This week, all week long, we’re taking a negative look at each of the teams in the NFC East, in detail. Batting leadoff, as always, will be the Dallas Cowboys.
To note, we will not be talking about the positives of any of the Eagles’ NFC East rivals, because, well, that’s no fun. This will be 100 percent vitriolic. And yes, we’ll get to the Eagles as well at the end of the series.
The Cowboys’ loss to the 49ers in the wildcard round of the playoffs was one of their more delicious failures in recent memory, and they’ve had their share. It was of course highlighted by one of the dumbest play calls I have ever seen. In case you have forgotten what the end of that game looked like, let’s relive it!
I mean, LOL. Watching that live, as soon as Prescott took off running, my immediate thought (probably like the rest of you) was, “OMG this game is over.”
And somehow, Mike McCarthy and the Cowboys ran this play seemingly unaware that they had to depend on the umpire to make an athletic play to spot the ball in order to get the snap/spike off in time. McCarthy even blamed the official for not spotting it fast enough!
If you go back and watch the play again, the official actually did the Cowboys a HUGE favor. Watch where Prescott begins his slide. He’s at the 26 yard line. That’s where the ball should have been spotted. Instead, the Cowboys spotted it themselves at the 23. The official moved it back a couple feet, but not so much that the entire offense had to move back a few yards and get re-set before the snap. Had they gotten the snap/spike off in time, the Niners would have had a legitimate reason to be furious about the incorrectly spotted ball.
It’s hard to decide what was more ridiculous — the play call itself, or the Cowboys’ pathetic bitching about the officiating of that play in the aftermath. Actually the bitching was probably more dumb than pathetic, because even the most casual fans could easily identify how absurd that call was. I mean, if you don’t want to take responsibility, just say that Antifa made you call that play. At least the owner and half of America would buy that.
I also loved the general fan reaction to that play. As players and officials left the field, bottles and assorted trash rained down onto the field.
Dak Prescott was asked about that fan conduct at the conclusion of the game. At first, when he thought that the projectiles were being aimed at players, he was kinda like, (GASP!) “THAT’S OUTRAGEOUS!!!” When he was told the trash was likely directed at the officials, he was basically like, “Oh well in that case, they deserved it.”
When your head coach is a whiny loser who blames officials after a loss, your players will follow suit.
But also, even if the Cowboys had successfully stopped the clock, what’s the likelihood that they score on the next play? Like three percent? Every fan base does this, by the way. Philly fans act like the Sixers would have (a) beaten the Raptors in OT and then the Bucks in the ECF, and then the Warriors in the finals if Kawhi Leonard hadn’t quadruple-doinked home the elimination game winner. Or in football terms, Philly fans pretend like the Eagles would have repeated as Super Bowl winners if Alshon Jeffery didn’t have a pass slip through his hands and into the hands of Marshon Lattimore.
You know how I know the Cowboys wouldn’t have advanced further in the playoffs if they successfully clocked the football? Because they never do! They haven’t participated in the NFC Championship Game in over a quarter century. Only two NFC teams — the Washington Commanders and the Detroit Lions — have gone longer without appearing in the Conference Championship round. Each of the 13 other teams in the NFC have all made it to the NFC Championship Game at least twice since the Cowboys last have. They’re the chokiest bunch of chokers who ever choked.
Getting back on topic, McCarthy stinks and if Dallas wins a playoff game in 2022, he’ll probably stay. If not, McCarthy is likely a goner, and while Cowboys fans will be happy about that, their NFC Championship Game drought will continue. Maybe Dallas will cough up a couple of first-round draft picks (and more?) to the Saints to hire Sean Payton? Can they afford that? It’s not like the roster is really all that great. Either way, it’s hard to be super excited about Dallas’ current leadership, or what it might cost to land Payton.
