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Five thoughts about the Cowboys as they get ready for the Browns

The Cowboys have a losing record, a share of the division lead, and lots of things to work on.

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Dallas Cowboys v Seattle Seahawks
An emerging star?
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys are in need of a win to get back to .500. As they prepare for the next game, at home against the Cleveland Browns, here are some thoughts about them as we move into October and the heart of the season.

Talk about firing coaches seems just a wee bit premature

I do realize that the stuff on social media about which coaches needed to be replaced was mostly just post-game frustration and venting. There is a kernel of truth in it, since it’s kind of obvious some of the staff have not gotten things right yet. There are several interconnected things that have contributed to this. However, this is not another defense of the staff or attempt to blogsplain all that. It’s just that the situation the coaches are in is rather like someone being hired for a new job, but their orientation was cancelled and the training required to learn all the company specific procedures and even the layout of the new workspace was severely curtailed. And then after the first month, he or she was given a performance review and judged by the same standards as people in the past that had the full orientation and training package. It just feels a bit unfair.

It’s also rather irrelevant, since the fans and the media have no real say in the hiring and firing decisions. If they did, Jason Garrett would never have lasted as long as he did. That is all up to Jerry Jones, and in a recent interview he said that this staff will have the time to get their act together, as reported by David Helman at the mothership.

“Look forward to them doing, look forward to our players better executing it, and look forward to us changing some things because this staff is really not bound by, well, they’re on the bubble,” (Jerry Jones) said.

That’s a thought that hadn’t been raised to this point. Heading into the fourth game of their first season, neither Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy nor any member of his staff should feel too worried about job security. McCarthy’s tenure won’t be made or broken during September of his first season. Along that same line of thought, this coaching staff has not truly had a chance to mold this roster in its image, as the vast majority of this year’s team are holdovers from another era.

The owner/GM was talking specifically about the manifold woes in the secondary, but it can be extended to other areas, like the rest of the defense or the muddled confusion that the Cowboys call their special teams.

That last bit may seem harsh, but it’s heartbreaking that John Fassel has not done a better job after getting hopes up. But what Helman said also applies to him. He probably could have done a lot better, but maybe it takes a few games to figure out what the issues really are. Like, say, the guy you want to return kicks needs a lot more coaching on what he is supposed to do than you thought.

In any case, the time for discussing who might need to go from the staff will be after the season plays out. Our opinions on that could be very different by then, anyway.

Zeke didn’t get fed - and that’s perfectly fine

If you look at the stats for Ezekiel Elliott, it paints a dismal picture. 14 rushing attempts for a paltry 34 yards, with a one-yard plunge for a TD, and an even more desultory six catches for 24 yards on 11 targets, including a couple of drops. That may not look like much for a player on such a huge contract.

So why would that be acceptable? First off, the amount of money a player makes should have absolutely no correlation to how much he is used in a game. If a team wants to win, the only rational way to do so is call the most effective plays with the most productive players available, and if that means few handoffs for Elliott, great. Yet there have been cases, including in the recent past for the Cowboys, when there seemed to be a real effort to involve highly paid or drafted players just because of those things. We should be glad that was not the case last Sunday. Because of the opponent, the Dallas game plan had little room for a lot of handoffs, as Saad Yousuf explained at The Athletic.

First, the flow of the game made Elliott’s involvement in the run game an impossibility. The Cowboys were engaged in a shootout with Wilson, which is why Prescott had 57 pass attempts and Elliott only had 14 rush attempts. They started the game with six straight passes before Elliott got his first touch.

That really isn’t hard to figure out, and certainly makes good football sense. But Yousuf goes on to explain how Elliott was still a key part of the offense, even when he was not getting the ball.

