Grading Jason Garrett’s 28-24 loss to the Vikings



NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Dallas Cowboys

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Cowboys coaching under scrutiny after tough loss to Vikings.

So, the Cowboys lost to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night by the score of 28-24. Many will point to the Dallas defense looking feeble trying to stop the Vikings run game (153 yards) and giving up five 60+ yard drives.

But make no mistake. This game was lost by Jason Garrett and his stubbornness to run the ball and his commitment to conservative play.

Let’s get into the details with the grades.

OVERALL: C

There was some good Sunday, especially from Dak Prescott, the team’s wide-outs and the passing game. They racked up nearly 400 yards passing and accounted for all three of the team’s touchdowns.

The same cannot be said for the rest of the team. The defense struggled all night long. They generated only one sack and recorded no turnovers. Worse, they were gashed for 153 yards on the ground and seemed to have no answer for the Vikings endless parade of screens, play-action bootlegs and mis-direction plays. Only a couple of red-zone stops prevented the Vikings from putting up 35+ points on this unit.

Similarly the Cowboys run game was anemic. They finished with 50 yards on 22 attempts, with the vast majority of those attempts coming on first down. This repeatedly put Prescott and the offense in bad second and third down situations, but they repeatedly managed to overcome those situations. Still, outside of the Cowboys’ passing game none of the other units had a good night.

Coaching: F

In analyzing football, it’s good to try and not be a reactive person. One-off events should not trump long-term results. But it’s hard to remember a game where a football team’s coaching so undermined the player’s efforts on the field. This was manifest, primarily, in the team’s continued insistence to run the ball on first down.

Here’s a table showing the team’s first down results when running and passing the ball:


The Cowboys ran the ball on all five of their first down plays to start the game, and were unsuccessful on every one. In fact, they weren’t successful running the ball on any of their first-down runs other than the one time they used Tavon Austin on an end-around for seven yards.

Admittedly, they weren’t much more successful throwing the ball on first down in the first half (three incompletions, one completion for four yards). But when they took over in the third quarter down six points they finally started throwing the ball, often using play-action (completely absent in the first half). The results:

  • Elliott for 12 yards
  • Witten for 9 yards
  • Cooper 13 yards
  • Cooper 12 yards (touchdown)

Yet after finally enjoying immense success in the third quarter throwing on first down after suffering terrible failure in the first half running the ball on first down, the first five plays on first down in the fourth quarter:

  • Elliott for -4
  • Elliott for 1
  • Elliott for 5
  • Elliott for 0
  • Elliott for 1

Finally, with the team needing a touchdown to score and only 4:34 remaining – and forced to throw the ball – we got the following results when throwing on four consecutive first down plays:

  • Cobb for 20 yards
  • Cooper for 10 yards
  • Incomplete
  • Cooper 20 yards

They then went to Elliott for a first down run of four yards. That eventually led to a first down where they passed again:

It was at this point where Jason Garrett turned a truly bad coaching performance into a horrific, inexplicable coaching performance. The situation:

  • 1:33 remaining.
  • Down 28-24.
  • Running game has been completely shut down all night long.
  • Passing game has been virtually unstoppable, especially in the second half and on this particular drive.

So, what do the Cowboys do when needing two yards for a first down? They dial up consecutive running plays. Shockingly, these two plays combined netted a three yard loss and put Dallas in a desperate fourth-and-5 situation.

The case can be made that Jason Garrett isn’t calling the plays and Kellen Moore is; but coordinators, especially young, first-year coordinators, take cues from the head coach. Garrett’s simple message should have been the direct and simple: “stop running the ball on and just get first downs!”. More importantly, the head coach is the final arbiter. If I’m Garrett in that situation there’s no doubt what I’m telling Moore I want.

On fourth down a failed pass attempt to Elliott ended the drive and seemingly the game. But Dallas then forced a three and out and a punt with 24 seconds remaining.

This is when another conservative decision finally doomed the Cowboys.

Tavon Austin is very fast. He assumed his punt returning position around the Cowboys 45 yard-line and had this field in front of him after catching the at the 46-yard line:


So, we have one of the fastest players in the league with wide open green space, six Cowboys’ blockers and only four Vikings’ defenders. At a minimum he reaches the Vikings’ 40, a reasonable expectation is the Vikings’ 30; a mildly ambitious expectation is that Austin uses his speed and elusiveness to score a stunning game-winning, season-changing touchdown that goes down as one of the single most remarkable plays in Cowboys history. I mean, look at that lane down the left side!

