In the wake of the season opening loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, fans of the Dallas Cowboys seem to be falling mostly into two camps. One has already started thinking about the 2023 NFL Draft because they have no expectation of the Cowboys overcoming the multiple problems and injuries the team already faces. The other group is constructing scenarios for how this team can still get into the playoffs as some of the hurt players return.
Our David Howman and Tom Ryle, as you might guess, are not on the same page here.
Tom: They say hope is not a strategy. Well, someone needs to tell not only the fans but the team. Dallas came into the season hoping the revamped offensive line would be adequate, hoping the very inexperienced wide receivers and tight ends would step up, hoping Dak Prescott could elevate the offense, hoping the running game would be a big part of the offense, and above all hoping that injuries did not gut a team that lacks quality depth on offense.
Basically, they were 0 for 5 in the first game. They suffered four injuries that will cause players to miss time. Much better depth on defense should make the absence of Jayron Kearse and Tarell Basham manageable, but Prescott and Connor McGovern really hurt the offense. Obviously it is going to be a while before Prescott can contribute, and in the opener, he was frankly bad. Matt Farniok had to step in for McGovern, and was clearly the weakest link. Had that not been necessary, they might have pulled off the O line thing, because Tyler Smith was solid, if hardly perfect. Instead, they are having to figure out what they can do once Jason Peters is ready to play. The ground game was basically a nonentity, despite Ezekiel Elliott averaging over five yards a carry. That one seems to go on Kellen Moore, who kept going to the pass and gadget plays despite how they kept failing. Part of that was how the Bucs just surrounded CeeDee Lamb as they saw that he was going to be the main target all game no matter what.
Now people are constructing various scenarios where the team can keep from falling too far back before Prescott returns, then make a push for the playoffs. All those have one thing in common: They depend on hope that pretty much everything goes well for the Cowboys from here on. We’ve already seen how that goes.
David: All this talk about hope reminds me of the wise words of Bane: “There can be no true despair without hope.” Well, the hope was sold to this fan base and the despair has set in pretty thick after one game. But that’s exactly what I keep coming back to: It’s just one game. Not only that, but it was just one game against one of the best teams in the NFL. It was also the first time this offense had played a live game together in its current form, after undergoing a facelift in the offseason, and they did so against a defense that’s been top 10 in defensive DVOA each of the last three years.
I can’t sit here and say that Sunday’s game inspired any confidence for me, because it didn’t. But the more I think about it, the more I begin to believe it was really just a case of this team getting beat by a superior team they weren’t ready for. But there were positive signs in all three phases: The defense made life hard for Tom Brady, Brett Maher looked good, and the running game was performing well until penalties kind of forced Dallas to go away from it.
It’s weird to say, since the Cincinnati Bengals were in the Super Bowl last year and the Buccaneers were not, but the Cowboys’ next opponent is not as good as their last opponent was. And with Cooper Rush under center for this one, I expect this offense to double down on their ground game, which was the only part of the offense that looked good last week. All this offense needs now is to help Terence Steele figure out the cadence.
Tom: Oh, I agree they were not prepared for Tampa Bay. Just like they were not prepared against the San Francisco 49ers in January. It seems that this staff just doesn’t do prepared. Or at least, they don’t know how to make adjustments to fit the situation. Just like Stephen Jones is going to worry about pie and avoid doing anything truly helpful in free agency, the staff sticks to their original plan no matter how circumstances change. Trying to use the running game to better effect is only logical, but the Bengals defense is a poor opponent to have to do that.
Further, I fully expect the offense to keep trying to force the ball to Lamb. Hopefully, they can do some adjusting to what they expect from their quarterback the way they did against the Minnesota Vikings last year, but I’ll have to see it to believe it. And while the opening game debacle showed how badly going to gadget plays can stall drives, it would be no surprise to see Moore keep trotting those out as a way to try and overcome the offensive problems.
If they continue on the course they chose in the first game, things are not likely to turn around. That is what history indicates will happen. Stubbornly playing their game no matter the results is a brand that has carried over from the Jason Garrett years. It was part of what cost him his job, and it is threatening Mike McCarthy now. I have lost faith he will rise to the occasion, and that will drag the team down.
David: I have to disagree with you on the notion that this staff doesn’t make changes when necessary. In fact, this whole offseason saw a pretty drastic change on offense in response to the second half slump that side of the ball went through last year that ultimately led to their loss in the playoffs. The year before that, McCarthy fired his guy (Mike Nolan) after just a year to bring in Dan Quinn, who himself introduced a lot of fundamental changes to the schemes he had been running for the past decade.
It worked out great for Quinn; this new offense is still waiting on the final verdict, but the results don’t look great so far. But if we’re talking about this staff’s ability to adapt to their personnel, let’s look just a year ago this time: Kellen Moore acted like he had no running backs on the roster and called a very pass happy offense against the Buccaneers, and a week later beat the Chargers with a heavy run game to take advantage of their light boxes on defense. Or how about the way Moore adapted when Michael Gallup got hurt early in the year? That’s not when the slump occurred, and it’s, in part, because Moore was able to successfully adapt to the changes.
Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong as this season progresses, and it definitely wouldn’t be the first time. But I look at an offense that went through so many changes this summer, had zero preseason action to gel with each other, and then had to face one of the best defenses in the NFL in Week 1 and all I see is a single game aberration. I don’t agree with the philosophical direction this team went in the offseason, but they did seem to have acquired a good collection of pieces to match that philosophy quite well. Right now, I’m confident that we’ll see that play out against a Bengals defense that’s really not as good as some may think. However, as always, I reserve the right to change my mind after this Sunday.
Tom: Wow, that’s a lot of hopium. I just see things differently. Part of my reason for thinking this won’t go well is that last year Moore had some much better pieces to work with. Now things are very different, and I don’t think he will rise to the occasion. Don’t get me wrong, I really would like to see the Cowboys triumph. I just think they got overwhelmed last week, and it won’t be the last time. We shall see.