FRISCO, Texas -- As the Dallas Cowboys pick through the wreckage of their 2017 season, they must figure out how to fix a passing game that went horribly wrong in order to succeed in 2018.
Yes, fix. By the end of this season, the Cowboys’ passing game was broken.
There are plenty of theories as to why it fell apart: Ezekiel Elliott's six-game suspension; the loss of Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith for almost four full games; the inability of the wide receivers to create separation or run correct routes on a consistent basis; the inability of the coaches to come up with schemes to help the receivers; and poor decisions and mechanics by quarterback Dak Prescott.
The Cowboys must decipher whether the main issue was related more to scheme or personnel.
After all, it was the same scheme with the same players that proved effective in 2016 and helped the Cowboys finish 13-3. Did all of the players lose their ability at the same time?
That wide receiver Cole Beasley went from a team-high 75 receptions for 833 yards in 2016 to 36 catches for 314 yards is mind-boggling. Dez Bryant's production had been sliding for two years prior to 2017. Terrance Williams (51 catches, 563 yards) was within his career norms except on touchdown catches -- he had zero for the first time in his career. Tight end Jason Witten's numbers fell in line with what he had produced since 2014 (63 catches, 560 yards, five touchdowns), but his yards per catch was down to a career low.
An argument can be made that the passing game has been on a slide since 2014, and that includes Tony Romo throwing 34 touchdown passes to just nine interceptions that season. With Scott Linehan as offensive coordinator, a Cowboys quarterback has failed to throw for 200 yards in 21 of 64 games.
In a third of the games, the Cowboys have failed to throw for 200 yards. They have a 5-16 record in those contests.
Yes, the offense has taken a more run-first trajectory with DeMarco Murray leading the NFL in rushing in 2014 and Elliott leading it in 2016, but 200 yards is hardly a difficult number to eclipse in a league that makes it difficult for defensive backs to make a living.
Prescott had eight games in which he did not throw for 200 yards in 2017, with six coming in the second half of the season. He had 212 yards against the Oakland Raiders, and two of his 18 completions were for 40 and 31 yards. The other 16 completions totaled 141 yards.
“I think we're going to be run-first here. Throwing for 300 yards in this approach is going to be a little bit more of a less common thing,” Linehan said the final week of the season. “I don't think we say, ‘We have to throw for a certain number of yards.’ I just think the big plays have been the biggest thing.”
When Prescott was a rookie, the Cowboys had success by getting him outside the pocket with bootlegs and waggles. He was able to make chunks of yards with accurate throws on the move. In 2017, those chunk plays almost vanished on bootlegs and waggles.
"When you got a guy that moves around, they were going to put more emphasis on that," Linehan said of opposing defenses. "That is just part of it. We have to continue to look at the direction we are going, both in the approach in the run game and the drop-back pass game and the complements in the play-action passing stuff.”
That has to be an in-season fix, not a postseason evaluation.
The passing game cratered Nov. 12 against the Atlanta Falcons. It was the first game Elliott missed because of a suspension. Smith did not play because of a hip strain, which put Chaz Green at left tackle. After being sacked 10 times in the first eight games of the season, Prescott was sacked eight times by the Falcons, including six by Adrian Clayborn.
Green, who performed well in Smith’s two-game absence in 2016, was technically flawed from almost the first snap of the game. He was shallow in his sets, giving Clayborn an easier time to the edge. On the times Prescott knew Green did not have help, the ball did not come out quickly enough because the outside threats did not win early enough on the routes. When the Cowboys did slide help to Green’s direction, the Falcons were able to suffocate two- and three-man routes.
Clayborn, a solid if unspectacular player, dominated from the first quarter to the last.
The passing game never recovered. The following week, against a better Philadelphia Eagles front, the protection was better but Prescott’s per-attempt average was 4.7 yards. It was clear the plan was to get the ball out early. Without that, the Cowboys did not have a pass play of 20 yards or more, the only time that happened all season.
“Well, the Atlanta game was certainly a game that wasn’t great for us,” head coach Jason Garrett said. “It started with the protection. Tyron was out in that game and we didn’t handle his absence as well as we could have and should have. They are a good defensive team. But I don’t want to say that there was some kind of a trend that happened after that.”
In the final eight games, Prescott threw for 1,362 yards, which ranked 28th in the NFL. Only the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts had fewer passing yards. His six touchdown passes in the final eight games ranked 28th. Only the Jets, Bills, Colts and Chicago Bears had fewer. His nine interceptions were tied for ninth most. The 22 sacks allowed were eighth most.
His average per attempt was 5.8 yards.
That eight-game sample seems to be a trend, even if Garrett doesn’t want to call it that.