Dallas Cowboys reliance on third down came back to bite them

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports /

No team in the NFL is as proficient on third downs as the Dallas Cowboys. Since Dak Prescott made his way back into the lineup in Week 7, the Cowboys have led the NFL in third down success rate and third down EPA, and frankly, it’s not even close.

The Cowboys proficiency on third downs is the only reason they are as good as they are each week in the points column. Again, since Dak returned to the field, the Dallas Cowboys are top-6 in offense. This lofty status even after the week 18 stinker in Washington.

The Dallas Cowboys have been using third down prowess to hide their offensive failures elsewhere.

Dak Prescott has always been a top-notch third down machine. He’s consistently ranked at the tops of boards and routinely keeps drives alive that had no business living on. So when Dak does have his occasional “off-night”, you can bet everyone notices everything.

To say Prescott had an off-night in the regular season finale is a bit of an understatement. It was the worst performance of his career I can remember seeing and inexcusable in nearly every way. But it brought to light other issues that have been going on in Dallas and shows just how much this offense has been relying on him to be great every third down.

The Dallas Cowboys have made it a habit of squandering early downs. Unsuccessful plays early have led to “Dak, help us” late. It’s a model that’s destined for catastrophe and frankly the Cowboys are lucky they saw its flaws in a week that didn’t matter. Next Monday in Tampa, they won’t be so lucky.

Play-calling and play design have to be better

Three yards and cloud of dust is not a win on first down. Neither is a slow developing passing play that doesn’t scheme open a single target. Play-calling and play-design have to be better

More motion, more misdirection, more creative packages and formations attacking favorable situations (i.e don’t run into a seven man box or pass into a seven man secondary)

Washington showed us what the offense looks like when Dak isn’t playing superman on third down. His efficiency all season was unsustainable so we’re actually lucky we saw it crash back to earth in a low-stakes situation.

Sports Dallas Fort-Worth
Sports Dallas Fort-Worth /

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It’s playoff time and that means it’s time to be less flippant with early downs because relying on one player to defy the odds and bail you out every third down is a recipe for disaster.