It’s another swing of the pendulum as the Dallas Cowboys have us hoping for better things after their win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Now they have to go play the Atlanta Falcons, returning almost exactly a year later to the site of the game that marked a steep downturn for the offense that has lingered into this season. There are several encouraging signs that have us thinking about at least the possibility of getting back into the playoff race. Our Michael Strawn and Tom Ryle go into what has them feeling positive in this week’s discussion.
Michael: Wow, what a difference - seems like just last week we were counting the days down on Jason Garrett’s tenure and now we’re talking about reasons for optimism.
And there are legitimate reasons for optimism, and most of it is on the offensive side of the ball. We’re already seeing the addition of Amari Cooper pay concrete dividends. Dak Prescott has put up numbers that are much closer to the 2016 version than the version we’ve seen since last season’s Atlanta debacle. Were Prescott to maintain the pace he’s established since Cooper joined the Cowboys these would be his 16-game numbers:
70% completion percentage
24 touchdowns versus 8 interceptions
101.2 passer rating
Now, anyone can scream “small sample” but the reality is Prescott has been playing better for a while. His numbers for the last four games: 8.09 ANY/A and a 101.2 passer rating. His numbers for the last six games: 7.98 ANY/A and a 98.3 passer rating.
In short, Dak has been playing better than he’s been given credit by many Cowboys’ fans. But more importantly, the last two weeks the entire offense simply looks more dynamic, more capable, more consistent than what we’d grown accustomed to. Yes, we can all question how sustainable that is. But one thing that gives me hope: the Tennessee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles rank 1st and 6th respectively in points allowed. The performances these last two weeks came against stout defenses. With Atlanta ranking 25th in points allowed, 31st in rushing yards per attempt and 27th in NY/A I’m actually thinking the Dallas offense could have a real explosion Sunday.
Tom: Hey, I am thrilled to see Dak snapping out of the funk that most of us trace back to his pounding at the hands of the Falcons last year. But while I don’t argue that he is a big reason for the good feelings right now, I am more excited about the Cowboys fixing the main problem that caused that pounding: The offensive line, and credit goes to its new position coach Marc Colombo (feat. Hudson Houck).
Dallas has spent multiple high draft picks and tens of millions in both real money and cap space to have a dominant offensive line, and that miserable performance last year in Atlanta was the worst sign that things weren’t going right. It led to the firing of Frank Pollack, but the staff didn’t get it right with the acquisition of Paul Alexander. Now Colombo and Houck have that swagger going again. Although Prescott did take some sacks last week, they continued to be of the “holding the ball too danged long” variety. And on the touchdown drives, Dak had plenty of time to make the throws - and boy, did he make some. After the sack just prior to the Michael Gallup screen pass, Prescott only had one incompletion on those three drives - and that speaks to his protection as much as his own passing.
Oh, and meanwhile, Ezekiel Elliott was just running amok on the Eagles. That always ties into better blocking, and once Zeke got over that initial hurdle (yes, I meant to do that), Philly had no answer for him. With the O line back to it’s soul-crushing ways, everything else will just work better.
Michael: You beat me to my second reason for optimism. Many have pointed out throughout the season that this team is built to succeed from the offensive line out. And if the OL is playing at anything less than a high level it’s almost impossible to envision this team succeeding. Thus, the turnaround from this unit Sunday was extremely encouraging.
It does you make you wonder about a few things. Paul Alexander’s attempt to change a successful unit’s technique looks highly questionable. I also have to ask - did the Cowboys not have their best player starting at left guard? Xavier Su’a-Filo looked better than Connor Williams has at any point in 2018. It wouldn’t be surprising if the offensive staff failed to recognize who the team’s best left guard is; after all, they made the exact same mistake in both 2016 and 2017 (La’el Collins over Ronald Leary and Chaz Green over Jonathan Cooper). But we’re talking about reasons to be optimistic and it may be the Cowboys lucked out as Williams’ injury may have revealed an unexpected improvement for the offense.
Tom: I’m with you on Su’a-Filo - hope they hang on to him, and then they can sort out things next season. Meanwhile, let Williams heal up completely for now.
Another thing that was at least somewhat unexpected was how Amari Cooper really made the entire wide receiver corps look better. Everyone kinda knew he was a better outside receiver than the team had, but since he has come on board, all the receivers seem to have stepped up their game. And that has even helped Zeke and the running attack, as defenses can no longer just forget about Dak beating them through the air and focus on stuffing the run.
Cooper is already making the cost of a first-round draft pick look like a good value for the team. And the best thing is that it should just get better - he has only been with Dallas for two games, after all.
Michael: You really don’t have to squint too hard to see this unit develop into a top ten offense. If Dak can continue to throw for 250 efficient yards and Zeke get back to 100 yards per game suddenly this is a quality offense.
Those are are optimistic expectation but they’re not unrealistic.
Cooper’s addition makes everyone else’s job easier. Players like Cole Beasley should see fewer double-teams; Zeke should see fewer safeties in the box; Dak should have an open Cooper to hit several times per game.
I’m generally skeptical about small sample results but what we’ve seen recently looks sustainable to me.
Tom: It does. Now one other thing needs to continue, specifically the better play-calling we saw from Scott Linehan. It really looked like he finally got it in Philly. If he can continue to do that, the offense should do its part.
We also need to mention one last thing. We all remember how Dak got sacked into oblivion the last game in Atlanta. Most remember that Zeke started his suspension that week. But not all recall that Sean Lee was out that game, and the defense was not the same.
Now we have the wolfbacker, Leighton Vander Esch, who is not only filling in capably while Lee is again injured, but is winning awards while doing it. The key matchup may be Matt Ryan vs the Dallas defense, and while there are problems like all the D line injuries, you just feel this group is better able to weather the storm.
It may be a bit of an overreaction to finally seeing a good game from the Cowboys, but there is a sense of optimism in the air. This is still another crucial, almost must-win situation. No one is going to say this is a lock for Dallas. But they have a real shot at this one, and the things we have listed are why.
Michael: I’d say this certainly is a must-win game. Considering the team’s schedule I can’t see them making the playoffs without a victory over the Falcons. But as we’ve noted, there’s legitimate reasons to believe this team can make it happen.