There are plenty of factors in the Dallas Cowboys' recent losses. Some, such as the absences of Ezekiel Elliott and Sean Lee, are painfully obvious. One that may not be so easily evident is the lack of firepower in the Cowboys' receiver and tight end groups.
This past offseason, Dallas chose to bring the same crew back from last year's promising 13-3 results. They already had Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Cole Beasley under contract. Terrance Williams was re-signed to a modest four-year, $17 million deal. They even brought Brice Butler back on a minimal one-year contract.
Ryan Switzer and Noah Brown were selected in the fourth and seventh rounds, respectively, of April's draft. Those would prove to be the only moves that Dallas made to infuse some new talent at receiver.
At tight end, Dallas relied on the returns of James Hanna and Geoff Swaim from season-ending injuries to fill out the depth chart. They also had hopes for second-year project Rico Gathers, who'd spent 2016 on the practice squad.
So how are these guys doing so far this year?
Let's start at the top. It has been a rough season for Desmond Demond Bryant, who despite playing in all 10 games so far is on pace to be below 1,000 yards and less than 10 touchdowns. These are hardly the numbers you want from a guy making franchise WR money.
Now I know what some of you are thinking. "Dez doesn't get throw the ball enough! Of course his numbers are down!"
According to ESPN, Dez Bryant is tied for fourth in the NFL in targets this year. He has been thrown at 98 times, the same as Larry Fitzgerald. Only DeAndre Hopkins (117), Antonio Brown (114), and Jarvis Landry (107) have been credited with more targets so far this year.
Of the top-ten receivers in targets this year, WR or TE, Dez has the fewest catches and yards and the second-worst average for yards on his receptions. His longest single play this season was for 36 yards, which is the second shortest among the top ten.
Bottom line; Dez Bryant has been the least efficient franchise receiver in the NFL so far this year. The question for the Cowboys to figure out is how much of that is on Dez and how much of that is on his quarterback.
Dak Prescott doesn't like to lob it up or throw into tight spaces, which is where Dez Bryant has made his money over his career. When Dak does try these throws, they looked forced and uncomfortable and have led to some turnovers. There is a clear compatibility issue between Bryant and Prescott.
That said, Dez isn't the same guy who used to make plays on those tough throws. He is an old 29, with extra loss of athleticism from his physical style of play. That shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, because we've only been saying it since he entered the league in 2010. The way Bryant punishes cornerbacks, which Chris Collinsworth highlighted on Sunday, comes with a price. His own body has also suffered in these exchanges.
This is one of those debates where both things can be true at the same time. Dak doesn't give Dez the best opportunity to succeed, but Dez isn't as capable of success as he used to be. And because both things are true, it gives defenses even more freedom as they don't have to be as concerned about Dez Bryant as they used to be.
Naturally, the trickle-down effect of Dez becoming less threatening hurts the rest of the receivers. However. that's not their only problem this season.
Speaking of older guys... Jason Witten.
It pains me to talk of Jason as some fossil given that he was born just six days before I was. However, while we're still both prime for watching Parks & Rec reruns and playing Cards Against Humanity, 35 is a tough age to be playing tight end in the NFL.
When we're winning, Witten's inability to get yards after the catch is something we can joke about. I've more than once compared him to your uncle playing touch or flag at the family picnic. But Jason's decreasing threat level on the field is now a real issue for the Cowboys offense.
Witten is still such a fabulous route-runner that he can get open to make the catch. But that is where his plays end, and defenses are able to scheme for that accordingly. A safety or linebacker only has to be in the vicinity and they can close and make the tackle. There's no threat of Jason going over the top, or beating his man to the edge and turning up field.
Like with Dez, there is less general fear factor now with Jason Witten on the field. Are you starting to see the cumulative effect that has on opposing defenses, and thus on the Cowboys' ability to execute?
Nobody has taken a bigger hit to their production this year than Cole Beasley. Last year's receiving leader has just 26 for 195 yards after 10 games. Cole has found the endzone four times, but that is the only saving grace to an otherwise low year.
