The Cowboys take a pass on the NFL playoffs
ARLINGTON, Texas_The next coaching staff of the Dallas Cowboys will have to make a philosophical decision.
What kind of offense do the Cowboys want in 2020 – one that features quarterback Dak Prescott or one that makes running back Ezekiel Elliott the focal point?
The 2019 Dallas coaching staff guessed wrong – choosing to let Prescott carry the offense. And it likely will cost them their jobs.
Heavily favored to defend their NFC East title and contend for a Super Bowl, the Cowboys finished out of the playoffs with an 8-8 record. Jason Garrett was in the final year of his contract as head coach and never reached an NFC title game, much less a Super Bowl, in his 10 seasons on the job. The 2019 season was his fourth 8-8 finish.
Garrett won three NFC East titles during his tenure. In each of those seasons, the Cowboys also had the NFL’s leading rusher – Demarco Murray in 2014 and Elliott in both 2016 and 2018. But when Elliott held out last summer, finally arriving on the eve of the season, the Cowboys committed themselves to aerial football.
In the first three games, Prescott looked like Johnny Unitas. But his performances came against terrible teams. Prescott threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns in the opener against the Giants, 269 yards and three touchdowns against the Redskins and 246 yards and two scores against the Dolphins. The Redskins would finish 3-13, the Giants 4-12 and the Dolphins 5-11.
But the Cowboys were 3-0 and Prescott was the hottest passer in the NFC. He ranked second in the NFL in passing behind reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes with a 128.0 efficiency rating. His nine TD passes also ranked second to Mahomes. So the Cowboys went all in on Prescott, who was in a contract year.
Prescott responded by turning in one of the greatest passing seasons in franchise history. He had three 400-yard games, four other 300-yard games and finished just a yard short of the franchise single-season passing record held by Tony Romo. Prescott finished the season with 4,902 yards and 30 touchdowns – aerial heights Hall of Famers Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman never achieved.
Elliott is a heavy-volume back and the Cowboys finally ended his holdout by making him the highest-paid runner in the NFL. They invested $90 million in a player who won two NFL rushing crowns in his first three seasons averaging 22 carries per game.
But Elliott never competed for the rushing title in 2019, finishing a distant fourth to Tennessee’s Derrick Henry with his 1,357 yards, almost 200 yards back. When the Cowboys did give Elliott the ball, they won. Elliott finished with seven 100-yard games and the Cowboys won six of them. They are now 23-5 when he rushes for 100 yards in his career. But Elliott didn’t get his 20 carries in half of the 16 games and the Cowboys lost five of them.
The Cowboys decided their best shot was with the football in the air and turned the offense over to Prescott, essentially making Elliott a member of the supporting cast. The Cowboys had a novice play-caller this season in Kellen Moore and too often he lost sight of Elliott in the gameplan.
Six times Prescott threw 40-plus passes in a game. He lit up the Giants, Packers and Lions up for 400-yard games and dinged the Giants and Redskins for four-touchdown games. But all the Cowboys had to show for all of his passes and all of his yards was a .500 record and another non-playoff finish.
The Cowboys were not alone in the betrayal of this philosophy. Of the five quarterbacks with the most passing yards this season, none are going to the playoffs. Of the six top passing offenses in the NFL this season, only one will play on into January (Kansas City).
The less Prescott throws, the better the Cowboys play. The more Elliott touches the football, the better the Cowboys play. The next coaching staff needs to figure that out and strike a better offensive balance in 2020. Playoff contention will hinge on it.