A true cowboy knows some horses aren’t meant to be tamed.
Dallas found that out the hard way when they were bucked by the Colts 23-0 on Sunday, snapping a five-game Cowboys win streak with Dallas’s first scoreless game in 15 years. On the surface, the goose egg seems like an aberration for the Cowboys, whose offense has been revitalized since acquiring Amari Cooper from Oakland before the trade deadline. But the loss is a reflection that Cooper can’t cover up the myriad flaws that have remained with Dallas all season.
Quarterback Dak Prescott finished with 24 completions on 39 attempts for 206 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception (though it came long after the game was sealed). It’s the 14th time in 15 games that Prescott has had fewer than 290 passing yards this season, and his 240.8 passing yards per game entering this week was 22nd in the league entering Week 15. In a season dominated by passing, Prescott has been unable to get anything going on offense consistently, even with Cooper in the lineup. (Dallas had just nine points through the first three quarters against Philadelphia last week.) While Prescott didn’t turn the ball over until late on Sunday, his lack of pocket awareness has been an issue all season, which is one of the reasons he entered this week with a league-leading 12 fumbles. (Twelve!) Prescott is almost at the end of his third season, and has perhaps the worst pocket awareness of any non-rookie starter in football without any of the playmaking upside to offset his deficiencies.
It’s not entirely fair to put the offensive struggles solely on Prescott. With Prescott under siege, Cooper finally pulled the disappearing act he became infamous for in Oakland and finished with just four receptions on seven targets for 32 yards. No Cowboy finished with more than 45 receiving yards. Dallas’s offensive line has gone from elite to weak this year. That was exacerbated on Sunday without guard Zack Martin on Sunday (his first missed start of his career, college or pro) and with a less-than-100-percent tackle, Tyron Smith (who wore a knee brace on his elbow). Indy’s average pass defense sacked Prescott three times and controlled the game. Prescott has now been sacked 51 times on the year, one behind Deshaun Watson for the most in the league and already 19 more than his career high last year.
Even Dallas’s defense, which shut down the Saints just two weeks ago, failed to sack quarterback Andrew Luck and was trampled on the ground by Marlon Mack, who finished with 139 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries, a blemish on the fourth-ranked run defense by DVOA. The team doesn’t have a reliable pass-rush option opposite Demarcus Lawrence, which can render the outstanding play of linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith moot. While the Cowboys’ defense is clearly good enough to keep them in any contest, it’s not good enough to win games outright.
There’s a certain irony to Dallas’s late-season renaissance. Even with the loss, the Cowboys have a 95 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 94 percent chance of winning the NFC East. Yet the team has gotten there by being the biggest guppy of their division—the Giants were also shut out on Sunday, and Washington is on its third quarterback—and seems ripe to be eaten by a bigger fish in the playoffs. Despite this, owner Jerry Jones has already said he’ll extend quarterback Dak Prescott, whose contract is up after next season, and a division title would likely extend head coach Jason Garrett’s tenure, too. The Cooper trade seemed like it changed Dallas’s fortunes, but in truth it may have provided just enough of a boost—which coincided with a collapses in Philadelphia and Washington—to cover for the ineptitudes of Garrett and Prescott.
Perhaps a playoff run in January will prove the Jones family right and the Cooper trade will mark a new chapter in Cowboys history. But as of now, Dallas still looks like the same team it was in October. And if the Cowboys re-up their quarterback-coach combo this offseason, they are likely going to continue to get the same results.