Watching the Cowboys offense in 2018 is a confounding experience. For years, Dallas was defined by a few key players. But Sunday against the Seahawks, the absence of the team’s once-foundational pieces was impossible to ignore. On every run that was snuffed out in the backfield, there seemed to be a Travis Frederick–size hole in the middle of the offense. As Seattle cornerback Bradley McDougald smothered tight end Geoff Swaim on play after play, images of Jason Witten’s face came to mind while Sarah McLachlan played in the background. And each time a Cowboys receiver failed to fight off a defensive back on a contested catch, the Dez Bryant era got a little smaller in the rearview mirror.
Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott may still be around, but the vaunted 2016 Cowboys offense couldn’t feel farther away. During the past two years, this unit has wandered into Bizarro World: The aspects of the team that seemed set in stone have changed, and the parts that needed changing have stayed the same. Frederick is out indefinitely after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, and in his absence, the days of Dallas’s offensive line dominance seem to be over. Though the Cowboys drafted franchise cornerstones Prescott and Elliott two years ago, they’ve held onto regressive concepts that are only fit for an outdated version of the league. Other teams have embraced modern ideas like altering receiver alignments, incorporating various motions, and increasing play-action, but this offense has completely stagnated. All of that has left “America’s Team” with no discernible identity. And it begs the question of what, exactly, the Dallas Cowboys mean in 2018.
The lack of ingenuity in the Cowboys’ current playbook is stupefying. Against Seattle, Prescott threw 34 passes. A wide receiver went in motion on just three of those plays (two of which were completions to Cole Beasley, and at 18 and 16 yards respectively, they were the Cowboys’ longest passes of the game). Dallas used a receiver stack once—sort of. Near the goal line, Swaim lined up somewhat near a receiver and half-heartedly tried to clear out the defensive back. The Seahawks thwarted that immediately.
A horrifying percentage of the Cowboys’ pass plays look like a variation of the same route combination. Three or four receivers, all of whom start in isolation on the outside, run to certain points downfield and turn around. That’s it. Sometimes their depths are staggered. Sometimes they’re not. There are no mesh designs. There are no rub routes. There are no bunch concepts. Occasionally, receivers will cross paths or run complementary routes, but just as often, they won’t. The Cowboys’ staff has done next to nothing to scheme their pass catchers open, so they’re left trying to create separation on their own—and considering the overall lack of receiving talent on this roster, that’s a challenge, even against a decimated secondary like Seattle’s.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and head coach Jason Garrett have failed to keep pace with the rest of the league creatively, but what’s even stranger is their refusal to incorporate the concepts that allowed Prescott to take the league by storm his rookie year. On 40 dropbacks against Seattle (Prescott was sacked five times against a mediocre Seahawks front, but we’ll get to that later), Dallas used play-action on five passes. Five. For the season, Prescott has used play-action on 22.1 percent of his dropbacks, which ranks 19th among qualified quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. That rate hasn’t fallen off much since 2016—when he was at 24.2 percent—but what’s changed is the prevalence of play-action throughout the league. Two years ago, Dak’s percentage ranked fourth in the NFL. Through three games this season, that same rate would rank 14th. No QB averaged a play-action rate greater than 25 percent in 2016; 11 are topping that mark this season, including four players who use it on more than 30 percent of dropbacks. Rams QB Jared Goff, who plays in arguably the most innovative offense in football, leads the league at 36.8 percent. As teams have adopted this approach and made it their own, the play that was once the focal point of the Cowboys offense is now just another example of how far Garrett’s team has fallen behind.
Other mainstays of recent Dallas offenses have also eroded. Frederick was the lynchpin of the Cowboys’ mindlessly efficient running game. His ability to reach nose tackles without any help allowed guards to get to the second level immediately after the snap. Replacing Frederick with Joe Looney not only downgrades the center position, it also has the ripple effect of making each interior lineman’s job more difficult. Elliott has still averaged 5.7 yards per carry through three games this season, but against the league’s best defenses, the Cowboys won’t run the ball at will like they have in years past.
The offensive line’s most significant issue this season, though, has been pass protection. The main culprit thus far is rookie left guard Connor Williams, who has struggled one-on-one with defensive tackles like Carolina’s Kawann Short and Seattle’s Jarran Reed. Defensive coordinators have also used his inexperience to their advantage and bombarded him with various twist and line stunts.
But early missteps are standard for any rookie. What’s been far more distressing is the regression of this unit’s best player, and the lack of development from its talented young right tackle. Tyron Smith no longer looks like the best left tackle in football as he did in his heyday. Whether his issues are due to lingering back problems or a change in technique under first-year position coach Paul Alexander (who was fired by the Bengals this offseason after a disastrous couple of seasons by Cincinnati’s offensive line), Smith hasn’t been stonewalling pass rushers like he has in years past. On the other side, La’el Collins still hasn’t fully tapped into his seemingly limitless potential. Dallas rewarded Collins last summer with an early contract extension after the promise he showed in his first two seasons, but inconsistencies continue to plague him in Year 4.
Two seasons ago, even with Bryant and Witten still hauling in touchdowns, it seemed like the offensive line’s stability, the ground game’s efficiency, and Prescott’s play-action ability would comprise this team’s offensive identity for years to come. Dallas rolled to a 13-3 record that year, finished fifth in points scored, and Prescott and Elliott looked like the league’s next dominant duo. Now, those elements have all crumbled, and Dallas’s offense has become a plodding mess. Prescott’s contract is set to expire after 2019, and his backslide—from future superstar to average quarterback—has started to raise questions about what he’ll be worth this offseason. Elliott’s production has fallen off since his historic rookie season, and his repeated off-field transgressions and resulting 2017 suspension should make any team reluctant to present him as the face of their franchise. Meanwhile, all around the league young superstars like Patrick Mahomes II and Todd Gurley are ascending, and talented rookie quarterbacks are stepping into starting roles. The most popular team in the NFL hasn’t been less relevant since before Tony Romo’s tenure began.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said on local Dallas radio this week that he’s not panicking, because, “I like our players. I like our coaching staff. ... When you lose a game and come in on Monday, it’s never as bad as it seems.” And maybe for Jones, it isn’t. Dallas has four prime-time games and a nationally televised Thanksgiving matchup remaining on its schedule. The Cowboys will continue to draw huge ratings, and at the end of the season, Jones will take his massive check from the league and probably cackle like Mr. Burns all the way to the bank. But if the Cowboys continue to deploy what might be the league’s most outdated offense with a roster devoid of premium talent, it won’t be long before they cease to matter as a competitive football team.