With all of that being said, credit to Elliott for finding a way to be a productive part of the offense, even when his own game wasn’t clicking. Elliott stood out repeatedly for his pass blocking, helping out of the offensive line to keep Prescott upright. (sic)

This was an offensive line that came into the game missing both starting tackles and the swing tackle that were supposed to be in those roles at the beginning of the season. And as we’ve since learned, UDFA Terence Steele, who was at least serviceable at RT, had food poisoning, and would be unable to complete the game. That, plus an ankle issue that kept Joe Looney off the field for a few plays, led to a line, from left to right, of Brandon Knight-Connor Williams-rookie Tyler Biadasz-Looney-Zack Martin down the stretch. On many plays, having a skilled and willing pass protector in the backfield was crucial, and Elliott is both of those things. He seems to have no problem making his biggest contribution by buying Dak Prescott the time he needs to get a throw off. After all, when Prescott has the time, good things tend to happen.

One of the best wide receiver rooms in the league just got even better

Many of us have been promoting the trio of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb as something special. Well, now we might have to add third-year receiver Cedrick Wilson to that equation, because he had himself a game.

His breakout was partly due to Lamb apparently being shaken up on a punt return, a role the staff might want to reconsider for the stellar rookie. But when your fourth WR can come in and do what Wilson did, that is what you call quality depth.

And to be honest, even Noah Brown was of some value, as Bob Sturm pointed out in his weekly Decoding Kellen Moore piece, also at The Athletic.

The thing I will note here is that 10 personnel (1RB, 0 TE) is actually Noah Brown playing some TE (like we predicted!), and this gives them some real mismatches — for instance, KJ Wright in man coverage against Cedrick Wilson!

That is the same kind of team play that Elliott demonstrated, and means that Brown’s value goes deeper than just his stat line of one catch for nine yards.

This is clearly the strength of the team, and the last two games show that Moore, McCarthy, and Prescott know how to use them.

The secondary is now about surviving

It is becoming clear that any lingering hopes for Earl Thomas to play in Dallas are just about dead. The Houston Texans declined to make an offer to him, and the reasons are probably the same for the Cowboys. That means Dallas is going to have to roll with the depleted secondary they have.

This is going to require a lot better coaching and preparation than we saw against the Seahawks, as well as great effort and execution from the available defensive backs. Last week that had Trevon Diggs, Jourdan Lewis, and Daryl Worley as the cornerbacks as the team almost exclusively played in the nickel, with Xavier Woods and Darian Thompson the safeties. Brandon Carr was active, but only saw the field for three defensive snaps. We don’t know if that is a reflection of what he still brings to the table, or just trying to get him up to speed after coming in so late before they start leaning on him more.

In any case, they have to do better against the Browns, especially in eliminating the confusion and blown assignments we just saw. With Thomas apparently having issues that make him untenable, there just isn’t much out there in the way of free agent help, and the COVID protocols make it harder to bring them anyway.

The best thing the team can do to help the secondary is get more pressure on the quarterback, and there were signs that may be happening. Aldon Smith is just on a tear, having notched three sacks last week to bring his season total to four, and he probably assisted on the Antwaun Woods sack by forcing Russell Wilson back into the pocket. If the pass rush is on an upswing, that could make the job of the defensive backs a lot easier.

We’re just going to have to see how it all works out.

Now the Cowboys have to make a move before the bye

The upcoming five games are against the Browns, the New York Giants, the Arizona Cardinals, the Washington Football Team, and the Philadelphia Eagles. The Browns are 2-1, but against what looks like weak competition, including the Fighting Football Teams. The Giants are a dumpster fire at the moment, the Eagles are winless, and the only victory for the Teams was over Philly. Arizona has a good win over the San Francisco 49ers, but also beat up on the Teams and managed to lose to a pretty hapless Detroit Lions squad. If Dallas can win four of those five games, they would be 5-3 before facing what looks like the next big challenge in the Pittsburgh Steelers just before the bye week.

That should be doable if the Cowboys can eliminate, or even just reduce, the most egregious mistakes they’ve been making. As a hole card, they are in the NFC East, which is vying to be the worst in the NFL. But they can’t rely on the ineptitude of rivals. This is a stretch where they can start establishing some winning ways. The remainder of the season after the bye has them facing the rest of the division again, and what should be winnable games against the Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals.

Looking too far ahead is not wise, however. First, they have to get a win at home against those Browns. It will have to be one step at a time, and the further they go, the less they can afford stumbles.