Nobody expected there to be this many similarities between Dallas and Washington at the start of the year. Washington was undergoing a complete structural rebuild under new head coach Ron Rivera, who was given complete control over the front office as well as football operations. On top of that, owner Dan Snyder remains the focal point of multiple different controversies - including the laziest name change ever - that have led the minority shareholders of the franchise to sell their stake as others are hoping the NFL forces a sale of the team.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, were regarded as a supremely talented roster that suffered from poor coaching, which led to an 8-8 record last year, and brought in Super Bowl winner Mike McCarthy to right the ship and help the Cowboys get over the hump.
What a difference a month and a half makes.
The Football Team earned a surprise win over the Eagles in the season opener, but have lost four straight games due to a struggling offense that’s led to the benching of quarterback Dwayne Haskins, last year’s top pick for Washington. Backup Kyle Allen hasn’t been much better, but he also doesn’t have much to work with.
Washington decided to cut their top two running backs from last year, Derrius Guice and Adrian Peterson, for very different reasons. One of their backup running backs, Bryce Love, was placed on the injured reserve, leaving a rotation between journeymen running backs Peyton Barber and JD McKissic alongside rookie Antonio Gibson. Second-year receiver Terry McLaurin looks special, but the top three pass-catchers behind him right now are McKissic, Gibson, and tight end Logan Thomas, who played quarterback in college. Not great, Bob.
The Cowboys have also had some injury issues on offense, though on a significantly larger degree. Zack Martin has missed practice both Wednesday and Thursday with a concussion, and likely won’t go on Sunday and that will leave Connor Williams as the only original starter on this offensive line. Tyron Smith and La’el Collins are out for the season, and Brandon Knight is out for an extended period of time, forcing undrafted rookie Terence Steele into starting every game at right tackle thus far. Cameron Erving is expected to make his season debut this week, in place of Knight at left tackle, but that’s not exactly the cavalry riding in.
Then, of course, there’s the quarterback spot, where Dak Prescott’s gruesome ankle injury ended his season. Andy Dalton made his first start in a Cowboys uniform and was quickly torn to shreds behind this debilitated line. It didn’t help that Ezekiel Elliott once again had issues holding onto the ball. The result was so bad that the Cowboys’ offensive DVOA ranking dropped from 12th to 24th in just one week.
And it’s not about to get easier, since defense is the one thing that’s sort of gone right for the Football Team this year. Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio have managed to make the transition to their zone-heavy 4-3 scheme, though they’ve benefitted from all the talent Washington’s defensive line has.
In addition to veteran edge rusher Ryan Kerrigan and second-year pro Montez Sweat, who combined for 12.5 sacks last year, Washington added Chase Young with the second overall pick in the draft. Young already has 2.5 sacks this year, while Kerrigan and Sweat have three each. That’s without even mentioning the strong interior defensive linemen in Da’Ron Payne, Jonathan Allen, and Matt Ioannidis, although Ioannidis landed on the injured reserve after Week 3.
While Washington has remained competitive in games due to their defense - which ranks seventh in defensive DVOA - the Cowboys have trailed for the vast majority of their games because of just how bad their defense has been. They’re going through a scheme change of their own, but it’s very much the opposite side of the spectrum. Whereas Rivera’s scheme focuses on very simple concepts, Mike Nolan has tried to implement a complex, hybrid defense with exotic, disguised coverages. Making that change is hard enough in a vacuum (see: Matt Patricia’s Lions), but doing so in a dramatically shortened offseason has proved catastrophic.
There’s been moments - ever so brief moments - where we’ve seen what the end product might look like. After being gashed by the Rams for 249 yards and 13 points in the first half of the season opener, Nolan made halftime adjustments to limit LA to just 131 yards and one touchdown in the second half, while also getting a pick in the process.
Against the Giants, the defense showed real improvements as well, although the Cowboys’ turnovers and special teams errors gifted 17 points to New York for a discouraging final score. And the defense kept Kyler Murray and the Cardinals scoreless in the first quarter on Monday, but when the offense started playing loose with the ball the defense broke big time.
But the defense is getting reinforcements, at least. Randy Gregory will return to the field on Sunday for the first time since the 2018 season, while both Chidobe Awuzie and Sean Lee were designated to return from the injured reserve on Thursday. There’s no telling if that will help the defense improve, but it can’t hurt at this rate.
And the Cowboys will need their defense to start playing better, because this depleted offense won’t be able to shoulder the load any longer. Even if Dalton regains his confidence after getting ripped apart on Monday Night Football, there’s no telling when this offensive line is going to utterly fail in pass protection or when the $90 million dollar running back is going to fumble again.
That has to start this week. McCarthy has been preaching the importance of winning their divisional games, saying “Win the division games, you win the division.” If they can win against the Football Team, they’ll continue to hold onto their lead in the division. If not, they’d hold the same record as Washington and throw the division into chaos moving forward.