The Cowboys were expected by many to start the season off looking like Super Bowl contenders after an offseason that saw them add several key playmakers, alongside upgrading at head coach with Mike McCarthy. But three weeks in, Dallas sits at 1-2 and has plenty of fans wondering if it’s time to hit the panic button yet.
But in the words of the legendary Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend!”
The Cowboys may be 1-2 but they are very much still in the race for contention in the conference. First of all, there’s historical context to suggest exactly that. The last time Dallas made the postseason, in 2018, they were 1-2 after the first three games. That same year, the Patriots, Chargers, Colts, and Seahawks also started out 1-2, while the Texans started out 0-3. All of those teams made the playoffs, with the Chargers, Colts, and Cowboys all winning a playoff game, while the Patriots won the Super Bowl. Even last year, the Eagles and Titans started 1-2 for the year before finishing strong. Philadelphia lost Carson Wentz in the first quarter and still lost by just a touchdown, while Tennessee upset the Patriots and rode all the way to the AFC Championship game.
Stumbling out to a 1-2 start in any given season is far from the death knell it might seem to be at the moment. But it also must be remembered that this is not any given season. While every team has had to deal with the complicated offseason and lack of preseason games, only four other teams have had to do so while ushering in a new coaching staff. Of those four teams, the only one realistically expected to compete for a playoff spot is the Cowboys’ next opponent, the Cleveland Browns.
Dallas has undergone plenty of changes in a year that was terrible for said changes. The mere culture shock of a new head coach for the first time in a decade would be enough, but the Cowboys also saw significant changes - personnel-wise and schematically - on defense, while suffering some critical blows to their offensive line right out of the gate.
Yet the Cowboys are 1-2 after playing some talented teams. The Rams flew under the radar this summer, but through three games it appears that Sean McVay’s magic has returned; they throttled the Eagles in Week 2 before losing a really tight one to the undefeated Bills. Nobody has accused the Falcons of lacking talent - the offense alone has more talent than the entire Giants roster - but they showed yet again on Sunday they’re incapable of holding leads. And the Seahawks may very well be the best team in the NFL through these first three weeks; if they’re not the best, they’re certainly right at the top.
In short, the Cowboys have played against two tough overall teams, and one tough offensive team, with very little lead-up to them and have competed, albeit sloppily, in each of them. Inopportune turnovers on offense, blown coverages on defense, and general miscues on special teams have sunk this team in each game, but they’ve never lost badly. And when the team is firing on all cylinders, as they likely would be had there been a normal offseason, they look like a dangerous team. Keep in mind, this defense forced a punt on seven of Seattle’s 13 offensive possessions, and one of the touchdowns allowed was on a drive where Russell Wilson started at the Dallas five.
If the Cowboys can consistently play like that, they’ll be contenders. And when you look at the landscape of the NFC right now, things start to get promising. Only seven teams have a winning record right now, and just three are undefeated. The Rams and Seahawks make up two of those seven teams, and they’ll go on to play two more of those teams: the Cardinals three weeks from now and the injury-riddled 49ers in Week 15.
The NFC also has five teams that are currently 1-2, the Cowboys included. Of those other four, only the Saints came in with playoff expectations. And finally there are four winless teams in the conference; the Falcons already lost to Dallas, and between the other three teams the Cowboys have five total games against these teams.
This is all to say that the NFC has not gotten off to a hot start, and that the Cowboys have a fairly easy schedule from this point on. The combined record of the Cowboys’ remaining conference opponents this season is 5-12. In other words, they are very much still in this thing, and not just as a de facto division winner in an utterly awful NFC East.
The Cowboys have three games under their belts now and should be up to speed at this point. There can’t be anymore excuses about the offseason taking away their prep time, so it’s time for them to put together complete games. We’ve seen glimpses of the force they can be, and with a weak schedule coming up, now is the time to fully lean into being that force.