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4 big things to watch when the Cowboys play the Bengals

Some will take more than one game to figure out, but this week is a key data point for Dallas.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys
Suddenly it’s on his shoulders.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

There is an old saying that goes: “If you can’t stand the answer, don’t ask the question.” That seems very appropriate to the subject of the Dallas Cowboys. They are licking their wounds after the dismaying loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. We had tons of questions about this team before that. Now we have some bad answers, still have some lingering questions, plus have a bunch more that we did not want to face, but now do. My podcast partner Roy White and I put our heads together, and came up with the following things we are looking for when the Cowboys host the Cincinnati Bengals this Sunday.

How will this team weather the storm?

The only hope now is that the players will rally around Cooper Rush and the coaching staff will find a way to get some wins before Dak Prescott returns from his hand injury to make a run down the stretch. That is how things would go if this were a movie. But it is real life, or at least real sports. Unfortunately, we have recent precedent that argues against things going at all well.

Last season, Dallas did not look good down the stretch, despite managing to win all but one of their last six games. Four of those were wins over division opponents, and all three of them were struggling last year. Despite racking up some big scores against those three, there was just something about the team that seemed to reflect a lack of self confidence. That all came crashing home when they were embarrassed by the San Francisco 49ers in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.

We discussed a lot of this and more on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you don’t miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.

That team looked woefully unprepared and uncertain on the field. Sound familiar? That was exactly what we saw last Sunday. A hangover like that after an entire offseason to get things right is telling.

Some point to how Rush won his lone start last year in relief of Prescott as a sign of hope. But Rush had a much stronger supporting cast. Now he has to go in behind a much more suspect line and with a woefully inexperienced receiving corps. A failure to try and upgrade at QB2 was just one of the missteps made during a truly horrid offseason. Now the team is expected to roll with him, unless they find themselves desperate enough to trot out Will Grier. This is not encouraging.

How bad is the coaching?

This generally is not about Dan Quinn, although he has to do something to address the way the Buccaneers moved with ease between the 20s in the game, and how Leonard Fournette got chunk runs to move the sticks. John Fassel didn’t get any big plays out of his special teams, but they also did not really hurt the team. It is about Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore.

McCarthy has to take the blame for the lack of preparedness. He seems to have become less of a walk around head coach to a hands off one. A radio comment from a team insider about him not being ready to take the play-calling duties is very concerning.

That would be an unviable amount of detachment from a head coach with an offensive background if true. One of the concerns raised when McCarthy was hired was how he exhibited a similar lack of involvement during his last few seasons with the Green Bay Packers. It is not unreasonable to assume he also takes a similar approach to getting the team ready each week. There is such a thing as too much delegation. This is seen as a make-or-break year for the head coach. Big cracks are already showing. Some may think the loss of Prescott is some kind of an out. That is not going to work if the team continues to look as dazed and confused as it did against Tampa Bay.

Another area this likely affects is the continuing trend of far too many penalties. The Cowboys were flagged ten times. Eight of those were on offense. Only on defense was there a sign of more discipline, as none of the infractions were on them.

Just as with those flags, the ineptitude on offense whether Prescott or Rush was taking snaps reflects poorly on Kellen Moore. CeeDee Lamb was blanketed on almost every route, and only managed two catches on eleven targets. He drew an offensive pass interference call on one play. There were also drops. Yet despite his ineffectiveness, he continued to be the main target. There was no evidence of trying to scheme him open or getting the ball more to the other receivers. Further, Moore used multiple gadget plays, and none of them worked. They often looked like the team had never really practiced them, with Dallas players running into one another and the whole thing falling apart before it had a chance.

We have to consider if Moore is truly in over his head. The evidence of the last two games played unfortunately points that way. Both he and McCarthy better come up with some answers if they hope to be working at The Star much longer.

Can they get what they need out of the offensive line?

The loss of Connor McGovern on the first drive meant that Matt Farniok had to go the rest of the way at LG. He was of course next to Tyler Smith, who just got moved to LT from LG after Tyron Smith was injured. Smith actually held up well, although he also had some expected struggles on a few plays. Farniok had a much rougher time, which was also very predictable. Terence Steele had arguably the worst time of all the linemen, drawing four penalties himself, including three on one series alone. All but one of his infractions were false starts. That could be an indication of uncertainty and nervousness on his part. That is not good.

The Cowboys still have Jason Peters waiting in the wings. The problem is that he can only fill one spot when he is ready to go, and the team could use him at either tackle spot. Putting him in at LT would allow Tyler Smith to go back to LG, which is a much stronger combo than they have with Farniok on the field. But there are hints coming from the front office that replacing Steele may be seen as a possible answer.

The team also needs to add depth for the interior of the offensive line. How they put this puzzle together may be better known before this article is published, but getting the answer right is crucial.

What hope is there for this season?

The immediate reaction of many was that the season was over once Prescott was hurt. That was not really a huge overreaction, but news that he may only be out for four games or so makes things look a bit less dire. Still, his own performance was a huge concern. In the past, he has had bad games but bounced back the next time. Now we may have to see another cycle. In the meantime, Dallas would have to scratch out at least a win or two so they did not fall too far out of playoff contention.

Frankly, the chances of turning things around look far too much like those of the approach going into the season. The team bet on a whole lot of things going just right. That fell apart immediately. Now we are once again talking about some big what ifs, like Rush not actually being the worst starting quarterback in the league and the receivers doing much better than they did in the opener. Quinn still has the issues mentioned earlier to resolve as well. Somehow coming back to make the playoffs or possibly contend for the division look dim already. This may turn into an organic tanking that gets the team a high draft pick, and that is possibly the most coveted thing for the front office outside of cap space.

But the most likely outcome is that the team will be good enough to get to seven or so wins. They will be sitting at home in January while Dallas will still be outside the top ten in the draft. Stephen Jones likes to look two or three years into the future, which has the unhappy result of making him less concerned about what is happening at the moment than he should be. It is a conservative and unimaginative approach that got us to this point. Nothing about the situation indicates that will change. This looks like one more year when the team falls short. It is just going to be much shorter than last season.

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