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Cowboys point/counterpoint: Debating the direction of the team

Dallas is at a bit of a crossroads. Which path will they take?

Las Vegas Raiders v Dallas Cowboys
They can rise up, or fall back.
Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

So what now? Reeling a bit after consecutive losses, the Dallas Cowboys look to the return of key players like Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and DeMarcus Lawrence to get them back on track. The upcoming Thursday night game against the New Orleans Saints, currently suffering through a four-game losing streak, is an excellent opportunity for them to do so. But so, we thought, was the Thanksgiving game against the Las Vegas Raiders. Instead the visitors used the Cowboys to reverse course.

Our David Howman and Tom Ryle ponder things.

Tom: I prefer to look forward rather than back, but sometimes the history is hard to ignore. We have seen too many times in recent years when Dallas has blown excellent chances to win a playoff spot in the final few games. The most recent was just last year. That was seen as a poor time to do so, however, as all it would likely have done with that crippled roster was hurt their draft position. Since that turned into Micah Parsons, missing the postseason may have been a blessing in disguise.

A more illustrative season was the one before. In 2019, they sat at 6-4 with a very real chance to make the playoffs with a far more intact roster. But they went on to go 2-4 over the final six games, handing the Philadelphia Eagles the division crown. This year we are in a much too similar situation with six games remaining. The Cowboys are 7-4, and the Eagles once again finish out the year mainly against NFC East opponents. This has way too much deja vu about it. I’m really concerned about another late season funk for Dallas that Philadelphia will be more than happy to exploit. (Luckily for Dallas, the Eagles dumped a game against the Giants.)

David: It’s easy to get worried about the rest of the season right now, but I still firmly believe this team is different. All of the recent examples of blowing good starts to the season and missing out on the playoffs came under the newly unemployed Jason Garrett, unless you want to really count missing the postseason last year without their franchise quarterback and what felt like everyone on the offensive line at one point or another.

This is still the same team that nearly beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, pulled out road wins against the Los Angeles Chargers and New England Patriots, and beat the Minnesota Vikings with their backup quarterback. The Denver Broncos game was an aberration in every sense of the word. Losing to the Chiefs was definitely avoidable, but I think we’re all forgetting that 1) playing in Arrowhead Stadium is really hard, 2) the Chiefs, despite their slump to start the season, are still a pretty good football team, and 3) losing Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb makes it really hard for this offense to function at full strength. Copy and paste point number three for the Raiders loss, and add in a (very heavy) dash of questionable penalties. When this team is at full strength, and fully operational on offense, they can beat anybody. They just haven’t been either of those things the last two games.

Tom: I remember the “reinforcements are coming” refrain from years past when it really didn’t pan out. That is why I remain skeptical about things this season. For a while, it looked like the questions about Mike McCarthy as head coach had been silenced, but now they are back. Maybe you are right about things. But maybe there is a lack of toughness as a team.

I am not impugning the individual players with that. Instead I refer to the mental resiliency to overcome the inevitable injury and illness issues that all teams must contend with. There also has been a disturbing loss of focus late in the season in those years past. True, we do have a new regime, but right now changing that is still very much an open question. For a long time this team just seemed to roll into games expecting to win, only to get punched in the mouth. That looks too much to me like what happened the past few weeks in the three losses. I certainly hope to be proven wrong in this, but right now I need some hard proof, starting on Thursday.

David: The Cowboys are 7-4 right now, and several of those seven wins are probably not happening in years past. The Patriots and Vikings games are almost definitely losses, and the previous regimes were notorious for losing at least one divisional game they had no business losing. That alone makes me believe that things are indeed different. Hearing it from two of this team’s leaders this year, Dak Prescott and Jayron Kearse, affirms that:

Perhaps there was a lack of focus after getting off to such a hot start for this team. It’s important to remember that the kind of rousing success we saw earlier in the year is still new to many of these players, so they’re effectively learning how to build off that kind of success. Last year around this time, the Buccaneers were 7-5 after losing three of four games. The year before, the Chiefs were 7-4 at the same point.

If the Cowboys can get refocused now that the reinforcements are coming, a strong December can launch them right back to the top of the Super Bowl race. Luckily, McCarthy has a lot of experience with strong Decembers. With the Green Bay Packers, McCarthy’s teams went a combined 39-18 in the month of December. Even last year, the Cowboys finished the year by winning three of their final five games. McCarthy knows how to get his teams to finish strong, and I expect we’ll see that trend continue this year.

Tom: Like I said, I really hope I am just being scared by the ghosts of seasons past, combined with some recency bias from the last two losses. But this is where the team is now, and I’m talking about the losing streak rather than the record. We will find out more in a few days. Until then, I’m holding my breath.