The Dallas Cowboys' 19-16 loss to the Houston Texans last night could be blamed on a lot of things. In a close battle like that, one play might've swung things. But today, our focus is on Jason Garrett's decision to punt in overtime and how it goes against the core philosophy of how this team has been built.
Since 2011, the Cowboys have spent three first-round picks, a second, and a third to build up their offensive line. They've shelled out big money to those first-round guys, plus La'el Collins, to make the line the strength of their offense and really the entire roster.
They spent another first-rounder, the fourth overall pick in 2016, to get a stud running back. And since then, Ezekiel Elliott has proven that he's as good with the ball in his hands as any RB in the league.
But last night, Jason Garrett didn't trust his most talented players to make the play.
In overtime, at 4th-and-1 from the Houston 42, the Cowboys head coach elected to punt rather than let Zeke try to convert the down. The Texans got the ball and the chance to win on a sudden-death field goal, and that's exactly what they did.
Garrett trusted that pinning Houston deep would allow his defense to make a stop and get him the ball back. But I'm not sure what made him think he had the 2000 Ravens or the '85 Bears out there.
Before overtime, Deshaun Watson had already thrown for 314 yards and run for 40 more. DeAndre Hopkins had run an all-night clinic on Dallas' best corner, Byron Jones. The Cowboys defense hadn't proven they could keep Houston out of scoring position.
Yes, the defense had come up big in redzone situations and goal-line stands. But the Texans were able to get up and down the field without too much issue. Of their 11 offensive series, only three had ended in punts. Six of them had the team in position to at least kick a field goal.
So no, I'm not sure what defense Jason thought he had. They'd played well and kept Dallas in the game, but they'd hardly dominated.
To be fair to Garrett, his own running game had come up short several times already. Elliott was held to just 54 yards on 20 carries, one of the worst outputs of his career.
And yes, Travis Frederick isn't out there to make that push up the middle. As solid as Joe Looney has been, he's not one of the elite blockers in football. I'm sure that factored into Jason's decision making.
But at the end of the night, when defenses get tired, that's when offensive talent has a tendency to shine. Hopkins, despite fatigue and some nagging injuries, made the big play to give his team the win.
Ezekiel Elliott deserved that same opportunity. He's the Cowboys highest draft pick since Russell Maryland.
And he only needed to get one yard.
This isn't hindsight criticism, either. Even before Houston started their game-winning drive, Garrett's decision was being decried on social media. The majority view was that Dallas should go for it.
Maybe you don't just hand it to Zeke and try to pound it. Maybe you do something creative with fullback Jamize Olawale, who's known for his offensive skills and yet never gets the ball.
Maybe you run a read-option and give Dak Prescott a chance to make the play. We hadn't seen that play all night, and neither had the Texans.
Or maybe you just let your QB, who's built like a linebacker, go for the yard himself on a sneak.
But creativity and aggression have become inconsistent in this Cowboys offense. That's not all on Garrett; Scott Linehan seems to change personalities from week to week, and not in a good way.
This identity crisis reaches back into the offseason, too.
Dallas decided to gamble on their receiving options after releasing Dez Bryant and losing Jason Witten. They added Allen Hurns and a third-round rookie, but they leaned heavily on current talent to step into those big shoes.
The Cowboys also trusted a rookie converting from tackle to guard, albeit a second-round pick, to keep the offensive line solvent. Connor Williams has been good but he's no mauler. His presence mattered in that game-changing decision, too.
Given their salary cap issues the last few years, the Cowboys have had to make tough roster choices. They've done a good job of building the defense backup, but now the offense is falling behind. Too much dead money from Tony Romo's contract has made it hard to do maintenance on both sides of the ball.
The season is far from over. You're 2-3 and nobody's running away with the NFC East right now.
But Jason Garrett and his team have to find some consistency. They have to lean on their strengths, both in critical moments and in overall game strategy.
If not, this identity crisis just might cost Garrett more than some games.
