This week has been filled with a lot of love for the Dallas Cowboys. That’s justified; the team has gotten off to a 3-0 start and have looked impressive in doing so. Whether your preference is traditional stats or the more advanced variety, all indicate the Cowboys are a high-caliber team that can legitimately compete for a Super Bowl.
But that doesn’t mean the team is without concerns. From a sometimes shaky defense to injury and individual performances, there’s always room for improvement. BTB’s Tom Ryle and Michael Strawn share their thoughts on the topic.
Michael: Like many I’ve been somewhat flummoxed by the overall defensive performance. More specifically, I’m concerned about Jaylon Smith’s health. He hasn’t looked anything like the edge-to-edge, heat-seeking missile we saw last year. Smith has exactly one splash play on the season. The coaching staff reduced his snap count last Sunday (Smith played only 47 of 74 defensive snaps). Bob Sturm’s “Decoding Richard” piece at The Athletic highlighted a couple plays where Smith simply couldn’t move laterally the way he did in 2018.
Add it all up and I’m wondering what’s ailin’ Jaylon. You’d think the Cowboys well understood Smith’s health situation when they signed him to a contract that guarantees him $35M.
Honestly, I find it very disturbing both for the team and Smith individually. He’s worked extremely hard to recover from what many thought was a career-ending injury. Now I’m wondering what the future holds.
Tom: It’s a rather murky situation, really. Smith does not look good on video, and has missed some plays he seemed to make with ease last year. Yet he led the team in tackles last game. Is that about things being funneled to him, or is he doing better than it looks? This is one of those things we have to watch. I don’t have a good read myself, but it is easy to understand the concern.
To me, this team has answered a lot of questions we had coming into the year, but one remaining issue that makes me uneasy is the lack of takeaways. It hasn’t hurt the Cowboys yet, partly because they have only given the ball away twice over the first three games. But you need to generate more somehow, even if there is no real formula to make it happen. We have seen some outstanding chances missed, and they appear to be strictly because the defensive backs were not tracking the ball or just failed to concentrate on securing the interception. What I am hoping for is something like happened with sacks last week, where the Cowboys suddenly got three in a half to assuage some of our concerns on that front. But we haven’t seen it yet. The good news is that Bob Sturm tweeted this:
Finally working on Seattle-New Orleans and Teddy Bridgewater tried to throw a few to the wrong team. There will be some opportunities on Sunday night. Need to take advantage.— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) September 26, 2019
Michael: I feel like we’ve been waiting for years for a Cowboys defense that could generate turnovers at a rate higher than league average. Outside of 2014 when they led the league, Dallas has generally bounced between mediocre and terrible at generating turnovers. You’d think with Pro Bowl talent at all three levels of the defense that would change. Instead, the team is on pace to have 11 turnovers for the season.
The law of averages would make you think this would change sometime; I mean, how many batted balls are going to land in the only area of the defense where there’s no defender? I believe the personnel are there and the scheme is fine; like you say the dam could break at any moment.
Beyond that, it gets harder to find things to worry about, doesn’t it? Nagging injuries to Zack Martin, Amari Cooper and others? A defense that allowed the Dolphins to gain 220 yards in a single half, but only allowed six points? Brett “maybe” Maher? All could be a “concern” but I guess we’ll learn more in the next few weeks. New Orleans, Green Bay and Philadelphia represent good tests and I imagine any real concerns will get exposed over the next month.
Tom: Well, you brought up the biggie, so we can address the elephant in the room: Injuries. This is hardly team specific. It is the one thing that can absolutely wreck things in the NFL. We are already seeing teams whose high hopes are taking a step back due to injuries - and it isn’t just one or two. There have already been 40 different starting quarterbacks in the 32 team league - and more are coming.
Basic football logic tells you that Dak Prescott is the one player you cannot lose. Other than that, the team showed it could handle some adversity with Michael Gallup, Xavier Woods, Antwaun Woods, Tyrone Crawford, and Tavon Austin all out last game. But that is going to be the norm moving forward. The NFL season is one long juggling feat, trying to work around minor injuries and hoping to avoid putting one of the top talents on IR. If the injuries pile up, or concentrate in a couple of key places, things could just become insurmountable.
But that is a kind of generic concern, because every NFL fan that stops to think for even a minute knows how big an issue it can be. There just isn’t a lot left. Before the season, I considered whether Kellen Moore was really up to the challenge the biggest worry, with Prescott’s ability to improve second. Both have convinced me.
MIchael: Agreed. I believe you said before the season the biggest question mark was Kellen Moore and whether Dak could take that next step. Right now, both questions can be answered with a vigorous affirmative. It’s really something when you’re three weeks into the season and have to reach to find things to be truly concerned about. I’m sure it will change and perhaps three or six or 12 weeks from now this conversation will seem foolish in hindsight. But I’d much rather we be where we are than somewhere else.