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Thoughts on the talent level of the Cowboys’ roster

We’ve been beating the stuffing out of the coaching staff over how the season has gone. But there are other issues to consider, like talent and execution.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Arizona Cardinals
Do we overestimate the players?
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of their loss to the Minnesota Vikings, the Dallas Cowboys are under painfully close scrutiny. Fans and media alike are trying to sort out just what is going wrong. With one of the most talented rosters in the league this team should be sitting at much better than 5-4. Therefore, the focus has been on the coaching staff in handing out the blame and anticipating what might be done.

But what if there is a fundamental flaw in that logic?

Now, for those of you who are looking at the byline and thinking “Hasn’t this dude been getting the rail ready to ride Jason Garrett and his staff out of town all week?”, I would like to clarify. Yes, I believe it may be time for a change. “Fire the head coach” is a simple thing to say, however, and does not adequately reflect that it is just the first of, according to my exhaustive research, 8,473 steps required to redo the staff. Fire the coach is a simple answer that doesn’t take the full complexity of a situation into account. Along those lines, when things are going badly for an NFL team, there are always more than one factor involved, and as will be explained, some of the issues regarding the Dallas roster still circle back around to the coaching.

There may be a tendency for those who follow the team to overestimate just how good the players are. That is something that happens with many other teams (go back and read the preseason takes about the Cleveland Browns, for instance). Those aren’t our concern, however. To try and better understand the situation of the one team that we really care about, here are some thoughts on the talent on the Cowboys’ roster.

The legitimate All Pros

The cupboard is hardly bare for the Cowboys, and there are some true stars. Just not as many as we have been led to believe. There are really three who are performing at an elite level (which is more than most teams can boast). This is not a prediction of who actually gets All Pro recognition this year, because that selection process has its own flaws. It is just as honest and objective a take on performance to date as manageable.

Dak Prescott is leading or near the top of every meaningful stat, with the lone exception of having more interceptions than in any of his previous seasons, and it’s not just volume stats that tell the tale. Against the Vikings, he made multiple jaw-dropping throws, putting the ball where only his receiver could get to it. Those were basically passes that could not be defended. Oh, and most of them went to the next guy in this group.

That would be Amari Cooper. He is third in yards per game and tied for second in touchdowns, but it was those incredible toe-tapping receptions that really exhibited just how outstanding he is. The fact that he did it not once, but three times in the lost cause on Sunday is simply amazing. If I was petty, I would go and dig up all the stuff on social media slamming the trade to get Cooper and re-post it to humiliate the critics, even though it has been done before.

The elite talent is not all on offense, either, because DeMarcus Lawrence is wreaking havoc on the field, even in losses. He may not be among the sack leaders this year, but those are something that are very dependent on the opposing offense. If the other team has a very good line to protect the quarterback, or a QB that is quick getting the ball out and/or mobile and elusive, then the sacks may just not be there. Lawrence still gets pressure, and he is simply outstanding against the run, usually chasing down plays from behind every game to stop them from going anywhere. He is the best player the defense has and goes all out every snap he takes.

Those are the best the team has. Now, since I used the term “All Pro”, you might have noticed some names that were not on the list. That segues into a position group that specifically deserves some additional discussion.

The offensive line

How could I not mention the three linemen who have already achieved All Pro recognition? Well, those honors for Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Travis Frederick were in the past, and frankly well-deserved. They just aren’t now.

The line as a whole has not been consistent and had a simply terrible game against the Vikings in run blocking. It is still a good unit most of the time, but a combination of nagging injuries, some play-calling that seems to put them in bad situations, and just maybe the inevitable aging of the stars have combined to keep them from returning to the top tier.

This is one case where it isn’t just Jerry Jones and the Cowboys organization that is hyping things. I live in a deep rural area east of Dallas, and can only get one sports talk station when I’m driving around, so I sometimes have to take what is there. That’s how I came to hear Colin Cowherd state that the Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers had the two best offensive lines in the league just days after we saw a game where the Cowboys’ looked definitely worse than Minnesota’s. The hype is not just coming from inside the Star.

In any case, this is a team that uses the line as the foundation of the offense, and when that foundation is showing some cracks, problems ensue. With the big contracts already given out, they have to figure out how to make this work with the material on hand.

Running back trap

I told you there would be things that still come back to the coaches. The conundrum of Ezekiel Elliott is one.

