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Cowboys take more blows, still struggle to find answers

The win over the Vikings may have been the high point of the season. Thanksgiving was a new low.

NFL: Washington Football Team at Dallas Cowboys
They are reeling again.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

After a brief flicker of hope following their win over the Minnesota Vikings, the Dallas Cowboys collided violently with harsh reality in their drubbing at the hands of the Washington Football Team. The brash hope that they could somehow claw their way to the NFC East title has taken a severe blow. What had briefly looked like workable solutions to the problems they had vanished in a performance that could hardly have been more dismal. We are back to Team Tank, at least for a week. That sucks. It is always more satisfying to cheer a team to victory. A high draft pick is cold comfort indeed.

Another undesirable aspect of the week following such a poor game is that the fingers are being pointed. Questions around the coaching staff being worthy of replacement have resumed. Beyond the simple fact that this highly abnormal season following a nearly nonexistent offseason and a severely curtailed training camp may not be the best time to evaluate a new staff, firing coaches or players often is too simplistic an answer. There were mistakes made against the Team, but not all were on the coaches. And then there is the elephant that has not just entered the room, but has crushed all the furniture, pulled the fixtures off the walls, and knocked out all the windows.

Changes on the offense

Position Starter entering camp Lineup at end of WFT game
Position Starter entering camp Lineup at end of WFT game
QB Dak Prescott Andy Dalton
TE Blake Jarwin Dalton Schultz
LT Tyron Smith Brandon Knight
RG Zack Martin Connor McGovern
RT La'el Collins Terence Steele

Before we discuss how injuries have absolutely and literally crippled the team, Dalton Schultz deserves some credit here. He has been far better than was expected. He might even turn out to be better than Blake Jarwin in the long run, but he is a lone success story here.

The other four injuries are all problems that would have had a big impact on this year even in isolation. Losing one starter on the offensive line can be a real issue for teams to overcome. Having three of them gone is nearly impossible to overcome. At best, a team can try to come up with a way to stay competitive offensively. Don’t forget that Tyron Smith and Zack Martin are All Pro players, and La’el Collins is believed to be approaching that level. It was actually even worse, as Travis Frederick retired in the offseason. He was not able to get back to full health after his illness in 2018, but the line may miss his incredible savvy and ability to call protections even more.

Despite all the problems, Dallas had come up with a workable line with Cameron Erving back from his injury at LT and Martin kicking out to RT, where he was looking very good. Both would go out on the Cowboys’ first offensive series. We know they both will miss multiple weeks at minimum. Until they return, we have the delightful prospect of having to roll out Brandon Knight and Terence Steele at tackle. Both, as you may recall, came to the team as UDFAs. They are doing their best, and Knight seems to have some upside. Still, they are likely going to struggle.

More severe than anything is that Andy Dalton is never going to be mistaken for Dak Prescott, and that is not just because of Dalton’s flaming red coiffure. While he scrambled twice for first downs during the game on Thanksgiving, he is still not the threat to run the ball as part of the game plan that Prescott provides. Nor is he as good a passer.

Not only is the team having to go with backups to backups at some positions, the coaches have to figure out a new combination of players every week as injuries continue to reshuffle the deck. While Joe Looney was the projected starter at center to begin the season, he also missed time, and Tyler Biadasz came in and looked like he was going to keep the starting job. But he in turn went down, and Looney had to go back in. The Cowboys have also had to start Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert at quarterback. It seems obvious that any coaching staff is going to have problems figuring out how to win games with that continuous churn.

Meanwhile, we cannot give the players themselves a pass. Ezekiel Elliott had another fumble, this one completely unforced. CeeDee Lamb dropped a sure touchdown that would have tied the game and possibly changed the course of things. Jaylon Smith let himself get caught on what could have been a pick six, and the team only salvaged a field goal. The run defense broke down again multiple times in the game.

Despite some continuous problems with their play, the owner keeps vociferously defending some players who have at times really hurt the team.

While Smith had one of his best games of the season, he has been a liability in many others. And Elliott not only has been turning the ball over at the worst rate among all running backs in the league, he has not been breaking any long runs, either. Yet the owner and general manager continues to defend them in what looks a lot like actually justifying his own questionable decisions.

Obviously the coaching staff is getting a lot of criticism for their failed fourth down attempts in the game. A deeper look at the plays reveals that going for it wasn’t really the issue, except maybe on the fake punt. The team was struggling to maintain any offensive momentum and needed to extend drives. The problem was the play-calling, particularly going with a pass rather than a QB sneak when they just needed a half yard to convert on the first one.

Still, it is hard to determine just how much blame the coaching staff deserves when they are faced with so many injury issues and a constant reshuffling of the lineup. That extends to the defense, where the secondary is also changing almost every week, Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee have both been out at times, and they are just now getting Randy Gregory, who posted two sacks, back into the defensive end rotation.

Just as this is threatening to be a lost season in the record book, it is turning into a confused, and at times opaque, one in figuring out just what the staff is doing, or can do. And amazingly, that book may not be closed. The Cowboys still are lurking just one game out of the division lead, with the next opponent, the Baltimore Ravens, in the throes of a COVID breakout, including their starting quarterback, Lamar Jackson. Now the scheduled Thursday night game this week between the Cowboys and the Ravens will be played a week from Monday as Baltimore’s game with the Pittsburgh Steelers has been pushed back to Tuesday night - assuming the Ravens are able to get back on the field by then. Who knows how Dallas’ game will turn out? And they still face some pretty weak teams down the stretch.

This has not just been a highly disappointing season for the Cowboys. It is as confusing as any in memory. We still probably are going to see them land a high draft pick. It is just not at all how we wish things had developed.

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