It’s hard to believe that we’re almost halfway through the 2018 Cowboys season. If you’re like me you already miss it. Halloween is coming up, Thanksgiving will be soon, Christmas will follow, and before you know it the 2019 season will be kicking off.
Life moves fast and often times the NFL moves faster. America’s Team is 3-4 at the bye and has yet to be on the positive side of .500 this season. They also have yet to win away from AT&T Stadium which is a polar opposite detail of who they’ve been in recent memory.
A lot is going to happen over the next few months. The Cowboys will either rally or fold and we’ll get a clearer picture of what the future with this team is going to look like. It’s going to be one wild ride if history is any indicator, and here’s what we know heading into it.
Number One: The Cowboys definitely have a shot to win the NFC East
Before Week 8’s games that don’t include the Cowboys begin, they are tied in second place in the NFL’s most storied division:
We know that the Giants are done. We think that the Redskins will falter. We’re concerned about the Eagles. This is all fair.
Dallas still has four games left in the division and gets to play some potential layups in Indianapolis and Tampa Bay. They have every mathematical chance to make some noise before it’s all said and done, and now they have Amari Cooper to help them.
Speaking of the newest Cowboys receiver, the team must feel that they’re in the hunt for the division if they were willing to spend a first-round pick on him. Dallas is now unable to aid their 2019 cause with a first-round pick, they will obviously have Cooper, and if they are able to win the division this season then perhaps it was worth a pick later in the round.
Mathematically speaking, heck even practically speaking, the Cowboys have a solid chance. The division has been flat overall and they have the best defense in it. They also employ the best running back (although that’s more debatable than ever) and if Cooper does provide a spark in the passing game they’ll become all the more rounded before the second half of the season.
Number Two: Dak Prescott is the team’s quarterback both for now and 2019
The trading for Amari Cooper does more than make the current team’s cause all the more strong, and while the subject of this post is what we know about the 2018 Cowboys, it increases the likelihood of Dak Prescott having success now and beyond. That’s at least the hope, right?
Moving beyond hope we have to consider the truth and the truth is that the Cowboys no longer have a first-round pick in next season’s draft. There is no viable option for them to acquire a new young quarterback which means that they believe enough in Dak to mortgage that opportunity.
There will seemingly be no threat behind Dak Prescott as the Cowboys will carry Cooper Rush and Mike White into the offseason. Dak now has every opportunity to prove himself to be the guy for the Cowboys and to be fair to the overall effort it makes sense to give him those opportunities. Dallas is going to have to decide after 2019 if they want to give Dak a long-term contract extension and if spending a first-round pick to acquire Cooper helps them make that determination beyond a shadow of a doubt then it’s absolutely worth it.
For now, and for 2019, Dak Prescott is the unquestioned quarterback of the Cowboys.
Number Three: One of the NFL’s best defenses resides in Dallas
We’ve seen more than enough at this point to confidently say that the Cowboys have one of the top defensive units in the NFL. It’s been a long time since that sort of sentence has been true.
DeMarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Byron Jones are all having impressive individual seasons and when you couple efforts by players like Tyrone Crawford, Sean Lee, Jeff Heath, and Antwaun Woods you have a defense that makes playing on that side of the ball fun.
Kris Richard providing my favorite moment from the CBS coverage on Sunday. (His reaction to Washington being called for holding on an Adrian Peterson run.) pic.twitter.com/JchIBcFogo— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) October 23, 2018
Kris Richard gets all of the headlines because of his bravado and outward personality and to be fair he should receive his fair share of the credit and then some. It’s also worth noting that Rod Marinelli has been outstanding for the Cowboys this season in building the Hot Boyz over the course of a few years now. It’s nice to see all of that crystallize together.
Number Four: Dallas was very wrong in the “wide receiver by committee” approach
The Cowboys thought that elite offensive line play and a strong run game (we’ll get there) would be enough to make their receiver corps of Tavon Austin, Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley, Deonte Thompson, Michael Gallup, and Terrance Williams enough to work. It wasn’t.
Tavon Austin is dealing with his own injury, and Deonte Thompson keeps not coming back to the ball which is a cardinal sin at the position. Allen Hurns has shown moments of something interesting, but it’s worth noting that he is the one who publicly talked about the offense’s inefficiencies. Overall the unit has been unimpressive.
Dallas has all but actually admitted that this philosophy was broken from the jump by trading for Amari Cooper. They know they need a number one option and it took them seven games to find what will hopefully be an answer. Kudos to them for adjusting.
Number Five: The offensive line is nowhere as elite as they used to be
When the Cowboys used their second-round draft pick on Connor Williams, we all assumed (fairly so) that the offensive line was going to be all the more great this season with him added to the fold. Boy were we wrong.
