8:20 PM EST, NBC – Line: Cowboys -3, Over/Under: 51.5
A pair of teams who underachieved greatly in 2019 look to put their troubles behind them, as the Dallas Cowboys meet the Los Angeles Rams from their brand new SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California. Of all the franchises in the National Football League, none manage to stay more relevant within the national consciousness than the Cowboys (8-8, 2nd in NFC East in 2019), who once again dominated headlines throughout the Offseason on a variety of fronts, from Free Agency, to the NFL Draft, to making a long overdue coaching change. Coming into 2019, many around the league were pointing towards Dallas as one of the heavy favorites to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LIV, and off the strength of their prolific 3-0 start, they certainly looked the part; the Offense averaged a robust 32.3 Points per Game on a whopping 481.3 Total Yards during that quick start to the campaign. However, the team would then drop each of their next three outings, and proceed to meander back and forth throughout the remainder of the term en route to an underwhelming 8-8 finish, their first non-winning season since 2015 and the last straw for Head Coach, Jason Garrett, who was relieved of his duties following the finale.
After a prolonged coaching search, Cowboys’ Owner, Jerry Jones, ultimately settled on former Pacers’ skipper, Mike McCarthy, who had spent 2019 unemployed after a bitter divorce with Green Bay. Jones lamented the need for a coach with plenty of experience that could get the most out of what is still considered to be one of the most talented rosters in the league. In that regard, McCarthy certainly fits the bill, having compiled a 125-77-2 (.618) record with the Packers, including nine playoff appearances headlined by a Super Bowl Championship in 2010. Granted, it can be argued that he should have done more with the talent at his disposal (I.E. Aaron Rodgers), and while his tactics and schemes really looked antiquated towards the end of his tenure, many believe that taking a year off to recharge has done the 56-Year Old a world of good. Along with McCarthy comes a wealth of change to the defensive side of the football; Rod Marinelli, Kris Richard, and the Tampa-Two/Seattle Cover-Three mashup is gone, with veteran Defensive Coordinator, Mike Nolan, bringing in his favored 3-4 defensive front, which should be interesting with the personnel on hand. Dallas was solid in the phase of the game, ranking Eleventh Overall in Points Allowed (20.1) and Ninth Overall in Total Defense (327.0). However, the secondary was a bit of a mess, and with Byron Jones (46 TKL, 1 FF, 6 PD in 2019) leaving in Free Agency, they’re much thinner at Cornerback than they were previously. Interestingly enough, it remains to be seen how much changes offensively because the only significant Assistant Coach from the previous Coaching Staff to be retained by McCarthy is Offensive Coordinator, Kellen Moore, who was the architect of an attack that led the NFL in Total Offense (441.0). Clearly continuity on this side of the ball is something that Jones valued greatly when it came to searching for a new Head Coach, and it appears that McCarthy has acquiesced, for this unit looks like it should be just as strong (if not stronger) than it was in 2019. Pro Bowlers Ezekiel Elliott (301 CAR, 1,357 YDS, 4.5 Y/C, 12 TD in 2019) and Amari Cooper (79 REC, 1,189 YDS, 15.1 Y/R, 8 TD in 2019) turned in excellent campaigns, with the latter inking a lucrative five-year $100 million contract, with $60 million in guarantees, while the Offensive Line remains one of the most formidable groups in the league. Furthermore, Dallas continued to invest in the passing game, selecting Oklahoma Wide Receiver, CeeDee Lamb (62 REC 1,327 YDS, 21.4 Y/R, 14 TD in 2019), with the Seventeenth Pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, adding yet another weapon to their arsenal.
With that said, you’ll notice that we haven’t mentioned their Quarterback, Dak Prescott (65.1%, 4,902 YDS, 7.68 NY/A, 30 TD, 11 INT in 2019), quite yet. The saga surrounding his contract has dominated the Offseason for the Cowboys, with the 27-Year Old looking for a MAJOR raise that for all intents and purposes, he has earned. The debate is simple: Prescott was selected 135th Overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, and after being thrust into the action in support of an injured Tony Romo, has been one of the most successful Quarterbacks in the league, starting every game over the past four years with a 40-24 (.625) record in the process, with a pair of playoff appearances to his credit. However, while absolutely nobody will argue that he hasn’t outplayed his rookie contract, Dallas has and will continue to deliberate his worth in regards to the highest-paid players at his position. In a summer in which the likes of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson have signed mammoth contract extensions north of $38 million annually, Prescott has played out his the length of his contract, spending the majority of the offseason locked in a standoff with the franchise that drafted him. Granted, Jones has invested heavily elsewhere on the roster, so the legitimacy that there is in fact enough money to satisfy his Quarterback are legitimate. Coming off a career campaign, is the two-time Pro-Bowler worth the money that Mahomes and Watson have received? Where will the line be drawn? Is there any conceivable way that this drama effects his play during the season? One thing is for certain, this saga is far from over, for Prescott signed his Franchise Tag Tender ($31.409 million, fully guaranteed), which while ensuring that he will be paid handsomely in 2020, also means that he’ll be right back at the bargaining table next Spring.
