Dissecting the Dallas Cowboys is America’s pastime, and at this point it feels a little silly. They are, after all, 6-4 and in first place in the NFC East. This time last year, they were 5-5 and went on to win the division. Since the start of the 2016 season, only four teams have won more games than the Cowboys. You could make a convincing case that we should get off their backs.
But something about this season’s version feels weird, right? Ezekiel Elliott doesn’t look dominant. Dak Prescott does, which is obviously helpful, but the defense is showing cracks, too. Hasn’t been consistent, at least. The Cowboys’ success in recent years has been built on the run game, the offensive line and a defense that pressures the quarterback. This season, it’s all running through Prescott, who ranks first in the NFL in passing yards per game (322.1) and yards per attempt (8.8) and second in Total QBR (77.8).
So because I’m a reporter and my job is to ask questions, I asked some. Talked to a few Cowboys people earlier this week and more or less asked them, “Is Zeke all right?” Elliott, who led the NFL in rushing yards per game in each of his first three seasons, ranks eighth in that category in 2019. His yards-per-carry average of 4.3 is down from 4.7 in 2018. And he’s on pace for 1,333 rushing yards, which would be his lowest total in a full NFL season.
The answers I got were all pretty much the same: Yes, they believe Elliott is fine but that opposing defenses are selling out to stop him and daring Prescott and the passing game to beat them. Which they are, and the team’s thought is that eventually defenses will adjust and open things up for Elliott again.
Makes sense, but because I’m a reporter and not a stenographer, I didn’t want to just take the team at its word. I was talking to my colleague Marcus Spears on Tuesday, and he thinks part of the Cowboys’ problem is that the defense is on the field too much and is getting a little bit exposed. Marcus is a smart man, and the numbers back him up. Dallas’ average time of possession per game this year is 29 minutes, 22 seconds, which ranks 20th in the NFL and is, as you can figure out with simple subtraction, less than half of an NFL game. The Cowboys’ opponents have had the ball more than the Cowboys have.
This is not the Cowboy way. Over the three years prior to this one — Elliott’s first three years in the league, during which the team went 32-16 — Dallas averaged a time of possession of 31:13 per game, which ranked sixth in the NFL. It hasn’t finished under 30:00 for a full season since 2013.
But what’s weird is that the 2019 Cowboys are averaging three more offensive plays per game than they did in 2016-18. So the offense is running more plays … but is on the field less.
I wanted to explore two key questions, one about the offense in general and one about Elliott specifically. ESPN Stats & Information and NFL Next Gen Stats were an immeasurable help:
Are the Cowboys playing too fast?
That they are playing faster than they used to play is not in dispute. The 2019 Cowboys average 26.6 seconds between plays, which is calculated from the start of the play clock until the snap. That’s the fifth-fastest rate in the NFL. In 2016-18, they averaged 29.6 seconds between plays, which was the third-slowest. Former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan was often criticized for running a plodding offense, and the numbers show that he absolutely did. New offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has picked up the pace. But if you’re running plays three seconds faster and running only three more plays per game, it’s easy to see how the time of possession edge gets wiped out.
This is obviously working for the offense. Dallas leads the NFL in yards per game (444.6) and yards per play (6.7). But the time-of-possession issue shows up. The Cowboys have averaged 31:19 time of possession in their six wins and just 26:27 in their four losses. Since the start of the 2016 season, they are 29-7 in games in which they have the ball longer than their opponent does, and they’re 10-15 in games in which they don’t.
This is intuitive, and not unique to Dallas — the longer a team’s defense is on the field, the more likely it is to lose, because it can’t score if it doesn’t have the ball. But the fact that the Cowboys have seen such a drop in a category that’s been such a big part of their DNA gives some weight to the theory that the offense, in spite of Prescott’s brilliance, isn’t exactly what they want or need it to be. Which leads to the next question.
Is Elliott the victim of extra defensive attention, or is he actually not playing well?
If the Cowboys believe the reason Elliott’s numbers are down is that he’s running against stacked boxes … well, we have the ability here to tell them whether they are correct.