Tyron Smith has gotten beat more times through seven games this season than he had in multiple years prior. Connor Williams has been the least impressive rookie of those that have seen legitimate playing time, and that’s being kind. Obviously the Cowboys are operating without Travis Frederick and that was unforeseen, but Joe Looney has actually played admirable and is perhaps the only lineman playing above what is expected of him.
Zack Martin is now dealing with an MCL injury while La’el Collins rounds out the group. As a whole, again factoring in Frederick’s absence, they have regressed under the tutelage of first-year offensive line coach Paul Alexander.
Fast fwd 9 months, and we are a gap run scheme with highly inconsistent results, with two tackles who have regressed as pass protectors. https://t.co/dSaHaRHKEH— Joey Ickes (@JoeyIckes) October 23, 2018
Say what you want to about Dak Prescott (you definitely will in all likelihood), but he hasn’t exactly had the “Great Wall of Dallas” he loves to reference blocking for him. The Cowboys currently have a middle-of-the-road offensive line and those warts have shown all over the place through seven games. It’s part of why the team has lost four of them.
Number Six: Byron Jones needed to be at cornerback all along
Entering this season the Cowboys had two cornerbacks that we believed in - Chidobe Awuzie and Byron Jones. General consensus was that Chido would have been the one to take the step towards Elitesville, but Kris Richard has worked wonders with The Senator.
Nobody ever doubted just how athletic Byron Jones is, part of the reason why the Cowboys drafted him was how he showed it off in the lead-up to the 2015 Draft. Byron is fast, rangy, and can use his arms to make magic happen and he’s basically been using them to make opposing wide receivers disappear all season long.
DeMarcus Lawrence became the “war daddy” that Jerry Jones wanted all along, but just as quickly Byron Jones has become the lockdown cornerback that the team has desperately needed for some time. It’s so good to see another first-round pick paying off.
Three cheers for Byron.
Number Seven: The Cowboys were 100% right about Leighton Vander Esch... and Jaylon Smith
If you’re a part of Cowboys Twitter then you know the team’s first-round selection was not exactly the most popular person after his name was announced in his soon-to-be new home at AT&T Stadium. Just about everybody was down on the Leighton Vander Esch pick.
LVE has been magnificent through seven games with the Cowboys. He has not only been a viable linebacker in the heart of a strong defense but he has actually done something that nobody save Rolando McClain was able to do before him... mitigate the loss of Sean Lee.
Leighton’s development has surely benefited from the stellar play that Dallas is getting from Jaylon Smith which makes the middle of the Cowboys defense look promising for years to come. There’s no denying that Dallas took an inordinate risk that no other front office group would with the drafting of Jaylon two years ago (kind of like the trade for Amari Cooper these days, no?) and either they were the lone geniuses of the world or they got insanely lucky. It doesn’t matter which because they’re benefiting to an incredible degree as a result.
Sean Lee has been the only thing that Dallas has had going for themselves at the linebacker spot for a long time. What’s particularly impressive is that not only have they had success without him in the fold at times this season, but the Cowboys have also succeeded in spite of not having former linebackers coach Matt Eberflus on the sidelines. When Flus left to become the defensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts many Cowboys fans were upset to watch him leave, and rightly so because he’s a great coach. But Dallas has gotten better overall linebacker play in years and that it’s coming sans Flus and sort of without Lee is impressive.
Number Eight: Dallas has been unable to win away from AT&T Stadium
In the shocker of the century the 2018 season has shown us that the Cowboys are a team that can only win at home and not on the road. It’s quite the 180-degree turnaround from season’s past.
There isn’t really anything common among the four Cowboys losses this season save for that they were on the road. Dallas has lost at Carolina, Seattle, Houston, and Washington. Those are three outdoor stadiums and one indoor. Perhaps the Cowboys don’t like to be outside of a dome-type environment?
AT&T Stadium is hardly a dome, but it is technically indoors. It’s not necessarily the most sound theory ever but we have definitely seen NFL teams that typically play indoors struggle when they have to face the elements. The New Orleans Saints come to mind for example although they literally did just win at Baltimore.
If you buy in to the elements being a factor for the Cowboys you’ll be pleased to know that of their remaining four road games only two of them are outdoors:
- New York
This slate includes two playoff teams from a year ago, one of whom happens to be the reigning Super Bowl Champions. If the Cowboys are going to have the type of success that they want this season they are going to have to win at least two and probably three of these games. Winning on the road is not easy in the NFL and the next chance Dallas has will be under the lights of Sunday Night Football in Philadelphia. Considering that Dallas has visited Philly in Week 17 in each of the last two seasons and that both the Cowboys and Eagles didn’t play for anything in each of them, respectively, this is the first time that Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott will visit Philadelphia in a game of significance.
Here’s to hoping that the Cowboys are able to shake their winless streak on the road. They’re going to have to... or else.