2) The wide receivers are no longer a strength
Over the course of the 3.5 years that Amari Cooper was in Dallas, he was easily Prescott’s most productive receiver, racking up 292 catches for 3893 yards and 27 TDs. From 2019 to 2021, only 11 players had more receiving yards than Cooper. It’s an impressive list that includes Cooper Kupp, Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs, Travis Kelce, D.J. Moore, Tyreek Hill, Keenan Allen, Tyler Lockett, Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, and DK Metcalf.
Cooper is now gone after the Cowboys traded him to the Browns for a fifth-round pick and a swap of sixth-round picks. The real benefit to the Cowboys was getting Cooper’s bloated contract off the books, which, OK great, but the bottom line is that when Cooper arrived in Dallas in 2018 he helped take the Cowboys’ offense to the next level. Replacing his production will be hard.
The Cowboys also lost 2021 breakout receiver Cedrick Wilson in free agency to the Dolphins, and WR3 Michael Gallup is a certainty to miss some time at the start of the 2022 season as he continues to recover from a torn ACL. Let’s compare the Cowboys’ wide receivers heading into 2022 with their receivers heading into 2021:
|2021||Amari Cooper||CeeDee Lamb||Michael Gallup||Cedrick Wilson||😱|
|2022||CeeDee Lamb||Michael Gallup||Jalen Tolbert?||James Washington?||😐|
3) The offensive line is no longer a strength
The other major strength that we tend to associate with Dallas is the offensive line. Well, they’re just not that good anymore. Let’s go position-by-position:
• LT Tyron Smith (31): Over the first five seasons of his career, Smith only missed one game. Over the his last six seasons, Smith has missed 32 games. He missed six games in 2021, 14 games in 2020, and three games every season from 2016-2019. Let’s recap his six-year injury history, via DraftSharks.com:
|9/23/16||Back Vertebral Disc Bulge||Hurt in practice, Smith missed 2 games.|
|12/26/16||Knee MCL Sprain Grade 2||Smith missed Week 17 but returned for the Divisional Round on January 15.|
|11/5/17||Inguinal Groin Strain Grade 2||Smith missed the final 6 snaps of Week 9 — plus the next 2 games.|
|12/17/17||Knee Patella Sprain||Smith sprained his knee and missed 1 quarter.|
|12/24/17||Knee Patella Sprain||Smith re-injured his right knee and was placed on IR.|
|10/4/18||Back Lower Lumbar Sprain/Pull Unspecified Grade 1||Smith’s injury was described as back “tightness.” He battled through back pain going forward but never missed a game because of it.|
|11/18/18||Cervical Neck||Smith missed 2 games with a neck injury.|
|9/29/19||Ankle Sprain||Smith sprained his ankle against the Saints, and missed the next two games.|
|9/18/20||Cervical Neck||Smith suffered a neck injury during individual drills ahead of Week 2 game against the Falcons. He was inactive for two games|
|10/8/20||Cervical Neck Fracture||Smith suffered a setback with his neck injury ahead of Week 5 game. He was placed on IR ending his 2020 season.|
|8/2/21||Arm Elbow Infection||Smith was limited at practice in training camp due to elbow tendinitis.|
|10/17/21||Pedal Ankle Sprain/Pull Unspecified Grade 1||Smith suffered an ankle injury during Week 6’s game against the Patriots. He managed to finish the game.|
|10/31/21||Pedal Ankle Sprain Grade 2||Smith suffered an ankle bone spur during Week 8’s game against the Vikings. He missed three games|
|12/12/21||Pedal Ankle Sprain Grade 2||Smith aggravated an ankle injury in Week 14’s game against Washington. He missed two games|
So to recap, that’s his back, neck, elbow, knee, groin, ankle, and God only knows what else never got reported.
In 2022, Smith has already experienced “back tightness.” 😬
Mike McCarthy said Tyron Smith didn’t practice today after he experienced some tightness in his lower back
— Josh Clark (@JoshClark1053) May 25, 2022
• LG Tyler Smith: The Cowboys’ 2021 starting left guard, Connor Williams, left in free agency for the Miami Dolphins this offseason. In my mind I can hear Troy Aikman saying, “Yeah, that’s the left guard Connor Williams. You can see here they got him on a hold, and you just can’t do that,” as a Williams penalty negates a big play.
