The Dallas Cowboys offense was one of the best in the NFL in 2019. While they were first in yards, that doesn't mean they were the best offense in the NFL. They had their moments, but as you can tell by their 8-8 finish, they weren't as consistent as they needed to be to get into the playoffs.
Red Zone Scoring
As much as the Dallas Cowboys scored in 2019, they were 15th in the NFL at scoring inside the red zone at just 57.4% per Pro Football Reference. For reference, the Tennessee Titans led the league in red-zone scoring efficiency at 75.6%.
The Cowboys needed to be better in the most critical area of the field in 2019. Too many missed opportunities and field goals. They weren't as good as they could have been in the red zone was their reliance on Ezekiel Elliott and the running game when opposing teams were keying on Ezekiel Elliott and the running game. It's not that running the ball is a bad plan in the confined spaces of the red zone; it's that the Cowboys need to be more unpredictable moving forward in their red zone plan.
Ezekiel Elliott was first in the NFL in rushing attempts inside the 20. He was fourth in attempts inside the 10 and ninth inside the five. Dak Prescott was 15th in passing attempts inside the 20 yard-line and 27th inside the 10.
Elliott ran the ball on first down on 54% of his red zone carries while only 27% of Prescott's red zone passing attempts came on first down. When the Dallas Cowboys needed three yards or less for a first down, Elliott ran the ball 22 times to Prescott's six pass attempts.
In the NFL, where every team has access to the game film and statistics, opposing teams could pretty simply key on the Cowboys to run the football in certain down and distances.
41.5% of Dak Prescott's red zone pass attempts came on second down. Both first and third down accounted for only 27.7% of his pass attempts in the red zone.
Some of their running tendencies came from the former Dallas Cowboys head coach's tendencies. Jason Garrett wanted to run the football, and he especially wanted to run the football in high-leverage situations like the red zone. Per Warren Sharp's Football Stats, the Dallas Cowboys ran the ball 55% of the time in the red zone. Outside the red zone, the Cowboys threw the ball 60% of the time.
That's displays a significant philosophical shift once the Cowboys reached the red zone.
With Mike McCarthy driving the philosophical direction of the team and a more seasoned Kellen Moore at the offensive controls, the Cowboys won't see as significant a shift in their run/pass rates when they get into the scoring area.
Just as Blake Jarwin and CeeDee Lamb will help the big-play potential for the Dallas Cowboys in terms of yards after the catch, they'll also help the Dallas Cowboys in the red zone.
As good as Randall Cobb was for the Dallas Cowboys, Lamb, once he gets acclimated to the NFL game, will be a better red-zone weapon. Blake Jarwin's agility and athleticism will be an improvement over Jason Witten. Though Witten was the more savvy route runner, his game had become reliant upon boxing out defenders in the red-zone.
Lamb and Jarwin provide more athleticism than the Dallas Cowboys had last year. Michael Gallup showed off the kind of athleticism you'd like to use inside the red zone, but he was just fourth in red-zone targets and only targeted twice inside the 10-yard line.
Score on the Opening Drive
In 16 games, the Dallas Cowboys scored on the opening drive just four times.
- A field goal against the Miami Dolphins.
- A touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles.
- A touchdown against the Buffalo Bills.
- A touchdown against the Chicago Bears.
Against the Detroit Lions, Ezekiel Elliott fumbled on the Cowboys opening drive. On their first drive of the game against the Green Bay Packers, Amari Cooper dropped a pass that was intercepted. On another drive, Brett Maher missed a field goal on the opening drive.
Now, scoring on the opening drive doesn't necessarily equate to winning. The Dallas Cowboys went 2-2 in games where they scored on the opening drive. However, getting on the board early helps set the tone.
The Cowboys' inability to start fast was a major theme of the 2019 season. They were forced to play from behind partly because of their slow starts and additionally because of their defense's inability to slow teams in the running game.
Create More Yards After the Catch
One area that was lacking in 2019 despite having a really good offense was gaining yards after the catch.
By a couple of measures, they were pretty good. They finished seventh in yards after the catch and 13th in yards after the catch per completion per Pro Football Reference. While they had good totals, only 37.2% of their passing yards occurred after the catch, which was good for 27th in the NFL in 2019.
The Cowboys were one of just nine teams with a net yards after the catch percentage less than 40%. The best offenses in the 2019 playoffs, the 49ers, the Packers, the Saints, the Vikings, and the Chiefs all had a net yards after the catch percentage greater than 45%. The Ravens, who were one of the top offenses in the NFL, were the only playoff team not to reach that 45% threshold. The Buffalo Bills and the Seattle Seahawks were the only two playoff teams with a net yards after the catch percentage less than 40%.
While efficiency as an offense matters a lot in the NFL, figuring out a way to create big plays in the passing game after the catch goes a long way to sustainable success in the NFL.
The changes the Dallas Cowboys made in personnel this offseason should help them to be more dynamic after the catch in 2020.
Gone is Jason Witten and his paltry 2.6 yards after the catch per reception and in is Blake Jarwin, who averaged 5.1 yards after the catch per reception. Randall Cobb made a difference after the catch, and he's now in Houston. However, the Dallas Cowboys added CeeDee Lamb, who was a monster after the catch in college.
Getting a healthy Amari Cooper back will help the Dallas Cowboys get big plays in 2020 as well. In 2019, he wasn't able to create as many big plays in the passing game as he did in 2018. With the Dallas Cowboys in 2018, Cooper averaged 6 yards after the catch per reception. Dealing with injuries in 2019, Cooper only averaged 3.5 yards after the catch per reception.
The Dallas Cowboys are going to have a lot of opportunities to get their receivers the ball in open space as teams are going to struggle to cover each of their talented pass catchers. This will create the opportunity for more significant plays after the catch.
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One of the frustrating things about the 2019 Dallas Cowboys is how good they were on offense for most of the season only to disappoint in a few games. Those disappointing performances were enough to keep them out of the playoffs and lead to an overhaul of the coaching staff.
As most of the offense will return from the 2019 squad, the Dallas Cowboys need to be more consistent in the red zone and make more plays after the catch in 2020 if they hope to get back to the playoffs and make a deep run at a Super Bowl.
The scary thing about the Dallas Cowboys offense, which was one of the better ones in the NFL in 2019, is that they can be even better in 2020 if they're better in these three areas.
*Statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.