The Dallas Cowboys are on the worst slide they have ever had under Jason Garrett. In the last 10 quarters of football they've gone from being an undefeated team with a double-digit halftime lead despite missing several of their best players to to being a team on their longest losing streak in five years... still missing several of their best players. Reaction across the sports world has been fairly predictable, and nowhere is this more evident than the betting world. The Cowboys are now 66 to 1 odds to win the Super Bowl, 40 to 1 odds to win the NFC, and even in the very questionable NFC East they are in the basement at 6 to 1 odds to win, tied with the Washington Redskins for worst in the division.
But the locker room and coaches seem quietly confident. In the case of recovering quarterback Tony Romo, that confidence may not have been as quiet as intended. The report from the locker room in the aftermath of the New England Patriots' 30-6 romp indicated a quiet swell of confidence in a strong defense. Reporter Ben Rogers of 105.3 The Fan spoke of Randy Gregory's excitement at the prospect of lining up next to Greg Hardy. Rolando McClain had also made his presence felt in the game. But this undercurrent of optimism only makes sense if the team understands and believes that forthcoming changes are going to result in wins and sooner rather than later. What changes do they have to be optimistic about?
5) The Schedule
The Cowboys have four games remaining before Romo's projected return against the Miami Dolphins. They travel to New York next week to play the Giants, then return home to face the Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles before traveling to Tampa Bay to face the Buccaneers. The Giants are badly injured and the other two NFC East teams are currently struggling right along with Dallas at 2-3. The prospect of taking two of the next four games is certainly not a tall order after having faced undefeated teams two of the last three games.
4) La'el Collins
Ron Leary has clearly not been himself and Mackenzy Bernadeau has been a significant drop-off when required to play. While the line has been adequate, they are not the dominant force they were in 2014 when the interior positions are not solidified. Let's remember that Travis Frederick, Ron Leary, Tyron Smith, and Doug Free were all on the team in 2013 (though Leary did not see much action) and the line was nowhere near the dominant force it was in 2014 after the arrival of Zack Martin. I don't believe this is as much a reflection of Martin's capability as it is of the team-play nature of the offensive line. If any link is weak, the whole productivity suffers. La'el Collins performed well in the action we've seen this year and he has earned the opportunity to come in and see if he can outperform a banged up Leary.
3) Wide Receiver
Don't overlook the return of WR Brice Butler to the line up. He made an impact on the field his first week on the roster and a WR who can threaten defenses deep can definitely help loosen up things for the running game. The obvious bit here, though, is that Dez Bryant is looking more and more like he'll come back against the Giants and, even if he doesn't, almost certainly will the following week against the Seahawks as he is already working on the familiar resistance bands. There is a reason Dez commanded the contract he did and there will certainly be no teams putting nine men in the box as the Patriots did at times against Dallas last week. Nine in the box against Dez Bryant is offering a touchdown to the most pedestrian of NFL quarterbacks.(I don't have to write the segue here, do I?)
2) Matt Cassel
Don't misunderstand, I am not saying that Matt Cassel is the answer, but here are some things to consider:
- Cassel has built a 10 year career as a low-level NFL starter and high-level back up.
- Cassel is earning $2 million this year. There's a reason he was offered about three times what Weeden was.
- While Cassel and Weeden have similar completion and yards per attempt numbers, Cassel is much more likely to throw TDs (4% vs 3%) and less likely to throw interceptions (2.9% vs 3.2%).
- This has resulted in Cassel having a near .500 win percentage over considerable time. Whether it is his fault or not, Weeden only has about half that.
- Lest anyone think Cassel's record is overly colored by his early success in New England, the last two years in Minnesota he has had a better completion %, TD%, and yards per attempt than his career numbers and a 4-5 record (though he does have an increase in INT%, as well). Remember that the second year there he was without Adrian Peterson.
There is reason to believe the Cowboys can perform better with Cassel at quarterback.
1) The Defense
While Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain certainly made their mark in their return to the field, I find three other pieces to be hugely significant. Randy Gregory showed a great deal in his brief play, and adding Greg Hardy into the mix alongside him is going to create huge problems for offensive lines. Also it's worth noting that this now means Dallas's best pass rusher from last year, Jeremy Mincey, will now be able to keep pressure on opponents while our top players are taking a breather. Like adding a number one or two pitcher to a rotation, the entire rotation will be much better with the return of Gregory.
Additionally, Morris Claiborne is playing the type of football that he was supposed to be able to play. While he had some problems with Julian Edelman's shiftiness (and the Patriots' propensity for rubs and picks) he has been extremely solid even against top players like Julio Jones (who did most of his damage against Dallas when not covered by Claiborne). Claiborne's ability to limit receivers like Jones and Odell Beckham Jr. combined with the continued improvement of J.J. Wilcox at safety and the aforementioned improved pass rush goes a long way towards improving the Cowboys' defensive woes in recent years.
The factor I think that might get lost in the wash, however, is the stellar play of Byron Jones against the Patriots super star TE, Rob Gronkowski. While Gronk did get free for an explosive play of 33 yards as well as a key 3rd down conversion on the same drive, Jones actually had good coverage on the big play and it was sheer power on Gronkowski's part to carry Jones and a couple of other Cowboys for 20 or so yards after the catch that made the play. By and large, Jones contained the big TE and that really bodes well for the future of what has been, historically, a major Achilles' heel for the Cowboys.
The results speak for themselves. While they gave up 30 points, the Dallas defense was actually effective for much of the game against the Pats. The Patriots have punted nine times this year. The Cowboys alone accounted for four of them. Coming in to the Dallas game, the Patriots scored TDs on nearly half their drives (14/31). Dallas held them nearly twice as often as other teams (3/11). That is a huge job by a defense that had the ball handed back to them in four plays (or less) nearly 70% of the time in the game (7/11 Dallas drives were 4 plays or less).
Does all this mean Dallas is about to go on a run? of course not. They'll be doing well to win two of the next four games, which is what they need to get Romo back within a game of .500. But against a group of mediocre opponents, with a resurgent defense, a new, relatively proven quarterback, and returning key players, including a game-changing star, it's entirely possible that the Cowboys' stock has reached it's low point here in the bye week. If you are the type that likes to get in while the market is down, this might be your time.