June 24, 2019
This week, all week long, we're taking a brutal 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 90 percent vitriolic. And yes, we'll try to torch the Eagles as well at the end of the series.
With a little more than five minutes left in overtime Week 5 against the Texans, Jason Garrett faced a 4th and 1 at Houston's 41-yard line. No-brainer go for it situation, especially given that the Cowboys had previously been successful on 18 of 19 attempts on fourth-and-1 since Ezekiel Elliott's arrival, right? Nope.
He punted. Again, from his opponent's 41!!!
And sure enough, the Texans took advantage of Garrett's cowardice, put together a 72-yard drive, kicked a field goal, and won.
Garrett's career record improved to 77-59 (0.566) after a 10-6 season last year. As such, he got to keep his job.
His record looks fine in print, but isn't good enough for a team that had a legitimate franchise quarterback in Tony Romo, as well as other big-time stars like DeMarcus Ware, Tyron Smith, Dez Bryant, etc. If you're a Cowboys fan and you haven't watched Amazon's "All or Nothing" documentary about Dallas' 2017 season, go ahead and do so, and get back to me if you aren't completely horrified by Garrett's lack of leadership that is portrayed --whether on purpose or accidentally -- by the show's creators.
Garrett's most appealing trait to the Cowboys, as we noted last year in this series, is that he's an agreeable puppet for the meddling owner, who means well, but will ultimately hinder the success of the team as long as he stays extremely involved in the day-to-day operations, instead of people who are smarter and better suited for those responsibilities.
Garrett will head into the 2019 season as a lame duck coach, as in, he is in the final year of his contract. His metaphorical seat, undoubtedly, is hot. To note, this isn't the first time Garrett entered the season as a lame duck coach. In 2014, coaching for his job, the Cowboys went to the playoffs, got handed a playoff win by the officials, and then Dez dropped it.
From a player standpoint, as a result of a successful season (for the Cowboys, anyway), a boatload of players are going to get paid either this offseason or next. DeMarcus Lawrence already got a $20 million-plus per year, Dak Prescott is going to get a contract extension worth over $30 million/year, Amari Cooper should fetch close to $20 million/year, Ezekiel Elliott will be up around the $15 million/year range, while Byron Jones and Jaylon Smith should both land deals over $10 million/year.
Now, to be clear, keeping your core intact is great, but it is going to be difficult adding quality players around it, which doesn't bode well for a team that had incredible injury luck in 2018 (we'll get to that), and still went meekly in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Obviously, Garrett could still be fired (or not extended or whatever), but, of course, another frustrating season will have to precede that.
We call the Cowboys' OL overrated, like, every year in this dumpster fire series, on the premise that the Cowboys have a very good run-blocking offensive line, but struggle when protecting the quarterback.
In 2018, the Cowboys gave up 56 sacks. 56!!! That was second-worst in the NFL, behind only Houston's atrocious offensive line. And yet, watch any NFL talking head get asked about the best offensive lines in the NFL, and the Cowboys will always be included.
Going back five years to 2014, the following is the Cowboys' yearly "adjusted sack rate," via FootballOutsiders, which shows "sacks (plus intentional grounding penalties) per pass attempt, adjusted for down, distance, and opponent."
|Year||Adjusted sack rate||NFL Rank|
Their average NFL rank? 16th. Not bad. Certainly not good. Looking forward, the Cowboys' starting five is projected like so:
• LT Tyron Smith: Obviously, Smith is still an outstanding player, but he has missed three games in each of the last three seasons (one was a meaningless Week 17 game in 2018). Because Smith was only 20 years old when he entered the league, he's still "only" 28. (He'll turn 29 during the season). However, he has now started 118 games over his eight-year career. That is sixth in the NFL among offensive tackles currently on NFL rosters, behind only Andrew Whitworth, Jason Peters, Joe Staley, Duane Brown, and Trent Williams. We're not projecting the beginning of the end of Smith's career by any stretch, but the number of starts coupled with his recent injury history might suggest that he's 28 in a 30+ NFL body.
• LG Connor Williams: Williams was bad as a rookie, which is somewhat understandable seeing as he was transitioning from OT in college to guard at the pro level. In theory he should be better in 2019. In theory.
• C Travis Frederick: Frederick missed the 2018 season with a scary, rare disease. Most believe he'll be back in 2019. I have no idea how to project how effective he'll be if he does indeed return.
