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.