The Dallas Cowboys have won two of their last three games and find themselves right in the thick of the NFC East divisional battle. For now, Monday night's victory has given fans a glimmer of hope. With no other team in the division showing the ability to string together wins, the playoff aspirations for the Cowboys may drag out a little longer. While that is great and all for the relevance it brings to Sundays, the cold reality of this team's ineptness isn't something that many fans can escape from.
We want to believe. The defense sure gives people reason to believe. Teams struggle to move the ball on this defense. The Cowboys defense is now ranked fifth in the league in total yards allowed with only 326.2 yards a game. The only defenses that have allowed fewer yards are Denver, Seattle, Carolina, and Arizona. Those are some of the best defenses in the league and the Cowboys are certainly doing a lot of good things to be up there with these teams. They are getting contribution across the board. The defensive line is starting to find its groove. The linebacker play has been outstanding. Both Sean Lee and Rolando McClain have found themselves on the field for a good part of the season and they are working well together. The secondary isn't giving up too many big plays and the coverage has been relatively tight. They've also improved their open field tackling as small gains are staying small gains.
For years fans have just hoped for a solid contribution from the defense that would give the offense a fighting chance. Well, the defense has stepped up well beyond many people's expectations. Unfortunately, the offense isn't able to fight.
You can point out several things that have hurt the Cowboys offense this season. The team will shoot themselves in the foot with drive-stalling penalties. For all his greatness, Jason Witten seems as if he has to sneak in one false start a game. The offensive line isn't playing at the level they played at last season. Zack Martin will whiff on blocking assignments and the unit isn't able to impose their will in the trenches when faced with short-yardage situations.
But the biggest problem lies with most important position on the team, the quarterback. Matt Cassel isn't able to make plays. For weeks, fans have been envious of watching other teams win games despite having to resort to the services of their backup quarterback. Matt Hasselbeck has won four of his five starts for the Indianapolis Colts since taking over for Andrew Luck. Brock Osweiler has won all three of his starts for the Denver Broncos since taking over for Peyton Manning. But it took the Cowboys eight Romo-less tries before they would finally pull off a win. Why is Dallas having so many problems winning with their backup?
Well, the short answer is that the way Cassel is performing makes him one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. Of the 32 quarterbacks in the league that are currently starting, only two of them have a worse QB Rating than Matt Cassel - Nick Foles and Matt Schaub. And just like Cassel, those quarterbacks play for a team with a record of 4-8. Almost the entire NFL has a quarterback out on the field playing better than Cassel.
The things Cassel does wrong are plentiful. He's not stepping up in the pocket to make his throws. He's not seeing open receivers which can be a waste of a perfectly healthy Dez Bryant. And when he does see them, he often times misfires on the throws. Cassel was thought to be an improvement over Brandon Weeden because he took the chances Weeden wouldn't, but now he's become the worst of both worlds. Of the current 32 starters, Cassel is ranked 30th in yards per game. He's not making the plays downfield. And it doesn't mean he's more careful as he's still ranked 30th in the league in interceptions per attempt with 3 picks for every 100 attempts.
For the Cowboys to have any shot at winning more games this season, Cassel is going to have to improve his play. On Monday night against Washington, he showed a little improvement. He was able to hit Dez and Terrance Williams each for a big play that put them in scoring position. He didn't find the end zone, but he also didn't throw an interception. If he can perform better, there could be a reason to regain some hope, but until that happens - the Cowboys are trying to show up to the fight with one of the worst quarterbacks in the league. That's not a fight they're going to win very often.