The Dallas Cowboys have become, in the words of Winston Churchill, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. They started the season on fire, but those gaudy wins were against three of the weak sisters of the NFL (at least at the time Dallas played them). Now they have lost to two of the remaining 4-1 teams, but in largely opposite ways. At times, we feel like we are channeling our inner Jon Snow, and know nothing.
Normally, each week this article looks at what we have learned about the Cowboys. But it seems that all the lessons we thought we had absorbed so far have all been either turned on their heads, or at the least thrown into serious doubt.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming. Even before the season, the first three games were ones that you pretty much could see would be easy wins, while the games against the New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers were going to be serious challenges. More importantly, the offensive coaching staff had been seriously revamped, and we all are well aware that Kellen Moore’s resume as offensive coordinator consists of these first five games. And as all teams do, they had a lot of new players to integrate into the system, while some old faces were no longer around.
Now, we are left wondering just how good or bad this Cowboys team is, and we likely have at least one more week before we get some truly relevant data. The New York Jets are another winless team that looks lost, even with Sam Darnold expected to return from his bout of mono. It should be a win, and unless it is much closer than it should be, it will not really tell us much. The real barometer is going to come after that, when the Philadelphia Eagles, also at 3-2, come to AT&T Stadium.
That game could be huge in determining who represents the NFC East in the playoffs. Washington doesn’t look capable of really challenging. The replacement of Jay Gruden with interim head coach Bill Callahan is not likely to give them much of a spark. And the New York Giants are fighting injuries, plus just aren’t looking ready for a playoff push.
But the Eagles game is still a week and a half away. In the meantime, we are just scratching our heads and, in many cases, worried sick. This is supposed to be a talented roster, but too often the players are making egregious mistakes. Jason Garrett is coaching for his job. The defense was very solid for three games and then more or less fell apart last Sunday, especially in the first half.
So what should we take away from the first five games? Here are a few ideas.
First, the players have to clean up the mistakes. In the two losses, we saw critical breakdowns from Jason Witten, Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Maliek Collins, Leighton Vander Esch, and Jaylon Smith, plus a bevy of lesser transgressions from just about everyone. Now, you cannot expect any player to be perfect on every play. And when you look at the season as a whole, all the players named above have had far more positives than negatives. But those errors crippled the team. The turnovers by Elliott, Witten, and Cooper, who all manned up and took responsibility for what happened, all just killed the offense, which was rolling in each case. And the defenders were part of the explosion by Aaron Jones that so damaged things.
It is hard to figure out what caused those glaring mental lapses. What is certain is that they need to get it straightened out.
The Moore situation is still working itself out, but the Saints game is the only one that really reflects badly on him. What is important to remember is that he is very much still learning on the job. Perfection is certainly too much to demand. Still, he has truly transformed the offensive approach of Dallas. The middle of the field is no longer a no fly zone for Prescott, and deep passes are now integral to the game plan. Outside of just a handful of bad throws this season, Prescott is playing the best football of his career, and arguably is among the best in the league. The stats certainly point that way. And lost in the debacle against the Packers is that Elliott was getting over five yards a carry. So it even looks like Moore has figured out how to properly utilize that weapon. Overall, after the frustrations of last season, this project is really going very well. Don’t pay attention to the speculation that other teams have dug up old Boise State video and figured him out.
Defensive coaching, however, has to raise some real doubts. Dallas has shown a real vulnerability to a good running game up the middle. The middle of the defensive line is just not controlling things. That seems to be partly execution, but the high number of stunts and twists is playing a big role. While the team has missed Antwaun Woods, the real issue seems to be whoever is playing 3-technique. They are often out of position and not covering their gap. The emphasis on playing the run while getting upfield seems the culprit. Rod Marinelli needs to come up with some adjustments fast. Meanwhile, the secondary continues to play with their backs to the quarterback, and that is just not working out. Kris Richard has to take some responsibility to set things right as well.
The Cowboys aren’t exactly in a hole, but they have let a real chance to be contending for a playoff bye slip away. Now they are in a street fight for the division.
However, some of Jason Garrett’s best coaching jobs have come when the team has its back to the wall. Last season is a prime example. While the situation is not nearly as dire from a standings perspective as last year’s 3-5 start, the mentality that they are fighting for the playoffs against long odds might actually be something worth fostering.
Now we have to see how they respond. For the moment, we have to accept our ignorance and hope to learn good things going forward.