This is not doom and gloom about the Dallas Cowboys. It is not post-disappointing-loss pessimism. This is about reality. Due to the combination of factors facing the team, including the unprecedented pandemic situation, this team has no conceivable chance of getting anywhere. Oh, they will still try to win whatever games they can manage. And it is entirely possible that the rest of the NFC East will somehow out-inept the Cowboys. But there is really no reason to think they would be much more than a tune-up game for some wild card opponent even if that happens.
You can talk all you want about “any given Sunday” and how all teams face hurdles. But Dallas is standing at a bridge which has collapsed into the chasm. Here are some of the more important things that have made this season a lost cause only six games in.
Before the season, they lost Travis Frederick to retirement and Gerald McCoy to injury. Currently, they have eleven players on injured reserve. Even if Chidobe Awuzie and Cameron Erving return this week, that still leaves nine players on IR, more than some teams have all year. And five of them are gone for the rest of the season.
These are largely key players as well. The starting quarterback, the starting tight end, both starting offensive tackles, a starting defensive tackle, that’s enough to put a serious crimp in any team’s performance.
It is no mystery which is the most devastating for Dallas. Dak Prescott was not just the starting QB, and a very good one at that. He was the clear leader of the roster, and after watching the pitiful display against the Arizona Cardinals, there is reason to believe he was covering up a lot of inadequacies for this team. Andy Dalton is a better option to come in than most teams boast. His biggest problem is the rest of the players. With 60% of the offensive line consisting of replacements - 80% after Zack Martin left for what is fervently hoped will be a short time in the concussion protocol - he was battered and beaten in that game, with near constant pressure when he tried to pass.
It’s not just the injuries, however.
The talent has been less than we thought
“Less” in this case might be better read as “woefully inadequate.” That has been particularly true on defense, where the supposed help brought in as free agents have been mostly flops, with the exception of Aldon Smith. As a result the pass rush has been anemic, the linebackers have looked confused, and the secondary is tattered and porous. In particular, Jaylon Smith has seemed out of place or making the wrong read far too often. The New York Giants game raised our hopes that he had gotten things figured out, but things went right back downhill when the Cardinals visited.
He has hardly been the only problem on defense. Just the one that seems to jump out most often.
Offensively, there is one glaring problem, and that is Ezekiel Elliott now leading all NFL running backs in lost fumbles. That is something he had little problem with early in his career, but it has been on the increase at least since the beginning of last season. Arguably, he was the biggest cause for the humiliation against Arizona with his giveaways on back-to-back series. He certainly had help as the game went on, but you could almost feel the wind go out of the sails for the Cowboys when they got in that 14-0 hole. They knew Prescott was not going to go out and save them this time.
A mea culpa here. I was sucked into the belief that this was one of the most talented rosters we have seen in years for Dallas. Ensuing events have proven that it was just another year where the hype was based on dreams and fantasies. Especially with the players lost for the season already, this is a roster that is probably in the bottom ten in the league at the moment. Even if everyone is healthy, they were at best middle of the pack. We got fooled again.
An argument has been advanced that the real problem was the lack of preparation and teaching due to the rather severe restrictions in response to COVID-19. This particularly applies to Mike Nolan’s defense, which is very different and much more complex than the one last year. There just wasn’t time to get the players ready to execute it successfully.
So, why then were they still plowing ahead with it? Mike McCarthy said that the team would work to fit the scheme to the players, but that looks like another lie. If the defensive failures are indeed due to not having enough time to prepare the team, that is all on the coaches for not realizing it and taking more effective steps to find a better way forward.
The best coaching in the world might not be enough to overcome some of the issues dragging Dallas down. But it is not doing much to help that can be observed.
Locker room tensions
Recent reports have emerged that the players have a lack of faith in the coaching staff. This is always disturbing when it happens for a team, and to have this emerge this early in the season is even worse.
However, it hard to evaluate just how legitimate these complaints are, because there have been countless obvious examples of players not being in the right place or correctly doing their jobs. One example is the return of poor tackling. That hardly seems the fault of the staff. It is worth noting that we went through a similar series of reports at the end of last season, just with the complaints focusing on predictability rather than complexity. Sometimes those kinds of finger-pointing arise from frustrations of players who are as much a part of the problem as the coaches. Taking responsibility for your own actions and effort is not exactly a widely demonstrated trait in today’s society. At least Elliott took the blame on his shoulders for his fumbles, for which he deserves some credit.
This is probably greatly aggravated by the largely new staff, which not only had no previous years to build trust and rapport with the team, but didn’t even have a normal offseason to work on things. Throw in that stereotypical overestimation of how good this roster was before the games started, and people start looking for excuses rather than buckling down and working to fix whatever is in their purview.
Prescott’s loss may be a big part of this. His leadership might have contained much of the problem. Now, with the vacuum left by his absence, things are boiling over. Perhaps his hoped for increased presence around the team might help, but a lot of damage has already been done.
So now what?
Ten games still remain to be played, and remarkably, the Cowboys are still favored to go to the playoffs as the NFC East “champion.” That doesn’t in any way mean we should get our hopes up for some kind of miracle underdog fairy tale. It isn’t going to happen.
You can also ignore the “Tank for Trevor” talk. I don’t care how good Clemson Tigers QB Trevor Lawrence is, the Cowboys are not going to give up on Prescott and draft him even if they do stumble into the number one overall pick. If they wind up with that, it should be auction time, getting as much draft capital as they can from a truly QB needy team to help fill what will be multiple holes on the roster after this season.
What should happen now is figuring out who you have on the roster that is worth keeping and, as necessary, developing, and who should not be wearing the Star next season. The coaches should also be focused on teaching as much as they can, while not trying to force feed things that the players will not succeed at. The latter would just build on what is already a toxic level of frustration and discontent.
A win or two in the next few games would go a long way to healing some of the hurt, but just playing better each week is a must. While a shakeup in the staff may be coming, Mike McCarthy is still going to be the head coach next year. Even with a complete meltdown, the circumstances were just too massively against the Cowboys to fire him right away. It may turn 2021 into a “prove-it” year for him, but it would be highly illogical to not at least give him that. He has too much past success to believe there is no way he can turn this around.
It’s just not going to happen before next season. This one is over as far as competing for any hardware. We have to accept that and move on, just like the team.