There's been a lot of talk this offseason about the Dallas Cowboys offense and what they need to do to be better. A lot of that talk has been centered around the wide receiver group and the tight ends as the most glaring question marks for the Cowboys offense.
As we look back to the 2017 season, it's easy to see that the Dallas Cowboys have a tremendous offensive foundation from which to build on.
Also, statistics don't tell the whole story. They're a part of the whole when analyzing the productivity and efficiency of an NFL team. Anyone who watched the Dallas Cowboys in the second half of the season will tell you that they struggled and they weren't good.
The fact that they were bad on offense in the second half of the season makes what I'm about to show you even more remarkable.
How the Dallas Cowboys Stacked Up In 2017
Plays Per Game - In plays per game, the Dallas Cowboys ranked 18th. That isn't surprising considering the style of offense they play. As a run first, control the clock team, they'll likely never led the league in plays run per game on offense. It just isn't their nature.
Run:Pass Ratio - This statistic won't surprise Cowboys Nation at all, as the Dallas Cowboys were third in the NFL in rushing percentage. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Buffalo Bills ran the ball at a higher percentage than the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys ran it 47.9% of the time while throwing it 52.1% of the time.
In total run and pass plays per game, the Dallas Cowboys had the fifth most runs per game and the third fewest passing plays per game. Those numbers are exactly what they want to be on offense. I'd imagine 2018 looking similar.
Total Yards Per Drive - They were really good at moving the ball in 2017 as they again were inside the top 10 in total yards per drive, finishing ninth with an average of 32.5 yards per drive. In order to run plays in the Red Zone, you first have to get to the red zone and this indicates that Dallas was really good at moving the ball into scoring range in 2017.
If you imagine most drives starting at the 25 yard line after a touchback, the Dallas Cowboys on average move the ball past the opponent's 40 yard line. That's right around Dan Bailey's field goal range. So, on average, the Dallas Cowboys got into field goal range.
The Chicago Bears were the worst team in the league at 25.64 yards per drive, meaning they'd barely get across the 50 yard line if their average drive started at the 25. The New England Patriots (39.23) led the league in this category and were three yards per play ahead of the Atlanta Falcons.
Percentage of Plays Trailing - This one may surprise Cowboys Nation, it surprised me, but the Dallas Cowboys had the ninth fewest plays run when trailing.
Even when we think of the first half of the season and they got steam rolled by the Denver Broncos in week two, and then struggled on offense in the second half of the season, they still had the ninth lowest percentage of offensive plays run while trailing.
That's a sign that the team is becoming more and more balanced on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. That even when the offense wasn't playing at its best, the defense was helping to keep games close.
In the first half of the season when the defense was struggling without Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens, the offense kept the games close.
Scoring Percentage - Scoring Percentage from Pro Football Reference indicates the amount of drives that end in an offensive score.
The New England Patriots led the league at 49.4% scoring on every other drive. The Dallas Cowboys were 13th in the NFL at 36.3%. There were three teams that finished ahead of Dallas but didn't make the playoffs: the Detroit Lions, Baltimore Ravens, and San Francisco 49ers.
Dallas scored points on a little more than a third of their drives. Again, considering how they finished the season offensively, that's a pretty staggering number. It's further evidence of how good they were in the first half of the season.
Points Per Game - As a raw stat, points per game still is a good metric when looking at a team's offensive productivity. The Dallas Cowboys were 14th in the NFL, scoring 22.8 points per game. Over the first eight games of the season, they were scoring 28.25 points per game, which had they kept that up over the course of 16 games, would have been good for fourth in the NFL.
In the second half of the season they averaged 16 points per game. That includes two games against the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants where they scored 38 and 30 points, respectively.
For the other six games in the second half of the season, they averaged 10 points a game.
Points Per Drive - The Dallas Cowboys finished ninth in the NFL in points per drive with 2.08. In fact, the eight teams ahead of them in this category all qualified for the playoffs. The Detroit Lions join the Cowboys as teams that finished in the top 10 but failed to make the playoffs.
Red Zone Plays Per Game - While they were below the league average in plays per game, the Dallas Cowboys ranked seventh in red zone plays per game at 9.1.
