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Salvaging the 2022 Dallas Cowboy season?

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So...this is not fine. Week 1 is understood to be the week of overreactions. The Green Bay Packers, the easy favorites to win the NFC North in 2022, didn't just lose but saw the back-to-back reigning MVP put up one of his worst career games. Speaking of "reigning", the defending champion Los Angeles Rams were spanked in their opener, with Matthew Stafford's arm looking like trouble. The Denver Broncos and their sparkling new Franchise QB managed to lose to one of the expected frontrunners for the #1 draft pick next year. The Commanders and Giants are 1-0. So are the Bears, who overcame the 49ers! The Bills lost their first contest last season. Going back down memory lane to one of the most famous examples, the 2003 Patriots were utterly trounced by the Bills, who were led by surprise release Lawyer Milloy ("what a mistake releasing him!") to a 31-0 blowout. Those Patriots wouldn't lose again that year once September closed.

This is not the same.

The 2022 Cowboy season is in deep trouble. Having already suffered a key and prolonged absence from LT Tyron Smith and with the roster not able to afford too many losses, Dallas was in a worse place with additional player injuries in Sunday night's contest - before the hammer blow of a projected 6-8 week absence from QB Dak Prescott. With an anemic-offense loss fueled in part by, once again, too many penalties, well...
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Is it time to wave the white flag? Most fans aren't too keen to quit outright, so probably not yet. But there were already many reasonable doubters in the fans base prior to the added adversity; it wouldn't exactly be illogical to go that route. And even if not, let's be realists and admit the obvious: 2022 is probably not going to be "the year". The sooner that is embraced as the expectation, the sooner we can be insulated from suffering even further disappointment. Let the team defy the odds and create a pleasant surprise, if that's in the cards.

Given that the Cowboys are certainly going to try to make that happen...what would the path be to pulling it off? Would it even be worth it? To that second question, I would pitch a resounding "yes"! Here's why: while some people will frame the desires of others differently, most every Cowboy fan agrees that the end goal is a championship. We've seen our fair share of talented Cowboy rosters that didn't have the "it" factor to overcome long odds and make a run, for any number of potential reasons. Perhaps that would have been the fate of the 2022 group even without the small pile of adversity already dumped in the team's lap.

If the team is ever going to lead us where we want, that would best be achieved by the team coming together - toughening, sharpening, crafted to slice rather than dull or shatter on impact. Over the past few weeks, some have even referenced a past observation from Bill Parcells that his New York Giants and other teams in the NFC East had benefited from being forged in the fires of a heavily-competitive division; in highlighting this view, these fans have wondered whether recent Cowboy teams were being toughened up enough to handle playoff contests.

That's the opportunity now facing the team. It will be seeing adversity in spades, and if it is to have any hope it will have to find a way to step up in spite of the added crush. While the odds of that happening are...unlikely...if it is pulled off the team could actually emerge better for it. Let's explore that further...

How The Cowboys Can Keep Their Heads Above Water

The Defense Rises To Carry The Team
This is the most obvious stepping stone to the Cowboys pulling off a shocker in 2022. The groundwork was laid last season when the defense by many measures was already one of the best in the league. That effort was notably turnover-dependent, but those turnovers especially carried the day in the first half, when Dallas's front seven was...under construction. The Cowboy Defensive Line actually was arguably the one that lost the most to injuries of any in the NFL last season, and meanwhile the Linebackers were an evolving group between Parsons finding his place, Jaylon Smith struggling before his release, Leighton Vander Esch also struggling before steadying, etc.

The second-half defense showed more ability to prevent ball movement even as it continued to make big plays. The DL finally got to play with the group intended while the other layers flew around the field to disrupt what they could. On paper, there were many avenues for that progress to continue, from a second year under Dan Quinn, the Interior Linemen being healthier and reaching veteran experience, the LBers further sorting out and benefiting from the late addition of Anthony Barr, more growth from a the youngsters at CB, and the Safeties picking up where they left off in 2021. The only notable projected defensive loss was the free agent departure of Randy Gregory, but his '21 was a mixed-bag experience of very good pass rush production dragged down by run and penalty struggles and missed time that added up to only about a half-season snap share.

