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Hot topic: Will the real Cowboys please stand up

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Is this one of the best teams in the league, or just an also-ran?

Miami Dolphins v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The reaction to the first loss of the season for the Dallas Cowboys has been, shall we say, heated and interesting. After three dominant wins against admittedly inferior foes hope was riding high in the fan base. Now, a notably substandard performance against the New Orleans Saints has pushed many off what was apparently a precarious perch into a spiral of doubt and concern. That leads to the idea expressed in the title. We want to know which version of this team is what they really are, a force in the league this year, a team whose flaws will be exploited by the truly good franchises, or something in between.

We won’t really know until later this season, although the next three games will indicate a lot. But last year, this looked like a team that was headed exactly nowhere at mid-season, sporting a 3-5 record with more questions than answers. But one trade was the catalyst for a 7-1 finish and a trip to the playoffs. It isn’t truly over until the Cowboys are mathematically eliminated. If they aren’t, the answer will come sometime in January.

Nobody wants to sit back patiently and watch disinterestedly until then. So we will pour over video or analysis of the team to get some hints.

The loss in the Big Easy was due to multiple issues. To further the discussion here are some things to consider.

The other team pay their players, too

Most are trying to win, and even for teams that are believed to be in tank mode, the players still have pride and want to notch at least a few wins on the way to a high draft pick. To use another cliche, winning games in the NFL is hard. That is especially true when you face a good roster across the line of scrimmage.

Make no mistake, even without Drew Brees, the Saints are a very talented team, and have a coaching staff that is one of the best. The Cowboys got out-coached. More importantly, they were outplayed, especially when they had the ball. The New Orleans defensive line just embarrassed the Cowboys’ offensive line. There is clear evidence that Travis Frederick is still quite a ways from the player he was before contracting GBS. Connor Williams is still a work in progress. Zack Martin had an uncharacteristically bad game (and a bad back). And Tyron Smith was hurt and is not expected to be available against the Green Bay Packers. Only La’el Collins can be said to have had a good game overall, justifying the contract he has been awarded.

When the offensive line is the true core of your identity, then a terrible day like that is almost impossible to overcome. But with Brees out, the Cowboys still came very close to doing so. However, it was a one score game, and history shows us that those affairs are often decided by a few breaks. With a couple of fumbles and a handful of missed plays, Dallas came up just short.

The fact it was still so close despite the numerous mistakes could be evidence that this team can bounce back. The worry is that the Saints put up a blueprint of how to stop their offense. Now we have to see how they adjust and correct things.

Will Kellen Moore be up to that task?

The play-calling was just another issue, as the Cowboys biggest mistake was to continuously run into the middle of the line, where absolutely nothing was happening for them but stops and quick exits to the sidelines for all but two drives. It is safe to chalk at least part of that, and some other issues, up to Moore’s obvious inexperience. The plan was flawed going into the game, and the adjustments just were not there, or at least ineffective.

But we saw just how well Moore can orchestrate things in the first three games. Now he needs to chuck the idea of establishing the run onto the ash heap and focus on getting chunk yards on early downs. In other words, the pass is the most effective weapon set he has. It needs to be used to set the tone and dictate things.

Green Bay brings another good defense with them this week, so it will be a challenge to accomplish that. However, they are more a top ten level unit than elite. They are excellent against the pass, but rank near the bottom of the league in rushing yards allowed. That would seem to argue for trying to run the ball down their throats.

That would likely be a mistake, because the way to rack up rushing yards is to get the defense back on their heels and then pile up the yards late in the game. It will be a real test of Moore’s acumen to see just how he responds.

One thing that bears considerable watching is how the Cowboys have gone more to Elliott as the season has progressed and he has worked back into game shape after his holdout. The percentage of early down passes has steadily declined since Dallas and Prescott shredded the New York Giants in the season opener. That needs to be reversed.

Of course, Ezekiel Elliott may be angry and ready to make someone pay. And Moore may be more willing to get him outside the tackles, which he probably should have at least tried against the Saints. So this all may go another direction entirely, and work.

We will just have to wait and see.

How about Dak?

There are some who think Dak Prescott failed his team and deserves an arrow. But he was under a lot of pressure, and still made some good throws along the way. If you look at what he has done for all four games, he really doesn’t seem to be the big problem.

The most important thing going forward is that the line and the coaches have to figure out how to protect him more and make sure he has the time to make his reads and find the right target. He did seem to miss some reads last Sunday. When he has the time, as he did in the first three games, he is brutally accurate. Smith’s injury complicates things, but this team managed to take care of Prescott well enough last year with a lot of issues on the line, including having to rely on Joe Looney for the entire season, and Cameron Fleming at times. I think they are capable of living up to the task. Now they just have to deliver.

The defense will have to help carry the load

The bad news is that they let the Saints extend at least one too many drives and get just enough points to beat Dallas.

The good news is that they are still among the best in limiting the other team from scoring, currently third in the league at 14 per game. They are particularly stingy in the red zone. And that includes some garbage time scores that pad the figure a bit.

But more bad news: Aaron Rodgers, the Cowboy’s nemesis in years past, is without a doubt the best quarterback they have faced so far. Now the question is, just how much like the old Cowboys killer is he still? So far, he has been definitely middle of the pack statistically. He has faced better defenses on average. But he hasn’t overwhelmed them.

The wild card is that he has come up with some of his best performances against the Cowboys. Will he reach deep and find that frustrating magic again?

That is where the Cowboys’ pass rush comes in, and they looked to be finding their stride against New Orleans. They had five sacks, and Robert Quinn has been the star so far. He is playing with incredible energy and technique. And the Cowboys have added a new wrinkle with Jaylon Smith playing a sort of stand-up 3-technique at times as well as blitzing. Smith notched a sack of his own and had a positive effect on some other rushes. If Dallas can keep the pressure on Rodgers and, most importantly, bring him to the ground quickly, he won’t have time to dig into his bag of tricks.

The Packers don’t have much of a rushing game, so that should not be a problem. Of course, we have seen teams that had done little in that department have very good days against the Cowboys in the past. But Smith and Leighton Vander Esch should be a big help preventing that.

This week, the venue is important

The Superdome is a notoriously raucous environment, and to be frank, the Cowboys seemed a bit cowed by it. The play-calling appeared to be designed to take that into account, but failed. The Cowboys get the Packers (and the Philadelphia Eagles in three weeks) in AT&T Stadium. That may be a huge factor in their favor.

The Cowboys failed their first big test, but have a chance to change things. As a matter of fact, they have twelve more, at least. We will find out Sunday afternoon how whether they rise or fall again.