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We are about to learn a lot about the Cowboys

This week, it is the lessons to come for the Cowboys that we focus on.

NFL: OCT 11 Giants at Cowboys
Mike McCarthy and his players have quite the challenge.
Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The best thing an NFL team can have is a true franchise quarterback. The worst thing that can happen is to lose him to injury during the season. The Dallas Cowboys had their QB1 in Dak Prescott, and just had their worst nightmare come true as he fractured his ankle and will miss the rest of the year. Now, it is on Mike McCarthy and the rest of the organization to find a way to win games the rest of the year. Despite all, they have a real opportunity to still win the dreadful NFC East. With the magnitude of the loss they just endured, and also losing starting DT Trysten Hill, who was a very pleasant surprise so far, it will still take a supreme effort.

We are about to learn if they have it in them. Here are some key points to watch.

The coaching

With Prescott, we always felt there was at least a puncher’s chance to salvage things. It was not going so well, but now that is no longer something to fall back on. McCarthy and Kellen Moore have to find a way to get something at least close to what they could accomplish with Prescott out of what they have left.

Meanwhile, the defense was in serious trouble through the first four games. Mike Nolan and the defensive assistants desperately needed to find some answers. That is still true, although there were a few hopeful signs we’ll get to later.

2020 will not tell the whole story on the McCarthy era in Dallas, but it will set a tone that could heavily influence what is to follow. The challenges he faced as a new head coach during the pandemic were unprecedented, and are far from over.

One thing that has been touched on, but perhaps not considered enough, is that the lack of a preseason slate of games really hampered evaluating and understanding the roster, as well as preparing the new members of the team. A great deal of that had to happen in the first four games. Maybe the rough start to the season was partly attributable to that. Now we will see if things go better the rest of the way.

Dallas finally invested in a quality QB2

For most NFL teams, losing a true franchise quarterback is like stepping off a cliff. Based on preliminary data from about 20 minutes of game play, Andy Dalton may be more like a manageable step down. He did have a momentarily disastrous exchange with rookie center Tyler Biadasz, playing in his first start and third game with significant snaps, but quickly got things working. That should just get better as they have more practice and game time together.

More importantly, Dalton responded to the duress of falling behind in the fourth quarter and leading his team to two field goals, the first to tie the score, and the 52 second game-winning drive featuring two extremely impressive throws to an equally impressive Michael Gallup. The calm way he overcame the situation is a product of his years as a starter for the Cincinnati Bengals. And as our David Howman has already suggested, his struggles the past few years there may be more a product of that organization’s overall problems than a severe decline in his abilities. That is a theory that makes sense given the cool and collected way he brought the Cowboys back to get the badly needed win over the New York Giants under some disheartening conditions. No team ever really wants to see a true backup QB have to take up the load. But it is a great relief when that load does not seem too much for them to shoulder.

The skill positions

If you have to step into the quarterback job unexpectedly, it certainly helps to have some good talent around you. With the stellar wide receiver group of Amari Cooper, long-ball threat Michael Gallup, super rookie CeeDee Lamb, and the emerging Cedrick Wilson, he has plenty of targets. (I covered this in more detail earlier.) You can also throw in TE Dalton Schultz, who has performed admirably since having to replace the injured Blake Jarwin. The running game is meanwhile in very good hands with Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, who combined for a very effective 121 yards rushing at almost five yards a carry. It is just about an ideal situation for Dalton to have to perform. So far, that’s what he has done, if in a limited sample size. Now we have to see how it goes on a full time basis.

Rebuilding the offensive line on the fly

It has been a rough year in the trenches for the offense. The projected starters at both tackles are now lost for the season, plus the center from the beginning of the season is hurt. That has forced Biadsz, second-year UDFA Brandon Knight, and UDFA rookie Terence Steele into the starting lineup. Along the way, those injuries forced a lot of shuffling, including the abortive attempt to get Tyron Smith back in the lineup. The results were predictably uneven.

However, for the first time, the Cowboys should line up against their next opponent, the Arizona Cardinals, with the same lineup they played for the entire preceding game. There is no part of the team where continuity plays a bigger role. That alone should lead to improvement, and it is likely to continue for some time. The team might still have some plans to move Zack Martin out to tackle as they get some needed depth for the interior of the line up to speed, but that might not be worth as much as just getting Steele settled in with more and more reps. And fortunately, for Dallas at least, Dalton is no stranger to operating behind some questionable linemen.

Glimmers of hope for the defense

The game against the Cleveland Browns was something of a nadir for the Cowboys’ defense. No defender did well. But that changed against the Giants, especially on the front end.

While PFF is at times just an attempt to quantify and standardize the old eye test, this certainly tracks with both the video and the stats. Aldon Smith has been probably the best and most consistent defender all season, but Jaylon Smith had obvious struggles the first four games. If he can continue to look like he did against the Giants, things could go much better, especially if Leighton Vander Esch is getting closer to playing. DeMarcus Lawrence has been playing through his own injury issues, and it looks like he might be getting back to health. A few more plays like the strip sack that the just-activated Anthony Brown recovered and scored on would be very nice.

The secondary is still a big concern, and the Cardinals will be a real test. But Brown helped some, and hopefully Chidobe Awuzie is also not long from being back on the field. It still looks like the Cowboys will need the pass rush to help the backside out, while also keeping the ground game in check. This is where Nolan is going to have to do a much better job than in the first four games.

Don’t forget the special teams

We may want to, especially on plays like the fake field goal where they were completely bamboozled by Evan Engram pretending he was headed off the field, then running wide open into the end zone to catch an apparent touchdown pass. The Cowboys were saved by an illegal shift penalty, but it was a clear breakdown. Later, they drew a penalty of their own to put the Giants into field goal range.

Still, the field position battle was not terribly lopsided against Dallas, with the fumble recovered at their 17-yard line cutting into things. Mostly they were taking touchbacks whenever possible, which is probably a good thing given how poorly Pollard has done returning kicks. Punt returns have also been pretty negligible for the Cowboys, but on the flip side, they haven’t given up a lot on any returns.

We just need the egregious errors cleaned up. Greg Zuerlein has been dependable so far, although he seems way too fond of slipping the ball just inside the right upright for comfort.

The big takeaway

It still will revolve primarily around how well Dalton can fill in for Prescott. The team has some great tools for him to use, and as outlined, the other areas at least were not hurting the team terribly, and in some cases made significant contributions at times. But just how good Dalton really is will likely make or break the rest of the season.