The Cowboys are 1-2 after another dreadful offensive performance. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel, or just more questions? In the latest SportsDay Cowboys Roundtable, our experts dish on plenty of topics surrounding America’s Team.
Sean Lee is injured again. Are we seeing the beginning of the end for his Cowboys career?
David Moore: It’s true that Lee is the only starter on either side of the ball for the Cowboys in his 30s. It’s true he struggled to stay on the field early in his career with a variety of injuries and missed the entire season in 2014 when he tore his ACL. But here’s what critics too quickly dismiss: Lee missed a total of just eight games over the previous three seasons, and one of those came when he, along with a vast majority of starters, was held out for the final game of the regular season against Philadelphia to prepare for the playoffs. Lee will likely miss a few weeks now as he works to return from a left hamstring injury that forced him to miss some time in the second half of last season. That doesn’t mean the beginning of the end is in sight.
Brandon George: The Cowboys have tried just about every way to keep Sean Lee healthy and it still hasn’t worked. He’s now likely to miss at least the next two games with a strained left hamstring and possibly up to four. Twice last season he missed about a one-month stretch with a strained left hamstring. The Cowboys were 1-4 in those five games he missed. He’s the key to this Cowboys’ defense, able to get everyone in the right place and adjust quickly on the fly. When he’s healthy, he’s the Cowboys’ best defensive player. But he’s 32 now with one more year left on his contract. If he’s signed beyond 2019, I’m sure the Cowboys will structure the deal in a way that he gets most of his money based on percentage of snaps played.
Jon Machota: It’s very possible. If he can’t stay healthy, the team has to find other solutions. It’s disappointing for everyone involved because of the work Lee puts in and the lengths he’s gone to try avoiding these issues. I don’t know that anyone in the game works harder or is more focused on his craft than Lee. But availability is important. Lee turns 33 in July. That’s old by linebacker standards. And that’s part of the reason they drafted Leighton Vander Esch. The only player older than Lee on this current roster is the long snapper. Dallas is a much better defense when Lee is on the field. I expect to see a drop off in play without him.
Kate Hairopoulos: You could tell after the Seattle game that Lee was upset he’d suffered yet another hamstring injury. He’d been flying around out there before having to leave the game in the third quarter. It has to be frustrating for a player who puts so much time and effort into preparation and trying to keep his body right that he keeps suffering the same soft tissue issues. Lee’s leadership remains crucial while he’s out. As for long-term, I think that’s why the Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch picks in two of the last three drafts aren’t as redundant as some thought at the start of the season. Dallas appears better equipped to deal with Lee missing games, but after the struggles without him last season, that still needs to be demonstrated.
If you were the Cowboys’ coach or GM, what is the first move you would make to get this stagnant offense on track?
David Moore: Glad you ask. Stephen Jones and Jason Garrett texted me earlier today with that exact question, and I haven’t had a chance to get back to them. My first move would be a game plan similar to what you saw to open against the New York Giants. Come out throwing. This will continue to be a run first team as long as Ezekiel Elliott is in his prime. That won’t change. What needs to change is the idea that Elliott and this offensive line can impose its will on the opposition from the opening snap. It can’t. The passing game isn’t efficient enough at the moment. It needs to pass to set up the run then hope to find a balance. It needs to jump start quarterback Dak Prescott, develop some tempo and rhythm then let the game unfold with its run first mentality. A former Pro Bowl quarterback in the NFL — just kidding, it was Babe Laufenberg — points out that the Cowboys have scored just 13 points in the first quarter of the last 10 games. Defenses are sitting on the run and daring the Cowboys to pass early. If they don’t hit some plays in the passing game early, this trend will continue. And as everyone has seen, this is not a team that is built to play from behind.
Brandon George: The first thing I would do is commit to Dak Prescott running the ball at least five times a game on designed plays. The only way this offense is going to work this year is to call running plays for Prescott and allow him to use one of his strengths and that is his ability to run. When Prescott has received at least five carries in a game, the Cowboys are 9-2. They’re 4-0 when he gets at least seven carries. This offense doesn’t have enough threats in the passing game to rely on it moving the ball consistently through the air. They’re struggling to keep drives alive, one of the worst teams in the league on third down. The Cowboys need Prescott to get some of those first downs on designed running plays. It has to be a part of the offense every game, and you didn’t see that at all in Sunday’s loss at Seattle.
