The Dallas Cowboys played yet another game where the team committed too many mistakes to beat a playoff contender. The errors made by the Cowboys infiltrated every level, and affected every player. The coaches will bear much of the blame, much in the same way a parent is responsible for a child's poor behavior, but in reality this type of inconsistency should be expected.
This is a typical learning curve. It is not a smooth, linear, or exponential improvement, but rather a series of starts and stops, peaks and valleys, an up and down process.
On Monday night, the Cowboys were in a valley, with another "down" performance. The players that committed the most egregious errors had a common thread tying them together:
Dez Bryant: 23 years old in his third season with Dallas. Dez dropped two third down passes that hit his hands. Dez also ran the wrong route when the Bears called for a third down blitz, despite having his quarterback signal that a route adjustment was necessary. Dez added to his long list of errors by dropping a long pass that hit him in the hands and also had an illegal procedure penalty: the only one the Cowboys had (more on that later).
Kevin Ogletree: 25 years old in his fourth season with the Cowboys. Ogletree was pretty consistent until he muffed a throw inside the ten yard line that led to another interception. Remember that Kevin was playing sparingly through his first three seasons in the league and lacks a great deal of experience.
Mackenzy Bernadeau: 26 years old in his fifth NFL season, the first with the Cowboys. Bernadeau whiffed on Melton that led to a fumble/interception (it will probably be ruled a fumble officially). Mackenzy was a big reason that Murray had negative yardage on the eight carries following his first carry. Do not overlook that Bernadeau was not playing regularly in Carolina earlier in his career and is relatively inexperienced for a 5-year veteran.
Tyron Smith: 21 years old in his second year with the Cowboys. Smith did an admirable job as the left tackle for most of the evening, but missed a switch with Livings on a stunt that led to the first quarter sack by Melton, killing a promising drive.
Victor Butler: 25 years old in his fourth year with Dallas. Butler was placed in a position to fail, and did. Dallas did not have another option on the opposite side of Ware, and Butler demonstrated why he receives limited playing time, struggling to make plays against the run, and offering minimal pass rush.
Morris Claiborne: 22 years old in his rookie season. Claiborne almost made a huge play by stripping Jeffrey. Morris also played adequately for most of the game, but bit on a double move on the Hester long touchdown reception. Because of minimal pressure on Cutler, the Bears had the time to execute the play on the rookie.
Danny McCray: 24 years old in his third season with Dallas. McCray was in over his head, leading to gaping holes in the Cowboys secondary reminiscent of the 2011 edition of the defense. Coupled with Carter's absence in the first half, the pass coverage suffered greatly with McCray in the secondary.
The performances of McCray and Butler had more to do with a lack of depth within the organization because of poor drafts after Parcells and before Garrett. Note that the players listed are no older than 26 years of age.
With poor play throughout the defensive secondary and nobody able to pressure Cutler outside of DeMarcus Ware, the maladies that infected the Dallas defense last season awoke from being dormant. The Cowboys defense suffered blown coverages, had huge holes in the secondary, and garnered no big plays from the defense (again outside of Ware). A defense that led the NFL in yards gained coming into Monday Night, reverted to its 2011 form.
It would be wrong to blame the coaches. If pre-snap penalties are a symptom of poor coaching, then Garrett proved his worth as a teacher this week. But this highlights the basic issue: if the coaches can get their message across to the players to stop committing penalties that kill drives, why can't the coaches get certain players to maintain concentration and decrease the number of performance errors?
The coaches continue to emphasize acquiring takeaways, yet a quarterback averaging two interceptions per game over the first three games is able to smirk after throwing two touchdowns and nary an interception. On the other hand, the Cowboys offensive line did not commit a single pre-snap penalty, and the offensive line that was terrible in pass protection and run blocking last week only surrendered one (or two) sack(s) against the team with the most sacks collected through the first three weeks of the season.
Somehow, an improvement in protection did not lead to an improvement in run blocking. Better discipline with penalties did not translate to better discipline with performance. Progress as a result of good coaching is evident, but too many breakdowns in execution still exist.
A young team needs time to work through all of the errors it will commit. The Cowboys are showing improvement, but require more repetitions to correct the faults that exist. If Dallas can stay in the hunt for a division crown through November, a relatively healthy Cowboys team should be much better in December.
The Cowboys have shown that certain players continue to improve with proper coaching. Smith, Lissemore (25), Murray (24), Carter (24), and Lee (26) are developing well under the current leadership. Rookies such as Claiborne, Crawford (22), and Hanna (23) have demonstrated enough talent to validate further instruction to maximize their potential.
Other players, such as Bryant, seem to need more time. Some players, like Bernadeau, Butler, and McCray may not be talented enough to take on full-time roles.
Take note of the ages of those players. Players such as Lee, Carter, Murray, Lissemore, Claiborne, Crawford, Hanna, and Carr (26) are the future core of the Dallas Cowboys. Jason Witten (30) and DeMarcus Ware (30) are still elite players at their respective positions.
Then there is Tony Romo.
But his penchant for trying to carry this team and make-up for the errors of those surrounding him is the subject of another post.