Like many things in 2020, the Dallas Cowboys have been just another source of frustration and anxiety for fans of the franchise. Let’s take a look at some of the issues.
No one should be all that surprised by what has happened
While it is safe to say that no one really imagined the depths to which the entire NFC East would descend this season, we have only ourselves to blame for expecting that the Cowboys were just going to waltz in and be the division leader. Despite being saddled with a rapidly fading quarterback, the Philadelphia Eagles had a huge leg up this year as the only team to return their head coach, and as much as we may hate to admit it, Doug Pederson is a pretty good one, at least as long as he has someone as talented as Nick Foles to lead his offense. The rest of the division, all with new staffs, were almost inevitably going to be scrambling to come up with wins, especially with the oft-lamented limitations the pandemic put on everyone.
The only things that Dallas really had going for it were Mike McCarthy’s experience and the perceived level of talent. The first hasn’t exactly worked out, perhaps because this is such a bizarre circumstance, or because it just takes a while to get things in place and working well. Or, worst case, it isn’t really that helpful and the hire is not going to work out as well as many thought it would. We should really hope that latter is not the case, but just because a coach led a team to a Super Bowl once doesn’t mean he has any secret sauce. Certainly we can question how he has built his staff, especially on the defensive side. It will take a few seasons to be sure, and at a minimum we need to see how he does with something like a normal offseason to use.
As for the talent, well, maybe one day we will learn not to buy the hype. Or help create it. A mea culpa is appropriate here, because I was as bad as anyone at looking at the names the team had this season and overestimating the value of the new ones plus expecting a bit too much from some returning veterans. Only the draft class, specifically CeeDee Lamb, Trevon Diggs, and Tyler Biadasz, have met and perhaps exceeded expectations. Everyone else has largely fallen short, or been taken out of the equation by injury. The sum of those effects is that Dallas now has a truly bad roster, with no hope of getting better this year. Given how injuries will probably continue, it’s actually just downhill from here.
We should always have greatly tempered our expectations. The talk, not just locally but nationally, about the Cowboys being a legitimate Super Bowl contender this season was always rooted in fantasy and wishful thinking, not hard facts. it’s time to learn and seek to avoid getting our hopes up again without real reason.
Which most of us will probably absolutely fail to do next year.
Tanking is hardly necessary
Talk of tanking inevitably comes when a team hits the midpoint of a season that is obviously in shambles, but this team has no need to do anything deliberate to be sure they have a high draft slot. When you are holding a fairly open quarterback competition between a former sixth-round pick and a former UDFA to take over for a seventh-round pick that is not at all ready for the job, you are de facto in the tank no matter how hard you try.
This creates a bit of a dilemma for the staff. Every fiber of a coach’s being should be focused on how to win the next game. At this point, however, that does not really serve Dallas well. With no realistic path to the postseason, the best way to use the remaining games is to evaluate your roster. Put some players out there that normally would not see the field much, if at all, and find out who could likely help next season, while identifying the hindrances to prune.
In the case of the quarterbacks, that has been forced on the team. With Andy Dalton out, and playing on a one-year contract, the team needs to be looking for a new QB2 even if they would like to bring Dalton back. He may feel he has a better opportunity elsewhere, or even decide to retire, and not be available. Now the Cowboys are forced to see what either Garrett Gilbert or Cooper Rush can do in what promises to be a very daunting game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, with more games for further evaluation possible, or even probable. They already have a game plus worth of data on Ben DiNucci, which frankly did not go well. At best, they may figure out who they want to try and keep to back up Dak Prescott. Worst case, they find out they have to start from scratch next year.
There are plenty of other players that they can put out there under the stress of a real game. We know that DTs Neville Gallimore and Justin Hamilton are going to see a lot more time after the release of Dontari Poe. OT Terence Steele has been forced into starting by the injuries at that position, but not with great results. Some others that it might be wise to get on the field more include DE Bradlee Anae, LB Francis Bernard, RB Rico Dowdle, LB Luke Gifford, TE Sean McKeon, and DB Reggie Robinson II. Not only will that accelerate the evaluation process, game time should also help their development.
While this is something that mostly applies to newer players, there is also one established veteran that should also be under a microscope - perhaps even more so.
What does Zeke still have?
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has stated that his team is focused on preparing to handle Ezekiel Elliott. With the massive questions at quarterback, Elliott needs to shoulder more of the load offensively to give the Cowboys another way to move the ball.
But based on the first half of the season, that is not going to present much of a challenge for Pittsburgh. Elliott has not looked effective, with almost no explosive plays this season. He is only averaging 3.9 yards a carry. Tony Pollard looked noticeably better in the loss to the Eagles, although he has the same YPC for the season.
Part of the issue is certainly the patchwork offensive line, but Dallas needs more from Elliott just to be competitive. He has that massive contract, but after 2021, the Cowboys could move on. That is unthinkable to some, but it should not be for the staff.
So far this season, Elliott has forced the team to rely more on passing. If Prescott were still available, that might be viable. But with quarterbacks picked up off the street in the past few weeks, it is just a prescription for continuing failure. Elliott looks at times like he has just lost his burst, and his vision does not seem good, either. In times of real stress, we often find out what players truly are. The results so far with him are the opposite of encouraging.