One week in, and the prognosis is pretty solid. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers ran a classic Tom Brady attack, responding to defensive looks by attacking single coverage (when the defense keyed run) and then turning to the ground attack every time Quinn looked to clamp down on Brady. It wasn't a dominant effort, but holding Tampa to 19 points when the Cowboy offense at one stretch had run 19 total plays combined over 5 drives was a positive effort.

For those who have watched enough games with Brady at the helm, it's worth noting that Sunday Night demonstrated a classic Brady-defense slugfest. Naturally, more often than not Brady simply takes defenses apart - and when defenses win the day, it's usually either due to creating steady interior pressure that knocks Brady from his preferred game or his supporting cast being so poor that it isn't even on the same page as the GOAT. When a Brady-versus-defense game turns into a chess match with fairly even results, that's a sign of unit that can run with the big dogs. A Brady won't be behind center every week, so numero uno for the Cowboys is to see just what this defense can do against the full range of NFL opponents.

Parsons Ascends To Greatness
Micah Parsons is already one of the best at his position in the NFL, at a minimum. What Cowboy fans the world over are wondering now is whether he will prove to be the NFL's next truly great defender, a guy who is halfway matchup-proof who disrupts even when he isn't loading up a box score. One game and two clutch sacks in, again, so far so good (for extra reference, his 85.7 PFF grade starts off as 3rd-best at LBer).

Rather than recap what we already saw, I'd like to share an observation I made the other day that hints at what Parsons could become. On a whim, I pulled up this highlight video of the great Lawrence Taylor, and it was a joy to scout the variety of ways Taylor made his impact. Taylor could bury rushers and would also do good work dropping back into coverage, but of course it was his sacks that made him a terror. Unlikely the classic archetypal "edge" rusher who will look to turn the corner on a dime and convert speed to power (see this highlight reel of Derrick Thomas for a look at one of the best of this sort), Taylor more than anything else made his living by either working a blocker back on his heels before he would race to the QB or defeating a blocker with powerful hand use. Don't get me wrong, Taylor had excellent speed and would get around a blocker plenty of times, but he was a size+speed guy more than a "bender" on the edge.

This struck me because it made Taylor a better style for Parsons to target than a Thomas (or DeMarcus Ware or Von Miller). Parsons has more speed than anyone at his position, but he too lacks natural bend. Check out his 2021 highlight reel, though, and you'll see as the season went along that Parsons began to enjoy more success working a blocker backwards and other such non-speed moves. In fact, what stood out to me by that clip's chronological series of plays is how few big disruptions Parsons made early in the year - from some combination of development and/or how Quinn used him, Parsons made more of an impact as the season went along (he only posted 2.5 of his 13 sacks over his first 7 games). As good as his 2021 was, Parsons got better as the year went along and in Tayloresque ways.

One caveat: Parsons will certainly not be a Taylor clone. There is one Taylor skill that jumped off the screen to me: I've never seen a defender so capable of dragging down players with pure arm strength. If Taylor got a hand on you, you were going down, which was rather useful both against the run and at converting any proximity to the QB that for nearly anyone else would turn into "close but not quite". Parsons doesn't have that, nor is he the reckless force that Taylor was. If Parsons is to reach that sort of height, he will have to find some superlatives all his own - but there is enough overlap that he could fail to do so and still be among the best for a long time.
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The Offense Gets Back To Basics
So, with Dak Prescott out, the Cowboys should begin by focusing on running the ball as much as possible...

Nope, just kidding! Hope that didn't cause any tempers to flare. Back to basics doesn't mean runs up the middle - rather, Dallas knows the play behind Center won't be as dynamic as usual, both pre- and post-snap, and with that limitation in play now is the time for the unit to batten down the hatches by narrowing the playbook a little and focusing on execution. That means a proper mix of run, play action, pure passing, misdirection, motion, etc, while using play familiarity to make the proper calls for the OL, avoid missed blocks, reduce penalties, and so forth.

In other words, don't bite off more than the offense can chew with a Cooper Rush at QB. Dialing back aggressiveness and the scope of plays to a degree sets up the above baseline while minimizing turnovers and mistakes. Should that pan out, a (hopeful) successful recovery by Prescott would open things back up while still having that steady baseline as a foundation at the heart of things. While things are forced to pull back, take advantage by using this period to hammer out some dents.

