Before the Dallas Cowboys' first game of the season, I made a statement that I had no idea what kind of team the Cowboys were going to be. There were huge questions surrounding the defense and the offensive line, and some injury problems were already showing up. After four games, I have no idea what kind of team the Cowboys are going to be. There are still huge questions, but they have changed remarkably.
It has been said over and over that this team could be 0-4 or 4-0 just as easily as it is 2-2. That is probably true, but in reality it is sitting squarely on .500. Not great, not terrible. Almost ambivalent, which is where my attitude about the team is.
I was expecting that at the bye week, we would have an idea of which way this team was heading. Instead, this team is still an enigma. For every question that has been answered, a new one has emerged. And just like things could go either way before the first game was played, the team still could go either way.
The Detroit Lions game, which I like to think of as Meltdown II, was incredibly painful to watch. There is plenty of anger to go around, and arguments abound as to what the team needs to do. But one of the odd things about this indeterminate state the team is in is that there are still so many things that are going well.
At this point, many readers have screamed aloud "NOT ANOTHER HOMER-ALL-IS-WELL-ARTICLE!" No. I am not saying all is well. I am just saying it could go either way. This could be a very successful season, or it could be a disaster. It could also just be a middle of the road .500 campaign.
After the jump, the Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent.
To try and make sense out of where the team is now, I have to start by looking at where the team was four short weeks ago. (OK, maybe they weren't all that short, given what we have been through.) I saw the following strengths and weaknesses. Or so I thought.
Offensive skill positions. I thought the team was set. Tony Romo was looking good in preseason. Miles Austin and Dez Bryant looked to be one of the premiere wideout tandems in the league, if not the best. Jason Witten was still a force to be reckoned with. And Felix Jones was poised for a breakout year, with an exciting rookie backing him up in DeMarco Murray. All was in the hands of the Red Haired Genius himself, set to storm through opponents and carry the weaker elements of the team.
The reality is that Tony has been either battered and bruised, or just throwing maddeningly poor passes for interceptions. He has gone from looking nearly unbeatable to largely giving the game to the other team twice. Miles and Dez were great as a pair for about ten minutes in the first game, and have been unable to both get on the field since. Against Detroit, we basically had Dez at 75%, and Miles just watched helplessly from the sidelines. Witten is still catching a lot of balls, but a nagging rib injury has apparently taken some of the steam out of his play, and neither Martellus Bennett or John Phillips has taken up much of the slack. And Felix has only seen one effective game out of four while battling his own injury, in the last game he got off to a good start and then was ignored when he could have been the most valuable.
Which brings us to Jason Garrett. I have already clearly established that I feel there is a shared responsibility for the latest meltdown because the team kept trying to go with an aggressive passing game that just got it in trouble, when it could have used a running game that was averaging 4.2 yards a carry. I know that JG did not call the plays intending to give Detroit easy points, but that is what happened. I did not see him adjust and adapt. He seemed to stick with the same plan, no matter how the situation shifted. He's yet to show an ability to play with any caution.
Offensive line. The team had rolled the dice. They were going with young, untried players at three positions. The potential for disaster seemed great. When Tony got hurt in the 49ers game, that potential seemed to have been realized.
But they had done well against the Jets, they helped Tony survive against the Redskins, and they only gave up one (albeit very costly) sack against the Lions. They were opening holes for the running backs and protecting the pocket in the Detroit game, and even the vaunted Ndamukong Suh did not not overwhelm them, only showing three tackles, one for a loss, in the game. With this young bunch up front, it would seem that the kids are all right.
Defense. A new and exciting defensive coordinator was coming in, but nobody really knew if Rob Ryan could have success with largely the same personnel that had such a bad season in 2010. It was hoped that the offensive weapons JG had could keep the team afloat until the defense could catch up. Major question marks surrounded the entire defense, especially Mike Jenkins and the rest of the secondary.
In the two wins this season, it can be argued that the defense carried the team by keeping the opponents' scores low enough for a sputtering, wounded offense to eke out enough points to get the victory. Even in the two losses, the defense played well until the offensive errors started to pile up, at which point they seemed to lose their edge psychologically. They also suffered key injuries in the secondary in each game, with Orlando Scandrick and Gerald Sensibaugh being injured and the opponent making plays in their absence that were not being made before.