They are not.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats data, Elliott is running against loaded boxes (meaning the defense has more defenders in the box than the offense has blockers) just about as frequently as he did last season. A little bit less often, in fact. This season, 38.1% of Elliott’s rushes are against loaded boxes, whereas that number was 38.5% in 2018. He’s also running a bit better against them (4.4 yards per rush) than he did last season (4.2). The league average for backs in that category is 3.8 yards per rush.
He is not doing as well, however, when his offense has the numerical blocking advantage. Against non-loaded boxes this season, Elliott is averaging 4.2 yards per carry, which is 0.2 less than the league average, 0.2 less than he runs against loaded boxes and 0.8 less than his average in those situations in 2018.
Which is all weird, right? How is Elliott’s yards-per-carry average better when the opponent commits more defenders to him than when it doesn’t? It’s an odd statistical anomaly, with a couple of possible explanations. One is that Elliott just isn’t as explosive a runner as he was in his first three seasons, which could be because he’s getting older, because he has some nagging physical issue we don’t know about, because he skipped camp — any number of possible reasons, all speculative.
But there’s evidence to dispute that, too. Elliott is averaging a career-high 5.4 yards per carry when the Cowboys have the lead, which is a huge part of his job. And he’s converting a career-high 71% of his third-down rushes into first downs. So he has been Zeke-level excellent in certain crucial situations.
Ryan Clark explains that Dak Prescott is showing every week that he should be included in MVP conversations and that he deserves the contract he’s asking for.
It’s also possible his yards per carry is down because he’s running in the red zone more than usual. Elliott already has logged a career-high 43 red zone carries this season. In general, yards-per-carry numbers go way down in the red zone, for everyone, because there’s less room to run and a cap on how far you can go even on a breakaway run. An average NFL run play in the red zone this season has gained 2.7 yards, compared to 4.6 outside of the red zone. So if Elliott is getting an unprecedented number of red zone carries, it could be hurting his overall average. Outside of the red zone this season, he’s averaging 4.7 yards per carry, down only slightly from his career average of 4.9.
One final possible explanation for Elliott’s struggles shows up in the fourth quarter of games, where he’s averaging a career-low 3.4 yards per carry. But there’s some evidence that his vaunted offensive line is partly to blame for that. His 1.4 average yards per carry before first contact in the fourth quarter is his lowest of any quarter, and his 2.04 average yards per carry after first contact in the fourth quarter is his highest of any quarter. If he’s not wearing down as the game goes along, maybe his offensive line, which has battled injuries for most of the season, is.
So what do we make of all of this?
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The Cowboys are playing faster than usual, which has resulted in eye-popping numbers for Prescott and the offense as a whole but also has led to extra exposure for their defense as a result of reduced time of possession. And for the Cowboys, reduced time of possession increases the likelihood of losing. So while they might expect opponents to start focusing more on stopping their passing game, opponents probably shouldn’t take the bait.
Prescott has reached the point where it’s a pick-your-poison situation for opposing defenses. But it should be easy to decide which poison to pick. If you don’t stop Elliott, you can’t get the ball. If you don’t stop Prescott, you might still give up points, but you’ll get more chances to score points of your own.
A few other things I found interesting around the NFL this week:
Chark is honest about his second-year rise
I covered the Colts-Jaguars game last weekend and had a chance to speak with Jacksonville receiver DJ Chark, who’s having a breakout season with 51 catches for 796 yards and is tied for the league lead with eight touchdown receptions. I asked him what he thought was behind his second-year breakout and he surprised me with his honesty when he said he was taking his job more seriously this season.
“Your rookie year, you can take some shortcuts, going home early instead of staying to watch film, that kind of thing,” Chark told me. “So it’s more attention to detail, I would say. Everyone tells you to be a professional when you get here. Everybody tells you to take notes in meetings. But just being honest, halfway through camp, those notebooks aren’t open anymore.”
Mike Clay expresses confidence in DJ Chark’s fantasy value with Nick Foles back at quarterback for the Jaguars.
This season, Chark said, is all about the notebook. He has developed a habit of staying after practice and watching film of himself with a notebook open and pen in hand so he can write down what he sees.
