They fooled us again. The Dallas Cowboys dropped their game to the Arizona Cardinals, dashing all the hopes the previous week’s domination of the Washington Football Team had inspired. Even though they have the NFC East locked up, this is a team that still has major unresolved issues that were exposed or re-exposed against their most likely wildcard round opponent. The final regular season game against the Philadelphia Eagles is their last chance to work on things before it becomes win or go home. Unfortunately, there are many things. Here are some to consider.
They have problems stopping the best teams and quarterbacks. It is a small sample size, but the Cowboys have gone up against only three teams that currently have 11 or more wins on the season. The trio have a couple of things in common: They have good quarterbacks, and they beat Dallas. While the Cowboys kept it close against Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, and Kyler Murray, in the end they couldn’t solve the puzzle. Most of their eleven wins have come against inferior competition. Only the wins over the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Chargers, both much earlier in the season, look at all impressive. The may have caught the Patriots just before they started to put things together, and both they and the Chargers have young quarterbacks who, while on the rise, are still growing into their roles.
Now the Cowboys have nothing but the best teams with some top rank quarterbacks ahead of them. It does not bode well.
The defense lives and dies by the takeaway. And, pretty much, so does the team. In five losses, the Cowboys have lost the turnover battle four times. The only exception was the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where they had a +3 turnover advantage, and still could not manage a win.
This is worrisome on a couple of levels. Most obviously turnovers have a large element of chance involved and there is no way to depend on getting them. Conversely, if you want to have an excellent chance of beating Dallas, just take care of the ball. While the Cardinals didn’t put on an overwhelming offensive show, they did keep grinding out first downs. They held the ball for almost ten minutes more than the Cowboys and only had three punts in the game. The pass rush was generally ineffectual with only one Micah Parsons sack and four QB hits, while Murray repeatedly extended drives with his running ability. The game was lost at least partly because Dallas could not get a stop late. Much has been made about the missed fumble call (which should have been blown dead before the snap for delay of game anyway), but that was just one time the Cowboys failed to get the ball back. Arizona converted seven of sixteen third downs, and added a couple of fourth-down conversions as well. It was enough. Many talk about finding formulas for beating NFL teams, and in this case, there may actually be one for Dallas: Just protect the ball and keep driving down the field.
The running game fully failed for the Cowboys. It just disappeared. Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard combined for 25 yards. That was after a string of games where the ground game sputtered. Elliott is supposed to be the big weapon, but look at his production this season. (h/t to Aidan Davis for whipping this up.)
Elliott simply has not been himself since falling on a pylon in week five. Before that point, he was showing flashes of when he was a dominating back, posting consecutive 100+ yard performances. The severe drop off since argues that the injury has been more limiting than he or the team is prepared to admit. The best course might have been to put him on IR for at least the minimum three weeks. In any case, something went wrong with him and has not been fully fixed.
There have also been much-discussed issues with the offensive line as well. Whatever the causes, Dallas has become very much a one-dimensional offense. There are frequent complaints about Kellen Moore calling too many early down running plays and/or Dak Prescott changing the play to hand the ball off, but the true issue is that teams are showing light boxes so they can have more defensive backs to protect against the pass. Running into that should be a smart way to move the ball, but the opponents are still able to completely stone the running game. Tony Pollard has been somewhat more productive, but Moore has not figured out how to use him to fix things. And he may not really be the answer, as he only mustered a whopping nine yards rushing against the Cardinals.
It is going to be extremely difficult to advance in the playoffs if there is no effective running game. Arizona was able to take that away from Dallas, and now they are the most likely opponent in the wild card round.
Greg Zuerlein is a problem. He has missed an extra point, a field goal, or both in seven games this season. That includes the one field goal he attempted against Arizona, a game where the final margin was three points. For logical reasons, no one with the team is going to point fingers at him, since they are too far into the stream to change this particular horse. We have been told that he is the kicker because of his ability to boom long kicks when needed. Unfortunately, that is not the primary thing you want from your placekicker. Job one is reliability. Kicks up to 50 yards and extra points should be more or less automatic. With Zuerlein, they are far too much an adventure. It is hard to prove he cost any games himself this season, but it is also entirely plausible that had he made a couple of those misses, the outcome would have been different.
Now we go into the playoffs, where the margin for error is gone. If the Cowboys need a field goal in the final seconds to win or tie a game, the confidence level in Zuerlein is going to be very low.
The playmakers aren’t making enough plays. After looking so good against the Football Team, the passing game regressed. Badly. Most damning is a side-by-side comparison of the two teams. Murray had two completions of over 40 yards to wide receivers. Prescott’s longest one was 26 yards to CeeDee Lamb.
This has multiple facets. There seemed to be no real attempts to push the ball deep. Prescott had at least four balls batted or tipped at the line, and came very close to picks on other attempts. And the dropped passes reared their ugly heads. This was a systemic failure, and those are the most difficult to deal with because they require multiple things to be fixed. Moore needs to be more aggressive, Prescott needs to do better, and the receivers must bring it in if it is catchable.
Now combine that with the atrophy of the ground game, and it is just that much harder to overcome a defense that is teeing off up front and working to take away everything deep.
The swing between Week 16 and Week 17 for the Cowboys could not be more stark. No one really stood out for Dallas, and they were unable to grind it out, either. We are forced to wonder if the win over Washington was the aberration. Looking at the latter part of the season, that may be the unfortunate case. If what we saw on Sunday is the real Cowboys, the postseason is likely to be cut abruptly short.