Dallas Cowboys 2021 Team Study

Part 5 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 4 here: Miami Dolphins. Part 6 available now: Philadelphia Eagles.


Eff. Rating Adj. Rating Rank
5.39 +0.34 8th

Offensive Eff. Rating (blue) v. opponent average allowed (grey).

Pass EPA Rush EPA Adj. Pass Rate
6th 14th 8th

The Cowboys had talent all over the field on offense and displayed a willingness to adapt their weekly game plan to the defense they were facing. But this amoeba-like approach ended up costing them in the biggest spots because they simply didn't have a defined identity on offense and they didn't prioritize getting the ball to their most explosive playmakers when all the chips were on the table.

They made a splash early in the season with six impressive performances in their first six games. They did everything well. They ran the ball both inside and outside with two good backs behind a strong offensive line, and got the ball to their many playmakers in the passing game. With time in the pocket, Dak Prescott looked in sync with his receivers and they looked like a well-oiled machine.

Kellen Moore's willingness to tailor game plans to an opponent's weaknesses was never more apparent than in their first two games. Against Tampa Bay in Week 1, a notoriously strong run defense, they ran the ball on only 23.4% of their offensive snaps. They knew they could not afford to waste plays running into the Bucs’ defensive line so they didn’t try to. They also ran quick-developing routes and had Prescott target his hot reads to offset the pressure. They almost pulled off the upset thanks to a strong offensive showing.

The very next week they faced the Chargers, who finished 31st in rushing EPA/play allowed on defense. Understanding this weakness, the Cowboys ran the ball on 51.7% of their offensive snaps, racking up 198 yards on 6.4 yards per carry. They combined for a staggering 55 first downs in these first two games as they moved the ball up and down the field. It demonstrated their flexibility and adaptability and teased a high upside.

But their momentum faltered in the middle part of the season and they never fully recovered. Dak missed Week 7 against the Vikings with a calf injury. Offensive linemen and skill players were in and out of the lineup with injury and Covid issues. They had two really impressive performances down the stretch, but they came against a Washington team missing several key defenders and an Eagles team that had nothing to play for in Week 18. Chart A shows how the Cowboys’ offense performed over the course of the season if you take out those two games.   

Chart A

Chart A: Adjusted Eff. Rating by game.

Analysts have differed on what to make of Dak Prescott since he entered the league. I think this season was a perfect demonstration of who Dak is. When things are going right, the offensive line is winning, and his top-notch receivers are healthy, he can put up stats with the best of them. But I don’t think he’s capable of elevating his team when things go poorly. He has enjoyed consistently good circumstances on offense during his career and so he is probably slightly overrated as a player. But he’s not a bad quarterback and he can win a Super Bowl if the team around him plays well enough.

The problem is that they had no excuses this year. Despite some of the in-season injuries they were healthy in the playoffs and they didn’t get the job done. They also had a strong defense but it was their offense that faltered against the 49ers. Despite the early promise of effective game plans from Kellen Moore, they stubbornly ignored their most talented players in big spots. Elliott had nearly twice as many carries as Pollard despite a vastly inferior yards per carry average (4.2 to 5.5). And with the season on the line in the playoffs, they went to Cedric Wilson instead of CeeDee Lamb or Amari Cooper. It felt like they got too cute looking to take what the defense gave them, instead of imposing their will.

When I do these Team Studies, I look at a team’s performance against opponents ranked by a wide variety of metrics to identify trends. Strangely, the Cowboys offense had no trends. There were no defensive archetypes that presented unique challenges or opportunities that the Cowboys struggled with or excelled against. I think this shows their adaptability but also their lack of identity. It cuts both ways.

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