This has been in addition to problems with Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman that are very similar to the ones with Miles and Dez. They just can't both get to 100% at the same time. The front seven was having a great year until the fourth game, with DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, and Sean Lee all off to huge starts. There were no sacks against Detroit, and Lee had his first average game of the season, but they still held the Lions to 63 yards rushing (although it must be said that Detroit has a fairly anemic ground game). Nonetheless, the defense seems to be at least a couple of steps ahead of the offense, perhaps largely due to injury, but also at least because they have not had the spectacular failures the offense and special teams had in the two losses. Rob Ryan is clearly good. He still has some issues to address, but I am certain we will be sorry to see him go when he gets a head coaching opportunity.
Special teams. We went into game one with no clear idea how the place kicking was going to go. At least we knew David Buehler could blast it out of the end zone on kickoffs.
There was one spectacular failure on the blocked punt the Jets got, but other than that the punting and kickoffs have gone remarkably well. And the emergence of Dan Bailey as a steel-nerved marksman as well as a competent kick off man has left many of us wondering what Jerry Jones sees in Buehler.
So where does the team go from here? To be frank, if you had told me that the team was going to be 2-2 before the season with the long list of injuries it has, I would have accepted that as a workable if not great outcome. What has everything so confused is the manner in which the Cowboys lost the two games. The NFL is a quarterback driven league, and the failures deeply involved Tony Romo. The argument can go on about him blowing it all by himself versus the team concept of winning and losing, but you cannot deny that one way or another, he played a key role with a fumble and four interceptions that changed the courses of those two games. He also largely picked the team up and carried it in the two wins, the ones where he was most limited physically.
The losses have also shown a plan that worked superbly for the first half and then broke down in the second half. I am beginning to wonder if the coaches are at a bit of a loss when they don't have something to fix at half time. This is a bit of wild speculation on my part, but it seems as if they just see a plan working so well that they can't imagine a change. And when the plan quits working, they just kind of stick with it.
This leads to another one of those good news/bad news situations. The good news is that most of the team is further along than I thought it would be. This is all largely my opinion from here on, but here is how I see it. Get Miles and Dez both healthy, and we now have a pretty reliable third receiver in Laurent Robinson to go with them. Get Witten healed up and we have one dominant tight end. Get Felix healthy and he looks ready to have a good year if used properly. The offensive line is ahead of schedule and Tyron Smith looks to be the real deal. The defensive front seven is somewhere between very good and outstanding. Rob Ryan and Dave Campo can get the secondary to perform adequately if they can ever get enough people healthy. After one big miscue in the first game, the special teams have been nearly flawless. Almost all those areas are as good or better than it looked like they should be.
The bad news: We have no idea if Tony Romo is going to be Superman or Lex Luthor when he comes to play. Is he going to have a great game? Is he going to make horrid mistakes? Is he going to do both in sixty minutes and send vast numbers of Cowboys fans to the emergency room for cardiac failure? All we do know is that he is the Cowboys' quarterback for the foreseeable future. We also have no idea if Jason Garrett is going to make any adjustments in his game management. Will he continue to go with a wide open passing attack at all times, even when the risks begin to outweigh the benefits? And how will he rally the team after the last debacle? Can he keep the team positive and believing it itself, or will the doubts start to creep in?
No statistics will answer that. No film study can show us a trend. The problems the Cowboys have at the bye are purely in the realm of intangibles. So we have to guess.
I personally feel optimistic. Not wildly, but I think this team can rally and get to the top of the NFC East. It will take Tony finding a way to overcome himself with mental toughness. He has shown evidence he can this season. He has also shown evidence he can't, and I am not sure which is the truth. Jason Garrett has to do some damage control with the team's psyche. He has to keep them believing. He has to have some locker room leaders rally with him and keep this team playing together. And he has to get away from his own gun-slinging habits.
This team can still prevail. I hope it will. But right now, I'd say the chances are about 50/50.