If we could go back in time 25 years, we could see just how much things have changed. Grunge music had not yet outworn its welcome in popular culture. Mobile phones still had huge antennas attached to them. And the Dallas Cowboys were on top of the world as the most successful franchise in the NFL.
It has been a long, long time since any of these statements were true. The Cowboys haven’t returned to the Super Bowl, or even the NFC Championship game, since. Cowboys fans across the globe have waited in anticipation of their return to glory, only to be continually disappointed no matter how promising the team may look.
The 2020 Dallas Cowboys are a much changed team, however, and change breeds hope. There is optimism that the Cowboys may finally shake their reputation as perennial underperformers. There are three key areas the team will have to perform well in to be able to do break the 25 year-long drought.
1. Special Teams
Watching the Cowboys’ special teams last year was certainly a special experience. This unit was comically bad across the board. The Cowboys had the third-worst starting field position in the NFL, ahead of only the Jets and the Chargers (who they edged out by .01 yards on average). Their total of 456 return yards (325 from kick returns, 131 from punt returns) ranked dead last in the league and made them the only team with a total under 500 yards.
Not only were their aggregate stats atrocious, but their season was also filled with embarrassing individual moments. These moments cost the Cowboys at least two games this season. They lost to the Patriots 13-9 in a game where the special teams allowed a blocked punt that led directly to the opponent’s only touchdown of the game. They lost by two points to the Jets in a game where Brett Maher missed a 41 yard kick in the beginning of the fourth quarter that ended up being the difference (although to his credit, he did somehow nail a 62 yarder earlier in the game.)
And of course, who could forget this fair catch in the Vikings game:
There’s Tavon Austin completing a fair catch on his own 45, with the closest defender over 15 yards away. Look to the left and you’ll see a wide open lane, with five Cowboys blockers and four Vikings defenders.
For those following along at home, five is bigger than four. Austin should have easily had a return to the opponent’s 40 yard line, if not even further than that. With only 30 seconds left on the clock and down four, those yards are crucial.
On the flip side
Looking at the other end of the special teams’ spectrum shows how much it can help an offense. Among the top 10 in starting field position were the Patriots, Ravens, 49ers, Saints, Seahawks, Chiefs, and the Vikings. Each of these teams also benefitted from big special teams plays, like return touchdowns and turnovers, that the Cowboys simply couldn’t generate last year.
The 2020 Dallas Cowboys can’t let the special teams be such a huge detriment to their success. This unit will have to generate some kind of impact for the team to get over the Divisional Round hump. Luckily for Cowboys fans, they understand this and fired previous coordinator Keith O’Quinn to hire John Fassel from the Rams. Fassel is highly-regarded in the special teams world and should immediately pay dividends to the 2020 Dallas Cowboys’ chances.
2. Strategic errors
Speaking of coaching changes paying immediate dividends, the Cowboys started the offseason by moving on from Jason Garret and bringing in Mike McCarthy. McCarthy has subsequently made other changes in the coaching staff which have brought praise from many in the football world. But the most important impact McCarthy needs to have is on the football field. McCarthy has to outperform Garret in both in-game adjustments and crunch-time decision making to help the Cowboys win close games.
Behind at half? Forget about it
The Cowboys have clearly been victim of poor in-game adjustments during Jason Garret’s tenure. For example, this past season the Cowboys were 0-8 when trailing at halftime, which means two things:
- The coaching staff had difficulty adjusting to opponent’s game plans
- I could have turned off the game at half all eight times and saved myself a lot of frustration
Any kind of comeback was mounted not on a brilliant scheme adjustment from Garrett, but on the backs of individual efforts from Prescott or Zeke. Sometimes they would come close, like in the Packers game or Vikings game or Jets game or Patriots game or Saints game. But they would always fall short.
These games almost always included baffling moments where the decision of the coaching staff was called into question. The most egregious example of this is the Vikings game.
The Cowboys were driving down late in the game and faced a fourth down in the Vikings’ red zone. Prescott had been lighting them up all game, ending with almost 400 yards and three TDs. Instead of trusting Prescott to make the right play past the line to gain, they tried to force a throw to Zeke right at the first down marker.
This was probably the worst matchup on the field to try to exploit. Linebacker Eric Kendricks was having an outstanding night, and is excellent in coverage. He broke up the pass to essentially seal the game for the Vikings.
A history of costly errors
That’s not the only time a baffling decision from Garret cost the Cowboys the game. He once iced his own kicker in a game against the Cardinals in 2011, only for the Cowboys to lose in overtime. In 2012, the Cowboys lost a game to Baltimore because Garret misused a timeout and settled for a 51 yard field goal attempt, despite having time to run at least two or three more plays.
Another example comes from 2018 against the Texans, when Garret made the decision to punt the ball away in overtime on a fourth and one on the opponent’s 42 yard line. They would go on to lose that game as well. There are many examples of this ineptitude in close moments that never seemed to go the Cowboys way.
This can’t continue if the 2020 Dallas Cowboys hope to finally find success in these moments. McCarthy will have to step up and manage the clock successfully in these kinds of situations. Knowing when to use and timeout, or when not to use one, is more important than the average football fan may think, and it’s a skill the Cowboys haven’t possessed in over a decade. Mastering clock management will go a long way to seeing the Cowboys to another championship.
3. Red Zone scoring
Unlike the first two areas, the Cowboys aren’t one of the worst in the league in this category. In fact, they’re decidedly average, which is a big step up from their special teams rank. But average in the Red Zone rarely equates to playoff success.
Since 2010, only three teams have won the Super Bowl ranked outside the top 10 in points per red zone appearance. The 2012 Ravens who were ranked 11th, the 2015 Broncos who were ranked 23rd, and the 2018 Patriots who were ranked 13th. All of these teams have one thing in common: a much better defense than the present day Cowboys.
The Cowboys ranked 13th in points per red zone appearance last year, which is actually a step up from 2018’s abysmal 29th ranking. But in both years, any chance of playoff success were low because they didn’t have the defensive capabilities to make up for an inefficient offense. The 2018 defense put up one of the worst playoff performances ever against the Rams when they let freshly-signed CJ Anderson run for over 200 yards. Last season’s defense was noticeably worse than 2018, and gave up big days to terrible offenses (31 points from the Bears and 27 points from the Driskel-led Lions, for example).
The defense looks to be suspect again this year, at least on the back-end. The Dallas offense is built to be the driving force of this team, and that means scoring when they have the opportunity. The Cowboys have to put up more points than they have been when they get inside their opponents 20. The addition of CeeDee Lamb should help in that endeavor, as will the continuing emergence of Blake Jarwin and Michael Gallup. Add better play-calling, and the Cowboys have a chance to find their way into the top 10 in red zone scoring for the first time since 2016.
The 2020 Dallas Cowboys have the chance to be one of the best Cowboys teams in decades. But to do so, they’ll have to improve in these three areas which have given them troubles in the past. Cowboys fans should pay close attention to these parts of the game on Sunday against the Rams, as their performance could give an indication of how far the Cowboys can go in 2020.