While some of this is due to more throws going to Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams than in 2016, there is also a major drop in efficiency. Last year, Prescott and Beasley connected on 77% of the throws that went Cole's way. So far in 2017, that number has plummeted to 59%.
Why is it harder for Beasley to get open? Last year's surge has led to increased attention from opponents. Beasley is seeing more coverage than he used to, sometimes even double-teams from a corner and safety..
Consider that for a minute. Cole Beasley is getting double-teamed. Beasley; not Dez Bryant.
The Cowboys should be making defenses pay for that. Dez Bryant should be making them pay. The fact that it's not happening goes back to our original premise; Bryant is no longer able to take over a game and make life easier for his teammates. The fact that a defense would rather double-team Beasley than Dez speaks volumes about how he's now perceived.
Dallas used to make defenses pick their poison. For that to work, the poisons have to actually kill you.
This isn't to say that Dak Prescott is totally absolved. Not even close. He has to work on throwing his receivers open with better ball placement. Dak also has to be more willing to take chances, and then figuring out the right times and situations to do it.
Sounds like Tony Romo in his first few years, doesn't it?
Still, Romo rarely lacked a true top receiver to help make the offense work. From Terrell Owens to Miles Austin to a younger Dez Bryant, Tony had that guy who commanded respect at all times. He also had a younger Jason Witten putting together a Hall-of-Fame career.
Obviously, there's nothing Dallas can do about it now. They have who they have for 2017. But clearly, even with Ezekiel Elliott out of Roger Goodell's doghouse of horrors next season, the Cowboys have to address the WR and TE positions. They have to give Prescott more to work with in case Elliott were to be lost again for any reason, or even just if they came across a rushing defense who didn't allow Zeke to produce.
Back in July, I wrote about the possibility of Dez Bryant being released after 2017. At a certain point, Dallas is going to have to ask itself what it's getting for that $16 million cap hit each season.
As for Witten, we'll see if Jason has another year in him. If he doesn't retire, the Cowboys have to strongly consider bringing in someone to take over as the number-one or who can at least be more of a threat on passing downs. You have to put some fear back into your opponents. People respect the hell out of everything Jason Witten's done in his career, but they no longer fear what he might still do.
Dallas has to restore the pick-your-poison offense, and to do that they have to add more lethal options next offseason. It just might be their biggest need, even more than anything on defense, for 2018.
Cowboys, Falcons Week 11 Injury Report
The Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons are both 4-5 and playing to keep their seasons alive. It's a mutual must-win game, and both will have to try to win it without some key players. Once again, we look at this week's injury reports.
Let's begin with your Cowboys, whose report is getting longer as the season wears on:
- WR Tavon Austin (groin) - OUT
- DE Taco Charlton (shoulder) - OUT
- DT David Irving (ankle) - OUT
- DT Daniel Ross (calf) - OUT
- LB Sean Lee (hamstring) - OUT
- DT Antwaun Woods (concussion) - Doubtful
- G Zack Martin (knee) - Questionable
- G Connor Williams (knee) - Questionable
- DT Maliek Collins (knee) - Questionable
- LB Joe Thomas (foot) - Questionable
The biggest news is the guy who won't miss tomorrow's game; All-Pro guard Zack Martin is expected to play despite his knee injury from last Sunday night. The Cowboys, already dealing with Travis Frederick's absence and now health issues at left guard, could ill afford to go without Martin in such a pivotal game.
Even if he was healthy, rookie Connor Williams might have a hard time getting in the game. Backup Xavier Su'a-Filo looked like an experienced former second-round pick last week, and he may be the better player for now.
The defensive line has been hit hard, particularly in the middle. With Irving and Ross out, Woods doubtful, and Collins uncertain, Dallas called up DT Christian Ringo from the practice squad. They will also be without Taco Charlton, who could play inside some. Veteran Caraun Reid will be seeing a lot of playing time.
Sean Lee's ongoing absence has become almost an afterthought now with the stellar play of Leighton Vander Esch. We've seen in the past when missing Lee meant disaster on defense, but Dallas' first-round rookie has helped mitigate the damage.
