Outside of (arguably) the 49ers, no offense was more hampered by significant injuries in 2020 than the Dallas Cowboys. Dak Prescott suffered a season-ending injury in Week 5, ending a productive opening to the season. But the bigger reason the Cowboys finished ranked 21st on offense was the complete deterioration of their once-elite offensive line. La’el Collins didn’t play a snap and Tyron Smith barely saw the field. Zach Martin also struggled with injury prior to being shut down later in the season.
Dak is an above-average NFL quarterback, but I have yet to see him elevate the offense the way the very best NFL quarterbacks can. He fits within the category of passers who are dependent on the quality of their situation. In other words, Dak is one of the better quarterbacks in the league provided he has time and weapons. He is excellent at capitalizing on soft coverage or defensive mistakes and getting the ball to his playmakers when they get open. But even if he falls short of the top tier of quarterbacks, the downgrade to Ben DiNucci, Andy Dalton, and Garrett Gilbert was significant.
Dak Prescott v. Backup QBs
The Cowboys performed firmly above average on offense with Dak and firmly below average without him. But behind the numbers, there was not much to feel good about in 2020 even before Dak got hurt. Fantasy analysts and box score scouts tout his massive 371.2 passing yards passing per game in those five games. But nearly half of those yards games when the Cowboys were down by 2 scores or more. They didn’t play well early in games and found themselves playing catch-up and putting up a lot of stats in garbage time. The only reason they didn’t open the season 0-4 was because Atlanta’s special teams unit refused to jump on an onside kick.
The problem on offense was that the entire system was failing without their offensive line. Elliott averaged a career-low 4.0 yards per carry and even Pollard’s 4.3 yards per carry were inflated by 2 big runs that accounted for 19% of his rushing yards on the season. Outside of those two breakaway runs, Pollard averaged 3.56 yards per carry.
Both running backs struggled to find room and they were too predictable in the running game. Dak had benefitted from clean pockets and a strong run game throughout his career, but in 2020 opposing defenses did not need to overcommit to stopping the run and found it much easier to get pressure. Dak was going to struggle regardless, and the backups even more so.
But with extremely talented receiving weapons in Lamb, Cooper, and Gallup, the Cowboys could make a splash play any time the quarterback was able to get the ball out. They had 11 40+ yard passing plays on the season, which tied for 6th highest in the NFL. They actually performed relatively well against teams that were consistently stout on defense, because an offense reliant on big plays cannot take advantage of defensive weaknesses but can still sneak in a couple of big plays against anyone. So they posted a solid Adjusted Rating (which measures relative performance) against defensive stalwarts PIT (+0.58) and LAR (+1.43).
Conversely, the Cowboys struggled against defenses that were vulnerable to being overpowered by a consistent offense. Defenses that played a “bend but don’t break” style, like the Giants, would get crushed by a team like Baltimore who just wanted to win the offensive line battle and run it down your throat. But Dallas did not have the basic offensive competency to take advantage because they could not consistently grind out first downs, and instead relied on big plays.
Heading into 2021, we know the receivers are strong. We know that the running backs will be solid if they spell Zeke with Pollard frequently enough. And we know that Dak can hold it all together when the offense is clicking. The big question is whether the returning linemen will play to their potential coming off injury and gel with the rest of the line from the get-go. If they cannot achieve their prior level of success, or struggle with injury again, the Cowboys offense will only be average or slightly above-average, even with all the weapons. But if they get that strong protection working in the passing and running game, the offense can be one of the best in the NFL.
The Cowboys defense was even worse than the offense. They dealt with some injuries as well but they never performed well even when healthy in 2020, finishing ranked 29th. Their primary problem was that they just could not disrupt any offenses from doing what they wanted to do. Teams that just wanted to dink and dunk down the field or run the ball had their way with Dallas, who offered very little resistance.
