It is certainly arguable that in a season where the coaching staff of the Dallas Cowboys have had many obvious failures, the loss to the Washington Football Team was the worst. The only reason it is not a clear call is how the injuries to Cameron Erving and Zack Martin just derailed things offensively. Now, in a truly unprecedented week that will see Dallas face the Baltimore Ravens in a postponed game that will also be the Cowboys’ first ever Tuesday performance, the staff faces a crucial test. How the team responds will tell us a lot about Mike McCarthy and his assistants.
It is not really about winning or losing, but how they play the game. Lamar Jackson is eligible to return for that game after testing positive for COVID-19, and his presence could be a real difference maker. However, there is doubt that he could be ready to go, and the Ravens might elect to keep him on the sidelines. Depending on when Jackson actually entered the protocol, which is not quite clear, he would either have one day of practice and preparation after his enforced absence from the team facilities, or would have to take the field the day he comes off with no practice at all. Still, with the injury Robert Griffin III suffered against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the staff may feel it is necessary to get Jackson back on the field.
Other Ravens from their staggering COVID list should be available as well. Given the decimated state of the Dallas roster, it might just be too much to overcome. Had Baltimore not had the outbreak, they would be the better team by a wide margin. That may still be true, depending on just who is available to them, and how they have come through their time since entering the protocol.
What is important for the Cowboys is how they play, and how the staff handles the game. It was clear that many of the players were just not putting their best performance on the field against the Football Team, including Ezekiel Elliott, CeeDee Lamb, and the entire run defense. While a lot of that obviously falls on the individuals, there was the factor of the recent tragic demise of coach Markus Paul. Part of the task facing the staff is to help the team get through the grieving process. The funeral Thursday, which the entire team attended virtually, may be a big help. But it still remains a responsibility of McCarthy and his coaches to assist them in getting their heads straight.
There is another big issue that the coaches must attend to, one that is entirely on them. The criticism was widespread concerning the failed fourth-down attempts on Thanksgiving, and it was completely justified. While the fake punt attempt was more about bad execution of a still suspect play call in a desperate moment in the game, the fourth and one play was highly questionable. It was set up by a failed third down play that seems like a poor call in itself. Then instead of trying a quarterback sneak behind Joe Looney, Connor Williams, and Connor McGovern, they elected to have Andy Dalton attempt a pass, which relied on the backup tackles to provide protection. It was playing to weakness instead of strength, and the failure, with a penalty on Dalton Schultz, was rather predictable.
McCarthy has exhibited true aggressiveness on fourth downs this season, a marked changed from previous years. That is not a bad thing in itself, but it has to be done better. There should be less emphasis on trying to outsmart the other team. Sometimes the simple approach is better, and fourth and one seems to be one of those situations.
The staff also has the rest of the game to worry about, of course. The big issue on offense is once again trying to figure out how to succeed with that patchwork line. There is at least a faint hope that Erving will be back, but they may have to roll with Brandon Knight and Terence Steele, which has been problematic, especially Steele. Joe Philbin may be the hardest working coach the Cowboys have, and this is just another week he has to try and find answers with far too many questions, but the unplanned mini-bye should help. Kellen Moore is also going to have to adjust things to give Dalton and the receivers a chance. He needs Elliott to hang onto the ball as well, but that is not exactly something Moore can control. He still has to find a way to move the ball and get into the end zone. The red zone has not been a place of success this season, and that has to change.
Mike Nolan has even more to work on, and his track record so far is discouraging. The run defense has been simply bad, while the interior of the defensive line just failed against Washington. Coverage is not better, and the linebackers still look dazed and confused on far too many plays. Only the pass rush has sometimes risen to the occasion lately. That just hasn’t been enough.
And John Fassel needs to quit with the trick plays. If the team is going for it on fourth down, leave the offense out there and use the talent appropriately. Trying to get ten yards seems seems far more likely throwing to Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, or Dalton Schultz. Don’t rely on a punter or backup wide receiver to make a critical throw.
Again, the key here isn’t the win, although that would be huge. It is how the team performs. We just cannot have another collapse like we saw down the stretch on Thanksgiving, when the game was put out of reach with some terrible plays. If the Cowboys come up short but still are in it until the end, then they might just stay in the hunt for the NFC East playoff bid. None of the rest of the division has an exactly easy path forward. And there, if they also fall short, just making a real run at things will be a major statement about the staff. With the massive injuries that the team has suffered, keeping this team playing hard and more effectively would be encouraging for the future.
If they don’t, then the doubts about the McCarthy era will just grow.