The final 19-16 score is not the important thing in this game. Yes, the Dallas Cowboys eked out a narrow victory over Washington and kept their slim playoff hopes technically alive. But what really matters is that the Cowboys' offense was error-prone and showed no sign that they can do much at all with Matt Cassel at quarterback. Whether it is his play or the inability of Scott Linehan to utilize him, Dallas simply cannot mount sustained drives or score touchdowns except with a gift in the red zone like they had in this game. And once again, the Cowboys came up woefully short in the turnover department, losing three fumbles while still being unable to take the ball away from Washington outside of a special teams play. The defense had a very strong game otherwise, but the imbalance in turnovers continued. With no way to reliably generate takeaways, Dallas is not going to win games, especially when they keep finding ways to lose the ball. And eventually the defense is going to make just enough mistakes for the other team to score.
True, on this night, after a sudden flurry of scoring inside the final two minutes, Cassel was able to drive the team down for a winning (and very long) field goal. However, those first 58 minutes were a depressing display of the issues this team still has. It was a much needed win, but it did not generate a lot of optimism.
The Cowboys are still not mathematically eliminated. But the Dallas team that played in this often boring affair is going nowhere this season unless something changes. The loss of Tony Romo and all the other injuries to key players early in the season may just be too much to overcome. They were unable to convert third and one multiple times in the game. They failed on trips into the red zone. The offensive impotence is not going to do anything in the NFL. There would have to be a massive improvement offensively, and the chances of that happening seem very, very remote.
Remember, the Cowboys wound up scoring a touchdown with less than two minutes left in the game only because DeSean Jackson made a bizarre decision to run backwards from his own 20 with a punt return, and then lost the ball on a fumble that looked very close to being down when he was tackled. With the ball at the 15 yard line, Dallas was able to finally score a touchdown when Darren McFadden redeemed himself somewhat for his earlier miscues. The amount of fight the team showed was admirable, but it still was much too hard. And they then let Washington strike in seconds to tie the game up at 16-16 with only 44 seconds left.
One topic of discussion leading up to the game was whether Matt Cassel would be better prepared, and whether his week of working with a healthier Dez Bryant would lead to benefits. But there was no sign of that early on. Cassel was ineffective and almost lost the ball on a bungled handoff. He looked to be having the same problems reading defenses and staring down receivers. It would not be until the Cowboys' final possession of the first half that he would finally move the team. Two completions to Jason Witten, which gave him 1,000 for his illustrious career, got things moving, and he completed a 38 yard pass to Terrance Williams to get Dallas in position for a Dan Bailey field goal and a 3-0 lead. But that play could easily have been a touchdown had Cassel thrown it just a bit farther, and Williams had to make a really good play on the ball to get the catch, using his body to keep the defensive back from breaking it up. Had Dashon Goldson gotten his head turned around, he might have been able to make a play. There was nothing in the first half to offer much hope that Cassel can lead the team on any kind of a late season push.
It was a shame because the defense was playing very well, especially in the first quarter. They got two sacks, both from DeMarcus Lawrence, on Washington's first possession. Sean Lee would get a third sack before the quarter was out, partly due to the fact that Rod Marinelli was uncharacteristically dialing up a lot of blitzes. The defense kept Washington off the board until the end of the first half when Kirk Cousins finally began completing third down passes to move the chains, getting into position to kick a field goal to tie things up 3-3.
But the defense still could not get a takeaway. Instead, Darren McFadden fumbled the ball on the first Cowboys possession, which he would do again on the first possession of the second half. The defense was able to stuff Washington following the first one and force a punt, then they twice denied them with a yard to go to force a field goal. They would also manage to hold Washington to a missed field goal after a Devin Street fumble when he was held up and had the ball ripped out of his arms.
Still, a hard fighting defense is not going to get it done without the ability to also get those takeaways when the offense is so very inept. All is not lost, exactly, but it really is. Unless something suddenly changes for the Cowboys, they are not going to make it back to the playoffs playing like they are. But a win is a win, and they did get one when they had to - finally. Perhaps this article should be more optimistic, but we have to be realistic. Maybe Dallas can find a way to be more competitive the rest of the way, but that is going to be a very tall order.
At least they still have the chance to do so, so maybe that is the one thing to take away.