- LB Deion Jones (foot) - OUT
It's a short list for Atlanta, but the one name on it is a big one. Arguably the team's best defensive player, Deion Jones will miss the game with a foot injury.
The Falcons' injury issues have been more in players suffering season-ending injuries. Both starting guards, Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco, are on injured reserve. Star running back Devonta Freeman is also there, and those losses help explain Atlanta's 30th-ranked rushing offense.
Both starting safeties are also on IR; Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal. Atlanta has one of the league's worst passing defense this year without them, ranking 30th in yards allowed and 28th in opponent passer rating.
So yes, the Falcons injury report compared to the Cowboys' may raise some eyebrows. But in terms of who has most of their key guys, Dallas is arguably still better off.
4 Best Candidates for Cowboys’ Next Offensive Coordinator
The big word around the Dallas Cowboys lately is about Jason Garrett and the future of the head coaching job. Some have speculated that either Quarterback Dak Prescott or Jason Garrett will get axed, and the other will stay.
Owner Jerry Jones was quoted on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas about his young quarterback, putting to bed at least half of the conflict.
"Dak is the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. He’s young and he’s going to get extended."
This shut the door on the idea of Prescott being replaced.
As far as Jason Garrett? Jerry Jones has been less than committed.
"I’m not in the business of backing anybody; the head coach, or offensive coordinator, I just don’t back them publicly." Jerry Jones said.
So it seems that Jason Garrett’s future is up in the air.
But what about offensive coordinator Scott Linehan? What’s held the Cowboys back this year has been the offense, and a lot of it can be contributed to their predictable play calling and inability to adapt to today’s game and its current players.
Whether or not Jason Garrett retains his job, Scott Linehan’s job doesn’t seem near as secure. His scheme doesn’t really mesh with Dak Prescott and how the offense could look. There’s only so many times you can run a three tight end set and not get furious.
Cowboys fans may want Garrett gone but they might have to settle for a new offensive coordinator instead.
The good news is that there are many options out there. Options that not only could work well with Dak Prescott, but could bring the Cowboys offense into the 2010s.
Jerry Jones once said how the Cowboys offense was like the LA Rams. If they are able to sign their Co-Offensive Coordinator, then they could be.
When Matt LaFleur left to become the Tennessee Titans OC, the job became a shared job between Waldron and Aaron Kromer. I wonder if Waldron would rather have the job all to himself?
What makes Waldron so appealing is he is also the Rams tight ends coach and passing game coordinator. Those are two areas where the Rams excel and where the Cowboys need help.
Teams are going to start copying the offensive juggernauts of the NFL and the Rams are definitely one of them. The Cowboys should do themselves a favor and get out in front before other teams beat them to it.
Cam Newton is having one of his best seasons. Not only is he an MVP candidate but he’s set to have career highs in completion percentage and QBR, as well as a career low in interceptions. Cam Newton is a very talented quarterback but some of this has to be attributed to his new Quarterback Coach, Scott Turner.
The son of Norv Turner, Scott has seemingly helped mold Cam into a more accurate passer without compromising who Cam Newton is as an athletic quarterback. That has Dak Prescott written all over it.
He's got NFL lineage and a new, scary Cam Newton to add to his resume. He may not have as impressive a track record as others on here but he looks like he could be a chip off the old block and get the Cowboys where they need to be going.
A popular head coach candidate, Lincoln Riley has shown his creativity and offensive innovation during his short time as Oklahoma’s head coach. It’s uncertain if he’ll get any real offers to be a head coach, but as an OC, he would be a serious grab.
Everyone has seen the work he’s done with Baker Mayfield and now Kyler Murray. How he’s able to incorporate different formations to open up the pass game and have the run game seem unstoppable. Just imagine what he could do with the weapons he would have at his disposal in Dallas.
It's likely that Lincoln Riley is a hot commodity for a head coach position, especially in Cleveland where he could reunite with Baker Mayfield. That shouldn’t stop the Cowboys from trying to lure him to Dallas, though. Lincoln Riley could be the real missing piece that Dallas has been looking for.
