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The big lesson from the Cowboys debacle against Cleveland

Hard to learn much about the Cowboys when so many things go wrong - but one thing is blindingly obvious.

Cleveland Browns v Dallas Cowboys
Fix this, Mike.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It’s a painful time for fans of the Dallas Cowboys. Their performance against the Cleveland Browns was about as dismal in some respects as any we can remember. With all the pain many feel, let’s dispense with the introduction and cut to the chase: What we have really learned is that there is a coaching issue for Dallas. That may not be entirely their fault, but whether they can find a way to fix things will largely decide whether this season can be salvaged.

Just saying there is a coaching issue is far too amorphous a statement, however. So let’s home in on just what issue or issues exist to start.

It’s becoming pretty clear that the biggest problems are on defense. Yes, special teams have had their issues, but they also made the lone and largely undeserved win possible. What is losing these games is often a complete inability to get a stop, and that is something that has gotten worse as the season progresses, not better.

That raises an interesting contrast. The offense has one big and pretty easy to identify problem: They are just giving the ball up too much, and largely doing so in clusters. You can work on something like that. Meanwhile, the production has been, well, kind of phenomenal.

Look at a few key numbers from the first four games.

First four weeks

Opponent Points scored Yards gained Points yielded Yards yielded
Opponent Points scored Yards gained Points yielded Yards yielded
Rams 17 380 20 422
Falcons 40 570 39 380
Seahawks 31 522 38 412
Browns 38 566 49 508

If you just look at the three columns on the left, you’d have to figure this was a 3-1 start for the Cowboys. Anytime you score over 30 points a game and amass over 500 yards of offense, you should win the game. The offense, despite the warts, is doing its job. That is under some trying circumstances, too. They lost their starting tight end, right tackle, and just this week, their center, and their starting left tackle missed the two games in the middle. Yet they’ve mixed and matched on the line, and outside of a very questionable decision with who started at right tackle against the Browns, they have made it work. Additionally, tight end Dalton Shultz has been more than just about anyone could have hoped in filling in for Blake Jarwin. As for Dak Prescott and what is now a five-deep wide receiver group, they are on a record setting pace.

But the defense has just not lived up to its end of the bargain, and it is not just the gross numbers that are trending downward. Against the Atlanta Falcons, they made a couple of key stops after two of the string of first quarter fumbles, and by limiting the damage on those to field goals made the amazing finish possible. Facing the Seahawks and especially the Browns, they just did not stop their attack at all. Turnovers led to rapid scores, and the most recent loss was sealed when they looked absolutely inept on Odell Beckam Jr’s 50-yard run for the final touchdown.

When you try to sort out what is so different between the offense and both the defense and special teams, one thing stands out, and it is Kellen Moore. He was the sole major bit of continuity on the staff. Three consecutive games with 450+ passing yards have to be largely because of him. The rather prodigious talent he has in the skill positions certainly helps, but there is a stark contrast between how Moore is maximizing his assets versus what both Mike Nolan and John Fassel have done with their resources.

At the start of this article, I mentioned that the problems may not be entirely the fault of the staff. Excuses are hollow in the NFL, but it is probably not a coincidence that only the Browns have managed to get to a winning record with a new staff this season. The other teams who changed head coaches are all struggling. Full credit has to be given to Kevin Stefanski for navigating the obstacles of this bizarre offseason and truncated training camp. Obviously, Mike McCarthy and most of his assistants have largely failed at this. Oddly, the fact that McCarthy went with so many very experienced subordinates may be a part of the issue. They all have clear expectations of what should have happened, but so far have done a very poor job of adjusting those to the very different circumstances of 2020. It is also legitimate to question whether McCarthy himself is dealing with a bit of a rust issue after taking that year off. He may have learned some things from his time studying and self-evaluating. Evidently that has not translated well onto the field so far. It may pay off in the long run, but with the supposedly talented roster of the Cowboys, this should not be a wasted year.

The immediate aftermath of the horrendous showing last Sunday generated some calls for a shakeup of the staff, with Nolan the main target. That is overreaction. While this season may prove that some further changes will be needed, four games is hardly sufficient, and any moves should wait until after the season. It is conceivable that something may go so badly that there is an in-season firing or two, but it is still too early to resort to such drastic measures.

The priority now is to find some way to right the ship and try to take advantage of the NFC East being one of the worst collective dumpster fires in league history. Dallas has a golden opportunity as they now face the only team that seems clearly worse than they are in the New York Giants, in the middle of a three-game homestand. Just finding any correction should get a win, and there are plenty of places to make improvements:

  • Put your best eleven players on the field to start the game. The decision to start Terence Steele over Brandon Knight at right tackle cost the Cowboys, and may have been enough to lead to the embarrassment of that loss.
  • Clean up the fumbles.
  • Get some pass rush against the worst offensive line faced so far.
  • Exploit the so far completely inadequate play-calling of Jason Garrett for the Giants. Moore knows so much about him and it should be a great advantage.
  • Figure out a game plan and assignments that the linebackers can handle and get their heads straight to avoid the blatant errors from the last game.
  • Don’t wait to be down by two or more scores to start piling up some yards and points with the offense - but play like you are down the whole way.
  • However, it would also be beneficial to get the running game clicking while you are not trailing to keep the Giants defense on their heels.

Most of that is on the coaches. That is where this season is either going to be brought back from the brink, or left to spiral out of control. There are undoubtedly some other lessons that could be taken from the first four games, but they are all subsidiary. It is now on the staff to earn their salaries and start getting success on the field.