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Harsh lessons from the Cowboys’ thrashing by the Cardinals

The Cowboys got a painful reminder of how far they still have to go.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

This is one of those games where you want to burn the game film, except there isn’t any film or even videotape now. The horrid performance by the Dallas Cowboys in their humiliating loss to the Arizona Cardinals was absolutely painful to behold.

Still, with any game you can find lessons, even the very worst ones. They are not at all pleasant to contemplate.

This team is bad. Period.

No matter how hard you dig and dissect to find some positive notes the team could build on, this is a simple, inarguable fact - this team is bad.

Let’s start with the biggest issue as far as performance by the players on the field. That is turnovers. Only six games into the season, the Cowboys are a miserable minus twelve. If you haven’t guessed, that is dead last in the league, five worse than their division rival the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings. They have given the ball away a staggering fifteen times, versus only three takeaways all season. If you are into advanced mathematics and deep statistical analysis, that works out to an average of minus two per game. There is a rule of thumb that you just don’t win games when you are minus two or worse. It may be a minor miracle the Cowboys have somehow managed to get to two wins on the season just in light of that one thing.

Usually, the big issue for teams is interceptions, but Dallas is bucking that trend, as nine of their fifteen gifts to the other team have been fumbles. There is one culprit in particular.

Zeke is hurting the team

A couple of pertinent tweets on Ezekiel Elliott and ball security:

“Concerning” is putting it mildly. With the loss of Dak Prescott, the Cowboys need Elliott to step up and help Andy Dalton, as well as the battered offensive line, but he has done the opposite.

There is no place to put the blame for this but on him. His ball security on the dump-off pass from Dalton during the Arizona game was just terrible, even in the broadcast video. His two fumbles in the game led to a quick 14-0 hole. He would not be the only problem in this area, of course, but he is the supposed superstar with the monster contract.

Perhaps this is just a temporary problem. But it is hardly the only one, as Elliott only had one run all season that went for more than 20 yards. Oh, and it ended in, guess what, a fumble.

And for those who maintain this is something completely out of character for him:

It is time to start having a discussion about how valuable he really is to the team. If he cannot start producing when the team needs him to, and figure out how to hang onto the ball, then he is a detriment. And guess what? If he is a post-June 1 cut next year, then the team can survive that from a cap standpoint. Yes, he would be a big dead money hit with no savings for that year, but after that, the cap savings start to mount.

It was seemingly unthinkable, but it’s time to start thinking. It’s time to put up or shut up for him, because Tony Pollard was more capable - and didn’t lose the handle. Running backs do matter, but that can include how badly they hurt you. Something needs to give.

Dak just got even more valuable to the team

After the encouraging start he had in leading the team to victory a week before, Andy Dalton came crashing rather heavily back to earth. Not only did he throw two picks (one of which was admittedly helped by the refs going completely blind on a blatant pass interference), he was sacked three times and wound up with a miserable 38.7 QBR. And it could have been much, much worse.

Suddenly, we have a dramatic illustration of just how much Prescott has covered the warts of this team. His ability to get out of pressure and extend plays may not have saved Dallas on Monday, but it surely would not have hurt. All those who rather ridiculously proposed that Dalton would somehow make the team better by things like running more should go back and delete those comments, or be prepared to suffer the mocking they so richly deserve. Now, Jerry and Stephen Jones better be ready to open up that bank account, because if they don’t sign Prescott to whatever contract makes him happy, they are utter and complete fools. You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, as someone once sang.

Let me say that there is still hope that Dalton will be better as he gets more playing time, but it is no guarantee. After all, he has a lot of other factors to contend with.

The injuries have been devastating, and no more so than on the offensive line

It has to be remembered that, after Zack Martin went into the concussion protocol, Dalton was one of six backups that had been forced into playing for the Cowboys on offense, along with Dalton Schultz, Brandon Knight, Tyler Biadasz, Connor McGovern, and Terence Steele. No matter how deep your roster is, it is almost impossible to absorb that kind of adversity and still mount a coherent offensive attack. If Dalton had a better line in front of him, he would certainly have a better chance at success.

Those injuries, along with some defensive losses as well, have truly crippled this team. You can’t really blame them on anything. This is just a wild statistical variance that has struck the Cowboys, and there is no ready answer. We have to hope players that were supposed to be riding the bench or just filling practice squad positions will get better. It will be hard to do.

Oh, and about the guys who built this roster

One shot has already been taken at the owners over that Elliott contract, and more ammunition is in the clip for other contracts.

Let’s start with letting Byron Jones walk because they didn’t want to pay him. Jones is doing very well with the Miami Dolphins.

Now imagine if Jones was still in Dallas. Given the frequently inept play of the secondary, he would have to be a major help. Yet they didn’t want to meet his price, partly because they had already invested so much cap space in Elliott and Jaylon Smith.

Then there are the failed free agents this season. Some of us, certainly including me, were fooled again into thinking they had found some incredible bargains in Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, Aldon Smith, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and Everson Griffen. McCoy remains an unknown after his injury in training camp, and of the others, only Smith has been even remotely worth having, and he is not enough to get the defense right. Once again, the Jones family thought rummaging through the free agent bargain bin was going to yield gold, and wound up with the trash they usually find there.

The only bright spot was the draft, which has already yielded three starters, although Biadasz has been forced onto the field earlier than they wanted. But that is probably mostly due to the excellent work of Will McClay. He is a potential GM just sitting there that the Joneses could step back and let run things, probably to the betterment of all. That is not going to happen, however. The egos of Jerry and Stephen are too wrapped up in running the day to day things. Those are a couple of really big egos that are not going to shrink, no matter what. Maybe Mike McCarthy can do something about it over the long run, but it doesn’t seem likely.

Meanwhile, the jury is still out on the coaching staff

There are continuing cries to fire or demote Mike Nolan. It’s easy to see why.

However, you do have to ask yourself how many of those points came because of those fifteen lost turnovers. The Cardinals reaped 24 points because of them, and there were plenty more in the first five games. In the live viewing of the game, the Dallas defense looked much better in the first quarter, before the hammering of the fumbles seemed to sap their strength and will. They started pressing again, trying to force something on their own, and soon paid the price.

Similarly, it is hard to do anything offensively when your players keep making such egregious mistakes, or are players you never wanted to see have to take the field.

We did see something almost as rare as a unicorn in Dallas, a good kick return by Pollard. But that was just a tiny, tiny positive in a sea of negativity.

Between the bizarre offseason forced by the pandemic response and the ongoing injuries, this is turning into a lost season for the Cowboys, even if they stumble and bumble their way into winning the absolutely inept NFC East. We just can’t get a good read on the coaching with all the associated crap they are having to deal with. Maybe a full offseason may make next year better, but it is a sad commentary on how this year is going when we already are thinking about such things.

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