The Cowboys have been in this situation before. In fact, it was less than a year ago. They lost to the Tennessee Titans, who were 3-4 at the time, and dropped to 3-5 themselves. Calls for Jason Garrett to be fired reached a fever pitch, and the season seemed over. But a win over the Eagles on Sunday night football sparked a five-game winning streak that helped save the season and make the playoffs.
Now, the Cowboys are sitting at 3-3, and there are screams for Garrett’s job once again while fans begin to speculate on who they might want as the next head coach. Next up on the schedule? A Sunday night date with the Eagles, and a chance at repeating history.
But this feels a bit different, for several reasons. First of all, Dallas had just added Amari Cooper to their team in the loss to the Titans. He was the quick fix to their offensive struggles, and it worked. Now? Cooper has a thigh bruise, and his status going forward is uncertain. Second, losing to the Titans is not equal to losing to the Jets. Tennessee went on to finish 9-7 last year, and had impressive wins over the Texans and Eagles heading into their matchup with the Cowboys. The Jets had zero wins and were in the middle of a downward spiral.
Whether or not the Cowboys are able to pull off another magical run to save their season isn’t the point. The point is that, for the second year in a row, this team is in this situation. For the second year in a row, at least part of the problem has been an offense that takes too long to get things going. The difference this year is that there aren’t as many excuses: Scott Linehan is gone, Travis Frederick is back, Dak Prescott’s footwork is supposedly fixed, and the Cowboys have arguably the best receiving corps they’ve had in the Garrett era.
Through six games, the Cowboys have scored on their opening drive only once, and it was a field goal against the Dolphins. They’re averaging just over three points a game in the first quarter. Only once, against the Giants, has Dallas entered halftime leading by more than one score. But in the second half, the Cowboys are golden; they’re outscoring opponents 99-47. But they’re 3-3.
This team has established a trend: start out slow, and then when things start getting bad they kick it into high gear and get right back into the game. It’s a testament to the talent on this roster, which is why many media outlets consistently ranked the Cowboys as one of the top three rosters in the NFC heading into the year. But when a team as talented as this one repeatedly starts games looking flat and even disinterested in playing football, it comes back to leadership. Even the head coach agrees:
Jason has been talking for a while and he finally said something meaningful.— Gavin Dawson (@gavindawson) October 14, 2019
"How a team executes is a direct reflection of the Coaches".
It’s not just Garrett, though he deserves a bulk of the blame. Even when the offense was abuzz with bells, whistles, and play-action passes on first down in the first three weeks, Kellen Moore’s group has been slow to start games. Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard’s defense has been gashed repeatedly on the ground, and linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith have looked lost at times. Defensive backs still don’t turn their head around when the ball is in the air. Oh, and the one ball-hawking corner on this team is stuck behind two under-performing players on the depth chart because he’s short.
The special teams unit hasn’t improved upon a poor 2018, as second-year coordinator Keith O’Quinn hasn’t been able to improve Brett Maher’s inconsistency. Worse is that Chris Jones has continued the decline we saw last year, and it’s resulted in some serious disadvantages in field position in game after game.
All four of the coordinators on this team have failed to have their unit ready to go from the opening kickoff. Only Moore has been able to consistently succeed in making halftime adjustments - 55 of their 153 total points have come in the third quarter - while the defense’s bend-but-don’t-break philosophy has been broken far too often. And the defense has apparently become as predictable as the offense was last year:
“They just kind of did what they do,” Darnold said, via Jon Machota of The Athletic. “They do it every single week. They just play one-high (safety), occasionally two-high, and they like to stop the run. I knew that I had to throw the ball today to have success, and we did that.”
There are also some conspiracies out there that Garrett has handcuffed Moore’s play-calling for reasons, but there’s not really any substance to support that. Nevertheless, as the head coach Garrett is responsible for the whole team, and it’s the whole team that has routinely come out flat to start games and seasons. These Cowboys are consistently inconsistent, and it’s a problem.
The Cowboys have a roster that’s talented enough to win a Super Bowl, and Garrett has to meet that level with his coaching and leadership, as do his assistants. The key to winning a Super Bowl is winning regular season games, especially early on. Only twice this century has a team started 3-3 and gone on to win the Super Bowl: the 2001 Patriots and the 2010 Packers. Most Super Bowl winners start out with six or seven wins in the first half of the season.
The slow starts, in both games and seasons, cannot happen if this team wants to win a ring. The talent is clearly there, and while not every mistake this season is on the coaching staff, it’s an indictment of them that the players never seem ready at the start of the game. If the goal is to win a championship, Garrett and company must fix that. If they can’t, someone else will.