Next Day Rant: Dallas Cowboys Have Neglected Offensive Line
You can point fingers in a lot of directions over the Dallas Cowboys' loss yesterday to the Washington Redskins. But if you pull back and look at the overall picture, a poor performance by the offensive line was behind several of the itemized issues.
Let's start with the run game, where Ezekiel Elliott was held to the second-worst day of his NFL career. Zeke only produced 33 rushing yards on 15 carries, with no single run greater than six yards. Dak Prescott and Jourdan Lewis had a combined 40 yards on seven carries, but Washington was able to shut down the more predictable handoffs to Elliott.
One game doesn't make a season, and Zeke was the league leader in rushing up until last week. But there was a time when no defense could take Elliott away like Washington did yesterday, and that sets a disturbing precedent moving forward.
Even more disturbing are the hits quarterback Dak Prescott is taking. With four sacks yesterday, Prescott has already been taken down 23 times in 2018. Comparatively, Dak was sacked 32 times last year and just 25 times in 2016.
And we're not even halfway through this season. And that doesn't include all of the additional hits after the ball is released, or when Dak gets tackled on an improvised run.
Let's not forget Conner Williams' killer penalty, either. A 16-yard pass on 3rd down was taken off the board by the rookie's holding flag, and Dallas was pushed back to their own 10-yard line. The next play, Dak Prescott gets strip-sacked and Washington goes up 20-10 with the recovery touchdown.
Yesterday's game just drove home an issue I've had for a couple of years of now. Since their outstanding 2016 season, it feels like the Cowboys have taken their offensive line for granted.
It began with how the team handled things at left guard in 2016. They opted to let starter Ron Leary leave in free agency, not wanting to pay heavily for a guy with significant risk from degenerative knee issues.
I had no issue with Dallas letting Leary go, but replacing him was where the team got cute. They signed Jonathan Cooper, a first-round bust from the 2013 draft, and hoped that he could plug in and at least be solid between Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick.
This worked, for the most part, as Cooper started 13 games. But Dallas took a big risk in preparing for that season, trusting in either Cooper or Chaz Green to be the starting left guard as the team made a push to return the playoffs and compete for a championship.
Ezekiel Elliott still led the league in yards-per-game, but the offense was not what it was the year prior. The line may have been solvent with Cooper in there, but there was a clear regression with Leary.
Don't forget about the transition at right tackle, either. An abrupt retirement from Doug Free after 2016 prompted the Cowboys to move La'el Collins back to his college position of tackle.
When Collins was signed in 2015, the team ultimately decided he had more potential as a guard. That's where they worked him for two seasons, but then circumstances led to the shift in the 2017 offseason.
Too many moving parts and risky decisions, especially for the unit that had driven your team to its 2016 success.
Dallas has leaned on its All-Pro trio of Smith, Frederick, and Martin to anchor the line. They've trusted that the other spots could get less attention and investment and that their top three would raise all ships.
There is some logic to that gamble, and the salary cap era mandates that you can't shell out big bucks and high draft picks at every position. The Cowboys can't really be faulted for attempting this in 2017, given where they were with the cap and the roster.
But after last year's 9-7 finish and playoff miss, it was time to get serious about the offensive line again. Instead, Dallas trusted that a second-round pick moving from tackle to guard would be adequate at left guard.
I'm not here to crush Conner Williams. He's flashed plenty of good things, and I think he's going to work out fine in the long run.
But the Dallas Cowboys have been playing the long game for too long. Too many decisions have been based on long-term potential over immediate concerns. They built this team to operate on the strength of the offensive line, and they've taken too many gambles with that group given its severe importance.
Of course, they didn't know that Travis Frederick was going to go out with this neurological issue. Nobody could see that coming. But if it was a torn ACL instead, it wouldn't change the impact of his absence.
Joe Looney has been solid, but now you don't have the All-Pro center there to help the rookie left guard. Williams suffers for not having Frederick next to him, and Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott suffer in the trickle-down impact.
Yesterday may have just been an especially bad day at the office, but it's indicative of the gradual degradation of the offensive line. You pay the price one way or another in the NFL, either in money and draft picks or in poor performance on the field. The bill comes due one way or another.