But Austin chose instead to fair catch the ball. The general consensus is Austin was ordered to make the fair catch (as Cris Collinsworth said on the broadcast). Apparently, that wasn’t the case:

The way Austin looked agitated afterwards makes you think he was at least strongly encouraged to not return the ball. Regardless, the wrong decision was made and you have to wonder why.

Add other head-scratching decisions like three straight times not going for it on fourth down to:

  • Attempt a 57-yard field goal rather than going for it on 4th-and-6 from the Vikings’ 39
  • Punting from the Vikings 48 on 4th-and-6
  • Punting from the Vikings 40 on 4th-and-4

Each of these individual decisions fly in the face of what the analytics say to do in those situations.

We should always caution against being reactionary, but this is the most talented Cowboys team we’ve seen in many years. The coaching staff has, by my account, twice handcuffed them with irrational, conservative decision-making that makes it harder for them to win.

I said fire Garrett after the Jets game and I’d argue the same now. He’s restricting the abilities of this team. Our fearless leader Dave Halprin captured it perfectly: “Great coach Monday through Saturday, terrible on Sunday”. This team can’t reach it’s potential with bad game-day coaching.

Quarterback: A

First, some simple numbers:

  • 28 completions on 46 attempts
  • 397 yards
  • (8.6 yards per attempt)
  • 3 touchdowns
  • 0 interceptions
  • 101 rating

Dak Prescott put these numbers up – and put the Cowboys in position to win the game – despite his coaches repeatedly putting him bad down-and-distance situations. He was often facing 2nd-and-9, 3rd-and-12 yet made play after play. His third down numbers at the half:

Essentially, Prescott and the rest of the passing game bailed the Cowboys coaching staff out possession after possession.

Here’s Dak making a miraculous escape to save one play:

Here’s Dak making a laser shot to Randall Cobb for a late first down:

Here’s the advanced stats on Prescott’s touchdown throw to Randall Cobb to tie the game in the second quarter:

Read that again… the lowest receiver separation for a touchdown pass in the entire NFL this season and the pass came from 22 yards out.

Simply, Prescott had an outstanding night where his coaches repeatedly put him in difficult situations. And yet, his biggest mistake on the night might have cost the team a victory. Here’s what Dak had on the team’s failed fourth down attempt late in the game:


It’s easy to pick apart plays frame-by-frame after the fact and say the QB should have done this or that. Sill, it’s hard to believe a wide throw to a well-covered Elliott (a running back!) is preferable to Randall Cobb flashing wide open on the right hashmark for a first down. Cobb’s defender is at least four yards away from him. Heck, it’s not that hard to envision a well-placed ball to Cobb resulting in a touchdown there.

Not sure why Dak chose to go to Elliott there but it was a decision I’m sure he’d like back.

Running back: C-

Obviously, Elliott didn’t have much running room, but he also didn’t do much with what was available. There were a couple runs where he seemed hesitant to hit the hole and didn’t gain yards that seemed for the taking. He also had an open-space catch where he was one-on-one with a defender and did nothing with it. A lot of backs given the same situation would do better.

Wide receivers: A+

It’s hard to envision a better game from a trio of wideouts. Amari Cooper proved yet again he’s an alpha-male among all NFL receivers with another monster game in terms of both volume and efficiency, catching 11 balls on 14 targets for 147 yards and a touchdown. Among his catches were three sideline grabs (including his touchdown) where he defied physics to make seemingly impossible plays:

Randall Cobb finally had a breakout game with 106 yards and a touchdown on six catches. Among them was this phenomenal catch-and-throw late in the first half to gain a tie after being down 14-0 early:

Michael Gallup continued a very strong sophomore season by adding 76 yards and a touchdown that got the Cowboys on the board:

Add it all up and the trio had a supremely productive and efficient night, averaging more than 15 yards per target while reaching the end zone three times:


All of which makes the end-of-game sequence where, needing only two yards for a first down, none of the three were targeted. Infuriating.

