The season is not over for the Dallas Cowboys. There is still a chance they can win the NFC East, if they can figure out how to win one game in the division at home. They have no problems going into their opponent's house and winning, they just can't do it at Cowboys Stadium.
That fact is the kind of odd, backwards-seeming thing that has characterized the team this year. There is something just out of sorts with them. Against the Washington Redskins, in a game where they gave up a stunning 28 points in one quarter, but never showed the least sign of surrendering, there was one play that seemed to capture the whole season in a microcosm, at least for me.
It was in the third quarter with about 5 minutes left.. The Cowboys had the ball at their own 25 on second down, with six yards to go, and were operating the no-huddle. Tony Romo completed a pass to Jason Witten for exactly six yards and a first down. But on the next play, Romo ran a quarterback sneak, apparently thinking Witten had come up short. It was strange and out-of-synch, which is pretty much how this season has gone.
Certainly, the team has had some other challenges, most notably injuries, with a constant shuffling on the offensive line, the best running back unavailable and number two having his own injury issues, and now, with Bruce Carter and Gerald Sensabaugh both coming off the field in the Redskins game, the center of the starting defense from the first game is gone, with both starting safeties, both starting inside linebackers, and the starting nose tackle all out by the end of the last game. Plus Jason Hatcher and Orlando Scandrick also look to be out for a while. But above and beyond that, there has seemed to be a confusion about this team that runs from top to bottom. Some strange play calling, odd messages coming from management, and players that do not seem to be on the same page. It has had the feel of a team that is always a step behind and trying to catch up.
It may be time to quit trying to catch up, and work on finding where they are. During the game, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman were talking about the statement Mike Shanahan made earlier in the season about the Redskins focusing on who was going to be playing for their team next year. As I understood their remarks, this was misinterpreted as giving up on the season. Instead, according to the Redskins players, it just meant focusing more on getting the best team on the field that they could. Then they would just play to win as many games as they could, and right now, it seems to be working for them.
And right now it may be an approach the Cowboys need to emulate. With injuries coming left and right, the team has had to put some different players out there. And it is not entirely a bad thing. The team started the day with Kevin Ogletree, the number three wide receiver, out. Miles Austin then re-re-re-re-injured his hamstring and never caught a pass.
Disaster, right? Well, Dwayne Harris caught four balls for 71 yards on the outside. Cole Beasley finally got to take over in the slot, and he caught seven passes for 68 yards. If Harris can be consistent, he will be an upgrade over Ogletree. And if Beasley shows some of that possession-maintaining skill you need in the slot while staying healthy, that would make it a bit hard to take his snaps away to give to someone who is having trouble staying on the field, and who may not be as reliable right now at catching the ball.
Meanwhile, Dallas was only able to put up 3 points in the first half. Then, once they were down four scores, they were forced into a hurry-up offense - and they scored 25 points in the second half. I know that going no-huddle has some risks and negative aspects, but the regular offense does not work for the Cowboys right now. If they had a healthy and competent offensive line, and DeMarco Murray running behind it, they might be able to make the system Jason Garrett prefers work. But they don't have those things right now. Murray may be back for the next game against the Philadelphia Eagles, and Phil Costa as well, but there is no guarantee that they will be effective after their respective layoffs. And risk or no risk, it makes a certain sense to run an offense that scores points, rather than one that stalls our repeatedly. I realize this is an argument that has already been made here at BTB and elsewhere. The problem is, the argument just gets stronger with each game.
Dallas needs to find out what it really does best, and with who. The team should still be trying to climb into the playoffs right up until they are eliminated, but primarily it needs to figure what it has to build on, and who is not really helping things. They may have unexpectedly found something in Ernie Sims, who, along with Dan Connor, did better than I would have guessed after Carter went out. And Jermey Parnell held up rather well. The offensive line gave up only two sacks of Romo, which is an improvement, although the nine times he got hit is troubling. Still, maybe there are some answers to be found already on the team.
However that turns out, I think it is time for the team to focus inward. Don't worry about the standings right now, because this increasingly looks like a .500 team, give or take a win. But even if the playoffs are beginning to look out of reach, there is no reason this season cannot end on an upswing. To do that, it is time to be flexible. Put some different players out there, especially when a starter is struggling a bit. Let Romo speed things up on the field. Take some chances. There is not very much to lose, and with some luck, there may still be something to gain this year. If not, figure out exactly what you have to continue the building process.