Insert Smith, Dallas’ first-round pick in 2022. Smith has an intriguing blend of size and athleticism. He also has a mean streak, and some fun highlights. High ceiling guy. Unfortunately, he is also a very raw prospect who has a lot to clean up in his game, as he had 16 (!) penalties (12 for holding) in 2021. I look forward to Aikman saying, “Yeah, that’s the rookie left guard Tyler Smith. You can see here they got him on a hold, and you just can’t do that.”
With the Cowboys, Smith will be the “LGOTP, LTOTF,” or “left guard of the present, left tackle of the future.” In other words, he’ll play guard until he’s ready to replace Tyron Smith. In theory, that sounds like a reasonable enough plan. In theory.
Where that plan has some holes is that Smith hasn’t played guard since high school. Inserting him in immediately as the starting LG is easier said than done. Facing guys like Jonathan Allen, Fletcher Cox, and Leonard Williams won’t exactly be like going up against guys in the AAC.
And when Tyron Smith eventually goes down this season (as we all know he will), are they going to ask this unpolished rookie to then bump back outside to tackle after spending the offseason repping at LG? That has disaster written all over it.
By the way, contrary to what some may perceive about the Cowboys, they have not done a great job developing young offensive linemen. A list of offensive linemen that the Cowboys have drafted since they selected Zack Martin in the first round of the 2014 draft, not including this year:
2020 UDFA Terence Steele is perhaps a success story, but that list above is pretty ugly otherwise.
• C Tyler Biadasz: Just a guy. There were plenty of Cowboys fans clamoring for the team to select Tyler Linderbaum in the first round.
• RG Zack Martin: All-Pro RG, but aging. Some dropoff in the near future is inevitable.
• RT Terence Steele: Steele has been a reserve linemen for the Cowboys after joining them as a UDFA in 2020. He started 14 games as a rookie, and 13 games in 2021. He showed enough improvement last season that the Cowboys felt comfortable releasing La’el Collins and making Steele the starting RT.
Collins has been wildly overrated over his career (looking at you, PFF), but he was set to make a reasonable $10 million salary in 2022. Handing the reins to Steele is a big gamble. It’s also worth noting that because Steele is now a starter, the Cowboys’ depth will take a big hit.
On that note, the Cowboys have three reserve linemen who have ever taken an NFL snap:
- OG Connor McGovern: 14 career starts, 1106 career snaps.
- OT Aviante Collins: 77 career snaps, last saw the field in 2019.
- C Matt Farniok: Played 23 snaps as a rookie last season
4) Ezekiel Elliott is approaching “afterthought” territory
There is only one running back (Mark Ingram) currently on an NFL roster with more career touches than Ezekiel Elliott, who is still only 26 years old (he turns 27 in July). The Cowboys ran him into the ground during his first four years in the league, as he averaged 340 touches per season. He has gotten a lighter workload over the last two seasons, but has still been used heavily, relative to most NFL backs, with 290 touches per season. He’ll likely pass Ingram for most career touches in 2022. Let’s go ahead and update Zeke’s Zelda-like life meter, as we always do each year:
Elliott is very clearly in decline. A look at Zeke’s rushing yards per game by season:
My analysis: They’ve gone down every year he has been in the league. 📉
Elliott is no longer an explosive back, and is not a threat to break off long runs. Despite being fifth in total rushing attempts over the last two seasons (with 481 of them), Elliott only has six rushes of 20+ yards. There are 39 (!) other players in the NFL with at least six rushes of 20+ yards. The list:
|20+ yard rushes||2021||2020||TOTAL|
The name that sticks out to me on that list is Latavius Murray. Let’s compare Murray’s and Elliott’s last two seasons, shall we?
They’re both big, plodding backs who are good around the goal line who will generally fall forward after contact, but are not big play threats. Zeke is basically “higher volume Latavius Murray.”
