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The enigma that is the Cowboys 2020 season

Today, we have to admit we have no real idea what is going on with the Cowboys.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Normally, we try to do a “lessons learned” post around this time each week. The idea is to figure out what we can conclude about the Dallas Cowboys based on the latest game. However, it has gotten to the point that we don’t even know what we don’t know. Every week we seem to see something that contradicts what we thought we knew the previous game. So instead of what we have learned, here are some questions for which we want answers, but they continue to elude us.

Did we condemn the coaching staff too quickly?

Up until a couple of weeks ago, the torches and pitchforks were out for many of the coaches, particularly defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and special teams boss John Fassel. They were seen as absolutely failing at their jobs as the struggles continued.

Suddenly, all that did a 180. While the Steelers eventually won the game, this was the best performance by the defense this year, no question. And once again, the offense gave up a couple of turnovers, which led to six points in a game won by five. That is sort of the Pittsburgh modus operandi - they don’t gain a lot of yards, but are currently fifth in the league in points scored as they capitalize on the takeaways their defense accumulates, as well as just being stingy, tied for fourth best in the league in points allowed at 20.1 per game.

What was most impressive was the way Dallas completely shut down the run. The Steelers are not a high-output running team, but the Cowboys still allowed less than half the normal output. And until they finally broke late in the game, they were generally doing well at getting off the field. They held Pittsburgh to just 38% on third-down conversions. If they could have just avoided some maddening penalties, this game might have been won.

Likewise, after all our moaning about the lack of any production at all by the special teams, we got not one, but two excellent returns. The trick-play punt return involving method actor C.J. Goodwin and Cedrick Wilson is one that they will not likely duplicate - but it now is something other teams will have to watch for, which can bear other fruit. Rico Dowdle’s kick return was just outstanding effort and execution. The only problem was that the offense just managed to get a pair of field goals off these efforts.

Which leads to more questions, like why did this take so long? It certainly lends some credence to the idea that the players just had to learn the new schemes and assignments. If they had gotten to this point back in September, we would be having entirely different discussions about this team.

Why so many injuries?

This is one question for which no one has any answers. It has certainly had an impact.

This may be some kind of record, and not one you really want to have.

Why is the team still planning on starting Andy Dalton?

One game does not tell us everything we need to know about Garrett Gilbert. This may have been a flash in the pan for him. Or it could be an indication that he deserves to keep playing. Dalton is a veteran with a solid résumé from his decade starting for the Cincinnati Bengals, but that seems more an argument for keeping Gilbert behind center. He is an unknown, and the team can learn so much more about him.

We don’t know how the other players think about all this. Do they still have faith in Dalton as the man? If they do, why did they just stand around after he got mugged against the Washington Football Team? Are they committed to developing Ben DiNucci as a backup and don’t plan on trying to keep Gilbert?

It is all puzzling.

So why do they make some of these other personnel decisions?

Neville Gallimore was the star for the defense against Pittsburgh, but they brought him along very slowly. Given the way Dontari Poe was performing, or not performing, you have to wonder why they didn’t give Gallimore more work. It was not until Week 7, when Poe was likely already marked for release, that they put Gallimore on the field for more snaps than Poe.

Likewise, they were very hesitant to give Donovan Wilson significant playing time over Darian Thompson. While Wilson has not been the kind of star Gallimore was this week, he certainly has been showing real improvement and may have a big role going forward. Given the ongoing issues at safety, you would think the team would want to find out more about what they have in him, especially after Dak Prescott went down and the season was almost impossible to salvage going forward.

Similar questions surround Jaylon Smith, who still winds up out of place, making bad reads, or getting badly timed penalties, and the splits between Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. Elliott looks like he doesn’t have the burst he used to, although part of that may be due to his hamstring problem. Pollard is much more explosive.

There is a strong suspicion that the amount of money the team is paying players affects who gets the snaps, and that is just not smart football. We wonder just how much input the Jones family has on that, but we really don’t know.

How much does the team really gain by winning down the stretch?

Clearly, the idea of tanking is never going to be discussed as a plan for the Cowboys. But sometimes, when you look at things like sticking with Dalton or keeping Smith on the field despite his miscues, you wonder if that is really a way to look like they are trying to win when they aren’t actually making their best effort. Some of the younger players may be a better option if they truly are trying to make a long-shot run at winning the NFC East.

Still, traditional thinking is that when the season is largely beyond saving, you should focus on evaluating young talent rather than pushing hard to win games. If the draft were held today, the Cowboys would be third in the order, and that would be extremely valuable in improving the roster. Given how CeeDee Lamb, Trevon Diggs, Gallimore, and Tyler Biadasz have turned out so far, the draft continues to be the most effective way for the Cowboys to get new talent.

It certainly leads to mixed emotions. We want to see Dallas play well, but when they get another loss, they may be better off in the long run. It is not where we want to be, but it is where we are.