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Looking for the real Cowboys

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It’s the bye week. Our dastardly duo of debaters discuss Dallas’ direction.

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys’ 37-10 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles created a variety of emotions for us. We were elated to see the biggest rival in the NFC East humbled. There was relief that Dallas goes into the bye still in first place in the division. And we also have an odd mix of anticipation and trepidation, because we still can’t be completely sure what the Cowboys really are after the up and down nature of their season. Our Michael Strawn and Tom Ryle have been considering all this.

Michael: Well, I’ve been irrationally optimistic since the season started so I’m not changing now. They’ve won four games that weren’t close (what good teams do against inferior competition) and lost three games by a combined 14 points. Ifs and buts and all that; however, it’s not a stretch at all to say this team is two or three plays away from being 6-1. If that’s the team’s record no one cares who they played.

I love what I’m seeing from this offense. Dak Prescott is playing at an All Pro level, the wide-out group is among the best in the league and the offensive line is playing well. Add the three-headed back-field monster of Zeke, Pollard and Prescott and Dallas should stress defenses moving forward.

Thirty point, 400+ yard games are the currency of high octane offenses and Dallas has four of those and a 563 yard game in a loss. That’s the kind of offense that can make things easy for the defense.

I’m putting my metallic silver-tinted glasses on looking at things positively. Those three games all featured problems that are fixable (clean up the turnovers, fix the run defense). I expected big things before the season and still do.

Tom: I had my period of unfettered optimism, but the loss to the Jets put a coup de grace to that. What the very delectable embarrassment of the Eagles did was revitalize a more realistic form of positiveness. It can be boiled down to the belief that this team can handle just about anything if they don’t self-immolate with sloppy mistakes. I’m not saying that everything has to be perfect, as some assert, but if they can do better than the other team in the miscue department, or at least stay about even, they have something that can carry them a long ways.

That is talent. Prescott is, as you noted, performing as well as any quarterback in the league, and a serious argument can be made that he is number one. The running game is in superb hands, the wide receiver group, led by Amari Cooper, is extremely capable, the tight ends were key contributors on Sunday, the offensive line is still one of the better units in the league, the pass rush came alive, the defense took the ball away, and Brett Maher showed us why the team has not given up on him.

I’ve become a member of the Jimmies and Joes camp. Unless you are a miracle worker (or have signed a pact with the devil in a spooky town somewhere in Massachusetts, as logic dictates must have happened for a certain lacrosse-loving head coach), the talent and depth of the roster will have a bigger impact than scheming and coaching can. Now, we are seeing it start to pay off in Dallas.

So we are both optimistic. But is it complete and total?

Michael: Simple answer: No. While I’m irrationally optimistic, I’m also a realist. The Jets game was only a couple weeks ago and the Cowboys simply weren’t good enough against a poor team. Throughout the Garrett regime we’ve seen Cowboys squads fall apart. It’s disturbing and if it’s happened in the past, of course it can happen again.

Looking back at that game, I’m still confused and befuddled by the coaching strategy. The offense sure looked a lot like last year’s squad with play-action virtually unused (only three plays) and rushing attempts on 70% of first downs (until late when they were forced to pass).

I’ve heard some argue this was necessary because La’el Collins, Tyron Smith, Amari Cooper and Randall Cobb were out. I must be missing something because it would seem to me that adding a simple, predictable strategy to a roster missing 36% of it’s starters makes things easier for the defense. Running straight into 8+ man fronts on third and fourth down to no effect seems the complete opposite of what we saw against Philadelphia when the team used misdirection and play-action to pick up easy first down conversions and touchdowns.

Many have noted that while the Kellen Moore offense is varied and free-wheeling in Arlington, on the road it reverts back to the simple, conservative, predictable outfit we saw in 2018. I think there’s a lot of truth to this. In order for this team to reach its full potential that will have to change and frankly I’m not sure it will.

Tom: An irrationally optimistic realist is an interesting concept.

To me, it all makes the Giants game after the bye a litmus test. It is a road game, and we have only seen Dallas win one of those. The Cowboys have not had a lot of success in games after a bye under Jason Garrett. And it is a divisional game. They need to keep winning those to remain in charge for the automatic playoff spot.

I’m not absolutely confident in this, but I think this is very different from the Jets game. They were missing those key players you mentioned in that one, which they let restrict them offensively. Admittedly, they probably went too far in the direction of being more conservative. The team should be very close to full health for the return to New Jersey, so that should not be a problem.

More importantly, at least in my mind, is that you have to believe that Jason Garrett learned a bit from the way the offense was clicking against the Eagles. He seemed to be enjoying it.

Defensively, I think if the Cowboys can handle Carson Wentz, they should be able to keep Daniel Jones corralled. The biggest concern is whether the run defense can have another good day, and how well Saquon Barkley has recovered from injury. The improvement stopping the ground game was encouraging, but perhaps a bit deceptive against Philly. After those two early fumbles, there wasn’t much reason for them to hand the ball off as they trailed by two or more scores for most of the game.

As for the rest of the schedule, I’ll channel a bit of Coach Garrett and take things one game at a time.

We seem to be talking ourselves into a positive frame of mind. But it is fairly evident that this Cowboys team still has issues that have to be corrected. What is your biggest worry for them?

Michael: Again, simple answer: The run defense. The Cowboys losses this year have featured two problems, turnovers and a run defense that got gashed. Fixing turnovers is fairly easy, in my opinion, because historically this hasn’t been a turnover-plagued team. Those plays were just anomalies to me.

That run defense, though. It has struggled ever since Indianapolis ran for 192 yards last December. Dallas has surrendered 100+ rushing yards in four of seven games this year and seven of their last twelve going back to that Indy game. By comparison, they gave up only four games of 100+ yards in their first 14 games last year.

This, to me, seems a systemic, fundamental problem. Fundamental problems are much, much harder to fix than a random fumble. The linebacker play hasn’t been there this year, while the stunts and penetrations the line employs leaves them vulnerable. Teams seem to have figured out how to take advantage of it and the Cowboys can’t seem to find an answer. Even Sunday night, the Eagles racked up 115 yards despite playing down double-digits the entire night.

It’s the one area that leaves me really concerned.

Tom: Oddly, the area that you are not so worried about is one that really makes me uneasy, although in a different context. That is turnovers, which were really the story of the Eagles game. That win was basically gift wrapped and delivered by drone right to Dallas’ front door in the first five minutes. That ain’t gonna happen very often, and the odds are that there will not be another game fall into the Cowboys’ laps like that this season.

The worry is how they can do in a more even game. There is some hope, since they came so close against the Saints, but we saw how things went when they were on the other side of the coin in the Packers loss.

Fans may call for Kris Richard to dial up more turnover plays, but they are just as easy to pull off as the touchdown plays so many expect from the offense. In the long run, getting stops are a far more reliable way to win than hoping for plays that have a huge random chance component.

What is important is that the Cowboys have not been reliant on one-score wins. Over time, those are really 50-50 affairs. Last season, Dallas really played with fire in how many of those they prevailed in. This season, they have already lost two of those, so the statistically dyslexic might say they are due one. The real thing they have done right is build a significant lead in all four of their wins. This year, the team seems to play even better with a lead than most.

One last thing: The title talks about the real Cowboys, and that is something that is still very much a work in progress. With a rookie offensive coordinator, we really should have anticipated that the true nature of this team may still be evolving even after this season is in the books.

Let’s just hope there are more good things coming than bad.