In Washington, the Cowboys suffered for not doing more to keep the offensive line strong. They can only hope that it doesn't continue to cost them games, and perhaps a lot more, as the season continues.
L.P. Ladouceur Insists “Nothing Different” on FG Attempt
There were other plays that certainly had as much of an impact on the outcome of the Dallas Cowboys loss to the Washington Redskins on Sunday. However, sequence of events surrounding L.P. Ladouceur and the game-tying field goal attempt are front and center.
Prior to Brett Maher's game-tying 52 yard field goal attempt clanged off of the left upright as time expired, backlash on social media had already begun to spread about the so-called "snap infraction" that moved the Dallas Cowboys from what would have been a 47 yard field goal attempt to the 52 yarder that Maher pulled.
Five yards closer and Maher gets that kick through the uprights and the Dallas Cowboys go to overtime with a chance to take the division lead. It didn't and the Cowboys fell to 3-4, now a game and a half behind the Washington Redskins as the Cowboys head into the bye.
After the game, many of us were watching the snap and trying to figure out what exactly he did wrong to warrant the penalty. According to L.P. Ladouceur, he did nothing wrong and was adamant about that in the rare post game interview.
“I just adjusted down so I could put my hands on the bottom of it so I could snap it in the right direction. Exact same thing I’ve been doing for 14 years … I’m not even trying to get him offside. I know the situation. Just too bad.”
L.P.Ladouceur - via Todd Archer, ESPN.com
It was a rare "miscue" for the 14 year veteran deep snapper. Seriously, I can't remember a time when this call was made on a deep snapper or when Ladouceur had a bad snap. He's been excellent. If deep snappers could get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, L.P. would be a first ballot Hall of Famer. He's been that good.
As Cowboys Nation attempted to make sense of the call, the NFL Officials Twitter account had an explanation of the penalty call after the game, which may give you more understanding, or more frustration.
The illegal ball movement by the center in #DALvsWAS causes the defense to come across the neutral zone and contact a lineman." -AL https://t.co/Cv8Ugwb99p
Their argument was that Ladouceur moved the ball in his snap and that is an "illegal ball movement." It was that movement which caused the defender to come into the neutral zone and make contact with the offensive lineman.
I'll have to admit, watching deep snapper All-22 film is not something I'm going to find myself doing and so, we'll lean on Mike Garafolo here.
Just watched a few of L.P. Ladouceur's snaps in recent weeks. He moves the ball a lot at times. Nothing out of the ordinary here. The difference could be that nobody jumped on previous snaps. https://t.co/kc10gtMJ11
If what Garafolo says is true, that L.P. Ladouceur does move the ball a lot on his snaps, then how come he hasn't been called for it before. Mike could be right in that he hasn't been called for this before because no one has ever jumped offsides when he moved before. Regardless, the call has me wondering one of two things as to why they called it all of a sudden. 1) Either the officials don't usually see the ball movement or 2) they don't care. And both leave me a bit frustrated.
If they don't typically see the ball movement, then that means they didn't see the movement on Sunday and relied on the movement of the interior defensive lineman jumping offsides to make the call. To me, that is a problem. The officials need to be the ones making the call in these situations, especially a game-tying field goal attempt where five yards can make a huge difference. A defender is always going to act like he got drawn offsides. It's the officials job to make that call. Not the defense's.
If they don't typically care what long snappers are doing with the football prior to the snap, then why did they call it this time? A long snapper, like a kicker and punter, has a routine they go through prior to the snap to get their mind and body right. There's zero chance after 14 years in a game-tying situation that L.P. Ladouceur changed his approach to snapping on this particular field goal try.
The NFL Officiating body of the NFL says what he did is a penalty. Ladouceur says that's how he's always snapped.
So it begs the question, "why now?"
If that's always been a penalty and he's always snapped it like that, why did they pick that time in that situation to make that call. It may have been the right call, but it was a ticky-tack call and it inserted the officials into the outcome of the football game. Yes, the Dallas Cowboys killed themselves with a lot of penalties in really bad situations on Sunday. Like the Connor Williams hold to negate the Cole Beasley first down reception prior to the Ryan Kerrigan strip of Dak Prescott that led to a touchdown. However, you never want a penalty to decide a game.
