The first half of the season has come to a close and your Dallas Cowboys sit at 3-5 on the season with an uphill battle to contend for a playoff spot. Things look bleak after the America's Team suffered a let down at the hands of the Tennessee Titans on Monday Night Football. The reality is, however, they are only two games back of the Washington Redskins for the NFC East lead and the Philadelphia Eagles haven't looked like the best version of themselves through the first eight games either. The NFC East remains there for the taking. The next six games looks rough, but if the Dallas Cowboys can pull out a victory on Sunday Night Football, they'll have a chance to keep pace in the division and make the playoffs.
Yes, I'm talking about playoffs!!!
Before moving further into the season, let's look back and hand out some awards to the best -- and worst -- Cowboys of the first half of the 2018 season.
Ezekiel Elliott, Running Back
Things haven't been as good as they were in 2016 for Ezekiel Elliott in terms of production, but the guy still has a huge impact on the way opposing defenses play the Dallas Cowboys. If the offense was able to get better protection out of the offensive line and production out of the quarterback, then teams would be forced to back off of the line of scrimmage.
As things stand now, teams don't respect the Cowboys passing game and that puts all the focus on Elliott and the run game.
Just imagine where the Cowboys would be without Elliott as a threat on the ground. Despite teams stacking the box against Ezekiel Elliott, he's still averaging 4.6 yards per carry, 85 yards rushing per game, and is eighth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 906. He's averaging 113 total yards per game, which is down from his 128 average over the first two years of his career, but with how ineffective the offense has been, it's incredible he's gotten that kind of production.
Michael Gallup, Wide Receiver
After a rocky and slow start to the season, rookie Wide Receiver Michael Gallup has really came on strong in the last three games. In week six he made two nice catches -- though one didn't count -- against All-Pro Jaguars Corner Back A.J. Bouye. He then broke out in a big way in the week seven loss to the Washington Redskins taking three receptions for 83 yards including a long touchdown reception on a nice double move. Again in week nine, he brought in three catches for 51 yards on six targets (a couple of those targets were off-target throws). Gallup is seeing targets all over the field including in the red zone.
Even with the addition of Amari Cooper to the wide receiver group, Michael Gallup still saw the second most snaps at the wide receiver position and has begun to show a nice rapport with Quarterback Dak Prescott.
Over the last three games, Gallup's caught seven passes for 159 yards and a touchdown while averaging 22 yards per reception. His route running is looking really nice and he's getting a lot of separation from opposing defensive backs.
He had a bad drop against Tennessee on a target deep over the middle that he should have caught, but otherwise, the rookie is really beginning to show why he was worthy of the 81st overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
DeMarcus Lawrence, Defensive End
The Dallas Cowboys made a mistake not paying Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence this past offseason, because he's about to bank. If not with the Cowboys than with someone else.
Despite his sack totals not being where they were at this time last year, Lawrence is still the best defender on the team -- and maybe in the NFL outside Aaron Donald -- and is playing at an elite level.
Through eight games in 2017, Lawrence had 11 sacks. In 2018, he only has seven sacks. He's on pace for 14 sacks all the while being the focal point for every offensive coordinator when they begin game planning for the Dallas Cowboys. Those seven sacks rank 10th in the NFL among EDGE rushers, according to Pro Football Focus.
Not only has he been elite as a pass rusher, he's been elite in the run game as well. Again, among EDGE players (4-3 DEs and 3-4 OLBs), he ranks second in run stop percentage (15%) among players who have played at least 117 snaps. He's third in total run stops behind only Calais Cambell and T.J. Watt.
The Dallas Cowboys will probably have to put the franchise tag on him again this offseason to prevent a team from money whipping him away from The Star. This past offseason, they probably could have gotten a deal done with him for around $16 million per year over five years. Now they'll likely have to pay him upwards of $20 million per year.
That's a huge difference in terms of the salary cap. For DeMarcus Lawrence, the gamble paid off.
Byron Jones, Corner Back
We've talked a lot about Byron Jones and his transition back to corner back this season, but we're going to keep highlighting him. He's doing everything you'd want from your top corner.
Among corner back in 2018, Jones has allowed the fourth fewest receiving yards on the season, the fourth fewest receptions, the seventh lowest passer rating, fourth lowest yards per snap, eighth best snaps per target rate, and the fourth best snaps per reception rate in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus.
Teams are figuring out that going against Jones is a losing proposition, so they are looking elsewhere to get their passing game going.
Amari Cooper, Wide Receiver
He's only been with the team for one game, but you can already see that he's a really good player. He's got elite route running that makes corner backs look silly. He sets up his cuts really well and displayed nice hands in the loss to the Titans on Monday night. Cooper had five catches for 58 yards and a touchdown, including a long of 19. He brings Cole Beasley route running with Brice Butler speed.
