The bye week was a valuable and welcome break for the Dallas Cowboys. They look to be healthier as they prepare for the last nine games of the season. Job one is maintaining their slim lead in the NFC East over the Philadelphia Eagles. That starts with another already-vanquished division rival on Monday night, the New York Giants.
But while the bye week is great for the team, a lot of us fans just stew a bit with that long break between games. Our Michael Strawn and Tom Ryle are no different. With all that time to think, you know they have some things to share with you.
Tom: Good heavens, I am so glad Dallas got the win over the Eagles before the bye. Having an extra seven days to relish a win is great, but the suckitude is great when you have to mull over a loss.
So maybe you can chalk it up to recency bias, but I feel pretty optimistic about the rest of the season. I don’t see the Philly game as a huge turning point, because the Eagles didn’t just beat themselves, they rented the dumpster, climbed in with some gasoline, and started a major conflagration. They apparently aren’t as bad as they looked against the Cowboys, as indicated by the fairly easy win over the Buffalo Bills. Likewise, Dallas may not be as superior as the score would have indicated (say it with me again, 37-10).
But I do see that as validation that the Cowboys have a roster and plan that works if they avoid their own self inflicted damage. Most importantly, they did what good teams are supposed to. When the opponent made a mistake, they capitalized.
Michael: And frankly they’ve done that most of the year. And that brings me to my single biggest hope moving forward: The Cowboys finally start generating sacks and turnovers at a better than average league rate. Here are the Cowboys turnover numbers, indexed to the league average, since Jason Garrett took over (>1 means above average, <1 means below average):
The 2019 iteration is right at league average numbers in both categories:
Which means that only twice (2014 and 2015) have the Cowboys been above average in turnovers. And only once (2011) have than been anything better than average in sacks. Not once - never - has a Jason Garrett team been better than average in both categories in the same year. The single, most direct route from competitive to dominant would be for this team to make 2019 the year when that changed.
So my hope is the addition of Michael Bennett to DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn - along with the rest of the defensive line depth - can finally give the Cowboys an attacking defense that consistently gets after the quarterback. And that, in turn, leads to those ever elusive turnovers.
It’s an ambitious hope, but not an unrealistic one.
Tom: I can’t disagree. And there are some things I think we can expect that could make it all work for this team.
First, I fully believe that Dak Prescott has hit his stride. He is, by any statistical analysis, one of the best in the league. With Kellen Moore calling plays, he is finally using the entire field. And he has the best group of receivers of his young career. Meanwhile, Ezekiel Elliott is still a premier runner that the team can lean on when it needs to. It just needs to make sure it doesn’t feed him when throwing the ball makes more sense. The win over the Eagles offers some evidence they are getting over that. The Cowboys built a big lead, but kept throwing the ball very effectively. Not long ago - like last season - they would have gone to running the ball a lot more. Doing more of what is working is what they need to do, and I think they will.
And I expect that your hope for turnovers and sacks is going to materialize. If nothing else, regression to the mean should help. Bennett and Quinn are, in my opinion at least, going to be a big help.
To be brutally honest, the one thing they have to do the rest of the way is match the Eagles win for win. As long as they can stay a game ahead of them, they make the playoffs. Add that to my expectations, even with a tougher stretch of the schedule coming.
Michael: And my expectations are similar to yours: I expect the offense to continue to produce at a top-5 level. This unit has already produced 399 yards or more six of seven games thus far. By contrast, the three Super Bowl-winning triplets teams (1992, 1993 and 1995) had ten such games in 57 tries.
As long as they stay away from the mistakes (Dak throwing “greedy” balls, guys like Elliott and Witten putting the ball on the ground) there’s no reason the Cowboys offense shouldn’t be an aggressive, highly productive unit. The only time they’ve been stopped this year is when they stopped themselves. I expect that to continue.
Tom: We both feel good, it seems. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some things to be concerned about should they rear their ugly heads.
The big one is always health. That embarrassing loss to the Jets seems to have been driven by a reversion to conservative play, which in turn sprang from having both tackles and your slot receiver out for the game, plus the WR1 leaving the field after the first series. The Cowboys obviously need to be better at handling that kind of adversity, but what we want is to see a minimization of time lost to injury the rest of the way.
Most importantly, they need to keep Dak healthy. So far, Dallas is tied for having given up the third fewest sacks per game. That needs to continue, and when they chose to use his legs, he needs to keep being smart about his decisions to protect himself. Keep him upright, and there is almost no limit to what this team can do.
Defensively, I worry about the run defense, which seems to have regressed, and big plays against the secondary. Those have cost them already this season. They have to clean those up. The offense can overcome a lot, but the focus needs to be on keeping that from being necessary.
Michael: Bingo on the run defense. That’s my number one worry as it has been a problem since the Indianapolis game last season. One problem that emerges when the run defense falters is the Cowboys can’t get off the field. The Cowboys surrendered only 12 points to the Saints but they had the ball for only 23 minutes, which is also how long they had the ball against the Packers. This team’s offense has quick strike ability but it’s extremely hard to win when the other team has the ball for 60% of the time.
Other worries include Jason Garrett adopting a conservative approach on the road, which is what we’ve seen this year in New York and New Orleans. I also worry about Brett Maher and the special teams undoing the good done by the offensive and defensive units with missed kicks or bonehead special teams. Since Keith O’Quinn replaced Rich Bisaccia the special teams have been anything but.
Still, when you take a step back, there’s a lot more positive things to expect than to worry about, and if the hopes materialize there’s no limit to what this team can accomplish.