With the playoffs here, it is good to have America’s Team a part of the festivities in back-to-back years. This feat for the Cowboys hasn’t been done since the 2007 season. Given the amount of talent that the franchise has amassed during the last 15 years, that comes as quite the shock. Regardless of your views on coach Mike McCarthy, he has done a solid job since taking the reigns in 2020. You have to go all the way back to 1999 with coach Chan Gailey for the last time a Cowboys head coach took his the team to the playoffs two years in a row. The difference between Gailey’s and McCarthy’s run is that McCarthy has had two back-to-back 12 win seasons. Gailey, on the other hand, had a 10-6 mark in 1998, and 8-8 mark in 1999. The proof is in the pudding that he’s a solid football coach.
What solid coaches like Mike McCarthy do is guide his staff and players to make some adjustments that were the cause of Week 18’s let down against the Washington Commanders. There is no excuse for playing as flat as they did, and doing it against a division foe just makes it even worse. McCarthy has assembled a coaching staff in which two of his coordinators currently are getting looks from across the league at head coaching gigs. In addition to his coaches, the overall talent from the roster is among the leagues best. These two pieces alone crank the pressure on McCarthy to deliver a Super Bowl trophy to the Jones family.
The final game of the regular season was certainly not what the team had in mind. However, if they can use this loss to learn and become better from it then it will all be worth it. Think of it like your favorite college basketball team losing a bad game in their conference tournament, just before the big dance happens. What can appear to be an awful loss, can be turned into the much needed fuel needed to make a run at a title. Dallas certainly has the players and coaches to do just that.
Let’s look at two important factors in this week’s stock up and stock down.
Stock up: Getting healthy
If there is one thing that is impossible to determine throughout a football season, it is injuries. The key thing about injuries is how you make adjustments to fill the void and do it in a way to keep the team on track. It isn’t always a smooth transition from known commodities to unproven commodities. Typically there is a drop off from a starter to a backup, but not always. Sometimes a backup just needs to a chance to show the world what they’ve got to offer. This can be said about rookie DaRon Bland. Before the season started, he wasn’t expected to have much of a role on the team in 2022. This expectation was thrown to the side when the injury bug affected the secondary. In this particular case with Bland, it seems like he just needed a chance to play to prove how good he was. At this very moment, he is only behind Trevon Diggs in the corner pecking order. Not a bad find that was accelerated due to injury. Bland had some injury issues in the Commanders game, but looks healthy for this week.
On the front seven of the defense, Leighton Vander Esch and Johnathan Hankins have been out of action in recent weeks due to injury. Both players have been missed greatly, and their replacements haven’t really been up to the task in filling the void while they get healthy. The interior of the defensive line has been gashed in Hankins’ absence and are giving up nearly five yards a carry when he is not on the field. When Hankins has been in the game, that average is at 3.5 yards per carry.
Vander Esch has played really good football in 2022, and in many cases was under the radar. This certainly changed when he went down with an injury. Anthony Barr isn’t the player he once was and has been a liability when he has been on the field. Once Hankins and Vander Esch both return, which it appears they’ll both be available on Monday, this will certainly help get this defense back on track.
Speaking of getting back on track, the offensive line will certainly be trending in the right direction assuming Tyler Biadasz is back on Monday as well. As a center, Biadasz’s importance seemingly went unnoticed up until he got injured. Since the injury, the offensive line has been on shaky ground and will certainly need his services back in a hurry to help steady the ship. All three players, if available, will be a massive boost to the Cowboys and it is never a bad thing to get a little bit healthier just in time for the postseason.
Stock down: Special teams
For the first time all season, the special teams group played a pivotal role in a disastrous loss in Week 18. This certainly was not the development that the team needed just before postseason football begins. Some would argue that the weather and the field conditions played a factor in the errors from this unit against the Commanders. That is certainly fair, but as professionals you are expected to adapt and overcome these factors and do your job. For 17 weeks, specials teams did their job and did it well. They have been the most steady unit on the team, and it seemed like they would not be a negative heading into postseason play.
Unfortunately, Week 18 happened as Bryan Anger mishandled the snap on a punt, KaVontae Turpin muffed a punt return, and Brett Maher missed his only kick attempt of the game when he missed an extra point. These three things cannot happen during the postseason because at this stage of the game, every team in the playoffs is at least a halfway decent team. What halfway decent teams typically do is take advantage of mistakes like the Cowboys had on special teams in Week 18.
From a numbers perspective, Dallas’ special teams unit has been good in 16 of their 17 regular season games this season. When doing the math, that means they have an over 94% chance of playing well and doing their job. Let’s just hope that other 6% of bad play was more about the field and weather conditions versus a major drop off from a normally reliable group. Special teams will need to be sharp throughout the postseason, and chances are that they will get back to form. Hopefully this is the case, because any missteps in this department could end the Cowboys hopes and dreams of a Super Bowl victory with just a snap of the finger.