As he practices and plays more with Dak Prescott, this will become a really nice combination in the passing game for the Dallas Cowboys. Will that lead to more wins in 2018? Who knows, but I think the trade for Cooper is going to reap rewards for several years after this one. For Cooper in Dallas, this is only the beginning.
Scott Linehan, Offensive Coordinator
The offense hasn't been good this season and a lot of that falls on the players, but a lot of the blame has to rest on the shoulders of Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan as well.
I've chronicled it several times over the last two games, but I think his personnel deployment has been atrocious. On 4th and 10 on Monday Night Football he called for a personnel grouping that didn't include Cole Beasley or Michael Gallup. Instead, they put Rico Gathers and Blake Jarwin on the field with Allen Hurns and Amari Cooper.
That's inexcusable to me.
When your team is staring at defeat and about to drop to 3-5, you need to have your best and most explosive playmakers on the field at the same time. It truly boggles the mind that the Dallas Cowboys can't come up with a formation that includes Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, Cole Beasley, Michael Gallup, and Allen Hurns on the field at the same time.
Scott Linehan doesn't seem to know what an offense without a tight end looks like and the further this season goes down the road, the more irritating it gets.
As egregious as that is, I also don't understand why he uses Jourdan Lewis as the jet sweep option instead of Deonte Thompson, who is, you know, a wide receiver. Since Linehan has been utilizing this as a part of the offensive arsenal, it's always been done by a receiver who was also the kick returner, as Deonte Thompson is. He has the ability to read blocks in space and has the speed to break big gains.
Even more egregious may be the involvement, or should I say lack thereof, of Cole Beasley. In the last two games, Beasley didn't really get involved until the final drive of the game, which is a problem that is hopefully rectified by the presence of Amari Cooper moving forward. As Dak Prescott continues to win by going down the field to Cooper and Gallup, Beasley should have more opportunities underneath. Linehan, however, needs to get Beasley involved early to get teams thinking about him so Dak has more room to work down the field.
With as bad as the offense has been for the last 16 games I'm nearly certain that Linehan is out the door in the offseason. The head coach may be joining him, but I'm not so sure. That brings me to my next zero...
Jason Garrett, Head Coach
I'll never shy away from admitting that I think that Jason Garrett can be a good head coach in the NFL, because I think he's an excellent motivator and gets great effort out his players, even when there's nothing to play for. See 2015.
Despite the "clapper" narrative that follows him around, there are real issues that we can point to and offer criticism. The most glaring is that he's unwilling to assert more influence over the direction of the offense.
I don't know if it's out of loyalty to Scott Linehan that Garrett remains hands off with his offensive coordinator or that Garrett doesn't have any ideas on how to fix the offense. Either way, that's a problem. Whatever the case may be, Garrett has been reluctant to take control of the side of the ball that he's most familiar with and that may be his downfall.
The offense hasn't looked the same since the Atlanta game last year. Some of that is on the players and some of that is on the coaching. What's frustrating is that the coaches came into training camp talking about a bunch of new wrinkles to the offense and the pieces being good enough to be a contender. That has not been the case and the failure to truly see the offense for what it is, is a microcosm of the 2018 NFL season for the Dallas Cowboys.
I don't know what to believe about Jason Garrett and his future with the Dallas Cowboys, but one thing I know is that if he doesn't begin to assert some influence on the offense, then this season is going to get much worse before it gets better.
The bread and butter, the leaders on the team, the identity of the Dallas Cowboys since the 2014 season has been their offensive line. And they have fallen flat through the first eight games of the 2018 season.
It's possible that Paul Alexander's technique and style of offensive line play just didn't suit this group of players and that is why they haven't been very good. Or, it could be that their's been a decline in play by Tyron Smith and La'el Collins in particular. Obviously, missing Travis Frederick is a big factor, but Smith and Collins haven't played like their capable of. And with Joe Looney starting in place of Frederick and Connor Williams trying to figure out life on the inside of the offensive line, you can see why the offensive line is struggling.
They have to be better moving forward and as a unit will have to be against a Philadelphia Eagles defense featuring one of the best interior players in the NFL in Fletcher Cox.
Chidobe Awuzie, Corner Back
I really don't know what to say about Chidobe Awuzie accept, I expected better from him. In 2017, his rookie season, he flashed some ball skills and a swagger that I though was going to translate very well into Kris Richard's aggressive press coverage scheme. Instead, he's being beat a lot.
Even though Awuzie is more often than not in the right space at the right time, he's not making plays on the football that prevent catches. Unlike Byron Jones, who is tied for 13th in the NFL with eight pass deflections.
