We never really enjoy seeing one of the division rivals for the Dallas Cowboys win, but the New York Giants’ completely unexpected upset of the Seattle Seahawks, on the road no less, was particularly galling. Making it worse, it involved former Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett. While some of us applaud him having some success in his new gig, many are wondering just how much his failures in Dallas were really on him. Moreover, given that like the Cowboys the Giants have a new head coach, Joe Judge, it just gives rise to more angst over what exactly has gone so wrong this season. And now the Washington Football Team, who also have a first year head coach in Ron Rivera, have tied the Giants with their own upset win, an even bigger one over the previously undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers. Suddenly there are two pretty good teams in the NFC East, and Dallas ain’t one of them.
It turns out that there are plenty of things to point to. But just how valid are they all? Here is a quick list of the likely suspects, with why, and why not, they explain this sad state of affairs.
The coaches are bad
Valid because: Well, to begin with, the buck pretty much stops with the head coach, after making some stops with assistants and coordinators. One thing that is pretty clear is that this team has just not been prepared the way it should in many games, especially the defense. Offensively, Dallas was on track to break some records before Dak Prescott was lost for the season and just about everyone on the offensive line was out at some point, but Kellen Moore does not get a pass because he has not really come up with a plan that has led to much success with the backup quarterbacks. He’s had a chance with all of them.
Mike Nolan has gotten maybe two decent games out of his defense, and they completely regressed in their last game some three or four months ago. OK, maybe it just feels like that long since the Cowboys have played, but you get my point. This has been a completely confused looking bunch on most plays, especially at the second and third levels. That has to go back to the staff.
As for John Fassel, who was supposed to bring some fire and effectiveness to special teams, let’s just say that if the team is going to go for it on fourth down, they need to forget all the trick plays.
Not necessarily so because: Remember some of the reasons we were so ready for the last regime to get the boot? Predictability, conservative play-calling, and stale, overly simple schemes were among the biggest. That has certainly changed. There is more passing on early downs, at least while Prescott was still in, with a satisfying number of big plays, and neither the offense or defense seems to face teams that call out what is coming before the snap. It still isn’t working, but perhaps that is more because of the next topic.
The COVID restrictions
Valid because: With significant changes in approach in all three phases of the game, it had to be crippling to not have any offseason program at all, no preseason games to try and work things out while evaluating the roster, and a very curtailed training camp. Practices and meetings still have to operate under restrictions that the league has never faced before. And we’ve never seen the shuffling of the schedule that is becoming a weekly thing as the national surge in cases is not leaving the NFL unscathed. How could any staff be expected to come in and get things right under those conditions?
Not necessarily so because: Uh, remember the Giants? Joe Judge had the same restrictions, but now he has one of the hottest team in the league, having won their last four in a row. Once a real contender for a top five draft pick, they are putting that in their rear view mirror. Another new staff is in place for the Football Team, and they look like the most serious challenger to overtake the Giants down the stretch for the NFC East playoff bid. Meanwhile, Kevin Stefanski is having far and away the best rookie season with the Cleveland Browns. He also has his team on a four-game win streak, and sitting at 9-3 which makes them just about a lock for a wild card spot. Had they not happened to have the Pittsburgh Steelers in the same division, they would be in the hunt to host a playoff game. If they can do so, why couldn’t Mike McCarthy?
Maybe the talent is bad
Valid because: Currently the Cowboys have a hard time blocking, are shaky at quarterback, are just not getting what they need from Ezekiel Elliott and his massive contract, still are looking for answers at defensive tackle, have similar issues with Jaylon Smith, and have almost weekly huge breakdowns in the secondary. We seem to fool ourselves into thinking Dallas has one of the most talented rosters in the NFL almost every year, only to find ourselves with a bunch of fool’s gold when the games are played.
Not necessarily so because: Well, that is it’s own topic, isn’t it?
All the injuries
Valid because: Come on. No team could expect to do much with the huge list of lost players. Gerald McCoy never even made it to the regular season. Prescott was the biggest loss, but cumulatively, perhaps Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, Zack Martin, and Tyler Biadasz, who would all be starting on the offensive line now if healthy, are even bigger. They have also seen Cameron Erving and Brandon Knight miss time. Only Connor Williams has managed to start the entire season on the line. Just typing that has me knocking on the nearest piece of wood. Joe Looney and Connor McGovern are proving to be decent backups, but the team could certainly use the other players. And Terence Steele just got thrown to the wolves, and should be getting praise for how he has shown some real improvement instead of being continuously slammed for playing like the UDFA rookie he is.
Add in losing Blake Jarwin and Trysten Hill for the season, while Andy Dalton, Leighton Vander Esch, Sean Lee, Trevon Diggs, Chidobe Awuzie, and Anthony Brown have all missed time, and this is just a shell of the team that the Cowboys had hoped to field. I may have missed someone, because the list is just so long it is hard to keep track. How can you hope to compete under those conditions?
Not necessarily so because: Well, this one is hard to argue. But it still is on the coaches to figure things out. And you would think McCarthy would have some idea of how to do so, because he won a Super Bowl with a similarly long list of players on IR, including a ton of starters. But he never lost Aaron Rodgers, which is mitigating. However, the coaches probably could have done a better job handling this duress. It is hard to imagine a worse one.
Jerry Jones is the underlying problem
Valid because: Jones is a favorite target, because since the glory years of Jimmy Johnson, he just has not been able to field a truly successful team. His iron-tight grip on the GM role puts the responsibility for both hiring the coaching staffs since the divorce from Johnson and the construction of the roster with the frequent misses and consistent lack of depth on him. He insists on having his fingerprints on everything that happens with the Cowboys, and that means that the ultimate blame has to land on him, doesn’t it?
Not necessarily so because: Despite everything, Jones does not call plays, does not have the most effect on creating the culture, has a lot of help in constructing the roster, and certainly is not on the field making or failing to make plays. He is certainly as invested in his team as any owner in the league, and he also is behind many of the good decisions, like the impressive draft this year. We will always criticize him when things go wrong, of course, but in this dismal season, he has had a lot of company in what has transpired.
All of the above
Valid because: Well, because it is really the only honest way to evaluate things. It has been a perfect storm of a lost season. While those other teams with first-year staffs have done better, they did not face all of the huge issues the Cowboys have. Both the Giants and Football Team have lost their starting quarterback, but neither were near the level of Prescott, and no one has been devastated by injury the way this team has, especially given the way it’s happened in position clusters.
Frankly, we have to see what happens next season, with hopefully something much more like a normal offseason and preseason as the pandemic is brought under control. It is hard to judge anything with all the extenuating circumstances. The small silver lining is that the Cowboys seem destined to have a high spot in the draft order. They have had some success there in recent years. Counterbalancing that is an ongoing ineptitude in free agency, including the mistake of not finding a way to keep Byron Jones, who is sorely missed in the secondary.
The team will also get a huge infusion of talent just from the players returning from IR, including Prescott, who has to be re-signed. With better luck on the injury front and a chance to really get new things installed and taught, we will find out a lot more about this staff and roster going forward.
Meanwhile, they still have five games to play. The team needs to show it is progressing. There is still an outside chance they will be in the hunt for the division at the end. Whether that is really desirable remains an open question. It is one that a loss to the Baltimore Ravens may render pretty much moot.