The Offensive Line Sorts Itself
Figuring out the OL was probably item number one on Dallas's to-do list entering Week 1, and that was before it lost another member (McGovern) for at least the short term and saw a jump in how much the offense as a whole will be relying on the unit sans Prescott. The hope just a handful of days ago was a positive job of opening running lanes and decent pass blocking - enough to not drag down the other pieces in the scoring unit. But that won't cut it in the games to come.

Everything starts with what the coaching staff makes of Jason Peters and Tyler Smith. Will the veteran Peters be simply dropped into the Left Tackle slot as soon as he is in shape, or will the team prioritize getting the best look at the rookie Smith at that vital spot? It all dominoes from there - if it's Peters at LT, Smith can slide back to his intended 2022 Left Guard role and suddenly the line isn't so far from how it was drawn up. Keeping Smith at LT would involve more moving parts and, thus, potential sacrifice. It doesn't make much sense to dump Steele back to a backup role when this year should absolutely be used as an evaluation of his future, and at the same time Dallas can't really commit to Matt Farniok as a temporary starter at LG (he struggled there to the tune of a poor 48.7 PFF grade last week).

It all starts with finding a stable, steady group...anything less than that is very likely to be too much for Rush to handle.

Special Teams Does Its Part
It isn't simple to evaluate team-wide special teams performance, but even casual fans could tell that this group was a problem in 2019 and much better the past two seasons. DVOA rankings agree with this notion, with Dallas rising from an awful 30th in '19 to 7th and 6th the past two years. Thanks, Bones Fassel!

Those two strong seasons stand out all the more when we realize that they include the struggles of Greg Zuerlein at Kicker. It appears that Fassel knows how to coach up blocking (on returns) and coverage teams, and Bryan Anger picked right up where he left off with his Pro Bowl caliber 2021 performance. Even if Kicker continues to be a weak spot, the STs could be a team strength - and K Brett Maher drilled his one attempt right down the middle, perhaps hinting at progress that might have fueled his 89% on FGs with the Saints last season. Is it possible that he's found a tweak to step up to a reliable enough game to be someone the Cowboys could stick with?
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How The Cowboys Could Thrive...If They Indeed Avoid Drowning

The Team Moves On From The Departed
If any viewers hadn't heard it enough times, Cris Collinsworth made sure to pound the point like a stake: the Cowboys lost some notable players over the offseason! Now, the venerable broadcaster was especially off-base with his rants about the state of the receiver corps (more on that in a bit) given that he talked up the short-term Michael Gallup-less group as if it were the all the team would have for the entirety of 2022...but some major talents were lost/ejected.

But most of the "analysis" of these changes the past few months included one major oversight: when judging whether the team should have gotten rid of these guys or not, it means little what they have been in even the recent past. All that matters in that regard is how good they will be going forward, along with the team's best foresight understanding of that at the time decisions were made. It's far too early to draw confident conclusions there, but let's check in on WR Amari Cooper, RT La'el Collins, and even not-under-team-control WR Cedric Wilson, IOL Connor Williams, and DE Randy Gregory.

Cooper is the bait-cutting that draws the most criticism, but there were signs that the Cowboys saw him dropping off from his impressive past work. While transition adjustments and a poor QB muddy the waters as to how much of this is Cooper's individual doing, he managed only 3 catches on 6 targets for a mere 17 yards, all despite seeing the field for 66 snaps (53.4 PFF grade). That might not sustain, but if it does it would not be more possible to vindicate the Cowboys on this one specific move. As for Collins, his offseason reflected the same lack of reliability that seemed to turn Dallas off from the player, and that surely contributed to him managing just a 58.6 PFF grade to open his season.