Though he's not been good in coverage, he's held his own in the run game, ranking 11th among corner backs in run stop percentage. Problem is, that to play corner in this league at an effective level, you can't give up a reception once every 6.7 snaps, which is the worst in the NFL among players with at least 205 snaps.
Hero or Zero?
Dak Prescott, Quarterback
What can we say about Quarterback Dak Prescott? He's had some really good games, like the games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Detroit Lions. He's had some bad games like the ones against the Seattle Seahawks and the Houston Texans. Then he's had some good moments and bad moments in the same game like he did against the Washington Redskins and the Tennessee Titans.
He's been a roller coaster of a player this season and hasn't recaptured the magic that was the first 24 games of his career. Dak Prescott is currently on pace for career lows in pretty much every passing category, including yards, touchdowns, completion percentage, passer rating, He has the lowest passer rating of his career at 88.9, the lowest completion percentage at 62% and is just a touch higher than his 2017 yards per attempt number of 6.8.
He's on pace to break his career high in rushing yards by nearly 150 yards, which seems odd since we'd like him to run even more.
He's struggled this year, but so has most, if not all, of the offense. Like I mentioned above with regard to Scott Linehan and the offensive line, Dak Prescott carries some of the blame as well. He's been inconsistent and unwilling to let the ball fly at times. He's held the ball too long or he's missed open receivers by not letting their routes develop. And other times, Prescott hasn't had the time or he's hit the open receiver and been let down by a drop.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dak Prescott has been pressured on 39% of his dropbacks, which is the third highest rate in the NFL. Only Deshaun Watson holds the ball longer than Dak Prescott. Part of the reason that Dak has had to hold the ball longer than almost anyone in the NFL is that his wide receivers haven't been able to separate even at a league average rate according to Next Gen Stats. Prior to Amari Cooper's arrival, no receiver on the Dallas Cowboys, aside from Geoff Swaim, averaged more than the league average of 2.7 yards per separation. Cole Beasley was the closest at 2.5.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
What is going on with the offense for the Dallas Cowboys isn't just a Dak problem. It isn't just an offensive line problem. It isn't just a receiver a coordinator problem. It's an everyone problem. It is essentially a "chicken and egg" debate. We could argue it round and round, trying to pinpoint or place blame on one person or unit, when the reality is, the entire offense needs to play better.
Who have been your Heroes and Zeros for the first half of the season?
Did DC Rod Marinelli Have Increased Role in Cowboys Loss at Rams?
The Dallas Cowboys Divisional Round loss at the Los Angeles Rams is still fresh on the minds of their players, staff, and front office. So much so that the team had to fan the flames on a Jason Garrett comment expecting Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan to return. Garrett himself walked back this "report" once Stephen Jones noted it's still too early for any coaching staff changes. The focus will remain on Linehan's post until it's removed or the Cowboys OC is retained, but one coordinator the Cowboys now expect to keep is Rod Marinelli on defense.
Marinelli himself disputed the season-long belief that this was likely his last as the Cowboys defensive coordinator. With Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard not taking any of the three HC positions he interviewed for, Marinelli doesn't have to worry about shuffling his title to accommodate Richard - who called the plays from week one this season anyway.
Rod's title does include his specialty as defensive line coach though, a unit that the Rams dominated with their offensive line to a historic degree. The Rams' season-high 273 rushing yards was provided by both Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson surpassing 100 yards on the ground, the first time in team history they've had two backs reach this mark in a single playoff game.
Rams HC Sean McVay hardly had to reach into his vaunted 'bag of tricks' to expose the Cowboys defense in a way they hadn't been all year, but there was still an element of brilliance in his offensive game plan. It came out after the game that the Rams picked up on the keys the Dallas defensive linemen used to signal stunts and twists before the snap. While this is nothing more than just great scouting yielding an unforeseen advantage, it's left the Cowboys with more than enough time to ponder what went wrong in the Coliseum.
The Rams offensive line knew what the Cowboys defensive line was going to do before the snap on Saturday. https://t.co/oGo6Eiz4av
The answer to this may be nothing other than the coaching questions the Cowboys are already considering. With Richard's interviews in Tampa Bay, Miami, and New York coming at the beginning of the week leading up to game day, it's possible Marinelli had a larger say in the Cowboys preparation on defense.
It was Marinelli's defense that conceded 412 yards to the Rams in 2017 in a loss at AT&T Stadium. Matching him up with McVay leaves a lot to be desired, while Richard helps bridge this gap - something he was seen desperately trying to do on the sideline with a battered Cowboys defense.
As each day of the offseason passes, a change at either coordinator position becomes less likely in Dallas. On offense, the play caller has more than a season's worth of evidence showing the deficiencies of the Cowboys attack. In a league fueled by recency bias however, Marinelli certainly didn't leave his best performance on the field in Los Angeles.