As a caveat, I want to mention that doesn't account for their red zone effectiveness, just how many plays they ran in the red zone. That being said, there is a bit of a correlation between success and playing in the red zone.
Tied with the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles and the New Orleans Saints. The New England Patriots led the league at 11.9 plays per game, 1.5 plays per game ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Aside from the Cowboys, the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers were the only teams to finish inside the top 10 and not make the playoffs.
Red Zone Attempts - Pro Football Reference had the Dallas Cowboys reaching the red zone 52 times, the ninth best total in the NFL.
Red Zone Scoring Percentage - The Dallas Cowboys scored in the red zone 59.6% of the time. That was good for sixth in the NFL in 2017. So, they got into the red zone a lot and scored nearly two-thirds of the time that they reached the red zone.
Passing Yards Per Attempt - Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys were below the league average finishing 18th at 6.37 yards per attempt.
While not great, and below Dak Prescott's 8 yards per attempt in 2016, the 6.37 was better than playoff teams like the Carolina Panthers and the Buffalo Bills. And with the protection issues we saw with the Dallas Cowboys, it's no wonder the number is as low as it is. Dak had to get rid of the ball quicker than he probably would have liked, or risk getting driven into the turf for the umpteenth time.
Over the first half of the season it was just over seven yards per attempt. In the second half it dropped to 6.52. Not a huge difference, but definitely indicative of him trying to get the ball out quicker to his shallow-depth targets.
Only three teams in the top 10 in passing yards per attempt failed to make the playoffs. The Los Angeles Chargers, Detroit Lions, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Though the Chargers and the Lions both finished with a 9-7 record, the Bucs went 5-11.
So that should tell you, that while it's an important statistic, as it can indicate your ability as an offense to stretch the field, it isn't everything.
Rushing Yards Per Carry - The Dallas Cowboys finished third in the NFL in rushing yards per attempt in 2017, despite missing Ezekiel Elliott for six games and his yards per carry number dropping a full yard per carry from 5.1 in 2016 to 4.1 in 2017.
Prescott's yard per carry increased dramatically from 4.9 yards per carry to 6.3. That's nearly a yard and a half more per carry on average from 2016 to 2017. Not only did Dak run more last season than he did his rookie season, he was better at it as well.
Percentage of Runs Stuffed - The Dallas Cowboys have one of the best running games in the NFL, led by the three All-Pros they have on the offensive line. That offensive line should be better in 2018 than 2017, but in 2017, they had the sixth fewest runs stuffed. A run that got stuffed is one that went for no gain or a loss.
Only 17% of the Dallas Cowboys' runs in 2017 were "stuffed." Out of 480 rush attempts that comes out to be 81.6 carries over the course of the season that went for a loss or no gain. An average of 5.1 per game. With teams knowing that the Dallas Cowboys want to run the ball and loading up the box to play the run, that's a pretty good rate.
The New Orleans Saints led the league in this category at 15%, but ran it 36 fewer times than Dallas.
Yards Before Contact Per Attempt - If there was one thing the Dallas Cowboys struggled with in the run game, it was yards before contact.
They were very good at creating space for Ezekiel Elliott to run in 2016, but the downgrade along the offensive line from Ron Leary and La'el Collins at left guard to Jonathan Cooper, as well as missing Tyron Smith for much of the second half of the season, obviously hurt the running game last season.
They ranked 21st in yards before contact, a full half a yard behind the league leaders, the New Orleans Saints.
The holes for the running game weren't nearly as big in 2017. Don't expect that to repeat itself in 2018.
Pressure Rate Allowed - This was the story of the Dallas Cowboys 2017 season.
Though not nearly as bad as some other teams, the Dallas Cowboys had the 11th highest pressure rate at 36.6%. The Houston Texans were the worst team, allowing a pressure about every other drop back at 46.4%.
While some of it was the play on the left side of the offensive line, we also know that Dallas receivers weren't getting open with the same proclivity, which would force Dak to hold onto the ball longer than he'd like. So, hopefully some scheme restructuring and bringing in receivers who can use quickness and route running to get open, will allow Prescott to get rid of the ball quicker.
