The Dallas Cowboys have gotten through the first three games of the season with a 2-1 record. They have been all over the place, playing an excellent opening game, falling apart early and often in the second contest, and then gutting out a win despite repeated and at times nearly disastrous mistakes in the third.
Trying to figure out the true nature of the team tends to leave you baffled. The offense was crisp and effective in the opener against the New York Giants, but has clearly struggled, especially on the line, since then. The defense got worn down and was physically outmatched against the Seattle Seahawks, yet was able to handle Eli Manning and company before that and then almost completely shut down the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 58 minutes. Special teams dug a hole the Cowboys could not climb out of in Seattle, then turned in at least three crucial plays to help win the home opener.
Examining this team is reminiscent of the old fable about the blind men and the elephant. Each part tends to look very different, and you are not really sure just what it does add up to. There are very few things that seem to be certain.
One constant is that Tony Romo is still one tough son-of-a-gun. After getting absolutely leveled several times in the Tampa Bay game, he just kept coming. But the constant pressure was affecting his play. Calvin Watkins at ESPNDallas made a good point about some of the issues with Romo in the Buccaneers game.
There were times Sunday where Romo missed some open targets, especially underneath and at times appeared to have 'happy feet' when in the pocket. Romo needs to get rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds or he puts himself at risk of getting sacked or hurrying a throw.
Although I don't know if I fully understand the dichotomy between hurrying a throw and getting rid of the ball in 2.5 seconds, I did feel that Romo was getting a bit skittish during the game. But then, he is playing behind a Maginot Line.
The story of the Dallas season still looks to be the offensive line. If they can get back to the level of play they had against the Giants (not counting the penalties), Dallas will very likely be in a position to play into January. If they turn in many more absolute piles of garbage like they did against Tampa Bay, then we will be focused on the upcoming draft very early.
Of all the things about the inept line play that makes no sense, the greatest is the penalty situation. Jason Garrett has alluded to issues with the cadence and Ryan Cook, who was pressed into action after Phil Costa's back went out, but that seems like something that can be fixed. The false start, illegal formation and delay penalties just seem so out of character for a Jason Garrett coached team (although he and Romo always seems to like to use up a lot of the play clock, so those delay calls may never go away completely). But it would seem that of all the issues that face the team, this would be one that could be fixed. If it isn't, the team is going to have a lot of third and longs this year.
One thing that does seem to be emerging is the defense. The one bad performance they had in Seattle was largely attributable to the early game meltdowns on special teams and the general inability of the offense to do anything to help as injuries piled up and depleted the squad. Otherwise, the defense is carrying most of the load so far. It has allowed the fewest yards of any team in the NFL, which is somewhat significant when you look at what the Giants have done in their other two games. Add in that the special teams have been doing a very good job on covering kickoff and punt returns, and none of the first three opponents have been able to do much, with the exception of Seattle's rushing attack. The decision to fix the secondary first has been successful so far. Now, Brandon Carr has even stepped up to become an effective safey when needed, and the retention of Mike Jenkins is looking absolutely brilliant. Meanwhile, Sean Lee is now joined by Bruce Carter, who is playing very well, DeMarcus Ware is still DeMarcus Ware, and Anthony Spencer is doing everything well. (He does have two sacks, two TFL, and a pass defended, people, so what else does he need to do?) But the best news defensively is that players like Sean Lissemore and Josh Brent have stepped up and filled in admirably Jay Ratliff and Kenyon Coleman injured.
There has been an interesting thing with the Dallas defense over the past few years. There always seems to be one person who has a slow start, and then breaks out his second year. Sean Lee was followed by Bruce Carter. But this may be applying to Rob Ryan as well. He had some serious struggles in 2011, but this year's defense is starting to show some real promise.
Now for the "but". This is only through three games. The D still needs to string another good performance or two together to give us some confidence that this is the way they will play the rest of the season.
The rest of the team is having a bit of trouble finding their stride. Jason Witten seems to be showing the effects of missing practice more than lingering problems with his spleen. Dez Bryant started to show up against the Buccaneers. And DeMarco Murray is running into defenders in the backfield, which puts the onus back on the offensive line.
It's a blurry picture, but the snapshot right now seems to show that the Cowboys are going to have to rely on Rob's Mob to hold the other teams out of the end zone while the offense tries to get itself pulled together. If the O can, particularly if the line can become even moderately effective, the team could take off. But there are limitations to one unit having to carry the other. Things are going to have to even out pretty soon, because the schedule does not look to get any easier late in the season.