The Cowboys’ ‘Identity Crisis’? It’s The First-Down Run-Down Failure

FRISCO (105.3 THE FAN) – One evaluation of how the Dallas Cowboys got to be 2-2 following Sunday’s upset at the hands of the visiting Rams comes from the very frank owner of the team.

“I thought we were the dominant team,’’ Jerry Jones tells 105.3 The Fan. “We got a little full of ourselves.’’

That is a harsh indictment of a team that, with all due respect to its two NFC East titles in the last three seasons, hasn’t done near enough “dominating’’ for that to be part of its self-identity.

In fact, while I generally pooh-pooh the idea of a team’s identity (don’t they all want to run hard, throw accurately, tackle soundly and fight, fight, fight?), I do recognize one aspect of “What The Dallas Cowboys Are’’:

This is a roster build (in terms of talent, money and resources) on the Ezekiel Elliott-led running game.

Now, if an opponent can strip that away?

The Cowboys lose whatever “identity’’ they had.

The Cowboys maybe lose the confidence Jones is alluding to.

And the Cowboys quite probably lose the game, too.

Consider the 35-30 loss to the Rams, an explosive young team but one that was a seven-point underdog coming in. Amid all the mistakes committed by Dallas in that game, the collection of failures that jumps out at me is the erasure of the Dallas running game on first down.

Early in a game, every team can stay within its gameplan.

Late in a game, the score can dictate changes in its gameplan.

But how about in the middle of the game, with the scoreboard on a teeter-totter. Can you be “dominant’’ in sticking with your plan and making it work?
Consider the middle of Rams-Cowboys:

*Dallas is up 24-16 and its the first possession of the third quarter. Dak Prescott throws deep to Dez Bryant, incomplete. This would be the only first-down pass the Cowboys throw during a sequence that runs …. first downs deep.

*On the same possession, Dallas has a first-down try. It’s Zeke for minus-1 yard. (Now it’s second-and-11. Two passes and you’re done.)

*LA is moving the scoreboard to 23-19 and Dallas, not feeling any heat just yet, sticks with Zeke on first down. He gains two yards.

*Later Dallas has another first-down run. This time it’s a Jet Sweep featuring rookie Ryan Switzer. (Hooray for those of you demanding more “play-calling creativity’’!) Switzer gains three yards … and on second-and-7 you throw a pass, and then another, and you’re out.

*After the Todd Gurley 53-yard TD catch, it’s LA 26, Dallas 24. Feeling play-calling heat yet? Nah. First down, it’s Zeke. But he gains zero yards. Now you have a second-and-10 and your drive goes nowhere.

*Keep going into the fourth, one more first-down sample: You stick with the gameplan again (nothing wrong with that) so to open the fourth quarter it’s Elliott on a running play on first down. He gains one and now you have second and nine. And you don’t get anywhere.

That’s five straight first-down plays in the middle of a close game with Dallas opting to run the ball. So when “Shan & RJ’’ ask me, as they did this week, “Why didn’t Dallas feed Zeke more?’’ my answer is:

A) They actually did. In terms of touches/targets, there were 27 balls to Elliott. That should be enough.

B) If you want more touches/targets for Zeke, you need them on second and third down. Because he got plenty on first down … but Dallas did nothing with them. And on third-and-11, are we really calling for a handoff to Zeke?

This team is built on offense, and this offense is built on the running game. First-and-10 is a “run down’’ for the Cowboys. If the opponent stops Dallas there, the opponent increases greatly its chances of winning on second-and-11 and third-and-7.

The Cowboys’ failures there strip them of their “identity’’ … and maybe of their confidence in being “dominant,’’ too.

 

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