Sack Rate Allowed - Though the Dallas Cowboys ranked 11th in pressure rate allowed, Dak Prescott did a good job avoiding sacks as they only allowed a sack on 6.4% of his drop backs, good for ninth in the NFL.
So, they kept the sacks down, but Prescott was still under a tremendous amount of pressure. Connor Williams in at left guard and improved depth at tackle should help if there is another Tyron Smith injury.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
While none of the above numbers in and of themselves stand as a basis for determining an offense's worth, as a whole it's clear the Dallas Cowboys were a good offense in 2017.
We've outlined here several times that the Cowboys' 2017 season was a tale of two halves.
Amazingly, despite how incredibly bad the second half of the season was for the Dallas Cowboys, as the stats above show they were a really good offense. It just shows you how good they were on the offensive side of the ball in the first half to carry them through their insanely poor first half of the season.
Have hope Cowboys Nation, the Dallas Cowboys have a really good offensive team and will be one of the better teams in the league in 2018.
LB Justin Phillips Making a Case to Become a Roster Lock With Cowboys
In Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, the Dallas Cowboys arguably have the best linebacker duo in the entire NFL. They also have some pretty solid backups in Sean Lee and Joe Thomas, but the depth behind those four is completely up in the air. That is excellent news for an undrafted LB like Justin Phillips.
The former Oklahoma State Cowboy LB signed with the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent after the completion of the 2019 NFL Draft. To go from being an Oklahoma State Cowboy to a Dallas Cowboy must've been a dream come true, especially for a kid from Pearland, Texas who rooted for America's Team growing up. The dream probably won't be complete though unless a roster spot comes with it.
Surprisingly, Justin Phillips has put himself into contention to earn one of those coveted roster spots. The way he has played in the first two preseason games has caught the attention of quite a few people, which should make it extremely difficult for the Cowboys coaching staff when it comes to making roster cut decisions. Dallas Cowboys Staff Writer and former Scout Bryan Broaddus agrees…
"Justin Phillips is going to make it hard on this staff to put him on the street. Not only is his finish impressive, but the awareness he plays with in pass coverage is impressive. There is no way I thought he had a chance for that interception, especially with this initial step into the line, but his ability to turn and run to a spot saved him."
Here is the play/interception Broaddus is referring to:
The Dallas Cowboys have typically only carried six linebackers on their 53-man roster these past few years. With four spots already spoken for, Justin Phillips is doing his damnedest to lock down one of those final two up for grabs. That, of course, is easier said than done.
Phillips is likely competing with Justin March-Lillard, who led the team in tackles against the Los Angeles Rams last week and fellow undrafted rookie LB Luke Gifford. Gifford, of course, missed the game against the Rams with an ankle injury he sustained in Week 1 of the preseason against the 49ers. It was actually that injury that resulted in more playing time for Justin Phillips.
If you're doing the math here, that's three linebackers competing for two roster spots. March-Lillard probably has the upper hand right now over the two rookies, but I wouldn't say he's secured a job just yet. That leaves the door open for No. 44 (Phillips) and No. 57 (Gifford).
As much as I like Luke Gifford, and I do, I think the stars could be aligning for Justin Phillips to make it through roster cuts. He's playing really well right now, while all Gifford can do is watch from the sideline until he can get back on the field. Regardless though, it's a position battle worth keeping an eye on.
Do you think LB Justin Phillips has done enough to secure a roster spot?
How Kris Richard May Help CB Michael Jackson Make Cowboys Roster
Cornerback Michael Jackson, one of the Dallas Cowboys' 5th-round picks in the 2019 NFL Draft, has not been standing out so far in training camp or preseason. But despite the slow start, the influence of Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard could help keep Jackson on the 53-man roster this year.
While no team likes parting with their drafted rookies, it certainly happens. That's especially true for Day 3 players, even 5th rounders, and particularly when a team is as deep with talent right now as the 2019 Cowboys.
The cornerback position is one of Dallas' most loaded. They go four-deep with starting talent in Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis, which leaves just one or two roster spots for the remaining prospects.
Michael Jackson is in competition with veteran C.J. Goodwin and the intriguing Donovan Olumba. Both were with the team last year; Goodwin was a special teams contributor and Olumba was a valuable developmental asset on the practice squad.
