"Jason, Rodgers will win it late, Jerry will put you guys in middle of protest discussion, a starter will retire, Zeke might be out next 6." pic.twitter.com/r1BIEiNMdo— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) October 12, 2017
It’s a gloomy time in Cowboys Nation as Dallas has lost their last two games in disappointing fashion and sit with a 2-3 record. And to top it off, they could also be without their All Pro running back, Ezekiel Elliott for the next six games. There were big expectations coming into this season as the team was looking to build off a 13-3 record last season where they were the top-seeded team in the NFC. But after what’s happened in recent weeks, many people are starting to have their doubts about just how good this team really is. That’s understandable, but don’t let it get you down in the dumps because there are still plenty of reasons to be excited about the 2017 season.
1. Nobody is running away with the conference
Let’s assume for a moment that the Philadelphia Eagles are a good football team this year. That two game lead can be a little harder to make up if the Eagles keep winning games. The Cowboys have no control over what the Eagles do. Sure, Dallas can take care of business and sweep them this season and just like that - the two game lead is erased. And the Cowboys would have the tiebreaker by virtue of the head-to-head sweep. That is what we are all hoping for.
But even if the Cowboys never catch the Eagles this season, it doesn’t mean their playoff chances are in jeopardy. The goal at the end of the 17-game season is to be healthy and playing their best football, but to also have done well enough to qualify for post season play. When you look at the NFC, do you have any trouble seeing the Cowboys finishing in the top six of all the teams? (image courtesy of Pro Football Reference)
The New York Giants started the season as one of the potential contenders in the NFC after making the playoffs last season, but it’s safe to go ahead and cross them off the list. Outside of the Eagles, the Redskins are the only other team that could give the Cowboys fits this year.
Besides Green Bay, nobody else worries me too much. Both Minnesota and Detroit will battle it out, but ultimately they’ll teeter somewhere around .500 when the season is over.
This is a division that has the best chance of sending two teams to the playoffs as both Carolina and Atlanta have played well thus far. Carolina went to the Super Bowl in 2015, but last year only won six games. Will their success continue? And Atlanta’s offense has been very unimpressive this season. Last year’s MVP, Matt Ryan, has thrown just as many picks as he has touchdowns. Could the loss of their offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan have something to do with that?
When you lay it all on the table, it’s going to take the Cowboys falling on their face to not finagle their way into one of the top six spots in the conference. There’s just not a lot of talented teams challenging for a playoff spot. So even if the Cowboys come across some bumps and bruises along the way, you still have to feel good about their chances to get into the postseason.
2. Defense still has promise
I’m not going to try to sell you a bill of goods about this defense being something we should be excited about. I’ve done that before, you all have let me hear about it, and I’ve learned my lesson. I’m a better person now because of it. However, in my relentless pursuit to seek happiness, I am going to point out a few things that make me feel like improvements are on the way.
First off, it all starts up front. The Cowboys pass rush has been under scrutiny for quite some time and rightfully so. Dallas is currently ranked sixth in sacks which is pretty good, but they did okay in sacks last year finishing in the middle of the pack. But more than just getting sacks, the Cowboys are putting pressure on the quarterback more consistently and that wasn’t something that was there last year.
DeMarcus Lawrence is having a great season so far as he leads the league with 8.5 sacks. David Irving just returned from his four-game suspension and he started off with a bang, recording two sacks in his debut. And Maliek Collins has flashed some good play from the inside. That’s a good start. The Cowboys still need to get some roles shored up. They are still in need of a good run stopping 1-tech DT in the middle, especially after the retirement of Stephen Paea. They also need a good edge rusher on the right side. Tyrone Crawford looks to be the guy at the moment, but don’t expect the search to be over. A lot could happen over the next three months, including the eventual production of rookie Taco Charton.