Jon Machota: I’d take more chances throwing deep. The Cowboys have taken very few this season. I’d have a hard time believing any NFL team takes fewer. And I’m not saying they are going to work. The deep ball has never really been Dak Prescott’s strength, but at least attempting a few could get the defense to back up a bit. It’s much easier on the opponent when they know there’s little-to-no chance they’re going to be tested deep. I’d like to see more Prescott designed runs as well. The recent game plans seem to be a great fit for a good pocket passer. Prescott’s greatest strength is his mobility. Roll him out a little more, giving him the option to run or throw. If he’s not consistently getting opportunities to use his athleticism then the game plan isn’t being set to his strengths.
Kate Hairopoulos: I’d bring back Dez Bryant and yank Jason Witten out of the MNF broadcast booth immediately. OK, not really. But it’s simply become evident that opposing defenses don’t have to fear anyone but running back Ezekiel Elliott. It is a PROBLEM when tight end Geoff Swaim is the leading receiver, in targets and receptions. Oh, you wanted answers? It’s not easy, short of adding to the roster, an idea Jerry Jones has dismissed at this time. For me, the biggest thing is finding a way to make Dak Prescott more comfortable. I get that Seattle keyed on him and didn’t allow him to run the football as he had the week before against the Giants. But it’s up to the coaching staff to find other ways to free him to move the ball with his legs or at the least capitalize on what the Seahawks are giving up by their focus on taking that away.
How much does the offensive line miss Travis Frederick? Can you point to any clear examples?
David Moore: Frederick is arguably the league’s best center. Defensive end Tyrone Crawford calls him a guru in recognizing alignments and calling it out for his fellow offensive linemen. Joe Looney, a backup guard for most of his NFL career, can’t be expected to match what Frederick brings to the offensive physically and from a recognition and communication standpoint. That being said, Looney has graded out well in these first three games. He’s doing a good job. A Pro Bowl job? No. That’s what the Cowboys miss without Frederick. This line hasn’t lived up to expectations early in the season, especially when it comes to protecting the quarterback. Don’t lay that at Looney’s cleats. There have been some individual breakdowns on protection issues across the line that have nothing to do with Frederick’s absence.
Brandon George: The Cowboys definitely miss All-Pro center Travis Frederick. But for the most part, Joe Looney has done a very good job of filling in for one of the league’s best centers. But Frederick is dominant at his position, with the ability to take out one of the opposing defense’s best interior offensive lineman by himself. Frederick would likely be able to lend more support for rookie left guard Connor Williams on plays than he receives at times from Looney. Frederick moved so well for a big center and also helped Ezekiel Elliott get to that second level on runs. He’s certainly missed, but it hasn’t been the glaring absence you might have feared once he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Jon Machota: I don’t have any clear examples other than to say Fredrick is a better player than Joe Looney. So obviously if you have him out there, everyone on the offensive line is going to benefit. Looney clearly hasn’t been a disaster. Everyone who watched the Cowboys loss in Atlanta knows what a disaster looks like on the offensive line when a starter is out. Looney has been solid. The Cowboys miss Frederick just as much as they miss having an elite receiver on the outside or a Pro Bowl pass-catching tight end.
Kate Hairopoulos: He’s missed of course. He’s known for his blocking ability at the second level and for his smarts, helping read the defenses and make adjustments, all while snapping the ball and blocking the dude right in front of him. But Joe Looney has filled in pretty well. I wonder if there are bigger issues on the offensive line beyond Frederick’s illness. Sure rookie Connor Williams is still adjusting, but not often you see Tyron Smith getting beat or Troy Aikman criticizing Zack Martin, all of which occurred at Seattle. Prescott clearly isn’t comfortable when the line isn’t giving him time, so when the supposed strength of the team isn’t performing, it needs to be addressed.
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