Those were the two players Dallas had every ability to retain and whose positions could have used an extra quality guy, but it's an open question just how much help they would have been. As for the rest, Wilson put up a small dose of production under depth-player use; he would have been helpful to have for the same role in Dallas, but maybe not for the price it would have required. The Cowboys wanted Gregory and can't be blamed for his decision to go elsewhere, but he's had health issues so far and beyond a nice forced fumble was pretty quiet over just 26 snaps last week. Ironically, the player with the best performance and route to helping Dallas the most on this list was the much-maligned Williams, who thrived in the run game (though not so much with pass blocking) in his first game at Center rather than his usual LG. Not many can claim that they foresaw enough success from him going forward that the Cowboys should be taken to task for not retaining his services.

With that update behind us, let's embrace the immutable fact in front of us: these players are gone, and so cannot be part of any solution for the Cowboys. Whether the weaker '22 beginnings among them hold up or not, there's no point on dwelling on these fellas any longer.
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Prescott's Return Builds On Team Progress

QB Dak Prescott had a bad game, however one slices it. And there are some rough ways to slice it. But there's also no way of sugarcoating this: the assessments of his play in this past game (and yes, we're talking about one game) have some gigantic holes in them. The largest oversight is the blatant disregard for the players on the other side of the field. Tampa Bay's defense already was coming off of a strong season and projected to continue in that direction - especially in the secondary, where the team is particularly talented.

The mistakes get worse from there. It's more than understandable that anyone watching an NFL game wouldn't be able to pick up on the particulars of coverages given that, you know...they don't fit in the viewing portion of your TV screen during live play. But that's no excuse for passing judgement about coverages without gathering some actual information first. Here's a good place to start. A good rule of thumb: when a QB, especially one who has built a large sample size of making good decisions about where to throw the ball, forces the ball to receivers with multiple defenders in their midst, that's a strong indicator of a defense that is running some draping coverage. That's the gist of the linked article - in the game against Dallas, Tampa Bay was running a high rate of extra defensive backs, two-deep looks, etc. That's a recipe for locking down the deep ball, all without giving up open looks on shorter throws.

Want to overcome these looks through the air? All else being equal, it isn't happening, at least not efficiently. Obviously, QBs of all levels will struggle without something to even the odds. The best options for that are 1) pass blocking that buys extra time for the receivers to beat the coverage, or 2) receivers whose talents lie in beating even good coverage. How are any Cowboy fans missing that Prescott wasn't armed with either of these necessities for overcoming the combined TB defensive talent and approach? An OL with a rookie in his first pro game at LT plus a backup's backup next to him, not to mention a RT who wasn't having his best game? The OL definitely did not crumble, but it wasn't granting bonus time - and, in stark contrast to the infamous "burning in Atlanta" game in 2017, this decent performance was often achieved with extra players being kept back to assist with the blocking. And on the receiving end, starting off with Lamb and Schultz isn't bad at all...but not if one needs to beat heavy, focused coverage. Lamb's strengths are in shorter/medium routes and Run After Catch, and the wideouts behind him (and minus Gallup) were well below par.

There was every reason for Prescott and the passing game to struggle in the game...and struggle it did.

So that absolves Prescott, right? Absolutely not! There are ways a top-notch QB can at least lessen the struggles, maybe not to the point of full game success but at least enough to get some decent points on the board, and Prescott failed to do that. While some forced passes and defenders jumping routes was the sooner-or-later consequence of this game context, Prescott also was at times off-target when he wasn't being pressured to the same degree. This isn't the dark mark some will insist on it being - heck, just this past Thursday Patrick Mahomes unleashed a steady rate of poorly-placed balls himself, not to mention some mind-number turnover-worthy decisions, and we know how good he is - but it wasn't good enough.

The point is that it is impossible to accurately assess any QB under this sort of situation. Prescott was part of the issue last Sunday night, but how much of the struggles fell in his lap is far from clear. The Cowboys won't be facing a Buccaneer defense every game, and the blocking and receiving play both stand to improve organically between now and Prescott's return...at which point the passer should get a straight shot. But that's not the focus anyways - we can discuss and debate exactly how good Prescott is, but one thing we know for certain is that he is superior to whomever else Dallas is set to run out in his place. If the team can step up in the right place to keep the ship afloat with Rush or Grier, that sets up an automatic boost with Prescott comes back. Perhaps the offense would be better off adjusting to some life without its Franchise QB and then building on that progress than it would have been to have Prescott healthy and playing all along. He'll have to avoid rushing back, manage lingering effects to his thumb/grip, shake off rust, and more...there is definitely no promise of good play once he's back. Just...better play. It's up to the rest of the Cowboys to make sure the non-Prescott baseline is high enough - that way, less is outright needed from him, and whatever boost he does provide will reach that much higher when combined with the rest.

