There was at least a minor afterglow from the Dallas Cowboys’ 30-7 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. With so little success this season, fans had a real hunger for a good performance from Dallas. Even those who are members of Team Tank understand that the players needed to prove something, maybe mostly to themselves. Heck, we at least want Andy Dalton playing well so he can go somewhere else next season on a big contract, leading to a high compensatory pick in 2022. Nonetheless, this year is lining up to be a real failure. It is an inauspicious beginning to Mike McCarthy’s tenure. We are all searching for what needs to be done to fix things.
Allow me to advance a somewhat radical theory: There might have been nothing at all that could have meaningfully changed this year. There is a bit of an ugly secret about the NFL that most don’t want to admit, or just flat ignore. It is that luck, pure, dumb, uncontrollable luck plays a much bigger role in the outcome of games than we realize. And no coaching or player can change random events.
Before you become too enraged, this is not a complete exculpation for the coaching staff or some of the players. There were obvious mistakes made that need to be corrected. Instad, what this means is that even with a really great effort from the coaches, this team would maybe have one or two more wins. It would put them in the thick of the hunt for the NFC East playoff bid, but that is just because the rest of the division struggled so much for the first three-quarters of this season.
So how does luck factor in? Well, we are not talking about the coin flip at the beginning of games here. There are two things that are random factors coaches can’t really change, and players often just have to suffer through: Turnovers and injuries.
A lot of people will immediately challenge the first of those two. Yes, you can coach techniques on stripping the ball or being in position for an interception. Reportedly the Cowboys were a big negative example of the latter over the past few seasons, with defensive backs being coached to keep their head turned to the receiver through the arrival of the ball. But that has changed, judging from what we are seeing the secondary do on the field. Despite that, and that tacklers try to rip the ball out on just about every play, Dallas has been having another dismal year taking the ball away, while experiencing some very bad ball security. Prior to the Bengals game, the Cowboys were next to last in turnover differential. Taking away three fumbles while not giving the ball away themselves vaulted them all the way up to a three way tie for next to last in the league. It is interesting to note that the two teams they are even with are the Bengals and the Philadelphia Eagles, who are not exactly tearing it up this year. All are -10 to date. Oh, if you are curious who has the place of dishonor at the very bottom of the list, it is the Denver Broncos with a whopping -18 margin. They are a five win team, or just a notch ahead of the 4-9 Cowboys.
While defenders try very hard to rip or punch out the ball, there still is a lot of chance involved. Sometimes, like what happened on the Trayveon Williams fumble, the ball comes out pretty much without any assistance from the tacklers whatsoever. Then once the ball hits the ground, the offense can still recover it, and this has always been a 50-50 proposition, with the pointy ball taking some occasional weird bounces, while players have to realize the ball is out and then locate it. This often leads to a literal heap of players engaging in the hidden warfare at the bottom of the pile where the most determined often win. Stuff happens there.
As for interceptions, a lot of them involve quarterbacks being hit as they release, which makes for a pretty random trajectory. Others are tipped or deflected balls, which like the ones when the QB is hit can just wind up in the arms of a defender. Or, in some cases, a tipped pass still finds its way to a receiver. And often overlooked is how many potential picks just go through the hands of the defender. All these are elements that coaches have no way to fix, and that players can work on but not necessarily be able to correct. Defensive backs will only have a chance to get their hands on the ball a very few times in a game, and it is hard to get better at something when you have such limited tries.
Remember, this cuts both ways. Not only have the Cowboys had really bad luck taking the ball away, they have had some horrible ball security at times. They have lost more fumbles than interceptions, which is a bit surprising given the churn at quarterback. But Dalton is about as lucky as any QB when it comes to getting away with bad throws. The interception figure could easily be much higher for Dallas. What really kills them is their lost fumbles, with them being tied for worst in the NFL. They have given away 13, as have the Bengals and Las Vegas Raiders.
Again, coaching and execution can both help these issues. They do not necessarily solve them, especially in taking the ball away. There is just too much chance.
While there are arguments to be made against that stance for turnovers, there really are none for injuries. You can’t practice not getting hurt. No conditioning program will eliminate them. Most of the impact the staff has on injuries comes after the fact in the recovery and rehab phases. Almost every player in the NFL will be hurt and have to miss games at some point in their career. And by this time of the season, almost all teams will have a long and growing IR list.
For Dallas, it has gotten somewhat ridiculous with twelve players currently on IR, although they actually are not in the worst shape of any team. That dubious honor goes to the San Francisco 49ers, with a staggering 18 players currently affected. (All numbers from Spotrac’s IR tracker.) Like the Cowboys, the Niners are in the cellar of their division. They are even one of the few teams to have lost to the NFC East, having just dropped their game with the Washington Football Team. Now they come to AT&T Stadium as Dallas’ next opponent, so it will make for some interesting comparisons.
Raw numbers are one thing. But the way the injuries have clustered for Dallas makes things far worse. Specifically, the offensive line has been absolutely devastated. Three of the projected starters for this season, Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, and Zack Martin, are gone for the year. Smith and Collins were supposed to be the tackles, and if Martin had not been injured, he would be filling in at tackle. Additionally, the swing tackle, Cameron Erving, is now done for the year. It also must be remembered that Tyler Biadasz, the heir apparent at center, has just been reactivated from IR under the temporary pandemic rules. (Owners should decide to make the temporary, far more flexible, IR rules permanent.)
Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the most important injured player of all, Dak Prescott. No team has lost more for longer at the position. Only Joe Burrow was arguably as important to the Bengals before he was injured as Prescott was in Dallas. Dalton is certainly a capable backup. His work against his former team showed he may be more than that, although when taken by itself, his stat line was not really impressive.
Prescott is one of the rare quarterbacks that can actually pass the Dan Orlovsky test of taking a game over in the fourth quarter. (The test would be much more discussed if Orlovsky did not insist that Carson Wentz, now the backup QB for the Eagles, was an exemplar of that.) With him, there was always a chance for the Cowboys to pull out a win. Since he injured his ankle, the team has displayed almost no ability to come back. The Bengals win was all about getting an early lead and keeping it. While Dalton could have probably kept the team somewhat competitive with a mostly intact offensive line, or a fully competent defense, the team is just too compromised. Prescott may not have been able to elevate them to a Super Bowl contender, but he probably would have them at the top of the division standings, not the bottom.
This is basically the argument for being more patient with the staff than many advocate. Offensively, the team is just overwhelmed by the injuries. There should be a long, hard look at Mike Nolan and his defensive staff, but that needs to come after the final three games are played. With a couple of exceptions that seemed more on the player (cough) Jaylon Smith (cough) involved than anything, the defense actually looked like it had things figured out. That was against a pretty limited Bengals offense, of course. But if things continue to go better as they wrap 2020 up, then maybe there was a problem with trying to make too many changes in the time of COVID rather than just incompetence of the staff. In that case, it would be more a big miscalculation than anything, and that can be corrected.
We naturally want to believe we are in control of things. Mostly, folks, that is an illusion. Outside and random influences can completely upend our lives. You know, like a surprise pandemic. Before we make our final judgment of the staff, and really the entire 2020 edition of the Cowboys, maybe we need to at least consider that this year was doomed regardless, especially once Prescott went down. All that can really be done at this point is to plan to use the draft wisely and try again.