…except Murray is currently a free agent, probably looking to sign somewhere for the league minimum while Elliott will count on the Cowboys’ salary cap this season for more than $18 million, most in the league among running backs.
5) It’s all on Dak this year for the first time in his career
Prescott’s career has had an interesting trajectory. He came out on fire as a rookie, and while his improvements as a quarterback have been steady, they have also been slow, and a bunch of other younger players who have since entered the league — guys like Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, and Lamar Jackson — have blown right past him in the NFL’s quarterback hierarchy.
In the NFC East, Prescott is indisputably the best starting quarterback, and thus probably the division’s most valuable player. However, in the past he has always had great players around him. In 2022, as we have noted so far, the wide receivers aren’t really scary anymore, the offensive line has concerns galore, and the running back is clearly in decline. The Cowboys still have some good players on offense, like Lamb, Martin, Dalton Schultz (meh), and if you want to throw the underused Tony Pollard in there, eh, fine.
But this is easily the worst supporting offensive cast Prescott has entered a season with as a professional quarterback, and it’s going to be interesting to see if it causes him to take a step backwards.
6) Takeaway regression is coming
The Cowboys’ defense led the NFL with 34 takeaways in 2021. Congratulations to them! They were led by Trevon Diggs, who had 11 INTs. The last time an NFL player had 11 INTs in a single season was 1981, when Everson Walls did it. Here’s a list of the 9 players who had at least 10 INTs in a season since 2000, and how many INTs they had the following season.
|Player, Team, Year||INT||INTs the next year||+/-|
|Trevon Diggs, Cowboys, 2021||11||?||?|
|Xavien Howard, Dolphins, 2020||10||5||-5|
|Antonio Cromartie, Chargers, 2007||10||2||-8|
|Champ Bailey, Broncos, 2006||10||3||-7|
|Asante Samuel, Patriots, 2006||10||6||-4|
|Ty Laws, Jets, 2005||10||4||-6|
|Deltha O’Neal, Bengals, 2005||10||1||-9|
|Ronde Barber, Buccaneers, 2001||10||2||-8|
|Anthony Henry, Browns, 2001||10||2||-8|
Those players averaged a decrease of 6.9 INTs the following season. Will Diggs come close to matching his production in 2022? Probably only if the quarterbacks he faces decide that throwing the ball directly to him is a good idea. Here are all 11 of Diggs’ INTs during the 2021 season (you have to click “Watch on YouTube” to see it):
He got Tom Brady (via an egregious Leonard Fournette drop) and Justin Herbert the first two weeks of the season, but then the quality of his victims fell off rather sharply. He later picked (in chronological order) Jalen Hurts, Sam Darnold, Sam Darnold again, Mike Glennon, Mac Jones, Matt Ryan, Taysom Hill, Mike Glennon again (Diggs didn’t even complete the process of the catch on that one), and Taylor Heinicke. Credit Diggs for making the plays, but Good Lord those were some horrendous throws.
As a team, again, the Cowboys had 34 takeaways. Here’s a recent list of teams that had at least 30 takeaways in one season, and how many takeaways those teams had the following season:
|Year, team||Takeaways||Takeaways the next year||+/-|
On average, those teams had 12.8 fewer takeaways the next season.
Dallas also led the NFL with 6 defensive touchdowns (5 INT, 1 fumble return). Here’s a recent list of teams that had at least 6 defensive touchdowns in one season, and how many defensive touchdowns those teams had the following season:
|Year, team||DTD’s||DTD’s the next year||+/-|
On average, those teams had 4.2 fewer defensive touchdowns the next season. So, you know, expect some regression there as well.
7) The front office never learns from past mistakes
The Cowboys’ front office has a habit of repeating two particular mistakes over and over and over again:
- They use the franchise tag as a weapon, to their own detriment.
- They can’t help themselves from taking injury and/or character concern players in the second round of the draft.
