One of Netflix's most popular shows, Stranger Things, aired its fourth season over the summer. Suppose you have not watched the series—no need to worry. There will be no spoilers here.
The show has a world hidden in a parallel reality to the town of Hawkins, Indiana, called The Upside Down. This place is gross, dark, and stale. Hawkins, Indiana, is far from normal but is usually calm, peaceful, and efficient. A town's description is usually not described as "stale" or "efficient," but it will make sense in a second.
How the season ends for the Dallas Cowboys in 2022 could reflect either reality of the town in the show.
There is a neutral feeling surrounding America's Team for the first time in a while. Analysts across the football landscape can envision Dallas finishing third in the NFC East just as easily as winning the division and heading back to the playoffs.
So, which side of Hawkins does the team end up looking like? In this article, we’ll discuss three reasons the Cowboys can finish the season 6-11. In a follow up article, we discuss the other side of the coin.
The Dallas Cowboys record: (6-11)
1. The running game is obsolete
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones went on ESPN's morning show First Take and told the fans in attendance, "it is still a fact. We go as Zeke goes".
Jerry Jones on @FirstTake on Ezekiel Elliott: “It’s still a fact, we go as Zeke goes.” pic.twitter.com/PsuQV91cAF— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) August 25, 2022
Since the start of training camp, Jones has been talking about how the running game will be the focus of the offense this season. What if it doesn't work?
Dallas did not have a winning formula when teams focused on stopping the run in 2021.
- Week 9 vs. Broncos: 16 carries for 78 yards rushing, zero touchdowns
- Week 11 vs. Chiefs: 16 carries for 82 yards rushing, zero touchdowns
- Week 12 vs. Raiders: 20 carries for 64 yards, one touchdown
- Week 17 vs. Cardinals: 17 carries for 45 yards, zero touchdowns
- Playoff vs. 49ers: 21 carries for 77 yards, one touchdown
The game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is not listed here because Prescott played out of his mind as the Cowboys abandoned the run from the start. When a game's outcome depended on the passing game's success, that did not lead to many wins.
Their losses happened when Dallas could not rush over a minimum of 100 yards. That's not even asking Zeke to rush for the century mark. That's the combined total of Prescott, Pollard, and Elliott.
The first six teams on the schedule return this season with their dominant fronts from a year ago. The one that might be the easiest matchup is against the Cincinnati Bengals. No big deal, just the former AFC Champions.
If head coach Mike McCarthy wants the offense to run through Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, they must stay committed to going against the more brutal defensive lines. Otherwise, it will be like running up a hill all season long if they can't find their footing.
2. Micah Parsons disappears, and so does the rest of the pass rush
Outside of a significant injury, Micah Parsons becoming a shell of himself from his Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign would be devastating.
Micah Parsons' play style in 12 seconds— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) September 2, 2022
Via https://t.co/rhmsUM2yZ4 pic.twitter.com/kIRWLzvMwd
There has been no indication during the offseason that this will happen, but opposing teams now have film on Parsons. The only way the All-Pro can be stopped is if offenses find a way to neutralize him from the game by using his aggression against him.
That means the offense might check into more draw plays if he lines up on the outside or constantly chip him with a tight end. If there is a formula on film to mess up his timing throughout the game, expect it to happen weekly.
What happens if Parsons is neutralized? Well, the rushers behind him are not as reliable. Demarcus Lawrence looks to return to his Pro Bowl pedigree, but he missed ten games last season due to a broken foot and only has 14.5 sacks since 2019. For context, he had that many in 2017 alone. Lawrence is one of the best defending the run, but that cannot be enough.
The biggest question surrounding Dorance Armstrong and Donte Fowler Jr. is their consistency. Armstrong had a breakout year in 2021, totaling five sacks, and Donte Fowler Jr. had 11.5 sacks in 2019 with the Los Angeles Rams. It is a guessing game that their production will be duplicated if the Cowboy's most disruptive pass rusher takes on double-teams.
Recency bias shows cause for concern. According to PFF, Fowler had a 61.8 pass-rush grade last season, and Armstrong had a grade of 59.9. For comparison purposes, Parsons had a rush grade of 93.
The Cowboys play Tom Brady, Joe Burrow, Matthew Stafford, and Aaron Rodgers this season. If Eleven disappears against those quarterbacks and for the first half of the season, playoff hopes for Dallas might not be on the other side.
3. The offensive line falls apart
This point is probably the most obvious and the most likely to happen. There are reports that free agent Jason Peters visited with the Cowboys yesterday and entered into the negotiation process. His signing might not be good enough to elevate the play along the offensive line.
When Mike McCarthy signed on to be the head coach of America's Team, the offensive line looked very different. Now entering the 2022 season, the line for Week 1 could be:
- LT: Tyler Smith
- LG: Connor McGovern
- C: Tyler Biadasz
- RG: Zack Martin
- RT: Terence Steele
This situation feels reminiscent of the lineup about a quarter through the season in 2020. It was a rotation at tackle between Brandon Knight and Terence Steele, both Connors (Williams and McGovern) were at guard, and Biadasz was a rookie splitting snaps with Joe Looney. All the pressure was on Zack Martin to lead the group, and he missed six games.
Offensive line coach Joe Philbin's hands are full with this group being led by Martin once again. Even if Peters is signed before the season, Tyler Smith might still be the opening left tackle to give Peters more time to get into game condition. That could take a few weeks. Tyler Smith has taken all of his snaps in the preseason at left guard. He did play left tackle in college but has not had any experience playing the position at the NFL level.
McGovern got an opportunity to start last season but failed to grow outside his "Hulk" package role. Against powerful nose tackles, Biadasz showed signs of struggle. The clip below shows what can happen again against the Buccaneers on opening night.
That is Vita Vea taking 6-4, 318-pound NFL center Tyler Biadasz on a trip to see his quarterback pic.twitter.com/Ck2jFxi629— Carmen Vitali (@CarmieV) September 10, 2021
Steele was a surprise that most analysts did not see coming. He played so well that the front office felt comfortable kicking La'el Collins out the door. Can he keep growing from year two to three like last season? That seems like the team is putting a lot of eggs in a cheap wicker basket. It might get you a couple of carries, but will it hold long-term?
The Cowboys cannot lose every battle in the trenches. If Dallas wants to run the ball and make that a priority, that game plan is predicated on the offensive line's success. Otherwise, there will be no run game, and Prescott will be on the ground.
The Cincinnati Bengals did make it to the Super Bowl last season with an offensive line that led the league in sacks allowed. However, lighting does not tend to strike twice.
But hey, stranger things have happened.