The current position of the Dallas Cowboys is a bit mixed. They are 4-3, which is disappointing given how close two of the losses were. Oh, and one was to the New York Jets, the only game that woeful club has won this year. But they are in first place in the NFC East, albeit by half a game, and have already beaten all three of their division rivals once. Now, as they are coming out of the bye, we wonder which way the arrow is pointing.
It would not exactly be unprecedented for them to play much better in the latter part of the season. You only have to go back one year for an example. That was sparked by the addition of Amari Cooper. This year, they have snagged Michael Bennett. He is highly unlikely to have the same kind of impact as Cooper, but he should give a noticeable boost to the pass rush. It could be an immediate effect, too, as the first game out of the bye is the MNF contest against the New York Giants. They currently rank as the 22nd worst team in sacks given up per game - and all but two of their sacks have been since Daniel Jones replaced Eli Manning at QB.
And there is a more subtle way that Bennett could spark the team as a whole. The story of the first seven games was largely driven by mistakes. Specifically, when the Cowboys made a lot, they lost, When they didn’t, they won. And when the other team made a bunch of mistakes, they had their most dominant win of the season, the 37-10 mauling of the Philadelphia Eagles.
The losing streak that made us all question the Cowboys featured plenty of their own miscues, and they managed to have a different kind that drove each loss.
Fumbles killed them against the New Orleans Saints. They were only trailing 6-3 in the second quarter of a game that would only see them yield two more field goals. But when they finally got some offense going, things went south quickly. First Jason Witten lost the handle at the Dallas 47. Then after the defense held and got the ball back with plenty of time to at least tie the game up, Ezekiel Elliott had the ball knocked loose at the Cowboys’ 43, as he was converting a fourth-down play. There was no guarantee they were going to get points out of those drives, but this game was one of field position, something that was not in Dallas’ favor in any contest until the Eagles saw fit to gift them with multiple short fields.
Not only did those fumbles kill two promising drives, the Cowboys also did not fully capitalize on the Saints’ one big mistake, an interception of Teddy Bridgewater by Chidobe Awuzie. Dallas got to the NO 10-yard line, but stalled and had to settle for three.
When you are having to drive the length of the field on almost all of your possessions (even the interception left them with 54 yards to cover), you can afford no turnovers. And the offense coughed up two.
Against the Green Bay Packers, it was one turnover that really killed things for the Cowboys, the one that ended their first drive. The ball went off Amari Cooper’s hands and was then returned all the way out to the Dallas 47. That gave old nemesis Aaron Rodgers and new thorn in the side Aaron Jones all they needed, and it took just five plays to put the Cowboys in a seven point hole. Remember that the defense had, with the help of a couple Green Bay penalties, gotten off the field without giving up a first down on the Packers’ first possession. But after that, the run defense had its own series of errors, letting Jones run all over them to the tune of 107 yards and all four of Green Bay’s touchdowns.
Dak Prescott would get charged with two more interceptions, which played a huge role in a game where the offense had plenty of yards (a season high 503) and first downs. Had the team just eliminated a couple of those errors, this game could have easily gone in the win column.
The fiasco against the Jets had two more types of breakdown that drove the loss. First, the receivers had some key drops. This was aggravated by Amari Cooper leaving the game early due to injury.
But the big mistakes fell on the defense. First, after the Cowboys failed to convert a fourth down at the New York seven-yard line, losing a yard to put it on the eight, the secondary fell asleep and let Sam Darnold hit Robby Anderson for a 92-yard score, the latter’s only touchdown to date. Then, after another failed third-down pass led to a Dallas three-and-out, they let Darnold march it down the field for a second TD just before halftime. Those 14 points dug too deep a hole with the offense struggling.
The failures are disappointing in retrospect, but also offer a glimmer of hope. The Cowboys clearly eliminated most of their own mistakes against the Eagles, while seizing the opportunities provided when the ball came over to them repeatedly. With the first short fields of the season (they had not started on the other side of the 50 once before that game), Dallas was able to pile up the points.
If the Cowboys, with Cooper now as healthy as he has been all season, can continue to avoid mistakes on offense, and force more on the opponents with some help from Bennett, they should be able to continue their winning ways. The former is something that teams have a measure of control over. Turnovers are not as easy to reliably produce defensively, since there is always an element of chance with fumbles, and also some interceptions. But more pressure on the quarterback usually helps tilt things in your favor.
There is a principle that applies to life in general, and football in particular. Worry most about the things you can control, and figure out how to handle things you can’t. Mistakes during games are definitely a place that can be pertinent. Hang onto the ball, get your assignments right, and put the pressure on the other team. If Dallas can do that the rest of the way, they have a good chance of making the playoffs.
Revert back to the error-prone ways of the losing streak, and it make for a long offseason.