Technically, the Dallas Cowboys are still in contention for a playoff spot. Technically.
However, if you apply any standard of logic and reason to the situation they are in after getting publicly humiliated by the Philadelphia Eagles, the real prospects of Dallas making the playoffs seem very small indeed. The team is on a downward trajectory. They pretty much have to reverse that on Thanksgiving versus the Los Angeles Chargers or watch this season just swirl down the tubes.
And the chances of that kind of turnaround are not good.
The Cowboys have the look of a beaten team with no idea how to win games anymore. Offensively they have been completely impotent over the past couple of games. In those games, they have only scored one touchdown and three field goals. The loss of Tyron Smith on top of the finally enforced suspension of Ezekiel Elliott looks to be more than they can overcome. Or perhaps it is the almost complete collapse of Dak Prescott in those same two games. He appears to be a shaken and confused quarterback. Some of his best traits have deserted him, including the ability to make accurate throws on the move and avoid putting the ball up for grabs. Lately, he simply does not look like the same player he was in 2016. There seems to be a relationship between the Elliott suspension, Tyron Smith’s injury, and Prescott’s precipitous decline. The Dallas offense is designed to run the ball first. That is certainly harder to do with Alfred Morris and Rod Smith (Darren McFadden was not even active against the Eagles, which does not bode well for his longevity with the Cowboys), but the running game actually began to produce against Philadelphia. What was completely missing was the passing game. Prescott was mostly way off target, and when he did get the ball to a receiver, the receiver was in no position to make a play because of poor ball placement. Prescott is still a young quarterback, and the horrid play he has demonstrated is worrying. He seems like he should be able to get his game back, especially with better protection. But he was not under nearly as much pressure against the Eagles as he was against the Atlanta Falcons. And still he missed over and over again. Young quarterbacks can be ruined in the NFL. Dallas has to fervently hope that this does not happen to Dak.
The defense put up a great effort in the first half of the Eagles game, despite the absence of Sean Lee. But they got no help from the offense, and also missed a chance to help themselves when Anthony Brown just flat dropped an easy interception with a lot of empty space between himself and the goal line. Still, with several big stands and the fact that the Eagles’ placekicker was out of the game, they got the team to halftime with a 9-7 lead.
From that point, it was all Eagles. Again, trying to point to just one thing is not useful, because there were multiple factors. The Eagles began breaking big plays, which wore out the Dallas defense, while the offense just kept punting it back to Carson Wentz and company. There is a case to be made for the inability of the Cowboys’ coaching staff to make adjustments, but again, you have to look at the multiple big runs Morris made in the second half. That sure looked like an effective adjustment by the offensive coaches. But it was ruined by the total ineptitude Prescott and the passing game displayed.
By the second Philadelphia possession of the second half, it was starting to be clear that the Dallas defensive players were getting gassed. Lee’s absence may have been a major contributor there, as the Jay Ajayi 71-yard was effectively the knockout blow in the game. Yet the pass rush failed to get a single sack (partly a tribute to the sometimes phenomenal ability Wentz shows in evading pressure, often actually running out of the grasp of defenders - something he has been doing all season). And the secondary couldn’t come up with any big stops after halftime, either. It was a pretty complete defensive breakdown for the Cowboys.
Injuries, suspensions, bad performances all over the roster, failures by the coaching staff, and less overall talent on the roster than they seemed to have last year - all played a role in the last two debacles. There is no easy fix. There may not even be a really, really hard fix. Technically (again), the Cowboys won’t be completely out of the playoff picture if they lose to the Chargers. But if they look even close to as bad as they have the past two weeks, you can forget the postseason and start focusing on the draft.
Sometimes, teams just don’t come together. And we should not forget the off field turmoil surrounding the Elliott suspension and Jerry Jones’ subsequent declaration of war on Roger Goodell and the other owners. I know Jason Garrett and the players all say the right things about keeping their focus on the games. I also know the distinctive odor of bullcrap, and I detect it every time someone says the battles with the NFL have not taken their toll on Dallas.
This is just not shaping up to be the Cowboys’ year. I wrote last week about how hard it is for teams to make consecutive trips to the playoffs, and how that largely how the league is designed to be. The current state of the Dallas Cowboys is just more evidence of how that all goes.