I miss the Kool Aid.
I make no bones about being a fan who blogs about his favorite team, not a journalist. This is a labor of love. Every single game I am pulling for the Dallas Cowboys to win. I am a real fan of Jason Garrett and Tony Romo and everyone associated with the Star. I even have a soft spot for Jerry Jones. I think the Cowboys in almost all aspects are looked at more critically than almost anyone else in the league, and I frequently rise to their defense.
That has been a little hard this week. With the Washington Redskins coming to town, I find myself very much in a wait and see frame of mind. All the numbers and most of the analysis I can find say that the Cowboys should handle the game and come out with a win and no less than a share of the lead for the NFC East.
They should. But I am having a really difficult time finding belief this week. I have believed, both when that belief was justified, and when it turned out to be totally and completely wrong. Now, I am suspending belief.
It is time to see some proof.
We know the stakes here. In a year where the NFC East has developed a remarkable resemblance to road kill the Cowboys have a chance to lay claim to a playoff berth. There has not been a time that I can recall when the path to the division title has been so wide open. Yet the Cowboys have already stumbled in three opportunities to break away from the rest of the field. They had repeated chances to make an offensive move against the Kansas City Chiefs that they could not capitalize on, they went into San Diego and just floundered around for much of the second half against the Chargers, and the final minutes of the Denver Broncos game are absolutely painful to remember.
Looking back at the three losses it is hard to point to exactly what happened. And the more I look, the more I keep coming back to the thought that it is all about learning how to win. This team has been struggling to rise above mediocrity for three years now and I believe the issues are mostly about confidence and believing in themselves.
It is a vicious circle. The team may not be able to win until it believes in its own ability to do so, and it may not be able to believe until it actually does win. That is one reason the Denver game hurts, because they were so close. It was the one game where I think Dallas was up against a deeper, more talented roster, but they went toe to toe with the Broncos and were basically one bad throw from shutting all the naysayers up. It was a strong offensive performance and something to build on but it also leaves huge questions about the defense.
Theories abound about just what is wrong defensively. Some of the more prevalent are that Dallas simply does not have very good talent, that injuries have sapped the talent worse than people realize, particularly on the line, and that the scheme is simply outmoded in today's NFL.
While these may all be contributing factors, I still think the one thing that the Cowboys need to fix is the mental approach. I just suspect that the players are trying too hard right now because they know how thin the front four have become and that they are still trying to get the scheme down. More than anything the defense needs a few stops against the Redskins. They can't go an entire game without forcing a punt by the other team. A dominating performance is not needed, just holding Washington to kicking the ball away.
The offense needs to maintain the pace it set last game, or close to it. This is both harder than the challenge facing the defense since that was literally an historic performance by Romo, and easier, since they now know they can put that kind of game on the field.
Regardless of how it is done, the team needs to find out that it can win an important game. This is not quite game sixteen with a playoff berth to the winner but it is a big step towards the playoffs. Dallas is on the edge and I think it could tip either way, towards another season where the team is just not quite good enough to go on, or to taking control of things and imposing its will on the division.
On balance I think Dallas has the best talent in the NFC East. The quarterback, receivers, and now the offensive line are, I think, good enough to balance the issues defensively, and the way Morris Claiborne and especially Bruce Carter responded against Denver makes me think that the defense is definitely suffering more from a lack of confidence than a dearth of talent.
The Cowboys just need a good game on Sunday - and a bit of luck. The NFL is the professional league most affected by chance. It is just the nature of only playing 16 games. A fortunate bounce or poorly timed mistake can swing the results of a game. Three or four of those lucky or unlucky breaks can largely dictate the results of a season. Other sports have so many more games involved that luck is more likely to even out. But in football, it may not happen, and a team can get on a hot streak one season and wind up with a championship, then just a couple of years later, fall completely apart. Just ask the New York Giants. This is largely the same team that beat the New England Patriots to win it all in 2011 and now they are in strong contention to have the first pick overall in the next draft. If you think the questions are big around Dallas, imagine what is going on for them. My theory is that this year, the bounces that were going in their favor the past few years are now going against them and also that Eli Manning has regressed just enough that the coaches can no longer compensate for his bad side.
If Dallas can just avoid a bad day on Sunday, play their game on offense, and rally somewhat defensively, they should be able to win. That would build a little confidence for them which could carry them on a streak that could leave the rest of the NFC East in the dust.
Conversely, a couple of bad breaks and some good luck for the Redksins could swing this game the wrong way, and yet another season would be headed towards failure and a long offseason wondering what is wrong. This is why I worry about this game. The talent levels in most NFL games is closer than people think. It does not take much for an underdog to rise up and win the dogfight.
Dallas needs to overcome that, because quite frankly, they have to prove they can win. They have to prove it to themselves and to all of us. I am hopeful they can do that. But until I see it, I cannot believe it.
I want to drink the Kool Aid. I really do. But until I see the Cowboys come together on the field and make a statement, the right statement, I will be abstaining. And waiting to see.
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