This bye week couldn’t come at a better time when it comes to the condition of the Cowboys linebacker group. The defense suffers when Sean Lee is not on the field and he should be nice and healthy by the time they travel to San Francisco. Anthony Hitchens is also coming back from a leg injury and if he could get back to how he was playing pre-injury, that makes for a strong LB group. That would afford the team to back off the reps of Jaylon Smith as he has not performed well so far, but nobody expected him to take on this type of workload. With a healthier supporting cast around him, he should be able to be more refreshed and hopefully provide some quality snaps down the stretch. On Wednesday, Jaylon tweeted this...
Growth and Progress ☺️— Jaylon Smith (@thejaylonsmith) October 12, 2017
Now, nobody should take this tweet and run with it, but we all need to keep in mind that he’s still recovering and as more of that nerve regenerates, the more likely he gains some of his lateral agility back. Better days are coming for 54, we just don’t know when those days will be.
The secondary looks to be in shambles after some shaky play from starting cornerbacks, Orlando Scandrick and Anthony Brown. And the team has cut their losses with free agent pickup Nolan Carroll as that signing didn’t work out as planned. When you factor in that Jeff Heath has been a disappointment, the secondary has some big holes going forward. But those holes can be filled. The play of Jourdan Lewis is reason for optimism as he has done well so far this season. He’s done a great job limiting space between the receivers and knocking down passes. He had three defended passes against the Green Bay Packers, including this one:
Sean Lee (white shirt) pretty excited about this Jourdan Lewis third down pass breakup in the fourth quarter pic.twitter.com/2rEPguFRu7— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) October 10, 2017
But more than that, he’s a physical corner who is a good tackler. He had six tackles against Green Bay. It’s great to be able to rely on a corner to make these kind of plays in the open field.
I love DBs that can tackle. Jourdan Lewis is the real deal. pic.twitter.com/GioxR9PZH6— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) October 3, 2017
The Cowboys still don’t know what they have with Chidobe Awuzie as he’s been dealing with hamstring issues all year. If they can get him back and he starts showing why he was worth a second-round pick, this will help strengthen the secondary group. It wouldn’t surprise me if he supplanted Heath as the starting safety by the end of the year.
3. Prescott is the real deal
Truth be told, the biggest concern I had going into the season was the legitimacy of second-year quarterback Dak Prescott. It’s not because I had doubts, but rather that the quarterback is such an important position and we’ve seen it too many times before where a young QB has flashed greatness, only to fizzle later. If Dak struggled, this team would also struggle and there would be great uncertainty about the future of this franchise.
Fortunately, that’s not going to be a problem. Despite the Cowboys struggles as a team, Prescott is playing well. He already has thrown for 11 touchdowns on the season, which is seven more than he had after the first five games of last year. With the team still working out issues on the offensive line, this has put more of the burden on Prescott to make plays. And that’s exactly what he’s been doing. Against the Packers, Prescott threw for three touchdowns, ran for another one, and had a pick that wasn’t his fault. As ESPN’s Todd Archer reported, Prescott is playing much better than the Cowboys record indicates and he’s just getting started. Recently, Dak had this to say:
"My game's getting better from the first game to the last; these first five games, I'm getting better each and every week," Prescott said. "This team, myself included, is headed in the right direction with the standards that we hold ourselves to."
The Cowboys will shore up their offensive line. After losing two starters from last year, there are going to be some trials in tribulations as they sort out what works best. It’s hard to be too critical of the offense when they’ve just come off of two 30+ performances, but there is still room to improve and with a young quarterback that is ball’n out like he is, that’s got to make people feel good.
Jason Garrett isn’t just providing lip service when he tells people that each season is a new battle. You can’t just pick up where you left off last year. With all the change in personnel they’ve had this season, it’s not unrealistic that they would encounter some issues that need to be resolved. And that is just what they’re doing. Give them time. Allow some of these new faces in new places to get acclimated. Let this young secondary develop. The Cowboys still have plenty of football games left to figure things out.