Five takeaways from the Cowboys’ Week 3 win over the Eagles
The Cowboys are the only ones in possession of the first place in the NFC East. Granted, it’s not the biggest division the NFL has ever seen, but after 2020, winning does feel good regardless. Better yet, the Cowboys rose to the top of the division by strangling the Philadelphia Eagles. For now, life is good.
After a 20-point Cowboys victory, headlines are starting to emerge left and right. There are at least five conclusions we could draw from Dak Prescott’s one near-perfect performance. However, we knew Dak was part of the elite when the game started, so what did we really learn?
The Cowboys won the draft-day trade with the Eagles
As a quick reminder, the Eagles gave up a pick to switch positions with the Cowboys in the first round of the draft to take on DeVonta Smith. Two picks later, the Cowboys took Micah Parsons. It’s entirely possible Dallas would have taken Parsons at ten, and Smith would still be on the board when the Eagles were on the scoreboard. But remember, the Eagles gave up on a third round pick to avoid that “what if” scenario.
The three players involved in this trade faced off on Monday, and it was a lot nicer for the Cowboys. DeVonta Smith finished with three receptions on six targets for 28 yards, a relatively calm game considering Smith played 90% of the snaps. This includes a snap where Smith tripped while breaking on the outside, leading to a Trevon Diggs pick-six.
Micah Parsons was not so quiet. The rookie linebacker finished with four presses, four tackles, one slap pass, one half-sack and a 0% missed tackle rate. Parsons was everywhere last night, forcing his will on the Eagles offense.
It’s hard to think of Parsons as a rookie. According to Pro Football Focus, he is currently the 17th best defensive player and 14th best passer in the NFL. With Demarcus Lawrence out, Micah Parsons is the most impactful defenseman on the Cowboys roster.
Oh, and remember that third-round pick the Eagles had to pay to progress? The Cowboys used that pick to select Chauncey Golston. If there was an award for the best performance of the night that no one is discussing, it would go to Golston.
Chauncey Golston generated two quarterback presses, three tackles and received the second-highest PFF rating among any Dallas defenseman in Week 3.
If you need another reason to be bullish about this team, the two players involved in trading with the Eagles finished with six combined quarterback presses, seven tackles and a half-sack. Philadelphia basically paid for Dallas to torment Jalen Hurts.
We should only wish DeVonta Smith the best. He is a promising player with a bright future ahead of him. But in the first installment of the trade after the draft between the division rivals, only the Dallas players made a substantial impact.
The Cowboys are a playoff team
Yes, Dallas only played three games. But barring a disaster, this team will almost certainly be in the playoffs in January. The Cowboys are the best team in a horrific division, and it would take them a complete meltdown for them to miss an NFC East title.
Entering this week, the Cowboys had a 59% chance of qualifying for the playoffs. After dismantling the team that many expect to be the second-best in the division, their playoff odds jumped to 76%. With fourteen games to go, the Cowboys are more likely to appear in the playoffs than the Kansas City Chiefs.
That projection is in part due to the Cowboys’ five remaining games on the calendar against teams from the still-in shambles NFC East. By EPA metrics, the Dallas Cowboys are the sixth best team in the NFL. The rest of the division averages an EPA ranking of 22, the highest being the Eagles at 17. The story is similar with PFF, where the Cowboys land as the fourth-best team in the league, while the other three NFC East teams average a rank of 19.
The division is not good, but the Cowboys play a different game than other NFC East teams. In fact, Dallas currently has a 40% chance of taking one of the NFC’s top three seeds. This game proved the Cowboys to be the class of the division, and assuming the NFC East crosses Dallas.
The coaching staff is a mixed bag
The Cowboys’ training situation simultaneously pushes this team forward and holds them back. It’s both infuriating and beautiful to watch.
Kellen Moore hums the offense. Due to Moore’s call, Dallas is averaging 30 points per game, the most NFL first-downs and the fourth-best third-down conversion rate. Watching Moore exploit a weakness in a defense is like watching Picasso paint.
On the other side of the ball is the miracle improvement that Dan Quinn spearheads. I’m not sure if a coordinator can host Coach of the Year, but if so, Quinn should be considered. It took on a defense that allowed the fifth most points in the NFL a year ago and made it the thirteenth best team in terms of points allowed.
