With only three weeks left in the regular season, the Dallas Cowboys face a difficult situation in trying to squeak into the playoffs. The Philadelphia Eagles held off the New York Giants and sub-.500 quarterback legend Eli Manning to tie Dallas for the NFC East lead. Now the Cowboys probably have to beat the Eagles in two weeks plus win one of their other games to play in January. And while Philly faces Washington and a rematch with the Giants outside of the Cowboys, Dallas is looking at the Los Angeles Rams coming to AT&T Stadium, fresh off their rather convincing win over the Seattle Seahawks, plus the finale against Washington. It is a tougher path, and while the Eagles weren’t exactly impressive in their overtime victory on Monday night, we are only too aware of just how Dallas has been in a free fall over the past three weeks.
It ain’t looking good.
Technically, the Cowboys still can dictate their own fate, but to do so, they have to do something that quite frankly seems to have become beyond them. They have to win games. Some teams have a strong culture of winning. It is can be a long-term thing, such as the phenomenal run of the New England Patriots. Or a sudden turnaround, as we are seeing with the San Francisco 49ers. And sometimes it is a rebound, like the Baltimore Ravens are going through.
But there are other teams that have a culture of losing. Just like with winning, it can be seemingly endless, as with the Cleveland Browns. With the Cowboys, it is more a short-term development, one that rolls around from time to time. We saw it in 2015, when Tony Romo was lost for the season. It happened again in 2017, starting in midseason and continuing until the 7-1 run to close out 2018.
Now they have sunk into that depressing pattern again. After their last two debacles on Thursdays, it is hard to see them climbing out, especially against a Rams team that has suddenly found some hope of overtaking the Minnesota Vikings for the last NFC playoff berth. Technically, the Cowboys can still scrape their way to the NFC East berth even if they lose to the Rams on Sunday. But a loss, especially if it is another dismal performance like the past two, would be a trend that seems increasingly hard to reverse.
Watching those games gave the distinct impression that the Cowboys are a beaten team. They play poorly, the coaching seems to be confused and impotent, and the attitude looks horrible. They have the air of a group that is just waiting for the next busted play. On the field, they swing between trying too hard to not giving much effort at all, sometimes with both in evidence on the same play. Dak Prescott is having a rather remarkable year statistically, but he is making too many unforced errors lately. He is perhaps the exemplar for one member of the team who is trying to take too much onto his own shoulders, and it is not going well.
Add in the shadow of a head coach who is all but gone after this highly disappointing campaign, and it is almost impossible to envision the Cowboys pulling themselves together and finishing the season strongly enough to at least get a wild card game in the playoffs. Given the opposition they will have to face however the seeding would play out if they did manage to get there, it would almost certainly be a one and done, which would be scant comfort for how depressingly things have gone this year.
This team is broken. While a new coaching regime could turn things around quickly, that is not probable. The problems have been so pervasive that it is more likely that it will take at least two or three years for things to really improve. And given how quickly windows close in the NFL, the next head coach may have a short tenure. Whatever flaws Jason Garrett has, he has enjoyed a tremendous amount of support and trust from Jerry Jones. That was built not only during his time as a coach with the Cowboys, having served as offensive coordinator before being promoted, but also through his years as Troy Aikman’s backup. Whoever becomes the presumed new head coach would have a hard time developing the level of trust that Garrett has enjoyed until this season.
So what will the roster be playing for the remaining three games? That is going to be key. Will they want to give their all for a head coach that is in reality just playing out the string? If that was the case, we should have seen more already. The answer probably depends on the individuals, and that is a prescription for more uneven and disappointing games.
The current losing streak may already have effectively finished the season, and that is about as sad a state for the fans as can be imagined. We were told emphatically how talented and capable this team was, only to be shown something else entirely for many of the games this year.
We want to see this team finish on a real up note and at least make a little noise in January. But right now, the signs are all pointing to this year ending not with a bang but a very pitiful whimper.