Normally, going into the bye week with a 2-7 record would lead to a lingering sense of depression about the Dallas Cowboys. But that is not necessarily the case, because after so many weeks of wildly dysfunctional play, things actually seemed to come together in a good, though ultimately futile, showing against what is probably the best team they will play all year. While there were a lot of positives to examine in loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, one thing may be far more important than any other. It may have been the turning point for the coaching staff.
For the first half of the season, the only thing the Cowboys seemed truly competent at was finding new ways to lose games. Outside of a miracle finish over the Atlanta Falcons and a narrow win against the New York Giants, both teams also in line for high draft picks, they just kept floundering. They barely held a lead at all in the first eight games.
But against the Steelers, they led almost the entire game, from their first possession until Pittsburgh’s go ahead touchdown with just 2:14 left to play. It was a game where a couple of questionable penalties and no-calls could easily have turned the tide. One where it is not illogical to argue that Dallas was actually the best team on the field, despite fielding a quarterback with all of six NFL passes in his career, and what may be a historically long list of injured starters.
Several players stepped up this game, including Garrett Gilbert, Tony Pollard, Neville Gallimore, and Donovan Wilson. And the receiving corps was its normally effective self. However, the key thing was how the coaching staff finally got such good performances out of the patchwork roster.
Up until this game, many were declaring that there had to be a shakeup on the staff, with defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and special teams coordinator John Fassel the main targets of ire. Nolan’s players looked lost at times, and nothing seemed to work as opponents moved the ball and scored almost at will in some games. Meanwhile, there was no real contribution from STs, outside of Greg Zuerlein generally doing his job kicking field goals.
But suddenly, the defense was getting stops all game. They limited the Steelers to only five of thirteen third down conversions, and stopped both fourth down attempts. Only some of those frustrating penalty calls saved the final game-winning drive for Pittsburgh. The biggest change was how they absolutely shut down the run. Gallimore was a big part of that, but it was also an entire team effort, with DeMarcus Lawrence again showing how his contributions go far beyond sacks. And while Ben Roethlisberger would eventually get enough touchdown passes to win the game, it would have been a different situation entirely if the refs had just been consistent on what was and wasn’t pass interference.
Meanwhile, teams came up with not one, but two huge returns, the first of the entire season. Fassel pulled out a real surprise of a punt return play with the lateral from Cedrick Wilson to Oscar candidate C.J. Goodwin that came within a few yards of scoring, plus a silly foul that still left Dallas where they should have managed a touchdown. And Rico Dowdle had an electrifying kickoff return for 64 yards from the Dallas one-yard line. It was both an outstanding individual effort and great blocking from his teammates.
All year, there has been dismay over how the players just did not seem to understand the new things both Nolan and Fassel were trying to put into effect. There were reports of discontent in the locker room over the complexity of the new defensive scheme, which was ironic given how predictability was seen as the downfall of the Rod Marinelli/Kris Richard approach. And Fassel was just not getting any production.
Things had started to look up for the defense in the week eight loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, which was driven more by offensive ineptitude on Dallas’ part. But the effort against the other Pennsylvania team was the first time things really started to click. Suddenly a lot of people were having to admit that maybe the problem was getting a new approach installed under the severe limitations imposed by the pandemic precautions, plus maybe some difficulty on the part of some players in absorbing and applying the new elements.
As for special teams, we may overlook how there is often a boom and bust aspect. Few teams have big plays on a consistent basis, with kickers usually driving the ball too deep on kickoffs to return, and punters mostly doing a good job of making it hard to get returns, and the Cowboys have not given up any real daggers all season. Fassel has a reputation for a deep and varied bag of tricks, but plays like the Goodwin return require the right circumstances, in this case a punt to one corner to set up the lateral. Things finally aligned. The execution was not flawless as the lateral was almost too high and was bobbled for a heart-stopping moment, but it still was nearly a home run. Dowdle’s return was actually more encouraging. That was just good execution and hard running. It is the kind of thing that is far more repeatable. We can just hope they can do it more often. It was an unusual situation, coming on a kickoff from the fifty after a penalty on the previous Steelers score. They tried to get cute and pin the Cowboys with a high, short kick rather than just booming it out of the end zone. That may not happen again, but some kickoffs will be short enough to return, and now we know that something good is certainly possible.
More importantly, now the players see that things are working. We can also include Kellen Moore’s offense in that, as he showed that he was able to plan and call a strong game even with a largely untried quantity like Gilbert. The job Joe Philbin has done with the constant shuffling of backups and not being completely overwhelmed on the offensive line also deserves credit. It still sees breakdowns, particularly as Terence Steele continues to struggle on many plays, but just to have a functioning offense is quite an accomplishment.
Having success on defense and teams is a huge boost to the confidence of those units, and in the belief the players have to have in their coaches. That was shaky at best in the first half of the season, but the strong performance against the Steelers could pay big dividends, not just for the rest of this season, but into next year. This campaign is almost certainly going to end with Dallas sitting out the preseason. Now, however, the offseason should be one that the team can use to build on these signs of improvement. Any kind of regular offseason could see things come together even more than they have the past couple of games.
No one gained more than the coaching staff last Sunday. It is something to look to when we need hope for the future of the Cowboys.