Dallas Cowboys: Dak Prescott can survive poor O-line, but can offense?

Cowboys Training Camp 24
Cowboys Training Camp 24 /

With Zack Martin out for Thursday’s opener in Tampa, Connor Williams reconditioning, and La’el Collins health tenuous at best, the Dallas Cowboys strength of the team, the O-line, isn’t exactly a strength.

The offensive line is supposed to be the backbone of this entire Dallas Cowboys roster, yet this sudden case of “scoliosis” has them entering Week One under less than ideal circumstances. For a team that will struggle to even field an average defense, Dallas needs an offense that can dominate. Having an elite offensive line makes that dominance possible.

Can the Dallas Cowboys offense still perform if their offensive line is banged up?

Last year offers us a pretty good answer to that complex question…provided we know where to look. If you’re like me, you’ve likely suppressed all memories of the 2020 season per psychiatric advice. It was one of the most painful campaigns in recent memory and paired perfectly with that style-cramping pandemic thing that just doesn’t seem to go away.

But even painful memories offer helpful information, so we will face our fears and look back at what a disaster our offensive line was those first five games of 2020. La’el Collins was out, swing tackle Cam Ervin quickly followed. Tyron Smith made it only two games. Ultimately Dallas was forced to start an undrafted free agent at one tackle spot, and an undrafted free agent rookie at the other tackle spot. Not great, Bob.

But before Dak Prescott was injured on a Week Five scramble, this situation offered a glimpse of what life is like for a Dallas Cowboys team hampered by weak O-line play.

Dallas Cowboys Offense: The Good News

The good news is sacks are a quarterback stat and last year was just another example that sacks stay pretty stable regardless of the O-line situation. As we explained in “Can the Cowboys hobbled O-line keep Dak safe”, sacks tend to follow QBs around and while some are on the pass protection (those that happen in 2.5 seconds or less), majority are on a QB’s ability to manage and play within the current state of pass protection.

You’ll see above, even though the O-line quality fell off a cliff, Dak’s sack rate stayed pretty darn stable. That tells us even if the O-line struggles early this year, we don’t have to worry about Dak getting Adrian-Clayborned or anything. He’ll recognize he has less time and adjust accordingly.

But that doesn’t speak to the offense’s real production. It’s true, we saw Dak tear the NFL up through the air last season. He was on pace to set records in multiple categories and his PFF ranking (stats plus film review) gave him the highest rating of his career. Dak was getting it done. But…

Dallas Cowboys Offense: The Bad News

Looking deeper though, we can see it wasn’t so easy-peasy for Dak and the offense. They routinely struggled early, giving Dak less time in the pocket, less time to read the field, and more likely to settle (Dak’s check-down rate was 2 points higher than league average). With the reduced “average time in the pocket” Dak’s offense struggled in the first two quarters of games.

Dak Prescott Under Pressure

Dak’s grade under pressure last season dropped all the way to 24th in the league. His passer rating under pressure was a career worst. His EPA/play under pressure was a career worst. His interception percentage under pressure was a career worst. His big time throw percentage under pressure was a career worst as was his turnover worthy play percentage. He was pressing and the numbers show it. Heck, 57% of his passes were thrown in 2.5 seconds or less (a career high).

So while Dak Prescott can surely survive behind a suspect O-line (I’ll remind you he was hurt running the ball, not under pressure in the pocket) the offense’s production can’t boast the same.

The tale of the season was falling behind quickly. Poor play in the first half set the tone and often gave up insurmountable leads to opponents. Despite ranking as one of the top offenses overall, the Dallas Cowboys were below average in both passing and rushing in Quarters 1 & 2.

That’s not how you win games and if it wasn’t for some heroic comebacks, Dallas wouldn’t have won many games at all last year.

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So while the final numbers show Dak Prescott and the passing attack can survive anything, if one just peels back the layers of the onion they can see the offense didn’t really survive anything. The takeaway is this – the Dallas Cowboys need a healthy offensive line this season.

They can survive an injury here or there but they cannot have a repeat of last year. If more than one starter is lost for a given game, the Cowboys will struggle in production. We knew before the running game is almost completely dependent on the O-line but looking at some of these numbers, the passing game is pretty dependent as well.

O-lines matter, my friends.

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Dak Prescott is a great QB who can make up for a lot, but we can’t underrate the impact this O-line has on this team and the inescapable trickle-down effect it has on both sides of the ball.