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Lesson learned: The Cowboys look to be a mentally beaten team

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The only truly consistent players on the team are the punter and long snapper. What does that tell you?

Los Angeles Chargers v Dallas Cowboys
Dak is just one of the myriad issues.
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

If you are the type who actually feels concern and despair about the Dallas Cowboys, it is time to panic. For those of us who stay more emotionally detached (it is really just entertainment, after all), it is more a case of being mystified. The Dallas Cowboys, coming off a 13-3 regular season (tied for their best regular season ever), with the Offensive Rookie of the Year and the Head Coach of the Year, have fallen completely apart. Everyone is wondering what the answer is.

Well, don’t waste too much time on that. There are so many problems on this team right now that there is no one answer. The Cowboys need better coaching, they have some serious problems in personnel acquisition and retention to overcome, injuries continue to hamper them, the players on the field are almost all failing at their jobs, and the owner has put so much energy into his fight with the league and the commissioner that he appears to have sorely neglected the GM part of his job description.

If you try to name the players who have not been an issue at some point in the season due to either performance, injury, or suspension, the list really consists of two names: Punter Chris Jones and long snapper L.P. LaDouceur. And they are getting an awful lot of work lately as Dallas has reached an all time nadir offensively, and the defense is right there with them. For the third consecutive game, the Cowboys did not reach 250 yards of total offense or double digits on the score board. And the Los Angeles Chargers did not have a single punt. They only managed three points in the first half because kicker Nick Novak was injured, not because the defense was doing well. Dallas had zero sacks and forced zero turnovers.

Simply put, everything has gone wrong. What were thought to be manageable issues at the beginning of the season have turned into an avalanche of ineptitude. It is an old cliche, but in the past three games we have seen a team that is truly and absolutely beating itself.

If there is one underlying problem for Dallas, it seems to be psychological. The players just look like they don’t believe in themselves, their coaches, or their teammates. This has been a tumultuous year for the Cowboys. Much of the strain has been from the outside. First there was the dismissal of Lucky Whitehead (now nearly forgotten by most). It was not very significant from a roster standpoint, but it certainly had the appearance of the staff jumping to conclusions and making a somewhat unjust decision. There were other issues that set up the release, but it still looks like the kind of thing that would erode the relationship between the players and the coaching staff, not to mention upper management.

Then the Ezekiel Elliott suspension hit. The long, drawn out nature of the NFL’s investigation had already taken something of a toll, but the real blow came after Jerry Jones made public pronouncements that he had been told there would be no suspension. There is no question that this enraged Jones, who had been very supportive of Roger Goodell through previously mishandled incidents such as the Ray Rice DV video, the Tom Brady soft football crisis and suspension, and the complete bungling of the Josh Brown case. But regardless of of all that, his subsequent very public fight with the compensation committee over Goodell’s contract extension was clearly a mistake. And while Elliott certainly had good reasons to fight the suspension as much as he did, the way it just kept hanging over the team for weeks was little help. You also have to wonder just how much impact it had to have so many pundits proclaiming that Dallas could not run their offense with Elliott off the field. Was that really the case, or did this become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the team, particularly in the mind of Dak Prescott?

Prescott’s near-total collapse is the most inexplicable part of things. Up until the three-game slide, his greatest strength was his ability to handle things mentally. Now, it is obvious to even the most casual observer that he has lost his confidence. He is making by far the worst decisions of his career to date. In the three-game losing streak, he has not thrown a touchdown pass - but he has thrown a bunch of interceptions, including one pick-six.

While the running game has not been totally ineffective in Elliott’s absence, it is certainly far less intimidating to other defenses. That has allowed them to attack the passing game, leading to sacks, forced fumbles, and interceptions. The Cowboys have been unable to sustain drives. In epic proportions.

The defense has now had three games where the offense has not helped them at all, and they are losing any confidence it can. At the same time, the defense has become increasingly vulnerable to, well, whatever the opponent chooses to do. Their worst and most consistent failures seem to come on third down, where Matt Ryan, Carson Wentz, and Philip Rivers have all looked like superstars against the Cowboys. That admittedly is a pretty good trio of quarterbacks, but they were all improbably efficient at converting third downs against Dallas.

And there is that other wildly improbably thing, the 34 consecutive quarters where not one single opposing offensive lineman has been flagged for holding. Maybe they just aren’t committing the infractions. Or not.

And it’s not that holding is not being called in Cowboys games.

There are missed/bad calls in every NFL game, but this is becoming statistically hard to chalk up to random chance. And it is also hard to say this has not had at least some impact on the outcome of games. Offensive holding calls are drive killers. Just look at the Tyron Smith flag that cost Dallas a touchdown. The Cowboys keep getting flagged, and when the team is already struggling to convert third downs, that just puts them deeper in the hole. And when the other teams get away with holding the Dallas pass rushers, they just keep doing it. Therefore, the other teams keep drives going that, sometimes at least, would have ended because of the ten-yard penalty.

It is also apparent that Jason Garrett has failed, miserably so, in getting the team out of it’s death spiral. The calls are mounting for the dismissal of him and/or members of his staff. But as Jones pointed out, he is just one year removed from coach of the year honors. Is this season because of his failings, or because the various obstacles became too much for anyone to overcome? The answer is probably a bit of both, but a large part of the blame also has to fall on Jones’ shoulders for his role in building the now-inadequate roster and stirring up or aggravating so much controversy.

It may be time to close the books on this season and start working on getting things fixed for 2018. It almost certainly will be if the team loses even one more game. Right now, that looks almost inevitable.

Probably, it will take another year to know if things are truly broken to the point there will have to be a shakeup or full housecleaning in the coaching staff. And if the recent cycle of good year, bad year, good year continues, it will be because the players regain some faith in their owner, their coaches, and themselves. Wins are the only solution for that problem. Unfortunately, those look to be very hard for this team to accomplish. And if the team does rebound only when Elliott returns for the last two games, that is another kind of problem for the team to face going forward.