The Dallas Cowboys have a weird problem. They are one of the seven 3-0 teams in the NFL, but have faced what can only be termed a very easy schedule in the New York Giants, Washington, and the most recent opponent, the Miami Dolphins. They know they are good, but just how good? Now they begin what should be a more challenging stretch of games that should be a better measure.
Of course, any problem that involves being undefeated to start the season is one you probably don’t mind dealing with. And now, the data is starting to accumulate. We can start drawing at least some tentative conclusions about this edition of the Cowboys. Here are some things we may be learning about them.
They may be just what the record says they are
Yes, they have piled up those wins against a trio of creampuffs. Pending the outcome of Washington’s game against the Chicago Bears on Monday night, their opponents have a combined 1-7 record. But they have done it in an appropriate manner, meaning that they weren’t even close to a one-score game in any of the finishes. As a matter of fact, the Cowboys cumulative points differential, plus 53, is the largest in the NFC, and second in the league to the New England Patriots, who have a gaudy +89. And the Pats got those figures exactly the same way Dallas did: They beat up on a bunch of inferior teams. Their three opponents to date are 0-9, so they may well have had an easier start to the season than the Cowboys.
Good teams are supposed to beat bad teams by big margins. The Cowboys wins this season have been by 17, 10, and 25 points. The first two included “garbage time” scores by the opponents, while the Dolphins win had one of those in Dallas’ favor. But however you look at it, the Cowboys are winning games by an average three score margin. That means they are doing exactly what good teams do.
Had they just squeaked by in one or more of their games, it would paint a somewhat different picture, but this is a team that has dominated games and entered the fourth quarter in each leading comfortably. They even faced a tad of adversity, having a shaky lead at the end of the first half against Miami. Good teams make adjustments and rally from those situations. Which, again, is precisely what we saw them do.
Kellen Moore does indeed know how to use the run
The first three weeks of this season have been a display of how Moore’s offense could move the ball and score through the air. The last two games have added a potent running attack that provided a needed, valuable balance. After exploding with 406 yards and four touchdowns to open things against the Giants, Dak Prescott has been productive but not wildly prolific since. Which coincides with Ezekiel Elliott putting up back-to-back 100 yard games. Oh, and now Tony Pollard has joined the century club with his first time over that mark, plus his initial TD not called back by penalty. He is already looking like another Will McClay special.
I try hard to keep an objective view of Kellen Moore, but it is difficult when he has met and exceeded every expectation so far. When Prescott is in sync, the offense is able to march down the field largely at will and score. Now, having Elliott and Pollard hitting their stride during games accomplishes the same on the ground. When you can mix the two, you present defenses with a true dilemma.
It is almost funny to remember the concerns about whether Moore would be forced into keeping the offense centered around the run. Now, it turns out he may be doing that just because it is working so well. It is not just the volume stats that make the running game look so useful. It is how Moore is using runs to get first downs and keep drives moving. As long as he is also willing to pass when the other guys are thinking run, then this could remain one of the top offenses all the way this year.
If they can maintain this the next couple of weeks against the New Orleans Saints and the Green Bay Packers, we can really start to hope they have a shot at going deep in the postseason. If better defenses means a serious degradation of things, then we will have to dial it back and focus on getting into the playoffs. It may be rampant optimism, but I think it will be the former. Nothing indicates that Moore can’t keep this offense productive against any opponent, especially now that he has both elements working so well.
The Cowboys are still getting kinks worked out
Despite the blazing start, there is still plenty of evidence that this team, like all franchises, came into the season with a lot still to sort. This is the reality driven by CBA imposed restrictions on training camp and the very limited exposure of starters in preseason games. The lack of pass rush and takeaways, the multiple scores nullified by penalties so far, some inopportune drops, and the boneheaded interception Prescott threw against the Dolphins show that both individually and as a group, the Cowboys are still a work in progress.
A 3-0 work in progress. The things they are doing right are clearly outweighing the bad. That means that they should just get better. Other teams will as well, but being out in front is so important.
The depth passed the first test
The team was without Michael Gallup, Xavier Woods, Antwaun Woods, Tyrone Crawford, and Tavon Austin last game. Having two position groups, wide receiver and defensive line, take double hits raised the degree of difficulty a bit. On paper, this roster looks to be as deep as it has been in recent memory. This was the first real test of that, and while there were some first half struggles, the final result was definitely a passing grade.
One of the common assumptions is that injuries, or avoiding them, can be the biggest factor in a team’s success. Given how many teams are already struggling to figure out how to handle the loss of their starting quarterback this year, that is more a given than an assumption. The health of Prescott is without question the most important thing for Dallas. If he is hurt and misses a large part of the season (heavens and everything else forbid), then all the promise of this roster could be for naught.
But getting a 25-point win with four starters and a key special teams player out shows that the Cowboys may be able to weather just about anything else, as long as the sheer numbers do not get out of hand. That is major, and often underappreciated. There will be more tests to come. It is always good to pass the first one, since it can bode well for the rest.
That two game lead in the division is going to be hard for rivals to overcome
The Cowboys are the only team in the NFC that already has that big a cushion. Only the Kansas City Chiefs are in as good a shape in the entire league. And after the Philadelphia Eagles lost their second in a row, in their second really bad showing, this is kinda huge.
Coming into this season, the NFC East was widely held to be a two team race between the Cowboys and the Eagles. Many predicted that the Eagles would prevail because they had the better quarterback, the deeper and better roster, and the better coaching staff.
At the moment, exactly none of those appear to be true. Let us forego the quarterback debate. Just check the stats and records for Prescott and Carson Wentz this year and see what you get out of them.
Philadelphia is already struggling with injuries, particularly at wide receiver, where DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery were both absent against the Detroit Lions. There were multiple drops that game and the previous one. However you want to quantify it, their roster is just not looking all that good right now. Philadelphia relied a lot on free agency to build its team. That comes with a risk, because free agency leads to an older, more injury prone roster. That seems to be catching up with them.
As for coaching, just consider this clip (which also says something about the players involved).
“The Eagles have the best offensive line in the NFC East” -wrong people pic.twitter.com/HdowLphtVP— Blogging The Boys (@BloggingTheBoys) September 23, 2019
There is an old NFL principle called “playing through the whistle”. It means never giving up on a play because you don’t know when you might still have to make a contribution.
Those Eagles offensive linemen didn’t give up as much as they just clocked out early. It resulted in their quarterback taking an unnecessary beating. And while we can’t be sure from the outside, that looks like a failure of the coaching staff.
Meanwhile, if there is a team to watch in the division, it may be the Giants. They still have a real problem with their defense, but for the first time in years, they have an exciting quarterback that gives them real hope of success. We snickered at them going after Daniel Jones in the draft, but after he led them to a victory in his first NFL start, it is time to admit they may have gotten it right. It is a bit of a shame from our viewpoint, as we (and everyone outside New York, pretty much) knew that Eli Manning was no longer an asset to his team and profited regularly from that fact.
But the Cowboys hung 35 on that defense, with a largely one-dimensional attack. Now they have a potent rushing tandem. Oh, and Saquon Barkley has a reported high ankle sprain.
It is a long season, but the Cowboys are in the best position by far in their division. Now to make sure it stays that way.