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Six things not named Andy Dalton that will determine the Cowboys’ season

The Red Rifle is crucial, but he is not the only thing that has to happen for 2020 to not be a lost season for Dallas.

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Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys
This running back matters - even more now.
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Understandably, Andy Dalton, in his new role as the new QB1 for the Dallas Cowboys, has dominated the thinking and coverage about the team this week. Quarterback is the most crucial position on an NFL team. You either have a good starter, or you struggle. However, “good” is a relative term, as the Super Bowl MVP awards to Joe Flacco and Nick Foles attest. For some teams, it really is “good enough.” In his leadership and performance over roughly twenty minutes against a pretty stout New York Giants defense, Dalton showed he just might be that, and maybe more. While you don’t have to buy into the opinion he may actually improve the team as voiced to Jon Machota of The Athletic by Dalton’s former backup Bruce Gradkowski, it’s reasonable to believe he will perform well enough to help win the dismal NFC East, which would be a real accomplishment after losing Dak Prescott. But he has to have help from the rest of the team. Here are six places he has to have that help, and just how much of a concern each is.

Ezekiel Elliott

This section perhaps should be titled “The running game,” but barring something that will not be spoken or typed based on superstitious terror, Elliott is the running game for Dallas. He was important in the win over the Giants, totaling 91 yards rushing and two touchdowns, plus catching one pass for 14 yards. Now he has to continue with that level of performance.

However, he was not as much of a factor in some of the previous games, largely because the Cowboys were playing from behind almost all the way. They held a lead for only a handful of plays prior to the Giants game, and their only other win was accomplished without ever having a lead until the clock ran out on the winning field goal. The win over New York saw the team holding a lead through much of the second half before surrendering it after the botched snap after Dalton came into the game. That allowed Elliott to go to work, and he did his part.

One concern, however, is his lack of big runs. On Sunday, his longest carry was for only 12 yards on his second touchdown. The team needs him to start breaking off some longer ones to help keep defenses honest.

Outlook: If the Cowboys can keep out of those big deficits, Elliott should do his part. He is a fierce competitor who wants to help the team win, and wants to prove he is still one of the elite backs in the league.

The receiving corps

Spoiler alert: This ain’t a problem. In Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb, and Cedrick Wilson, Dalton has as good an array of weapons to throw to as any quarterback in the NFL. You can probably include Dalton Schultz, who has really earned his paycheck replacing Blake Jarwin. But it is those wide receivers that are the big guns. Cooper or Lamb would likely be WR1 on most NFL teams, and Gallup would be WR1 on quite a few. Even Wilson could be a top three WR for some squads. If there is a reason to have real hope for Dallas, this is it.

Outlook: Cooper is going to get his yards and catches against just about anyone, especially with the other threats around him. Lamb is on track as a candidate for OROY. And Gallup just keeps gashing teams on the deep sideline routes. We’re good to go here.

The offensive line

It is Week 6, and the Cowboys are down to two starters they planned to go into the season with. Tyron Smith and La’el Collins are out for the season, and Joe Looney is currently on IR, leaving only Zack Martin and Connor Williams to anchor a new group of players that had started all of one game between them before this season.

That lone start belongs to Brandon Knight, who filled in for Collins in the loss last season to the New York Jets. He was signed last year as a UDFA, and now is the best offensive tackle they have. Tyler Biadasz and Terence Steele are rookies, with Steele also having joined Dallas as a UDFA. Biadasz is living up to the reputation he had as an Outland Trophy winner at Wisconsin before being injured his senior year and has already laid a claim to being the center now and for the future. Steele has had the most struggles, which is logical given his circumstances.

The good news is that the patchwork unit held up well against the Giants, who do have a good defense.

Outlook: They have had a ton of growing pains, but growth will be the key. This will be the first game that the starting five from the previous week return. We will be holding our breath, but one thing Dalton has experience with is some bad offensive lines. He should be helpful to this bunch with both his ability to handle a pass rush and his savvy in calling protections for them.

The defense

For the first four games, the technically specific and correct way to describe their performance was “they sucked.” Yes, they were put into some really bad situations we are about to mention, but under duress, they often folded like an origami swan.

Finally, we saw them get the job done. Seven of the Giant’s 34 points came on a pick six, which you can’t hang on the D. Another seven were after the fumble set the G-men up at the Dallas 17. Outside that, they only yielded 20 points. That may be a bit too much against an offense as wildly inept as New York’s, but they got some key third down stops, including four times they forced the Giants to settle for field goals, with a little help from an illegal procedure call to nullify a touchdown play that totally bamboozled the special teams.

Outlook: It’s clearly still a question for some real debate about how much of this was the defense’s improved play, particularly Jaylon Smith, and how much was the Giants being even worse offensively than Dallas has been on defense before Sunday. Now, with reports that Leighton Vander Esch is reported to be a full go for practices, there is fresh hope that the improvement can continue. Still, there are big challenges at DT with Trysten Hill out after he had become the best IDL on the team, and the secondary is still having significant struggles. But progress did happen, so we just have to cross our fingers.

Turnovers

The Cowboys lost the turnover battle yet again against the Giants, 2 to 1. But their lone takeaway was the brilliant strip sack by DeMarcus Lawrence and the return of the fumble that bounced right to a blitzing Anthony Brown for a TD. That helped tremendously.

But giveaways led to 14 points, as mentioned above. It took some late game heroism from Dalton and Gallup to get the win. This is an area where both sides of the ball just has to do better. Dalton must protect the ball, of course, but Elliott and Schultz have also lost the handle too much. And one is too much, much less more. This is one that is on the players, because ball security is a coaching emphasis each and every practice.

Meanwhile, the defense has to get the ball away more often. The secondary is once again having a real drought of interceptions, and the ball has clanked off their hands more than once. Takeaways have a certain randomness to them, so perhaps the law of averages will swing their way.

Outlook: Who knows? There is so much luck involved we can only hope - and maybe sacrifice a goat or two to the turnover gods.

Special teams

For the most part, they have been rather meh, with very little in the way of returns, but not giving up much, either. Their most egregious error was the fake field goal TD that was fortunately called back. But they also won the Atlanta Falcons game with the miracle onside kick, aided by a confused Atlanta hands team that allowed it to happen.

And both wins have come courtesy of Greg Zuerlein making the game winning kicks. However, he has an uncomfortable habit this year of just sneaking it inside the right upright, which scares the bejesus out of fans. Another thing to worry about is super rookie Lamb going back to return punts. Since they are not getting much out of that, maybe they should consider risking someone else rather than him. One positive note is that they really seem to have coached Tony Pollard to not bring it out of the end zone recently.

Outlook: Just avoid big screwups.

One final note: While they have scrapped their way to two wins and the NFCE lead, they have done so against two teams that are a combined 0-10 this year. They have to find a way to beat teams that are not bottom-dwellers. The Arizona Cardinals are the next opportunity to do so. How that goes will tell us a lot about all these factors.