“Bad routes. Was my pad level right? How am I coming out of my blocks? If it’s a drop, why did I drop it? That kind of thing,” Chark said. “Just creating a habit. I’m on my second notebook now.”
How Garrett’s suspension affects his contract
I don’t expect Browns defensive end Myles Garrett’s suspension to last too deep into next season. But if, hypothetically, the NFL suspended him for the first 11 games of 2020 (along with the final six games of this season, which it already has), it could have massive contract implications.
The first overall pick in the 2017 draft, Garrett is scheduled to make about $4.6 million in 2020, the fourth year of his rookie contract. The Browns would hold a fifth-year option for 2021, likely for something in the neighborhood of $15 million. But if Garrett doesn’t play at least six games in 2020, it wouldn’t count as an accrued season, and his contract would toll, meaning the fifth-year option would be pushed back to 2022.
It’s also worth noting that Garrett’s rookie contract structure itself is costing him money. Rookie contracts are “slotted,” which means the overall value, the signing bonus and the year-by-year payouts on draft picks’ deals are predetermined. But the structure is not, and it matters in a big way to Garrett.
Garrett did his deal with a basic contract structure. He got a $20.258 million signing bonus and salaries of $465,000 in 2017, $1.847 million in 2018, $3.230 million in 2019 and $4.621 million in 2020. He’s suspended without pay for six games of this season, and because players are paid in 17 weekly installments, that means he’s missing six-seventeenths of his 2019 salary as a result of his suspension. That comes out to $1.14 million in lost pay.
Which is why many high draft picks do a different structure when they sign their contracts. The 2018 first overall pick, Baker Mayfield, and the 2019 first overall pick, Kyler Murray, both had their deals structured with roster bonuses in each season as opposed to taking all the money as salary, like Garrett did.
The difference? Well, Mayfield’s third-year payout (in 2020) will be $3,451,180, which is slightly higher than Garrett’s third-year payout of $3.23 million because the league adjusts these numbers up slightly every year to account for inflation. But Mayfield’s deal pays only $660,000 of that in salary and the rest ($2,791,180) as a roster bonus. He gets the same amount of money, just on a different schedule. Murray, same thing. In his third season, in 2021, he’ll make $675,000 in salary and $3,016,240 in roster bonus.
The reason this matters is because fines are taken out of the salary, not out of bonuses. So if, hypothetically, Mayfield were to be suspended for six games of his third season without pay, it would cost him only six-seventeenths of $660,000, or a total of $232,941.18. If Murray were to be suspended for six games of his third season, it would cost him $238,235.29. A lot less than Garrett is losing. Remember this the next time you’re wondering why the draft picks don’t all just sign right away. There is still stuff to negotiate.
Don’t count out the Vikings in the NFC North
The Vikings’ 20-point, second-half comeback against the Broncos on Sunday was massive for a team trying to hang in very competitive NFC North division and NFC wild-card races. Offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski made a crucial change after halftime, putting Kirk Cousins in the two-minute offense for basically the whole second half and scoring 27 points. Makes you wonder why the Vikings didn’t do that in the first half, but at least they figured it out before it was too late.
The Vikings (8-3) are missing injured wide receiver Adam Thielen, thin at receiver overall, and they believe defenses are rolling coverage to Stefon Diggs and it’s hurting their ability to do everything they want to do. But they’re hopeful that Thielen can return after this week’s bye, and with Cousins playing as well as he has since signing there, Minnesota believes it has a chance to run down the Packers and maybe even snag a first-round bye.
How the Dolphins’ patience could win out
The Tua Tagovailoa injury, and the chance he drops in the 2020 NFL draft as a result, got me thinking.
For all the talk about how the Dolphins were supposedly tanking to get the No. 1 pick so they could draft Tagovailoa (which they weren’t, as we’ve said many times), imagine if they ended up getting him with the first-round pick they got from the Steelers in the Minkah Fitzpatrick trade or the one they got from the Houston Texans in the Laremy Tunsil trade?
The ESPN Football Power Index projects Miami to have pick Nos. 3, 17 and 24 next April.
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