It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom; it was the age of foolishness. It was the dominance of a contender; it was the incompetence of pretender. It was the autumn of hope; it was the winter of despair.
Had Charles Dickens written a book about the 2021 Dallas Cowboys, that may have been the way he opened it, and it absolutely would have been titled “A Tale of Two Teams.” That’s what the Cowboys are faced with right now after dropping their third game in the last four contests and, for the first time all year, are on a losing streak.
There’s a clear dividing line between these two teams we’ve see, too: the bye week, or more specifically, the Vikings game. After starting their season with a close loss to the defending Super Bowl champions on the road, the Cowboys ripped off five straight wins heading into their bye.
It wasn’t just the winning streak that got hopes up, but it was how they won. The Cowboys went on the road against the Chargers, lost Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence with little time to prepare for it, and held Justin Herbert and the Chargers to just 17 points. Then they blew out three bad teams in AT&T Stadium, dominating just as they were supposed to, before pulling out a gutsy road win over the Patriots in overtime (which looks even better now, as New England hasn’t lost since then).
Then there was the Dak Prescott calf saga, which ultimately resulted in Cooper Rush starting against the Vikings in Minnesota and saw the Dallas defense shut down Kirk Cousins for an improbable victory. That was really the turning point, as it got the national media talking about Dallas as the team to beat. If they could win on the road against a solid team with a backup quarterback then what could stop them?
It was easy to buy into that narrative too, and several of these weekly McCarthy Chronicles pieces spent time lauding Mike McCarthy for the win-at-all-costs culture he brought over from his days in Green Bay. Can’t run the ball against Tampa Bay’s front? No problem, we’ll throw it 58 times. Don’t have your two edge rushers? We’ll just move our rookie linebacker to the line of scrimmage and wreck your offensive line anyway. No Dak Prescott on the road? It’s adorable that you think that’d stop us.
Not only was this reflective of the tough, blue-collar approach McCarthy has talked about many times before, it was unlike anything the Cowboys had seen since Jimmy Johnson was stalking the sidelines for Dallas. That made it very easy to buy the Cowboys as legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
Then they got spanked at home by a Broncos team that just that week had seemingly waved the white flag by trading away Von Miller for draft picks. It was a shock, but it happens to the best of teams. They came out the next week and thrashed a bad Falcons team, momentarily convincing everyone they were back to their old selves. Then they looked hapless on offense against a very beatable Chiefs team, and dug themselves into a hole early against the Raiders on Thanksgiving with a similarly anemic offensive approach.
And that’s been the common trend in this second half we’ve seen so far. The Cowboys offense was mowing down opponents in just about any way they wanted before the bye. They obviously took a step back against the Vikings, but playing a backup quarterback will do that to you. Seeing those struggles continue against a trio of mediocre defenses in the Broncos, Chiefs, and Raiders is cause for concern, though.
Prescott was bad against the Broncos and Chiefs, but played more like himself against the Falcons and Raiders. There are various factors that go into each of those performances, but the biggest problem is that Dallas has become incapable of running the ball lately.
Since the bye week, the Cowboys have run for 100+ yards just once in their five games; that lone game was - you guessed it - the Falcons game. Before the bye, the Cowboys had failed to hit 100 rushing yards in only the Buccaneers game, when they hardly even tried running it.
More than that, their efficiency has decreased greatly. The offense’s rushing DVOA has been on a steady decline all year. They ranked 12th in rushing EPA/play at the bye, and have ranked 29th in the same metric since then. Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard were both in the top five among all running backs in Next Gen Stats’ rushing efficiency metric ahead of the Vikings game; since then, Pollard has failed to have a game even rank in the top 20 while Elliott has only done it once.
All of this has led to the Cowboys being unable to stay ahead of the chains, move the ball in a wide variety of ways, and ultimately put up points in bunches. The result is a handicapped offense that’s mitigated the joy of having a suddenly competent defense, and that’s how this team finds themselves on a losing streak now. Not having Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb the last two games has obviously hurt, but the death spiral of this running game is pre-dates the Cowboys’ receiver woes.
At the end, it boils down to one thing: the Cowboys are no longer the team that we saw in the first six games of the year. They can’t rack up points whenever and however they like, they can’t overcome missing players or poor officiating, and they can’t stop shooting themselves in the foot. Just as McCarthy deserved credit early in the year for having his players ready to go no matter what, he deserves blame now. He has to get a handle on this locker room and provoke a response that lasts more than one game. Otherwise, this team’s Super Bowl aspirations may be just that: aspirations, and nothing more.