After a bad loss by an NFL team, there is usually a lot of finger-pointing going on. The Dallas Cowboys had something that was a lot worse than “bad” against the Washington Football Team. With some highly questionable play calls on offense and a generally inept performance, particularly late, by the defense, a lot of scorn is being directed at the Dallas coaching staff. They certainly deserve criticism, but there are a ton of reasons to not be convinced that they are incapable of getting things back on track, especially next season.
The “next man up” is a hallowed concept in the NFL. Every team goes through injuries. But the Cowboys are experiencing a particularly hard run of injuries that are bunched at key positions. The starting quarterback, the backup quarterback, both starting offensive tackles, the starting right guard, the swing tackle, the backup to the swing tackle, the starting center, the backup center, the starting tight end, the starting MIKE linebacker, a couple of starting cornerbacks, have all missed time. Some are out for the season. That is just incredible, and they still have five games to survive.
It is hard to envision success under those circumstances. It is especially so with the lack of an offseason and a severely curtailed training camp for the largely retooled staff to not just get their system installed, but to get to know their roster. One of the closest seasons in terms of injury was experienced by McCarthy with the Green Bay Packers, when they had 14 players go on IR during their Super Bowl run in 2010. But notably, that did not include Aaron Rodgers, and he was the force that drove things. With Dak Prescott out, Dallas really has been in worse shape. Probably much worse.
None of that is new, and many still want to know how the team could collapse so badly on Thanksgiving. Well, don’t forget that the starting tackles in that game were both out for the day before the end of the first offensive drive. That completely changed what the offense could do, as Andy Dalton was under more pressure and the running lanes were not as good.
Even worse, in every sense, was the sudden loss of strength and conditioning coach Markus Paul. His tragic passing was not only unexpected, it came about after he collapsed in the facility, right in front of many members of the organization. He was not only very well-respected, he seemed to be absolutely loved by most who knew him. That emotional blow had to be severe. It is hard to focus on a game played to entertain the audience and generate revenue when there is suddenly that gaping hole in the staff and the hearts of everyone.
There might have been evidence of just how much that focus was affected. Ezekiel Elliott just dropped the ball for no reason as he was going to the ground, denying the team a chance to drive to a score and setting up Washington for their own points. CeeDee Lamb had a sure touchdown go through his hands. After his spectacular catch against the Minnesota Vikings, that was notable, as well as costing Dallas four points and a tie score at that point. It is impossible to say if the sad loss of Paul was a factor, but it is certainly conceivable. Now carry that over to the entire roster. Some were probably better at dealing with it than others, but everyone was still very much trying to process things.
It was a bit of a perfect storm for the Cowboys. We should not be so surprised at how the wheels came off late in the game. Now, they have either a full week or a longer mini-bye to get their heads straight and figure out how to approach the Baltimore Ravens, depending on what happens with the tenuous situation of their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The way things unfolded both leading up to the game and in the disastrous first drive also likely played a big part in the high-risk fourth down decisions that went so badly for Dallas. The coaches knew that the offense was having a hard time sustaining anything, with the long touchdown to Amari Cooper the only real success they had. They also needed a spark, and if they had managed to succeed on those plays, they would have gotten that as well as much less disdain. While the particular calls can be criticized, the aggressiveness was appropriate. What the staff really needs to do this week is learn from the mistakes. And while McCarthy was a typical head coach in his defensive reactions after the game, Moore showed that he is willing to try and grow in an interview.
“First of all,’’ Moore said, “I feel like I didn’t call a good game in situational football.’’
That is honesty and self-reflection that NFL coaches often do not display. With the challenges facing the Cowboys, it could be very valuable.
How the team comes out to play against the Ravens, whenever that does happen, will be important evidence of how the staff is doing their job. Winning or losing is not as important as the effort we see. If this team manages to rebound from that debacle on Thursday, then we can have reason to believe that they will be able to do much more with something that should be more like a real offseason and preseason next year.
This may be a lost season for Dallas, although in the NFC East even that is not a given. But it is just the first year for the new staff. There is an opportunity to use it to build for the future. How well the coaches manage that will be the real test, not how they fared in this star-crossed year.