• RG Zack Martin: All-Pro guard, still playing at that level.
• RT La'el Collins: Many want to think of Collins as a good NFL starter, because he was a "first-round talent" coming out of college. He isn't. According to Bob Sturm of The Athletic, Collins was responsible for nine sacks last season.
There are holes at LG and RT, as well as uncertainty at C.
Despite missing six games in 2017 (and eight overall), Elliott leads the NFL in rushing attempts since he entered the league in 2016, by a significant margin:
Throw in Elliott's 142 receptions, and he has 1072 career touches. That's already 9th(!) among running backs currently on NFL rosters. The only players still ahead of him are Frank Gore, Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, Lamar Miller, Mark Ingram, Le'Veon Bell, Todd Gurley, and Melvin Gordon.
Elliott is in the last year of his rookie deal this year, and then he'll play (or not, maybe?) on his fifth-year option in 2020 if he and the Cowboys don't work out a contract extension.
If he plays all 16 games at that same 24.93 touches per game usage rate over the next two years, he'll have already racked up 1870 touches by the end of the 2020, not including any further playoff appearances. If Gore, Peterson, and McCoy are all out of the league by then, there's an outside chance he'll be No. 1 in the NFL among running backs in career touches after only five seasons in the league. The only backs likely to still be ahead of him at that time will be Bell and Miller, though both can certainly be caught.
If we were to put a highly scientific Zelda-esque life meter on Zeke, I'd say it's currently something like this, only three years into his career:
So, you know, his upcoming contract extension should be interesting. (Popcorn emoji.)
In 2017, after an investigation that lasted roughly a year, Elliott was suspended by the league for six games for a pattern of alleged abuse over the span of several days in July of 2016, in which Elliott's girlfriend filed a report with police.
During that investigation, in a separate incident, Elliott appeared on camera pulling down a woman's shirt during a St. Patrick's Day party, exposing her breast.
In May, TMZ.com posted video of Elliott bullying a security guard, getting in his face and knocking him to the ground with a forearm shove. To note, the security guard did not need an emergency helicopter to take him to the hospital. He was probably OK. Still, Elliott was handcuffed after the incident, but was not arrested because the victim chose not to press charges.
Worse than the incident itself, Elliott was wearing a fanny pack and a LeBron James Lakers jersey (because of course he was). As you can clearly see, let's go out on a limb here and acknowledge that he's probably hammered.
Kudos to Elliott for asserting his physical dominance over a guy half his size. I'm not sure if that's enough for the NFL to discipline Elliott once again, but he is a recidivist.
The league is investigating the incident, but the guess here is that Roger Goodell won't want to go through another super-lengthy pissing contest with Jerry Jones that costs millions, and they'll just let this slide. Then again, I also thought Goodell would waver a couple years ago, and he didn't. If more comes of this, it's the type of distraction that can derail a season, like it sort of did in 2017. We'll see.
Whether it results in some sort of discipline or not, at some point, Elliott should just stop acting like a jackass.
Remember when Jason Witten got hit, his helmet popped off, he continued to run, and even though he was being chased from behind and his head wasn't really in danger, Cowboys fans lost their freaking minds as if it was the seminal "tough guy" moment in the history of sports? In case you have no idea what I'm talking about, here you go:
Well, here's what the play would look like if it happened in 2019.
Anyway, Jason Witten was just about cooked when he last played in 2017. A couple years older (he's now actually 37, not 72) and a year removed from the game, I'm sure he'll be worth the $4,250,000 (lol) he'll occupy on the Cowboys' cap in 2019.
In May, in a two-part series (Part I here, Part II here), Vincent Verhei of FootballOutsiders.com attempted to determine which teams across the NFL were hit hardest by injury in 2018, and which teams escaped with less carnage. They're great pieces, and worth your time.
The final results of Verhei's study determined that the Cowboys had 78.5 "adjusted games lost" by their starters and situational role players (weighted by snap counts). They were 17th healthiest team in the NFL, or to put it another way, the 16th most injury-struck.
So, wait... the Cowboys had good injury luck? Well, yeah.
One thing that Football Outsiders did not (and probably can't) account for without wading into highly subjective territory is how good each of the players lost actually are. I will attempt to add subjective context.
Verhei was kind enough to send the values for each individual player in the NFC East. I'm still waiting for FootballOutsiders' management to approve the publishing of those values, which is obviously super top secret information, but I can say that the sextet of Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams, David Irving, Sean Lee, Geoff Swaim, and Maliek Collins make up over 73 percent of those "adjusted games lost." A quick analysis of those injured Cowboys players:
• Travis Frederick (16): Legitimately damaging injury, obviously.