This chart tracks the Cowboys’ defensive Adjusted Rating in games by each opponent’s completed air yards on the season. The Cowboys were inconsistent against aggressive passing teams because these teams relied on airing the ball out, which is going to lead to fairly up-and-down results against any defense by nature. But they were consistently bad against every team at the bottom of the league in air yards. WAS relied on short, high-percentage throws and couldn’t threaten deep, but just walked up and down the field against the Cowboys (-1.36 avg. Adjusted Rating). Similarly, BAL (-0.69) and LAR (-1.21) implemented conservative run-first offenses that just beat Dallas at the line and didn’t let up.
As a result, the teams that played offense with little room for error performed relatively well against the Cowboys, because they did not force a lot of errors. They will need to improve at disrupting offenses, either by strengthening the defensive line or implementing effective blitzes. There is some hype for defensive line improvement in 2021, and they did show some small improvement towards the end of the year.
This chart tracks the Cowboys’ defensive Adjusted Rating by game in 2020. They played below their season average in 5 of their first 7 games and above their season average in 5 of their last 9 games, so there is some room for hope.
But the Cowboys also got exceedingly lucky recovering fumbles in 2020. They recovered 13 fumbles, second only to Carolina. Recovered fumbles are not a “sticky” or predictive stat category unless they align with pressure and sacks, but the Cowboys were not exceptionally good at getting pressure or sacks. And these fumbles had a huge impact on the outcome in several of their games. They earned an 8-point win against San Francisco on the strength of a 4-0 turnover margin, including 2 recovered fumbles, and a kick return touchdown. They also buried the Bengals by recovering 3 first-half fumbles.
The Cowboys have a lot of room for improvement on defense in 2021, but also room for regression. Without strengthening the defensive line or changing the scheme, I see little reason to anticipate a strong bounce-back for this unit.
Putting it All Together
- Overall, the Cowboys are fairly rated. As always seems to be the case with Dallas, some fans and analysts are too high on them based on what I’ve seen on the field. But there are also fans and analysts writing them off completely, which would be a major mistake if their offensive line plays well and is healthy.
- Evaluate the offensive line performance early in the season and project out the offensive performance from there, as they are particularly susceptible to poor performance with bad line play.
- Expect the Cowboys offense to perform better in looser, shoot-out type games than in tight matchups where they need to grind out tough yards.
- Expect the Cowboys offense to outperform against teams who are vulnerable to big plays.
- Expect the Cowboys defense to struggle against teams that can successfully grind out first downs through running well or completing short, high-percentage passes.
- Expect some defensive turnover regression.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- CeeDee Lamb provides the highest upside as a receiver in this offense. He put together a very strong rookie year without a true offseason and poor quarterback play. Elite receivers often make a second-year leap. He flashed effective speed and route running and should be heavily targeted in 2021. Cooper is a fine option as well but I think we’ve seen his best years, so he provides a safer floor but a lower ceiling. If the offensive line performs well, Gallup becomes an intriguing post-hype sleeper in standard leagues in particular. There should be plenty of passes to go around.
- Opinions on Elliott are fairly split. I personally think his down year can be attributed to a poor situation and that he is young enough to return to form. Despite getting a lot of hype for a few explosive plays, Pollard didn’t actually outperform Elliott in 2020. I expect them to use Pollard more liberally than in Elliott’s best years, but I’m comfortable with Elliott as my RB1 if the other top options are taken.
- Dak Prescott makes a good quarterback option if you can snag him in the middle rounds of drafts because he will likely produce one way or another (even if it’s in garbage time). But he is being over-drafted right now based on a misleading stat line in a small sample size in 2020. I’d rather take a RB/WR/TE and get an equally exciting quarterback later.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
In Week 12, Dallas hosted the Washington Football Team as 3-point favorites. In Week 7 Washington had crushed Dallas, 25-3, and now they had Alex Smith at quarterback. Smith was adept at keeping drives alive with short throws and getting the ball to his playmakers. I did not see how the Cowboys defense was going to be able to disrupt them enough to get stops. On the other side, Andy Dalton had already been crushed once by Washington’s defensive line, which was simply stronger than Dallas’ offensive line. I didn’t give him much of a chance to keep up with Washington, so I bet WAS+3. Sure enough, Washington crushed Dallas again, 41-16.