Dak Prescott is having a career year in his fourth NFL season, throwing for 2,777 yards (2nd most in the league) and 18 touchdowns (tied for 3rd) against 9 interceptions through nine games this season. He’s also rushed for 3 more scores on the ground. Despite this, the Dallas Cowboys are just 5-4 on the year and have lost tiebreakers to pretty much every potential NFC playoff team at this point.
The primary cause for this can be attributed to the fact that the Cowboys have been a notoriously slow-starter all season, as Bobby Belt points out on Twitter.
Cowboys point differential this year…
1st quarter: -18
2nd-4th quarters: +99
New Orleans is the only team Dallas hasn't outscored between the 2nd and 4th quarters this season.
They have to figure out this first quarter sleepwalking.
— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) November 11, 2019
While Prescott deserves his share of criticism for the consistent slow starts, his overall production, particularly in the second half, cannot be overlooked. Sunday night’s loss to the Vikings marked the fifth time in 13 games Prescott has thrown for at least 380 yards. Against a solid Minnesota defense, he racked up 397 passing yards, converting 3rd and 12 on three separate occasions.
This yardage wasn’t thanks in large part to huge chunks plays or yards after catch, either. This was Dak dissecting an opposing defense in a game in which Ezekiel Elliott was held to just 2.4 yards per carry on 20 attempts, and his exceptional play was perhaps most evident during Dallas’s second-to-last drive Sunday night.
Starting from his own 6 yard line and trailing 28-24 with just over four minutes to play, Prescott was told to go win the game. He responded by consistently converting on third down after Dallas repeatedly tried, and failed, to run the ball with Elliott on first down.
This put the offense in an early hole and forced Dak to make some of his best throws of his career to keep the drive alive, and he did just that by finding guys like Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Randall Cobb. Everything was going perfectly.
An 8 yard strike to Amari Cooper gave Dallas 2nd and 2 from the Vikings 11 yard line with three time outs and still a full minute left to play. This would be Dak’s defining moment. At least it should have been.
On 2nd and 2, Dallas opted to run the ball with Elliott on an RPO. Knowing Elliott wasn’t hurting them, the Vikings stuck with Dak and forced him to give it up to his Pro Bowl back. Zeke was then stopped for no gain to set up 3rd and 2.
While hardly ideal, Dallas would still have two shots to get two yards for a new set of downs and more opportunities to punch it in for the win. Then they did almost the exact same thing, only this time Elliott was snuffed out in the backfield for a three-yard loss. On 4th and 5, Dallas called a five-yard out route for Elliott again, a pass which Eric Kendricks just managed to get a hand out as he fully extended and knocked away Dallas’s last, best hope.
While it wouldn’t be the Cowboys’ final possession, it was their greatest opportunity. With the game on the line once more, they chose yet again to take the ball out of Dak’s hands.
As David Moore pointed out after the game, Dallas managed to do something it had only achieved twice before in franchise history, and it was not the kind of history you want to make.
This stat compliments of @dcstats. Sunday night's game was only the 3rd time in franchise history the Cowboys failed to pick up a 1st down rushing.
— David Moore (@DavidMooreDMN) November 11, 2019
Despite Prescott having complete control of the offense and leading Dallas’s final charge, the coaching staff did what it always does and reverted to the core of its identity, regardless of the context.
Mike Zimmer and his defense came into the game with the mission of shutting down Elliott and making Dak Prescott beat them with his arm, and despite the fact that the Vikings had done just that over the course of 59 minutes, Jason Garrett decided to go to Elliott not once, but twice on the ground. It didn’t matter what his quarterback had done all game to him.
What mattered is that Dallas is a team built around running the ball and leaning on Zeke in short-yardage situations. He confirmed his input into the play-calling after the game.
Jason Garrett tells @1053SS @fishsports on @1053thefan that “we just try to communicate as an offensive staff. I certainly have input throughout the ballgame. Situationally, I have input. That’s how we’ve operated all year long and that’s how we operated last night."
— Roy White III (@RDubThree) November 11, 2019
So the team hadn’t rushed for a first down all night but decided to take the ball out of the hands of its red-hot QB on back-to-back crucial downs. Brilliant.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only time Dallas’s stubborn play-calling got them into trouble. Dallas ran the ball on first down 16 times for just 39 yards in the game (2.44 avg). Compare that to the 14 first downs in which they let Dak throw the ball and the 108 yards of offense (8.3 yards per attempt) that resulted. Dallas and its coaching staff effectively stole this win from their quarterback, putting him behind the sticks time and again and asking him to bail them out. In the end, they finally put him in a hole deep enough that it took just one quality play by the defense to end the game.
Jason Garrett wanted to try to win the game on his terms rather than taking what was there and already working. The Vikings dared Dallas to run the ball with Zeke and Garrett tried to do just that, no matter what the evidence or analytics told him.
This isn’t the first time this has happened this season. Had Dallas scored, they would’ve taken a 3 point lead with at most forty seconds to go. Whether he was uncomfortable with leaning on his defense in that situation, believing they would not only give up a score but a touchdown to lose the game, or he simply feared making a mistake and elected for the most risk-averse tactic possible, the end result is the same. Dallas played not to lose rather than trying to win and it cost them a crucial victory.
With Prescott having put together one of the best games of his career and driving for a season-defining victory, it’s nothing short of an embarrassment that the win was snatched away by his own coaching staff.