Jason Garrett is the architect of this team. He built it with a blueprint that is centered around the running game, and convinced Jerry and Stephen Jones to go out and first draft Elliott fourth overall, then undoubtedly had a strong vote on making Elliott the highest paid running back in the league, at least for now.

The Vikings turned that against the Cowboys. They basically shut Elliott down, especially on the now infamous runs from the 11-yard line with a chance to win the game.

There are two sides of this problem. First is the whole idea of a run-first offense, especially when you have Prescott and Cooper both putting together fantastic performances on the field. The pass versus run argument is hardly a settled one, but that last game was very convincing in favor of the pass.

And then there is Elliott himself. He has shown he can still be a workhorse back and pound some teams into submission. But he has yet to break a long run this season. It may not yet be clear evidence he has lost a step. It is to this point, however, a very poor return on that investment the team made to end his holdout. Part of the problem is that the coaches still insist on using him in the traditional running situations, especially first down, even when that is just not helping the team.

The question is not really where Elliott ranks among backs. It is whether that really matters the way the Dallas staff insists it does. There are ways to make him more effective by making those first down plays less predictable and giving him more shots at short yardage situations. As things stand, teams know he is coming, and the Vikings at least showed that they could stop him cold.

The curious case of the slumping linebackers

Coming into this season, there was a widely held belief that the Cowboys had the best starting trio of linebackers in the NFL with Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Sean Lee.

Something has gone wrong. Vander Esch frankly looks to be mired in a sophomore slump. Smith has lacked confidence and made bad decisions. Lee has been up and down. All have flashed this year, but this was a unit that got thoroughly exposed against the Vikings.

Was the talent we saw on the field in 2018 a mirage? Or can it assert itself again? The answer to that is going to be important for the last part of the season.

A lot of good but not great

Jason Witten has not been on the field for every snap the way he once was, but he still is taking the majority of them. He is a plus as a blocker when compared with Blake Jarwin, while being limited in the passing game. He can still catch the ball, but yards after the catch only happen if there is no defender in the same zip code with him. It is another place where the run-first attitude has secondary negative effects.

Randall Cobb and Michael Gallup are both tantalizing and frustrating. They both have had very good games, including against the Vikings. They have also had far too many drops, and that is one category where having Prescott among the league leaders is hardly a good thing.

Byron Jones is even closer to being a true star with his excellent to outstanding coverage ability, but he also lacks ball awareness. Whether it is inherent to him or a result of coaching, he just does not get his head around to make a play on the pass. It is all that truly holds him back.

The interior of the defensive line has just not been as good as needed. The team invested in the end position with the trades to acquire Robert Quinn and Michael Bennett, and they deserve praise for the bargain basement cost of each. But outside of overachieving Antwaun Woods, there just has not been a similar effectiveness from the tackles. Maliek Collins has been especially disappointing. Many observers tagged him to be a breakout candidate for this year, but that has not materialized. This is another area where the coaching takes a hit. Rod Marinelli prefers faster, lighter DTs to get after the quarterback. That went very poorly last Sunday, and it isn’t the first time this season.

There is at least one player that is currently ascending, Xavier Woods. He has been making plays all year, and has started to come up with turnovers. He was another breakout candidate, and unlike Collins, he is living up to the expectations.

The team is too slow to go to a better option over a veteran

I told you the coaches weren’t getting a pass on all this. The secondary offers us two cases of players who had to wait for injury to get the chance they probably should have had much earlier, Jourdan Lewis and Darian Thompson. Lewis had to wait for Anthony Brown to miss time to get his chance. Once he got to start, he clamped down on it and shows absolutely no sign of letting go. Now, Thompson is in the same situation with Jeff Heath, and while he is not showing as much potential as Lewis, he did seem to bring more to the safety position than Heath.

The Cowboys are like many teams in that veterans just have a big advantage on the depth chart. That is another old-school approach that has hurt them.

Take all this together, and the idea that the Dallas roster has been over-hyped seems quite valid. They are good, but not the juggernaut many of us believed. I will plead guilty to that as well.

What is frustrating is that in Prescott and Cooper, they have something that could fix a lot of the issues. It almost did against Minnesota, but it seems very true that the coaches just could not get out of their own way.

The talent may not be as good as we once hoped. It also is certainly not being maximized as much as it could. The talent level, both the strengths and weaknesses, plays a part, but the most important thing now is whether the staff figures out how to use it properly or not.

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