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The Dallas Cowboys are one of the great conundrums of the NFL this year. With wildly uneven performances week to week, the team seems to be making mental mistakes at the worst times. The bye week is a chance to try to fix that, but can this team take the steps required?
A bye week can be prolonged misery when your team has a bad performance going into it. For fans of the Dallas Cowboys, this one is a particularly diabolical form of torture.
If you are trying to figure out what exactly is wrong with the team, you probably are much like I am: Horribly confused. There seems to be a lot of talent on the field, particularly in the offensive skill positions and throughout the defense. The offensive line certainly has had its struggles, but a quick look around the league shows that this is an issue that a majority of the teams are dealing with. The Cowboys looked particularly effective in the opening game against the New York Giants, and since have been, in order, very bad, adequate, and miserable.
When looking at the plays that went wrong, especially in the two defeats, the one thing that just seems evident is the mental mistakes. Against the Seattle Seahawks, Felix Jones failed to protect the ball, and then the punt team broke down in protection. The team was down 10-0 before they knew what was happening, and it proved to be too much to overcome. Against the Chicago Bears, there were a variety of plays, outlined fully by our editor, Dave Halprin, in his article about why the team is so frustrating.
I was struck by a line in an article by Gregg Rosenthal at NFL.com, discussing how Jason Garrett maintains his composure even when things are pretty much falling apart.
This has been an undisciplined, turnover-prone, penalty-prone, confusion-prone team for most of Garrett's time in Dallas. Players often don't seem to be on the same page.
First off, that seems exactly correct. Second, it seems so inexplicable. After reading hundreds of tweets out of training camp and the excellent reports done by our own OCC and rabblerousr, I was under the impression that discipline and focus were a couple of the main things the team was working on. Garrett appears to possess both those things in huge measure himself, and every indication is that he is intolerant of those who don't possess them. In that opening game, the team had these attributes for the most part. But they largely disappeared after that. Re-instilling them is one thing that has to be done during the bye.
And things have to become more of a team effort. The mistakes have been all through the roster, and they have to be eliminated in the same way. Everyone has to get their job done. This was a glaring issue against the Bears, particularly on offense. Tipped passes, missed blocks, dropped balls, and finally Tony Romo trying too hard to rally the team through individual efforts led to the horrendous five-interception performance. When a team gives up two pick-sixes in a game, the odds of winning decrease precipitously.
The fact is, the offense and special teams have been performing worse than the defense. And this is despite the defense being more banged up in terms of missing players, although the lack of Phil Costa at center has not exactly helped with the line's continuity. It does seem that the defense is establishing an identity, characterized by DeMarcus Ware and Sean Lee, the best players it has. They have been consistent throughout the first four games, and most of the rest of defense has played well. While the team is still having trouble generating takeaways, it has been effective, particularly in the first half of games.
But the offense has not given them a lot of points to work with, outside that opening game. Dallas has only scored 24 points in the first half since the opening game. The team is next to last in points per game in the league, so the slow start in each game is hardly a surprise, but the first half of the game can set a tone, and that is a decidedly off-key one for Dallas.
This team does look rather lost so far. Nothing is working very well offensively, despite the return-to-form of Jason Witten and Dez Bryant finally getting another 100-yard game. They cannot sustain early drives, and when you keep punting the ball to the other team, eventually they are going to score some points.
Oddly enough, one indicator of poor discipline was very positive for Dallas in the Bears game. After alarmingly high numbers of penalties throughout the first three games, particularly false starts, the team only had two penalties for ten yards against Chicago, and none were charged to the offensive line. That was certainly a point of emphasis in the practices the week before, and they clearly got that fixed. But many other problems arose instead. The Cowboys can apparently fix things. They just need to find a way to fix all the different issues, at least to a point they can compete, and keep them that way.
Jason Garrett has often spoken of piling one good game on top of another, and obviously the team has failed completely at that so far this season. They have a tough part of the schedule coming up, and they need to find themselves. I fully believe that they have the talent it takes to succeed (as in, make the playoffs) this year, even after the 2-2 start. But they have to get their heads in the game, all of the players, from the opening gun until the last second ticks off. The next game against the Baltimore Ravens is a chance to show they have done so. A loss in the game does not doom Dallas, because the Ravens look to be one of the better teams in the AFC. But the Cowboys have to come out and be competitive. They have to decide as individuals to do their job and do it well, and then go out and actually live up to that. If they are still floundering around after the bye week, trying to figure out just who exactly they are, they will not likely find an answer they will be pleased with by the end of the season.