempt. Yes, he threw an interception, but that came on the Hail Mary heave at the end of the game from his own 48.
What’s more, while he was only sacked once, that coming on the first snap of the final drive, he faced relentless pressure throughout the game. In spite of that, he stood tall in the pocket and delivered key strikes to extend drives and give the Cowboys a chance. It’s not his fault Jason Witten fumbled at mid-field after Dak threw him a dart. It’s not his fault Ezekiel Elliott then fumbled on the next drive when Dallas went for it on 4th and 1.
The one big mistake you could point to, perhaps, would be his missing of Randall Cobb in the endzone after being flushed from the pocket. It’s by no means an easy throw but one we’ve seen Dak make regularly throughout his career. That miss forced Dallas to settle for a field goal after Chidobe Awuzie nabbed Dallas’s first interception of the year and set up the offense near mid-field. The Cowboys would only see that opportunity once more the rest of the game.
In a game where Elliott struggled to make an impact, putting together the third-worst performance of his career with 18 carries for 35 yards (1.9 avg), Dallas seemed to play things oddly close to the vest with a lot of safe, underneath routes and very few shots down the field. What was worse is that Prescott only ran the ball once for seven yards to extend Dallas’s first scoring drive. Trying to utilize Prescott’s legs more with some called run plays for the QB could’ve helped soften up the Saints defense and forced them to adjust their game plan. Instead, Moore seemed to play right into New Orleans’ hands.
The problem isn’t that Dallas adapted its play-calling and implemented less of the pre-snap motion or deep balls into their game plan, it’s that it seemingly abandoned everything they had been working on and finding great success with in favor of a simplistic, play-not-to-lose approach.
In each of the first two weeks of the season, Dallas put together five straight scoring drives, recording 9 touchdowns and a field goal in the process. When they opened the third quarter with a methodical drive that ended in a touchdown, it looked like that engine might finally be revving up once more. Instead, key players made crucial mistakes, and the coaching staff became noticeably tight in their play calling thereafter, effectively hamstringing their franchise quarterback much as we saw in years past with Scott Linehan.
Hostile environment or not, if the Cowboys believe Dak is their guy, they cannot afford to doubt him when crunch time rolls around. After all, he’s only been one of the best in the league at engineering 4th quarter comebacks since 2016.