Somewhere in the middle of this is Jason Garrett, safely in place as the head coach that should be personally trying to upgrade his top two assistants however possible. Marinelli signing up for another year makes this hard on defense, though Richard should resume play calling duties next season.
Again, this leaves the onus of the Cowboys improvements for 2019 on the offensive side of the ball, something that'll be realized when the shock of their defense letting them down in the biggest game of the season is gone.
Cowboys Getting Over $30 Million Cap Space from Expiring Dead Money
You may have already heard that the Dallas Cowboys will be flush with salary cap space in 2019, and that's very accurate. A huge portion of it comes from over $30 million in expiring cap penalties, otherwise known as "dead money."
Quick explanation; dead money occurs when a player is released or retires prior to the expiration of their contract. Any guaranteed money, such as the original signing bonus or money converted in a restructuring, that has not yet been paid out according to the contract schedule is accelerated.
For example, when Tony Romo retired after 2016, he still had $19.6 million in guaranteed money owed to him. Dallas chose to split this dead money over two years, and thus had a $10.7 cap penalty in 2017 and $8.9 million last season.
But now Romo's dead money, along with Dez Bryant's and several other players, is coming off the Cowboys' books. The result is a roughly $30 million infusion of salary cap space for 2019.
Here were the major culprits for last year's dead money:
(All cap figures are taken from Spotrac.com)
- QB Tony Romo - $8.9 million
- WR Dez Bryant - $8 million
- DT Cedric Thornton - $2.5 million
- CB Orlando Scandrick - $2.3 million
- CB Nolan Carroll - $2 million
- WR Deonte Thompson - $1.8 million
- DE Benson Mayowa - $1.1 million
- K Dan Bailey - $800 thousand
- TE James Hanna - $750 thousand
Those players alone make up a little over $28 million. Another $4 million or so came from over 30 players with lesser penalties that still added up.
Right now, the Cowboys have only $1.76 million in dead money on their 2019 salary cap. Nearly all of that is the $1.6 million still owed to Orlando Scandrick.
That difference is where the cap space comes from, and it will be of tremendous help to Dallas as they have major financial moves coming. They need to re-sign DeMarcus Lawrence, deal with a major salary bump for Amari Cooper, and consider a contract extension for Dak Prescott.
The 2019 number will change, of course, as the offseason rolls on. If Dallas elects to release players like Sean Lee, Tyrone Crawford, or others, some dead money will appear. But that will be offset by whatever cap savings motivated the move in the first place.
This is a good reminder of why the Cowboys' new era of fiscal conservatism is a good thing. After years of what felt like perpetual "salary cap hell," they are finally getting out from under those penalties and have complete flexibility this offseason. They may not even need to cut a guy like Crawford, who they almost would have been forced to in past seasons.
We'll be talking a lot more about individual players and their contracts in the weeks ahead, but this summary helps us see that Dallas isn't nearly up against the financial wall as they have been. We still miss guys like Romo and Dez, but we won't miss that awful dead money in 2019.
Cowboys Expect C Travis Frederick Back for Offseason Program
Lost in yesterday's hoopla over Scott Linehan's return was a positive report about Center Travis Frederick. In his comments to the media, Jason Garrett said that Frederick's recovery timetable should allow him to a full participant in the team's offseason program.
After never missing a start in his first five years, Travis missed all of 2018 dealing with the effects of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. The disease attacked his neurological system and required immediate and intensive treatment.
Jason Garrett says the team anticipates Travis Frederick being involved in the offseason program right from the start this spring if he continues on the same positive track in recovery from Guillain-Barré syndrome. #cowboyswire
While Joe Looney performed admirably in Frederick's absence, he's not an elite talent. Travis has been arguably the best center in the NFL since entering the league in 2013.
It's hard to qualify what effect not having Frederick had on the Cowboys offense in 2018. Ezekiel Elliott still led the league in rushing, but short-yardage plays weren't as automatic as we've seen in past years. A 4th-and-1 stuff was part of what led to the Cowboys' loss this past Saturday.
Dak Prescott was the second-most sacked QB in the NFL in 2018. After being sacked just 25 and 32 times in his first two seasons, the number skyrocketed to 56 sacks.
That's not all on Frederick, of course. Tyron Smith had some health issues and there were was turnover at left guard.
But having your All-Pro veteran center out there to help with the pre-snap reads, and help the rookie guard on his left, might have helped avoid some of those issues.
Indeed, Travis Frederick's return is just one of many reasons for optimism with the 2019 season. One of the best players on the team, he was sorely missed this year and can only help as Dallas looks to build on their division title and playoff appearance.
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