It feels like such a weird week for the Dallas Cowboys and fans. Football has been a welcome diversion in 2020, but most of the season, the Cowboys weren’t exactly thrilling to watch. Unexpectedly, we are facing a Week 17 with playoff implications for Dallas. Just three or four weeks ago, we really didn’t see this one coming.
Let’s face it. Fans are probably wrong more than right, especially with things we try and call early or even midway through the season. Now that we have almost all the regular season data to analyze, a whole lot of the things we thought we had learned about this team look wrong. In many cases, embarrassingly so.
Here are some that stand out, roughly in chronological order.
Wow, what a haul of free agents
Uh, well, not so much. Gerald McCoy was lost to injury the first week of training camp. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix didn’t make the 53-man roster. Maurice Canady opted out of the season under the COVID rules. Daryl Worley and Dontari Poe were released during the season. Everson Griffen was traded.
McCoy, Dix, Griffen, and Poe were the most heralded of the group. Which is another way of saying they were the most well-known names. By the time Poe was let go and Griffen traded, it was seen as another failed free agency for the Cowboys.
Or is that also too quick a judgment? Don’t forget that Andy Dalton, Aldon Smith, Greg Zuerlein, and Blake Bell were also among the outside free agents brought in. Dalton took a while to get going once he had to step in, but has hit his stride just in time. Smith was the most productive pass rusher the team had early, although he seems to be fading a bit. Zuerlein has generally been the kicker John Fassel claimed he was. And Blake Bell has been at the very least serviceable as the second tight end since Blake Jarwin was lost in the first game of the season.
It wasn’t great by any means. It was also not completely horrible. The problem was most probably our own elevated expectations. It happens almost every year. We just never learn.
We knew already that Trysten Hill was a bust
This one almost gets forgotten because Hill was another early injury loss. After barely seeing the field his rookie year, and not doing much when he did, many were ready to write him off. But after being one of the standouts in camp, he proved to be arguably the best defensive tackle on the field in the few games he was able to play. His loss really hurt the Cowboys, as it would take most of the season before rookie Neville Gallimore came up to speed, allowing the team to move on from Poe.
When you lose both your starting tackles and the swing tackle, the offensive line is toast
It is one of the worst concentrations of injuries at one position you will see. All-Pro Tyron Smith and rising RT La’el Collins never even made it on the field this year. Cameron Erving had very few games he was available before joining them on IR. To fill in, the Cowboys tried to move Zack Martin outside, only to see him also go on IR.
That left them with a second-year UDFA in Brandon Knight and rookie UDFA Terence Steele to fill in, as well as having to plug Connor McGovern into right guard to replace Martin. The struggles were real, especially for Steele.
But they got better. In one of the best coaching jobs anywhere, Joe Philbin has patched together a line that is more than just functional. It won’t make anyone think of the Great Wall of Dallas, but it has proven to be able to protect the passer and block for the runners much better than we could have imagined.
Keeping Kellen Moore as OC was a huge gamble
Outside of a lot of doubt about the hiring of Mike McCarthy to replace Jason Garrett as head coach, there was also a bit of controversy over whether Jerry Jones forced him to keep Moore as offensive coordinator and play caller. McCarthy always insisted he made the decision himself without being forced.
We’ll never know the real truth of that, but it worked out beautifully - as long as Moore had a functional quarterback and some support from the defense. Dak Prescott was on his way to setting records before he was injured. And now that Dalton has stepped up late in the season, Moore seems to be at his best. He was a keeper then, and is now.
Sadly, he probably won’t be around, as all indications are that he is going home to Boise State to take over as the head coach. We are going to miss the paper boy.
Zeke is washed
With having to use four different quarterbacks, and the expected struggles that resulted, the team needed their highly-compensated running back to carry more of the load. But Ezekiel Elliott at times looked like he was in decline. He had few highly productive games, suffered a rash of fumbles (he still leads all running backs in that category), and was having far too many one and two yard gains.
But he came alive in the win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Not coincidentally, the offensive line also seemed to be getting things more and more under control. And with Dalton showing just why the Cowboys were so eager to sign him, Elliott got over 100 yards, playing the key role in the win the team needed. Reports of his career’s demise are subject to further data coming in.
When Dak went down, it was over
Some of us are more guilty of some of these than others, and this was one where I was as wrong as anyone. Prescott was just so proficient in the first four games that it was unimaginable that even Dalton, with his decade of experience and proven ability to win in the regular season, could get this team to the playoffs. Even with the dismal state of the NFC East, it seemed too much to ask. Then when Dalton himself missed a couple of games and the backup to the backup and the backup to the backup to the backup were unable to get a win, that bridge too far just receded into the distance. By the time the Cowboys had sunk to 3-9, we knew it was done, especially after back-to-back thrashings at the hands of the Washington Football Team and Baltimore Ravens. All that was left for us to hope for was that the Cowboys would not hurt their draft position too badly with a meaningless win or two. The Tank Train was chugging full speed ahead.
Then the highly improbable happened, as Dallas put together a three-game winning streak. Not just narrow victories, but decisive ones, too. After a shaky start against the Eagles, they put together possibly their most complete game of the year, with Dalton passing for 377 yards, Elliott driving a nail in the coffin with his season long 31-yard burst late, and the defense continuing to take the ball away at a high rate.
Just as unexpectedly, the Football Team lost two in a row, keeping the Cowboys alive for the division’s automatic playoff bid. Dallas still needs to get one more win against the New York Giants, while hoping the Eagles can beat the Team later that night. Both Philadelphia and Washington have somewhat chaotic situations at quarterback, so that will be interesting. But this season is going down to the wire.
The coaching staff was completely incompetent
Mike McCarthy’s first year went horribly for three quarters of the season. Mike Nolan looked absolutely incompetent with the defense. Only John Fassel showed real improvement with the special teams, and he still got his share of criticism because of a couple of failed trick plays on fourth down.
There were the arguments about how the lack of anything resembling a normal offseason, a cancelled preseason, and limited training camp during the pandemic severely hampered the staff. Then the horrid rash of injuries, especially to legitimate star players, just made things worse. After most of the season had passed, those were looking more like weak excuses rather than legitimate reasons for the failure we were witnessing.
But McCarthy deserves a ton of credit for keeping this team fighting to take advantage of the failures in the rest of the NFC East. Nolan seems to have finally gotten his defense on track, although it still has far too many breakdowns. And some of the assistants have done pretty impressive jobs, particularly Philbin, tight ends coach Lunda Wells, and wide receivers coach Adam Henry, although the latter admittedly had a loaded group to work with. Nolan also dealt with a lot of injuries as well, particularly in the secondary, which is just now getting healthy in time for this stretch run. And the disappointing play of players like Poe, Jaylon Smith, and Leighton Vander Esch is not all his fault.
We rushed to decide that they were not able to succeed, just as we hurried all those other judgments. The past three games have forced a major reevaluation by those who look at things honestly. If the Cowboys play well on Sunday, and get a little help, we will have to be even more critical of our own criticisms.