It’s a very different feel for the Dallas Cowboys this week. After a truly horrible showing to open the season, made worse by injuries to Dak Prescott and other key members of the roster, the depleted squad came out and managed an upset win over the Cincinnati Bengals, who just played in the Super Bowl. The mood surrounding the team is suddenly way up. But not everyone is so sure the Cowboys have completely turned a corner. Our David Howman and Tom Ryle present their points of view.
David: After coming out in Week 1 and getting molly-whopped, the biggest question for the Cowboys was whether the offense was really just that bad or if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were that good. Since Week 1 is ripe for overreactions, many around the nation opted for the former, but Week 2 offered strong evidence to support the latter. Not only did the Cowboys look markedly better offensively against the Bengals, and without their franchise quarterback to boot, but the Buccaneers defense bottled up a talented Saints offense in similar fashion.
Needless to say, I’m feeling pretty optimistic after this win. Going into the Bengals game, I had noted a few areas where the Cowboys could stake out advantages over their opponent to earn the win. And in a bit of a surprise, they actually did all of those things. In recent years that’s become rare for this franchise. I’m not ready to get carried away and say this team can contend for a Super Bowl, but the season - and the race in the NFC East - is still very much alive.
Tom: I enjoyed the win as much as anyone, but there are reasons I am still reserving judgment. First is that we have to see Cooper Rush maintain some consistency from week to week. There have been plenty of other cases of backup quarterbacks coming and being the hero one game, only to fade as other teams prepared for them. Rush is simply an unknown in that aspect. If he can look like he did against the Bengals, especially the first two drives, all well and good.
It is a big if, and it closely relates to another thing I am keeping a skeptical eye on. After calling those impressive touchdown drives, Kellen Moore seemed to turtle, and the ensuing lack of offense and scoring nearly did the team in. A theme for my articles this week has been how he is much better with the first 15 or so plays of a game, which are planned out in advance, or scripted. After that, his decision making seems to drop off precipitously. Fortunately, the last drive redeemed him somewhat, but he was down to very few options on the playsheet with so far to go and so little time remaining. He simply has to get better in the middle of the game for this team to have success.
Meanwhile, we are still waiting to see if the offensive line will continue to hold up and if someone besides Noah Brown, CeeDee Lamb, and Dalton Schultz can be reliable targets. You can also include Tony Pollard in that group, although they still need to get the ball in his hands more. The young receivers have to step up, especially with Schultz getting banged up. Now we are seeing another shuffle with Dennis Houston now on the practice squad. Hopefully Michael Gallup is coming back soon, but he may need to ramp up. There is hope that Jalen Tolbert has also completed his own process of getting ready. On the line, Matt Farniok is now the weak link, and we don’t know what they may plan there. I think they are leaning to not making any significant changes until Connor McGovern comes back.
Against the surprising 2-0 Giants, they are going to have to do more to get a win.
David: I’ll go ahead and challenge you on the notion that Kellen Moore got conservative after the first two drives. I’ve seen this criticism a lot since the game, and I understand coming to that conclusion based on the results, but I just don’t see it. Moore came into this game with a plan to commit to the run, just as he did last week and just as the Cowboys planned it to be in the offseason. On the first two drives, as well as the drive right before halftime that yielded a field goal, the run plays were working well. Of their six drives that didn’t result in points, five of them involved plays with big losses (runs blown up in the backfield, sacks, incompletions on first down) that led to third and long situations. Dallas also engineered a really good drive in the third quarter that ended with a Schultz fumble.
I think what some are calling conservative play calling is just a response to how this offense now operates. The losses at wide receiver and philosophical shift to a run heavy offense translates into less opportunities to score points, which is a pretty drastic shift for a unit that led the NFL in points a year ago. Take away Dak Prescott and the effect becomes a bit more pronounced, but the harsh reality is that the front office spent all summer building an offense that isn’t designed to score much. If Moore wants to put up points in a hurry he has to get creative with the play designs, but we killed him for doing that agaisnt Tampa too.
To me, the biggest question heading into Week 2 was whether or not Moore could adapt his play calling to accommodate his backup quarterback, something he didn’t do in 2020. That year, in games without Prescott, the Cowboys were 28th in the NFL in offensive EPA/play. In one game with Rush this year, they were 16th in offensive EPA/play. It’s obviously a very small sample size, but for a week Moore showed me that this offense can survive without Prescott for a few weeks. And with the defense and special teams looking like they have, that’s got me feeling pretty optimistic.
Tom: I’ll give you a little on your defense of Moore, but those failed early downs are partly on him as well.
Now the defense especially is a source of hope, as they have twice held some pretty explosive units from last year under 20 points. They did so last game without Jayron Kearse, who is such a big part of the defense. so that is also very encouraging. The pass rush is looking like everything we hoped for. Micah Parsons is showing zero signs of a sophomore slump and has already begun a campaign for Defensvie Player of the Year.
But this season is still going to hinge on what they can do offensively. I was worried to see how Prescott performed in Week 1, but I will hope that was just a bad day at the office, and he doesn’t string many of those together. It is still going to come down to the things we worried about all offseason, the receiver corps and the offensive line. Those are very much works in progress, and we should expect growing pains. The challenge now is to not let those combined with the early injuries cause them to fall behind in what is suddenly a very tough looking division.
I’ll hope for the best, but as I have said all year, I will believe it when I see it.
David: We’ll find out a lot more this Monday when the Cowboys play their first divisional game of the year. But in the meantime, I’ll be chugging the Kool-Aid.