So far this preseason, we've seen Goodwin shining on special teams and Olumba making plays at cornerback. Jackson hasn't stood out, unless you count jokes about thin he looks on the field.
In contrast, fellow 5th-round rookie Joe Jackson has been showing up at defensive end. Even if there were no suspension concerns with Robert Quinn and Randy Gregory, Joe Jackson has made himself very difficult to cut.
But despite not having that same momentum or energy around him yet, Michael Jackson may still find his way onto the 53-man roster. And that may have something to do with his position coach.
Since arriving in Dallas during the 2018 offseason, Kris Richard has quickly gained prominence beyond just his official role as the Defensive Backs Coach. He was working as the defensive play-caller last year and is expected to take over fully in 2020, assuming Rod Marinelli retires and Richard doesn't leave for a head coaching opportunity.
When Dallas selected Michael Jackson in the last draft, Jackson became the first cornerback or safety drafted by the Cowboys since Richard arrived. Given that it happened this year, with Richard's influence clearly high on the defense, one would assume that Kris had a big say in the decision to draft Jackson.
No, Richard certainly can't veto any decision made by the Joneses, Will McClay, Jason Garrett, or even Marinelli when it comes to roster management. But if he has any bias towards Jackson as his first draft pick in Dallas, Kris may fight for the rookie more than someone else.
We're all human; agendas come into play. Kris Richard may be more passionate about seeing Michael Jackson succeeding for a variety of reasons. He may pound the table for the team to keep Jackson louder than anyone else in the room.
That doesn't necessarily mean keeping Jackson over some other cornerback, either. The argument could be to go long at CB at the expense of another position; maybe only keeing two quarterbacks or eight offensive linemen to free up a roster spot.
This is purely speculative, of course. For all we know, Richard could be the first one who loses faith and votes to let Jackson go.
But given the situation and all factors involved, it's more likely that Kris Richard will be invested in seeing Michael Jackson succeed and sticking with the Cowboys in 2019. Hopefully, it's in the best interest of the team overall.
DL Kerry Hyder Impressive In Cowboys Week 2 Preseason Win
Kerry Hyder joined the Cowboys this offseason on a one year deal, and while the four-year NFL veteran has put up some solid tape in his time around the league, it was hard to project just what he could bring to the Cowboys defense.
Listed at 6'2" 270 pounds, Hyder is a bit of a tweener on the defensive line. Though the answer to "will he play tackle or end" seems to be "both" to this point in the preseason.
As he fights for his life on this deep defensive line, Kerry Hyder had himself a day in the Cowboys 14-10 victory over the Rams last weekend.
Hyder made an excellent play defending a screen pass in the first quarter, reading the play perfectly and reacting quickly to running back Darrell Henderson coming out of the backfield. Hyder also created some pressure on the quarterback, and finished with 3 combined tackles in very limited playing time.
Hyder's versatility is working well for him as he looks to make the final roster. Like a Tyrone Crawford type player, Hyder will be able to move inside and out depending on the situation. This allows the Cowboys to be flexible in how they structure their depth chart on defense, and in how they decide to rush the passer on third down.
A pass rushing package involving Robert Quinn and DeMarcus Lawrence on the edge with the combination of Hyder and Maliek Collins on the inside could turn out to be a very dangerous one for opposing offenses to deal with.
Rod Marinelli spoke to this versatility a couple of months ago, showing just how much he values what Kerry Hyder can bring to this team.
"Maybe you adjust him sometime, once in a while – in a one-on-one pass rush situation, stick him over a guard and start to get a feel for it.” - Rod Marinelli
Earlier this offseason, I wrote that Kerry Hyder could end up being Rod Marinelli's next great under-the-radar find on the defensive line. And if he continues to play with the hustle and awareness that he had on Saturday, he's going to make Rod look very smart in his evaluation.
Kerry Hyder is making it very difficult for the front office to let him go. And, at the end of the preseason, I do expect Kerry Hyder to find himself on the Cowboys' active roster. Especially considering how Mike White is playing at quarterback, and how his release could open up an extra spot at a different position group.
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