Fans of the Dallas Cowboys can be excused if they are scratching their heads. After a dismal three-week stretch where the season looked to be headed right into the old toilet, the Cowboys played by far their best game of the year, thrashing the Philadelphia Eagles 37-10.
Given the inconsistency of Dallas in 2019, you have to be cautious about drawing lessons from things. We were proven very wrong about our confident assertions following the three consecutive wins to start things off, and now the latest performance seems to reverse so many of the panic-inducing trends we thought we saw during the three-week swoon.
Now, however, we have a decent amount of data built up. We should be able to identify things that tell us about the nature of this team. The complication is how very different they looked in the wins and losses. Further, you have to beware of recency bias, where the last game carries too much weight in your mind.
There is something significant that explains a lot about the way this campaign has gone for the Cowboys. It even renders some of the heated arguments about what plays to call when, as well as running versus passing the ball, a bit moot. It goes back to the basics and is almost self evident if you stop and think about it.
Teams lose when they make the most mistakes.
The corollary to that, of course, is that minimizing your own mistakes greatly increases your chances of winning.
This is especially true when the two teams involved do not have a huge disparity in roster talent, coaching, or organizational functionality. There are some teams that are just so messed up that they find it almost impossible to triumph even when the other side has more errors. You can probably lump the Cowboys’ first three opponents this year under that category.
The four most recent games, however, are all about mistakes and who made them.
- We start with the loss to the New Orleans Saints, which has a certain similarity to what happened to the Eagles on Sunday. The Cowboys lost that one largely because Ezekiel Elliott and Jason Witten both lost fumbles, killing drives. Since this was back when the Cowboys were still starting all their drives from somewhere inside their own 25-yard line, getting turned back twice pretty much killed them - plus the interception at the end came right at midfield. If those two fumbles had not been lost, then this could easily have gone into the win column for Dallas.
- The Green Bay Packers game was largely the same script, only with interceptions instead of fumbles. The first one was the most damaging, as it killed a very promising drive (had Amari Cooper hung onto that ball, the Cowboys should have scored) and also gave a big emotional lift to the Packers, who promptly marched the other way to take the early lead. The other interceptions certainly held the Cowboys back. You can argue whether or not a given pick could be blamed on Dak Prescott or not, but that hardly negates that all three in this game were a mistake on someone’s part.
- While they were a bit more subtle, mistakes were just as much a cause for the loss against the New York Jets. The offense had a big issue with dropped passes, partly because Randall Cobb didn’t play and Cooper exited early. The defense also got involved in the negativity, as they surrendered that 92-yard touchdown, and then couldn’t stop the Jets from going right back down the field to add another. You can also add in Brett Maher missing a field goal, and some decisions by the coaching staff that maybe should have gone the other way, like kicking a field goal instead of going for it, and setting up that gut-punch Sam Darnold touchdown bomb when they failed.
- Now, the Cowboys are coming off a big, extremely needed win, and this time, the mistakes were all on the other side. We could go on and on pointing out miscues and mental lapses by the Eagles, but the two fumbles in the first seven minutes of the game were probably all that Dallas needed to win. The additional errors just made the score more impressive.
Much has been made of the Cowboys only beating bad teams (and as I have said before, on last Sunday, the Eagles were objectively, obviously bad), but that is how it should go when one team is truly better. The evidence is mounting that Dallas is a good team, just one that cannot keep from making its own mistakes against stiffer competition - so far. And the Jets loss might argue that they can also have that one bad day thing even very strong clubs fall victim to. Here’s hoping they have that out of their system now.
But the real lesson here is that the most certain way to come out with a victory is to limit your own mistakes and then capitalize on any the other teams have. That is more important than any of the other factors.
- The concern about what happened to the Kellen Moore offense that looked so promising overlooked how the Cowboys errors probably affected things during the losing streak. First, those turnovers ruined some good plays - most came when the offense had something going. The best OC in the league can’t do a thing when his players put the ball in the other team’s hands with any frequency.
- In turn, a rash of fumbles and interceptions really pressures the offense to get more conservative. It is not necessarily a wise or effective response, because the argument can be made that you need to go harder for the big play to counter the bad ones. But it is very natural for most to pull back when things go sour, and seems quite on brand for Jason Garrett as well.
- Talent level also is intertwined with mistakes. Better players make fewer mistakes, and elite players should make very few. It was having so many of their best just blow it at times that really drove the three losses for the Cowboys. Add in the players that weren’t available against the Jets, meaning backups that tend to have more miscues or just don’t have the same chemistry filling in, and things piled up.
- That injury issue worked very much to Dallas’ advantage against the Eagles, as so many of the player who were not available for the Jets game, or in Cooper’s case left early, managed to get back on the field for the Cowboys. Meanwhile, Philadelphia had to try and get things done without some key starters of their own, and of course Dallas Goedert and Carson Wentz quickly had major flubs.
- There is one other thing to consider here, and that is how the coaching staff has to avoid asking players to do things that are a bit too much. Look back to last season, when there were too many failed plays because the patchwork offensive line was asked to handle things as if they still were among the league’s elite. So far, that has not been nearly as big a problem for the Cowboys, as so many of their worst mistakes have come from starters who should be better.
It may be a bit radical, but all the analysis of whether to run or pass on early downs and how innovative the play designs and calls should be are actually less important than having the players do their jobs correctly. Execution does indeed matter, greatly. That extends to the defense as well. We certainly saw problems with players being out of position and blowing assignments on that side of the ball in the three losses. There was even the example on Sunday of just how important it is for your kicker to hit the ball well. We need to consider the context of just having the players do their jobs without doing something that hurts the cause.
The Cowboys now have the bye to get healthier, which is a very good thing. If they can also keep the mental aspect of things clicking along the way they were against the Eagles, this team has a ton of potential. Let the other team make the mistakes, and good things result. When this Dallas team does things right, they can stay on the field with anyone. Heck, they came so close to overcoming them in the losses. Eliminate most of the errors, and who knows how far they can go?