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Four thoughts about the Cowboys, post Packers edition

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There’s more cause for optimism than you may realize for the Cowboys.

Green Bay Packers v Dallas Cowboys
Here’s one reason I think things are not all dark.
Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

As you may have read, it’s hard to say what we really know about the Dallas Cowboys so far this season. Things have just been too confusing. The picture is particularly muddied by the way this team has repeatedly shot itself in the foot the past two games. This means we just can’t know a lot with any degree of certainty.

That other post referenced above was about things that we try to conclude from data. This one deals with things that are much more speculative. Specifically, these are thoughts about the team. There is no guarantee that these will have any real validity as things play out. In the interests of full disclosure, I also confess to leaning towards optimism whenever possible about this team. But these ideas, at least to a degree, are also things that others have brought up. So here goes.

Perhaps shockingly, I believe the Cowboys are in good shape

Already mentioned was the bevy of self-inflicted wounds. Oddly, perhaps even counter intuitively, that is something that makes this team is better than the two defeats indicate. Both games could well have been won if just a mistake or two in each had not happened. Importantly, most of those mistakes are things that can be corrected.

This especially applies to turnovers, which arguably were the real culprits. It is well-established that giving up more turnovers than the other team usually leads to a defeat. When you are minus two or worse in the NFL, it is all but a certainty. And Dallas was that in both the defeats.

In all but one case (the missed pass interference on Michael Gallup), the loss of the football came down to a player mistake, or perhaps a combination of poor ball placement and a lack of concentration by the receiver. For most of the players involved, these were not things we expect to see from them. Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Jason Witten, and Amari Cooper are too good to let this kind of thing happen with any frequency. While it is true that Elliott and Cooper have some recent history that bears watching, they should get things cleared up.

If there is a problem that goes beyond individual mistakes, it is the defense

The run defense against the Green Bay Packers was atrocious. The Cowboys were extremely vulnerable right up the middle, and Aaron Jones made them pay to the tune of being the first player in the history of the Cowboys to score four touchdowns in a single game against them.

It is not the kind of history you like to see made.

The biggest issue seems to be the emphasis on going after the quarterback and playing the run as the defensive line penetrates. That is a Rod Marinelli trademark. But after that mess, and the similar way the Los Angeles Rams did the same thing to them in the playoffs, we need to see if an old Devil Dog can learn a new trick. It is time to dial back the focus on rushing the QB and work instead on maintaining gap discipline until you get the other team in obvious passing situations. If Dallas does that, then the problems the linebackers had will likely be resolved, for the most part, as well.

This is crucial, and like with the individual mistakes, it is fixable. We are just going to have to see if Marinelli will be flexible in his approach, or if he will display stubbornness. Last year showed us that persistence in the face of contrary indications is not a good trait for coordinators. If this is not fixed, then things are going to be very dicey down the stretch.

At least the Kellen/Dak partnership is still very strong

While it was wasted in a losing effort, Prescott still had his most productive game ever in terms of yards passing. Had the interceptions not happened, it would have been deemed a magnificent performance. And this was not a case of garbage time yards and scores. Green Bay was not in a prevent defense. Kellen Moore was attacking them deep, and it was working.

It is worth noting that this was the second 400+ yard performance by Prescott this season, with the opener against the New York Giants the other. That game saw them forced to emphasize the pass with Elliott coming off his holdout. While the Giants have a very suspect defense, it was still a noteworthy performance.

Of course, you really don’t want to rely on throwing the ball for that much yardage on a regular basis. The ideal way to win games is to get up big, do it early, and then feed Zeke. Even then, Moore needs to still keep going for more points to make sure the other team cannot carve away at the lead. So far, there is no indication that he will repeat the mistakes of last year of playing to burn a little clock and then punt.

Additionally, by any way you measure it, Prescott is having by far his best season. Despite the three interceptions, his accuracy and mechanics are much better than in the past. With Moore calling the plays, Prescott is having his talent maximized. It should pay big dividends the rest of the way.

The Cowboys squandered an advantage, but no team in the NFC looks unbeatable

The surprising San Francisco 49ers are the last undefeated club in the conference. They have yet to face either the Seattle Seahawks or Rams in what may be the toughest division in the NFC.

Meanwhile, the first goal for Dallas now is to repeat as the NFC East champs. The East is shaping up as a two-team race between Dallas and the Philadelphia Eagles, who also have two losses. Opinions are currently split as to which is really the best team, but things will get a lot more clear when Philly comes to town on October 20th.

That is looming very large, as a Cowboys win would make them 3-0 in the division. Of course, if they drop that contest, then the advantage is clearly with our beloved rivals. Those killer mistakes discussed above have to be cleaned up. But if they are, the Cowboys can get the win and go into the bye in good shape.

The schedule after the bye looks a lot tougher than the early going, however. As much as I loathe to state it, the New England Patriots game is most likely not going to go Dallas’ way. The rest of the slate has some other very tough opponents, including the Minnesota Vikings, Rams, Buffalo Bills, and Chicago Bears, and the Detroit Lions can’t be slept on.

It certainly looks like 10-6 could win the NFC East. That will take much better play than we have seen the past two games, but it is not out of the question by any means.

First, though, the Cowboys have to take care of business in their visit to play the New York Jets. Once we have that result, there will be more thoughts. Hopefully, they will be even better.