On the franchise tag front, this year they tagged TE Dalton Schultz at just under $11 million. Frustrated by stalled negotiations on a long-term deal, Schultz boycotted voluntary OTAs.
In May, the Browns no doubt annoyed the Cowboys when they gave franchise-tagged David Njoku a nonsensical four year, $54.75 million contract, for an average annual value of $13.7 million. Here’s how Njoku’s stats compare with Schultz’s the last two seasons:
As Joel Corry of CBS pointed out, the Cowboys have mismanaged franchise-tagged players in the past:
The last two times the Cowboys let someone play a season under a franchise tag, it cost them far more to eventually sign these players long term. The same dynamic would likely apply to Schultz with a productive 2022 season.
The Cowboys definitely wouldn’t have needed to sign defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence to a five-year, $105 million contract, averaging $21 million per year, if a deal had been done in 2018. At the July 15 long-term-deal deadline for franchise players, the $20 million-per-year non-quarterback didn’t exist.
Dak Prescott doesn’t sign a $40 million-per-year contract in March 2021 with an agreement reached in July 2020. There’s a good chance Prescott’s would deal would have been under the $35 million-per-year extension Russell Wilson signed with the Seahawks in 2019.
Given the hits the Cowboys took this offseason at wide receiver, Schultz is kind of an important player to them this season, though it’s unlikely that he’ll miss any mandatory time. In that sense this perhaps doesn’t fit the theme of why the Cowboys will be bad specifically in 2022, but it’s worth noting that they keep messing up these situations, and in the case of Prescott, they are now paying the price as he’ll have huge cap hits in 2023 and 2024.
The Cowboys also have a long history of taking big risks with their second-round picks on talented players with medical and/or character concerns. Prior examples include guys like Trysten Hill, Jaylon Smith, Randy Gregory, Kelvin Joseph, etc. This year their second-round risk was edge rusher Sam Williams, who was once arrested on a sexual battery charge.
On March 18, Joseph, who had red flags coming out of Kentucky, was a passenger in a vehicle from which gunshots killed a 20-year-old man. A month and a half later, undeterred, the Cowboys were like, “Meh, whatever. Let’s go ahead and take another character concern guy in the second round.”
8) We should probably mention the other holes on this roster
Cornerbacks not named Trevon Diggs, linebackers not named Micah Parsons, interior defensive line, pass rusher depth, safety. They also have an undrafted rookie kicker.
It looks a lot like some of the rosters the Cowboys had a decade or so ago, when they had a small handful of star players at the top, and then a whole lot of (fart noise).
9) They have the hardest floating games in the NFC East
The NFC East teams all play each other twice, as you’re aware. They also play the entirety of the NFC North and the AFC South, a pair of pretty bad divisions. As such, the four NFC East teams have the four easiest schedules in the NFL.
The NFC East teams each have three games on their schedules that their divisional rivals don’t. The Cowboys have a first-place schedule, and as such, they play first-place teams in the NFC West, the NFC South, and the AFC North. Those teams are the Rams, Buccaneers, and the Bengals. The NFC East teams drew the following floating opponents this year:
|Finish||NFC East team||NFCW / NFCS / AFCN opponents|
|1st||Cowboys||Rams, Buccaneers, Bengals|
|2nd||Eagles||Cardinals, Saints, Steelers|
|3rd||Commanders||49ers, Falcons, Browns|
|4th||Giants||Seahawks, Panthers, Ravens|
In other words, the Cowboys will have to face both 2021-22 Super Bowl participants as well as the 2020-21 Super Bowl winner in their three floating games, while the rest of the NFC East teams (mostly) face a mix of mediocrity and slop.
10) There hasn’t been a repeat NFC East champion since 2004
The last time a team repeated as NFC East division winners was when the Eagles did it in 2004. In each of the last 17 seasons, we’ve seen the previous year’s division champion dethroned.
|Year||NFC East champion|
So who will win the NFC East in 2022? Probably not the Cowboys, and not because of some silly non-repeat streak. They’re just not that good. 🤷♂️
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