Another product of Andy Reid, Eric Bieniemy is the offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs. The former running backs coach has the experience under Andy Reid on not only how to run an offense but to use your weapons at your disposal to the fullest.
Maybe I’m over-hyping this man but when you see the work he helped put in with Pat Mahomes and how he uses those weapons around him, it makes me imagine what he can do for the Cowboy offense.
The team has no shortage of weapons and could benefit greatly from a guy like this.
If the Chiefs make it past their first playoff game, Bieniemy could become a more attractive name when it comes time for new head coaches. However, if Jerry Jones comes calling and the right offer is met, who’s to say?
If Kris Richard can be lured from Seattle to fix the Cowboys defense, Eric Bieniemy can be lured from Kansas City to fix the Cowboys offense.
Cowboys Have Already Corrected Biggest Mistake From 2017 Loss in Atlanta
The Dallas Cowboys play their next three games in 13 days, all critical to their hopes of winning the NFC East despite alternating wins and losses since week one. For the Cowboys to earn consecutive road wins, their first coming on Sunday night at the Eagles, they'll have to come out of Atlanta in much better shape than they did just a year ago.
As expected in the NFL, a lot has changed in this year. The Cowboys 27-7 loss at the Falcons in their first game without Running Back Ezekiel Elliott was the beginning of the end on a season that forced a multitude of coaching changes in Dallas.
The Cowboys stubbornness in allowing Falcons DE Adrian Clayborn to sack Dak Prescott six times by beating Chaz Green and Byron Bell is something they hoped to move past when new positional coaches were brought in at OL, TE, QB, and WR.
It took the team admitting that these moves below Offensive Coordinator Scot Linehan were not all correct two weeks ago for the Cowboys to see any real progress, but with their win last week there's hope that the Cowboys are the improved team expected weeks ago - arrived just in time for Thanksgiving.
Firing Offensive Line Coach Paul Alexander was the first move, as the Cowboys named Marc Colombo OL Coach and Hudson Houck his assistant. Colombo told 105.3 The Fan in Dallas this week that he has injured Center Travis Frederick on a headset during games as well.
Colombo, Houck, and Frederick have the Cowboys offensive line confident in their ability to play to their strengths, rewarded with a renewed faith in the zone blocking scheme that was forgotten under Alexander.
If the Cowboys offensive line was their first problem in last year's Falcons loss (it was), it's becoming their biggest strength at the right time in the season.
The Cowboys necessary changes didn't stop here though.
In desperate need of a play maker on the outside, the Cowboys are seeing their investment into Wide Receiver Amari Cooper pay off so far. Cooper is averaging 3.2 yards of separation on his routes this season, ahead of Cole Beasley's 2.6 yards as the next closest pass catcher.
Cooper's presence was a big part of Ezekiel Elliott's 151 yard rushing performance at the Eagles. A player that can win on the outside with ease and dictate coverage has benefited Prescott and the Cowboys game plan on offense enough to send away a first round pick.
It will be up to this "rebuilt" Cowboys offense to match the Falcons on Sunday. Atlanta is averaging 27.1 points per game this season, but a much more dangerous 32.2 at home. After a 1-4 start, the 4-5 Falcons are playing in front of their home fans for the first time in two weeks, losing at the Browns in week ten.
The Cowboys felt they'd be prepared for games like this after their offseason moves, instead needing to show the type of in-season urgency that's been rare for Jason Garrett's team. The same can be said about a Falcons team that's experienced playing with their backs to the wall much sooner than the Cowboys have this season, setting up a big NFC match up in the early slot Sunday.
Dak Prescott will be thankful that Chaz Green nor Byron Bell are protecting him, wanting nothing more than to deliver another win for the Cowboys to take into Thanksgiving against the division-leading Washington Redskins. Not all of the coaches responsible for the lack of adjustment in last year's game are gone. What the Cowboys do have are tangible new ideas from coaches that understand they need more than a win at the defending Super Bowl champions to call this Cowboys season a success.
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