On Monday night, even John Fassel appeared to fix the mistakes of the special teams. Other than a Zuerlein kick, which you can’t pin on Fassel, the special teams played a perfect game.
It’s hard to give the coordinators all that credit and not believe that Mike McCarthy is at least making an impact on the bottom line. Surely the head coach is responsible for part of the turnaround, right? The story was set, Mike McCarthy coached first-year head coach Nick Sirianni. Then McCarthy tore that narrative apart by handling the clock in a bewildering fashion.
The decision not to request a time out on the third and fourth at the end of the first half cost the Cowboys a 6% drop in their expected winning percentage. Fortunately, Dallas won the game, but it wasn’t because McCarthy decided to play it safe.
There aren’t a lot of statistics that measure coaching, so it’s hard to bolster that argument with analytics. But it looks like the Cowboys have the most lopsided coaching staff in history. You’ve got geniuses on their respective side with Kellen Moore and Dan Quinn, but they’re run by a coach who can’t seem to manage time.
Currently, the McCarthy Cowboys lead the division and appear to be in a prime position to return to the playoffs. Again, it’s hard not to give the leader of this team credit for the recent success. But it is a confusing situation. Hate him or love him; Mike McCarthy must learn to operate a clock before it escalates into disaster.
Defense is … good
Don’t confuse the elite with the good. The Cowboys are giving up the passing yards at a high pace, but it’s an improved version of the no-break defensive philosophy the Cowboys led under Rod Marinelli. The result is a legitimately good defense.
Prior to this week, Jalen Hurts was the second-ranked quarterback, according to PFF. On Monday night, the Cowboys defense limited Hurts to seven significant points. As the Eagles finished with 21 points, one touchdown came from a fumble in the end zone, and another came late in the game.
Last season, the Cowboys defense ranked 28th by PFF and 21st by EPA by play allowed. Enter Dan Quinn and Micah Parsons. Per EPA per game allowed, the Dallas defense is eighth best with its secondary being seventh. If you don’t trust the EPA, PFF has the Cowboys as the eleventh ranked defense, the sixth best cover.
After admirable performances against Justin Herbert and Tom Brady, there was speculation that the defense could be average. But what we’ve seen so far is nothing short of a miracle.
The Cowboys’ defense stats fell below par in 2020, where they now rank in the top half of the NFL for three weeks:
- Points allowed per match
- First authorized tests
- The rushing yards allowed per game
- Percentage of hit in the opponent’s red zone
By all accounts, the Cowboys have good defense. I repeat, this defense is not an elite and we can not count on it to carry the team. However, a good defense is a remarkable improvement over last year. Who would have guessed that focusing on that side of the ball during the offseason could actually result in defensive success?
The offensive line deserves more credit
There has been a lot of news around the two-headed backfield that the Cowboys are using, as Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott have looked solid this year. But there’s rarely any credit given to the guys who make this tandem work.
The Cowboys are averaging an impressive 4.6 yards per rushing rushing, the seventh best in the NFL. The reason for this success is due to the top five in the offensive line. By PFF ranking, the Cowboys are hands down the best running blocking team in the NFL.
Equally impressive is the protection of the offensive line in the passing game. Tyron Smith, Zach Martin and Connor Williams gave up four combined presses and a sack this year. Remember, Micah Parsons suffered four pressures in week three alone.
These three linemen played almost perfect football in three games. While Connor Williams struggled with penalties against the Eagles, at least two of those calls were questionable at best. We’re still a long way from getting back to the offensive line of 2014, but it’s been a drastic improvement over last year. With La’el Collins set to return in three weeks, it could be a top-five offensive line in the league assuming health.
While Tyler Biadsz struggled early in the year, giving the quarterback eleven presses, he is still young. There has to be some improvement at center position, but for now Cowboys fans should feel secure in protection from the start.
Whether or not you believe in the legitimacy of the Cowboys’ start to the season, we can all agree that it feels good to be on top again. Beating a division rival is one thing, but chasing the Philadelphia Eagles in prime-time football is a whole different kind of happiness.
It’s still early days, but at least there is reason to be optimistic. Looking at the schedule before the start of the season, most would have thought that a 2-1 record was the best case scenario over three weeks. Well, we’re Cowboys fans; let’s take advantage of another victorious week.