FRISCO, Texas — The Dallas Cowboys took a punch to the gut in the Week 5 edition of “Sunday Night Football” against the San Francisco 49ers, a contest in which they were knocked out early in what concluded as a 42-10 whooping. The loss was the largest of 30-year-old Pro Bowl quarterback Dak Prescott’s eight-year career, and he took a fair portion of the blame after throwing three interceptions, tied for his career-high.
“I think when we have established a rhythm, that has been something to lean on with our tempo, changing up our personnel and putting pressure on the other team,” Prescott said postgame on Sunday. “It starts with getting one first down…. It’s tough to overcome. You feel like you are stepping on your own feet. When you get a first down like we did on I think our fourth possession [it was their fifth], we got better. You look at the rest of the game, it was either three-and-outs or the turnover spree that I started.”
Jake Ferguson, the 24-year-old tight end whose 20 catches this season rank as the second-most on the team behind only CeeDee Lamb‘s 27, went out of his way to pick Prescott up after the disappointment that came with the loss to the 49ers.
“I texted him [Prescott] after the game and I’m like ‘I’m with you til the wheels fall off,'” Ferguson said Thursday. “He’s in that leadership role, and it’s my job to follow him and run through a brick wall if he tells me to. It’s that kind of mindset going into this. It’s like, ‘Hey, I got your back, and you know it too.’ I’m just gonna do my best to keep getting open and keep getting work done, keep getting yards.”
The loss to the Niners marked the Cowboys’ second embarrassing defeat of the season, along with a 28-16 upset loss at the previously winless Arizona Cardinals back in Week 3.
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When zooming out to look at how different McCarthy’s offense is from former offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, who is now in the same role with the Los Angeles Chargers, it’s apparent there isn’t much of a difference at all through the first quarter of the season.
When you remove non-offensive scores, of which the Cowboys have four this season, and take the temperature of the Dallas offense, the unit is averaging 21.2 offensive points per game this season, down 5.2 points per game from last season. One of McCarthy’s big philosophical assertions about his offense versus Moore’s was that he “wanted to run the damn ball.” That was said in the context of maintaining possession and not wearing out his defense. So far, the Cowboys are running the football at essentially the same rate as they did in Moore’s offense.
Meanwhile, the Chargers are averaging five more points per game with Moore (27. 5 in 2023 vs. 22.5 in 2022) while quarterback Justin Herbert has increased his average pass length to 8.8 in 2023, the fifth-longest in the NFL, after averaging 6.4 last season, the third-shortest in the NFL. On the flip side, the Cowboys now average almost an air yard fewer per pass attempt this season than they did last season (7.9 to 7.0), an indicator of McCarthy’s desire to overcorrect on a 2022 campaign in which Prescott’s 15 interceptions co-led the league despite the quarterback missing five games with a thumb injury. While remaining a top-five third-down offense, the Cowboys went from being the most efficient red zone offense in 2022 to the fifth-least efficient red zone offense in 2023.
With the rollercoaster-like nature of the Cowboys “Texas Coast” offense in head coach Mike McCarthy’s first season as Dallas’ offensive play-caller, frustrations are beginning to show.
“We got to be complete,” wide receiver CeeDee Lamb said postgame on Sunday. “We can’t go out there one week and look like a super team and then the following week shit the bed.”
When asked what the Cowboys’ offensive identity is this season, he provided a damning answer.
“I don’t know,” Lamb said.
Cowboys offense the last two seasons
|Air Yards/Pass Att||7.9||7.0*|
|Red Zone TD Pct||71.4%||36.8%*|
|Third Down Pct||45.5%||49.3%|
|Red Zone TD Pct||71.4%||36.8%|
|Time of Possession||29:20*||32:16|
* Ranks 16th or worse in NFL
“Definitely haven’t seen the numbers we have wanted, but at the same time, we know we are a good offense and that we can put points on the board,” Ferguson said. “It starts this week with everything we are doing: meeting extra maybe, getting on the field and running certain routes extra, working a little bit more on red zone. Just getting together as offense and clicking a little more so that when we do get that red zone opportunity, we’re making points and scoring.”
That extra work took place Thursday afternoon as Prescott made time after practice to pull Ferguson aside to get on the same page with his tight end regarding a few routes he had some questions about.
“He [Prescott] does a great job of making sure everyone is on their P’s and Q’s without being overloaded and doing too much,” Ferguson said. “That’s perfect. Today [Thursday] for example: there were some routes on air where I was like ‘hey, it doesn’t quite feel right.’ He said ‘great, let’s work on it after practice.’ We ran a couple of them and then we talked an extra 10 minutes on what it is like… It just helps when you have that guy in your ear showing you and running you through it extra so when it gets to game day, live reps, it’s lights outs.”
Ten-year NFL veteran receiver Brandin Cooks was brought in this past offseason in a trade with the Houston Texans to be the Cowboys’ fill-in for Amari Cooper as the other top receiver opposite Lamb, but he only has nine catches for 73 yards in his four games played. That isn’t bothering him because of what he see from Prescott plus his work over the years with veteran quarterbacks like future Hall of Famers Tom Brady and Drew Brees.
“He [Prescott] goes back to work,” Cooks said Thursday. “Win or lose, he’s going to get back to work, work tail off. That’s what you expect from your quarterback. And that’s what he’s doing. His demand for us goes up, and I love it. Because at the end of the day, he takes a lot of the heat, but really we all can help him in some sort of way. More work, more film together, letting him speak on how he sees things and us adjusting as pass catchers. At the end of the day, what he wants is what he wants and we have make it work as receivers, so you’re seeing a little more of that.
“I’m definitely trusting the process. What I do every single day, regardless good or bad, I’m coming in here and I’m going to work. … I’m trusting the process and that’s what I’m always going to do. Work harder. Be better. Be ready. … We hit adversity now, but it’s a long season. We’re going to hit our stride. I truly believe that. We really just have to execute,” Cooks said. “Every player has to be better. I guess you could call it natural growing pains, whatever you want to call it. We’re five, six weeks in. We just have to go back to work and do the things we said we were gonna do. Get on the same page, timing, get open. Losing the way we did, it was disappointing. We know what type of football team we are. We know how talented we are. We know how good we can be. It’s just about showing up and being consistent with that.”
Dallas’ next chance to show up is against Moore and the Chargers in Los Angeles at SoFi Stadium on “Monday Night Football,” an opportunity to show their former play-caller how resilient they truly are in McCarthy’s offense.