Tight ends: B

This group seems fairly consistent. Jason Witten and Blake Jarwin combined for 52 yards on five catches and eight targets. Honestly, at this point it seems like Jarwin is the more dangerous pass catcher. But I don’t know how he does blocking so it’s very possible Witten is the better overall player. It’s also possible Jason Garrett is stubbornly sticking to his favorite player at the expense of a younger, more explosive player. The biggest play from this duo:

Offensive line: B-

On the one hand, the Cowboys running game was toothless, gaining only 50 yards on 22 attempts (2.3 yards per attempt). This despite:

  • Investing huge sums of draft capital and salary cap resources in both the offensive line and the running back
  • The Vikings missing their best run-stopper in Linval Joseph

Frankly, that’s terrible. The entire identity of the Cowboys is their running game and how they’re going to physically impose their will on opponents. Instead, the Vikings absolutely snuffed that out.

Now, the cost of that is the Vikings coverage teams were repeatedly put in difficult situations. A rational, free-thinking coaching staff would have taken advantage of that reality but, well, we have Jason Garrett.

On the other hand, the Vikings have a fearsome pass rush and despite Dak Prescott dropping back 46 times they recorded only a single sack. It wasn’t perfect but it was very impressive. La’el Collins, in particular, deserves kudos for holding up extremely well against Danielle Hunter (who is a terror). All Pro honors for Collins are likely in his future if he keeps up this level of performance.

Tyron Smith also held up well. And folks need to start recognizing the Conner Williams has improved from a weakness to an average NFL guard. Only one sack and zero holding penalties on the night for this group.

Defensive line: C

This unit flashed a lot of promise Sunday night but didn’t record the results. The Cowboys ended up with zero turnovers and only one sack. It’s not hard to envision a single turnover turning this game; so this group’s inability to be disruptive enough was disappointing.

Demarcus Lawrence was his usual self, getting after the quarterback and making his usual high-effort plays. Michael Bennett looked aggressive again and Robert Quinn recorded the team’s only sack (which was a very key play after falling down 14-0):

There just wasn’t enough of that when the Vikings dropped back. And the run defense was – yet again – abysmal. Minnesota ran for 153 yards. On the Vikings final touchdown drive in the fourth quarter they ran 11 times for 53 yards.

The Cowboys inability to deal with teams who commit to the run game is a fundamental and serious defensive vulnerability.

Linebackers: D

Yet another poor game for this group that was so impressive in 2018. Very few plays and a lot of plays where Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee simply weren’t up to the task. Missed tackles, bad angles and general ineffectiveness were the order of the day.

Sean Lee dialed the clock back last week in an impressive performance against the Giants but he was exposed multiple times by the Vikings. He had several missed tackles and ended up on the wrong end of both of the Vikings first quarter touchdowns:

Secondary: D

It’s clear the league has figured out that Chidobie Awuzie has no idea what to do when the ball is in the air. The third-year, former second-round draft pick simply hasn’t improved in getting his head around when the ball is in the air. He was beaten multiple times Sunday night and in each case his head was facing away from the quarterback and he simply had no idea where the ball was:

That catch came after Dallas had clawed back to a 14-14 tie and allowed the Vikings to convert a third down and eventually kick a field goal. Awuzie is very good at coverage but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an NFL cornerback with less ball awareness. Opponents will continue to attack him simply because even when he has good coverage he’s unable to prevent the catch.

It might be time to put Jourdan Lewis on the outside in place of Awuzie and put Anthony Brown back at the slot coverage spot.

Darian Thompson saw a lot of time in place of Jeff Heath who went out early with an injury. Frankly I think he’s the better option at this point. Xavier Woods seemed more intent on hitting the receiver than the ball on a potential interception late in the first half.

Special teams: B-

Analytics say that when facing fourth-and-six from anywhere from the opponent’s 35 to 47 you should go for it. So asking Brett Maher to kick a 57-yard field goal there seems… questionable. You’re more likely to convert the 4th-and-6 than convert the field goal. So I can’t hold Maher to responsible.

Then there’s the fair catch at the end of the game. Was that on Tavon Austin? Or was it strongly suggested to him to save time by fair catching the ball?

Summary:

This is simple. The players played well enough to win. The coaches prevented them from winning. This distinction is so unarguably clear.

I’ve been a Jason Garrett supporter for many years, but not any more. He has to go for this team to reach its potential. They may flounder and flame out with someone else; but there’s no doubt in my mind they simply can’t reach their goal with Jason Garrett as the team’s head coach.





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