Every game, even one as bad as the demolition of the Dallas Cowboys by the San Francisco 49ers, offers a chance to learn things about the team. This week, there may be a lot of things to take away, but one thing looms over all others. The evidence so far points to the Cowboys only playing well when they have a lead. Get the first score against them, and they simply start to come apart. Against the 49ers they did exactly that, and it was the same story when they suffered their first embarrassment against the Arizona Cardinals. They have offered teams a blueprint for beating them. Just get the lead, especially by more than one score, and Dallas has no answers.
Further complicating things is that in both the losses so far this season, the Cowboys fell behind due to their own mistakes, often unforced ones. With San Francisco getting the ball first, the Dallas defense all but handed them the first score. On the very first play of the game, Donovan Wilson committed a blatant facemask infraction on Christian McCaffrey, setting the 49ers up on their own 43. Micah Parsons would also be flagged during the drive for jumping offsides. Those are usually a sign of a lack of focus, although Parsons’ error was not as egregious as a later offsides on Jayron Kearse where he inexplicably lined up almost a full yard across the line of scrimmage.
Those flags helped the 49ers take a 7-0 lead with only 3:50 elapsed in the game. Then the Dallas offense came out sputtering, with Dak Prescott badly missing his first two pass attempts. The first quarter would end with the score the same as neither team was able to get much offense going, including the exchange of fumbles near the Cowboys’ end zone.
But it would take just one pass on the opening play of the second quarter for San Francisco to build a 14-0 lead, and things just went downhill for Dallas from there. They would have one moment when it looked like they could get back in the game as Prescott found KaVontae Turpin in the end zone to make it 14-7, but the next 49ers drive they moved relentlessly to score another TD, aided by another penalty on Donovan Wilson for unnecessary roughness. It made the score 21-7, and it would just build to the eventual 42-10 final score.
When the Cowboys score first, they are just a different team. More confident, far more effective, they pile on the opponent. But when they fall behind, the coaches seem unable to come up with anything to catch up and the players start making unforced errors all over the field. When it happens against a very good team like San Francisco, it turns into a rout.
Admittedly, this is a small sample size, but it has happened twice. Until Dallas shows it, we have no reason to believe they can do things differently. Now they face the Los Angeles Chargers. L.A. sits at 2-2, but they are one of the better offenses in the league, averaging 389 yards and 27.5 points per game. They, of course, have Kellen Moore as their offensive coordinator. While the Cowboys are very familiar with him from his time in Dallas, he is doing something right. If there is one thing that may offer a glimmer of hope it is that they are next to last in yards allowed, giving up a whopping 404 yards per game. They are a bit better at keeping teams off the scoreboard, although they still surrender an average of 26 points.
This makes them a team that should make the Cowboys very wary, because they are exactly the kind that could get another early lead to throw Dallas off their game. If the Cowboys fall to 3-3, the path to the playoffs becomes perilous.
One aspect that is particularly worrying is how the players seem to respond to this. When things start to go wrong, they play tight and frankly a bit scared. There has long been a view of Dallas as a soft team that doesn’t respond well to adversity. That is going to be tested in Los Angeles, and it’s going to get worse in the second game after they bye following the Chargers when they host the so far undefeated Philadelphia Eagles.
There is no way around the fact that the Cowboys have failed two tests this season, and failed them badly. The schedule has more such tests ahead, including the second Eagles game, the Buffalo Bills, the Miami Dolphins, and the Detroit Lions in what could be a brutal four game stretch in December. And the Los Angeles Rams, the Carolina Panthers, and the Seattle Seahawks are hardly pushovers.
This is a huge issue for Dallas. A team simply cannot go far if they can only play well with a lead. They have a dozen games left to play, but the problems seem to be multiplying, including injuries with special teams ace C.J. Goodwin now out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, and a whole list of other names we will be anxiously waiting for more to be revealed about their status. We have a real grind ahead to watch, and right now, it is hard to have much confidence the Cowboys will be successful at getting through it.