Meanwhile, lost in the shadow of their opponent tonight are the Rams (9-7, 3rd in NFC West) who are coming off what can likely be described as an even more disappointing campaign than the Cowboys. After all, Los Angeles participated in Super Bowl LIII, and were expected at the very least to return to the Playoffs, but that simply wasn’t the case as Sean McVay’s charges slumped to Third Place in the resurgent NFC West. Granted, in most years a 9-7 record would be enough to book a Wild Card, but that wouldn’t be enough within the Division, with both the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks surpassing them in the standings. So what the hell happened to them you ask? Well, though the numbers may not openly suggest it, this was a team that regressed on both sides of the football, and in many respects will be starting over in 2020. Balance has been the key word for everything they’ve done since McVay arrived in 2017, with the running game serving as the foundation for their heavy Play-Action oriented attack. In 2017, the Rams ranked Eighth in Rushing Offense (122.1) followed by Third in 2018 (139.4), but saw that key figure slump to Twenty-Sixth Overall (93.7), which created a ripple effect throughout the unit. three-time Pro Bowl Tailback, Todd Gurley (223 CAR, 857 YDS, 3.8 Y/C, 12 TD in 2019), looked like he fell off a cliff behind an Offensive Line that collapsed upon itself, going from averaging 135.3 Total Yards from 2017 to 2018 to a meager 70.9 Total Yards in 2019. As a result, Management waived Gurley in shocking turn of events, saying goodbye to the 2017 Offensive Player of the Year less than twelve months after signing him to a lucrative contract extension.
Of course, the capitulation of the Offensive Line coupled with the decline of Gurley led to more than just a toothless rushing attack, it also had an adverse effect on Quarterback, Jared Goff (62.9%, 4,638 YDS, 6.9 NY/A, 22 TD, 16 INT in 2019), who had a lot to prove heading into 2019, having signed a four-year $134 million contract extension following a less than stellar performance in Super Bowl LIII. At just 25-Years Old, the former No. One Overall Pick is far from a finished product, but he struggles last season without the benefit of Play-Action really revealed just far he has to go. We talked about balance earlier, and this kid has needed it to thrive in the early stages of his relationship with McVay; in 2018, the Rams ranked Fourteenth in Passing Attempts (568), Fifth in Passing Offense (4,507), and Third in Net Yards per Attempt (7.5), in comparison to Eighth in Rushing Attempts (459), Third in Yards (2,231) and Third in Yards per Carry (4.9). Those figures in 2019? Completely different with Third in Pass Attempts (632), Fourth in Yards (4,499), Eleventh in Net Yards per Attempt (6.9), Eighteenth in Rushing Attempts (401), Twenty-Sixth in Yards (1,499), and Twenty-Seventh in Yards per Carry (3.7). That’s a .553 Run/Pass Ratio versus .612. Of course, running the football successfully, particularly on earlier downs, typically leads to sustained drives, and that was just another facet of the offense that dried up in 2019; Los Angeles ranked Fifth Overall in Third Down Percentage (45.0%), only to see that statistic fall to Fifteenth (39.9%) last year. Simply put, this isn’t the established recipe for success for Goff, who led the National Football League with 626 Passing Attempts, which should tell you everything you need to know. However, it’s clear that this is his team now, and with Gurley gone, along with vertical threat, Brandin Cooks (42 REC, 583 YDS, 13.9 Y/R, 2 TD in 2019), the onus will be on reaching the potential and expectations that were set when he signed that aforementioned extension.
It’s difficult to see where the Rams finish in the pecking order of what is sure to be a competitive NFC once again. After advancing to the Super Bowl two years ago, Management sold out in an attempt to keep their championship window open, but in a weird twist of events have only done the opposite. In trading away a plethora of Draft Picks over the past few years to acquire the services of the likes of All-Pro Cornerback, Jalen Ramsey (33 TKL, 1 FF, 1 INT, 4 PD in 2019), and the aforementioned Cooks, and handing out huge contracts to Goff, Gurley, Ramsey, and former Defensive Player of the Year, Aaron Donald (48 TKL, 20 TFL, 24 QBH, 12.5 SK, 1 SFTY, 2 FF, 1 FR, 1 PD in 2019), the result is a very top-heavy roster that is thin in a number of positions, which was only made more apparent when they said goodbye to a slew of starters, including Cooks, rangy Linebacker, Corey Littleton (134 TKL, 6 TFL, 6 QBH, 3.5 SK, 2 FF, 4 FR, 2 INT, 9 PD in 2019), Defensive End, Dante Fowler (58 TKL, 16 TFL, 16 QBH, 11.5 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR, 1 TD, 6 PD in 2019), veteran Safety, Eric Weddle (108 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 QBH, 4 PD in 2019), and Cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman (36 TKL, 3 TFL, 2 FF, 3 INT, 7 PD in 2019). Believe it or not, Los Angeles hasn’t a First Round Pick in four years now, and their roster reflects it. Ironically, in moving off so many veterans, McVay & Co must embrace youth, and there a number of intriguing pieces that they added that could play a role in 2020; Second Round Picks, Cam Akers (52nd Overall) and Van Jefferson (57th Overall), could replace Gurley and Cooks immediately, with the former showing out as a Junior on a very subpar Florida State team, and the latter proving to be one of the best route runners at the Scouting Combine.