On Sunday, the officiating crew asserted themselves to call a penalty on a play they either didn't see or didn't care about in L.P. Ladouceur's 14 year career to date. And while, Maher still could have -- and should have -- made that kick, there's no denying that the penalty had an impact on the game.
You never want to point to officiating as the reason your team loses a game, because there are always calls that go against either team that you could argue were bad calls. Unfortunately, this bad call pushed Brett Maher's field goal attempt back five yards, which had a direct impact on the game.
It may have been a penalty, it was a weak call at a really bad time for the Dallas Cowboys. With only nine games remaining in the 2018 NFL season, that call certainly hurt their chances of making the playoffs.
It's just another in a long line of officiating decisions that has hurt the Dallas Cowboys and that act is getting old.
3 Stars from Cowboys Loss to the Redskins
Loss. Win. Loss. Win. Loss. Win. Loss. That's where we stand after seven games with the Dallas Cowboys alternating home wins and road losses and through nearly half the schedule en route to their 3-4 record.
It was a disappointing loss after a defensive effort that held the Washington Redskins to 13 points on the day. The offense had some good moments, but the road inconsistency and penalties killed throughout the NFC East matchup. The Dallas Cowboys playoff chances took a substantial hit with the loss. With only nine games left in the season, the Cowboys are probably going to have to go 7-2 to make the playoffs.
It's not impossible they could get on a run, but it certainly looks bleak.
Before we move forward, let's look back and highlight this week's 3 Stars of the game.
Ryan Kerrigan, Washington Redskins
There were several players that gave the Dallas Cowboys offensive line fits on Sunday, but Ryan Kerrigan's strip-sack of Dak Prescott in the fourth quarter was the difference in the football game.
The Cowboys were trailing by three and after being backed up because of a holding penalty on Cowboys' Left Guard Connor Williams. Dallas was facing a 3rd and 14 at their own 10 yard line. Dak Prescott had good initial protection, but held the ball too long allowing Kerrigan to get to him, strip the ball, and Preston Smith recovered in the end zone to put the Redskins up by 10 with less than five minutes to play.
Kerrigan finished the game with five tackles (4 solo), two sacks, one tackle for loss, a pass deflection, the forced fumble, and two quarterback hits. It was a strong day for one of the longtime Redskins greats.
Adrian Peterson, Washington Redskins
The Washington Redskins didn't really have a lot of offensive weapons at their disposal aside from Tight End Jordan Reed and Running Back Adrian Peterson. Adrian Peterson had a good game against a stout Dallas Cowboys run defense, which kept the Cowboys defense off-balance most of the afternoon.
His 22 carries for 99 yards may not be the best game ever, but his ability to hit some big runs early and run with consistency early in the game put the Redskins ahead of the chains. On a day when the Redskins were down three of the top four receiving targets, Peterson needed to be effective for Washington to have a chance. He was a big reason the Redskins put up the 13 points on offense that they did.
Peterson ran hard "All Day" and made life difficult for the Dallas Cowboys defense.
Michael Gallup, Dallas Cowboys
After last week's performance, I wrote a piece predicting that a breakout game was imminent for rookie Wide Receiver Michael Gallup.
He delivered the best game of his career Sunday afternoon against the Washington Redskins hauling in three receptions on five targets for 83 yards and a touchdown.
Gallup's touchdown reception was a beautiful double move that left the Redskins corner in the dust on his way to his first career touchdown. It was a huge play at the end of the first half that put the Dallas Cowboys on the board. They hadn't really gotten much going prior to that drive. It was a nice step forward for Gallup who has been making strides since some early season struggles.
The Dallas Cowboys have needed someone to step up on the outside to take some of the pressure off of Cole Beasley in the slot and Ezekiel Elliott and the running game. With another solid performance under his belt, Gallup is proving that he is a starter for the Dallas Cowboys now and in the future.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
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