The Receiving Weapons Fully Stock Up And Find Their Roles

A healthy Cowboy receiving corp doesn't just offer some pretty good total talent, but also nicely fills out a traditional/desired hierarchy. Lamb has the standout talent to put up efficiency and large counting totals even while drawing attention, Gallup is a classic vertical-threat WR2, James Washington is a second vertical specialist who might thrive on an efficiency basis with prudent usage, Noah Brown and the rest of the depth receivers (Simi Fehoko, Dennis Houston, Jalen Tolbert) can do some damage when defenses fall asleep, Dalton Schultz helps steadily move the chains, and more can be provided by the backup Tight Ends and the team's Running Backs.

But the Cowboys need to actually get there first. Why are some fans writing the story of the 2022 Cowboys on the basis of just a partial receiving corps and only in a single tough matchup contest? The worry talked up going into the season - and this worry still exists - was that the handicapped WR corps would struggle enough to help Dallas slide into a W-L hole it would struggle to get out of the rest of the way. Should the team manage to not sink too far until reinforcement arrive, all worrying bets will be off and the real evaluation will begin. On paper, that group is more likely to be asset than dragging anchor. And if not, that will reveal itself when the full group is actually out there on the field.

An OL Upward Arrow
While the team treading water almost certainly requires that the OL gets its feet under it, that isn't the max ceiling for the group, especially as the weeks go on. For example, Peters can be expected to need time to round back into form; over time, the performance at whatever his spot ends up manning could trend up. Dallas having the luxury of assessing and experimenting with McGovern and Tyler Smith might also lead to improvement over time.

One piece of the OL that has a notable chance of swinging the narrative for the better is Center Tyler Biadasz. For some reason, Biadasz has been written off by many Cowboy fans despite entering just his third year in the NFL and despite progress he showed in year two. Indeed, Biadasz faced a tough matchup between TB interior defenders Vita Vea, Akiem Hicks, and top-second-round rookie Logan Hall, not to mention having to adjust on the fly to having a backup to his immediate left - and yet in that small, one-tough-context game he acquitted himself well to the tune of a very solid (and 8th at the position in the very early going) 68.0 PFF grade.

For many, it was practically codified that the OL would be an outright weakness once Tyron Smith went down. That's not out of the question, and top-level play is probably too much to ask for. But that doesn't have to be the ask! Trouble comes when the OL is poor as a whole or one or more truly bad spots emerge, so the main aim should be to prevent those from happening. Anything more would be a bonus!

Context Improvement Further Boosts The Defense
The best way for opposing teams to weaken a strong defense (if that is indeed what the Cowboys have) is to keep it on the field. That's the looming threat for the Dallas D over the coming weeks, should the offense struggle mightily. Whether that happens or not, the more the offense stabilizes and does its fair share of possession control the more the defense can play to its talent level rather than being weighed down by worn-out stamina.

From there, context could swing from a drag to a boost if the offense can do enough to give the team some second half leads. The Cowboys seem to still be figuring out how to spread their focus at stopping the run and the pass, sometimes getting gashed when they're looking one way and end up seeing the other. If game flow and the scoreboard can make opposing offenses more one-dimensional, the sky is the limit for the D between athleticism in the front seven and the opportunistic secondary.
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Finishing With A Reality Check

If all this feels overly positive, be sure to note that none of what has been laid out here is projection or prediction. This is a roadmap to how the Cowboys could still pull a playoff berth and even more despite the hurdles it faces, but unquestionably the odds are more bearish than bullish. Betting on all this would be more like playing the lottery than mining hidden gold. But such things have been pulled off before in NFL history, and that means the hour is early for scheduling the funeral service. Nevertheless, it would be hard to fault anyone for writing up the season's obituary now.

We can only hope we get this sort of underdog tale...
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...rather than a total collapse of this sort.
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