• Terrance Williams (12): There were questions during training camp whether Williams would even make the team. He started the first few games, so he is being considered a starter, but this was not much of a loss, at all. Williams counts for roughly 15 percent of the Cowboys' adjusted game lost.
• David Irving (9): Irving is a talented player, but troubled in his personal life. He started the season with a four-game suspension, and ended up playing in just two games. The Cowboys kept listing him on the injury report, but he may not have really even been injured. The Cowboys could not have realistically been counting on Irving in any way.
• Sean Lee (9): I mean, he's injured every year. That's a known reality before the season even begins, and it's why the team selected Leighton Vander Esch in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
• Geoff Swaim (7.3): Swaim was a starter by default, as the team had literally nothing at tight end. He accounts for nine percent of the Cowboys' adjusted games lost. Swaim was replaced by Blake Jarwin, who is better. I'm just happy I get to recycle my Geoff Swaim highlight reel:
• Maliek Collins (4.3): Meh rotational defensive lineman.
Sooooooo, the players they lost, Frederick aside, didn't really hurt their season. These types of studies always have an outlier or two (I know from experience), and here, it's the Cowboys. Compare them with the garbage-ass Giants, who were the eighth-healthiest team a year ago, and the sum of the Cowboys' most notable losses wasn't as bad as the sum of the Giants' most notable losses, which include guys like Odell Beckham, Landon Collins, Olivier Vernon, and Evan Engram, the team's best players (Saquon aside) who all missed at least a quarter of the season.
Despite their injury luck, again, the Cowboys managed to go 10-6, but with a point differential of +15, which was good for seventh in the NFC, and 14th overall in the NFL.
Wait, missed tackle machine Jeff Heath is still in the league?
OMG wait, Jeff Heath is still a projected starter?
To begin, this offseason, Lawrence delayed having shoulder surgery to gain leverage over the Cowboys during contract negotiations. And it worked! Eventually, Lawrence got a $20+ million/year deal, however, the delay may result in Lawrence not being ready for the start of the regular season.
If he's not ready in time, the Cowboys don't have much else in the way of guys who can get to the quarterback.
The NFL suspended Randy Gregory indefinitely for violating the league's substance abuse policy. That is now his fourth NFL suspension!
With Gregory out, the Cowboys traded for Robert Quinn, a once-awesome DE whose skills have declined over the years. After a great start to his career, he has 24 sacks over the last 4 years. Quinn is still a decent pass rusher, though probably best in a situational role at this stage of his career.
The remaining JAG defensive linemen on the roster had a combined 13.5 sacks last season. Whenever Lawrence is ready to play, he's going to get his share of extra attention, and opposing offenses are going to take their chances against the rest of the bunch.
The last time a team repeated as NFC East division winners was when the Eagles did it in 2004. In each of the last 14 seasons, we've seen the previous year's division champion dethroned.
As the NFC East champs a year ago, the Cowboys have to face the NFC South and NFC West champs. Those two teams are the Saints and Rams, who both went 13-3 in 2018. Here's who the NFC East teams have to face in those two floating games:
|NFC EAST TEAM||NFC SOUTH/WEST|
Odds are they won't repeat in 2019.
In a little bit of a break from the norm, I think we should point out one indisputable positive truth about the Cowboys, which is that Dak Prescott is a far superior quarterback to Carson Wentz, thus also making him the best quarterback in the division, by far.
Now, I know that some people (mouth-breathing Eagles fan morons, mostly) have pointed to the notion the Wentz is the better quarterback for the following reasons:
They believe that Wentz gives his team a great shot at winning the Super Bowl, and will even make the argument that the Eagles wouldn't have won the Super Bowl in 2017 had it not been for Wentz carrying the team to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, setting the table with major advantages for Nick Foles to close the deal.
What is more important, in my view, is who has more* stats, as well as who has both appeared in more playoff games (3) and won more playoff games (1). That's Prescott, who, with his one playoff win, took the Cowboys as far into the playoffs as they have gone in the last 23 years.
As such, Jerry Jones and the Cowboys should pay Prescott way more than the $32 million/year contract extension that Wentz just earned this offseason.
*Disclaimer: "More" stats is not to be confused with "better" stats
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