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It’s week 6, and we still struggle to find the Cowboys’ identity

The Dallas Cowboys have had two terrible performances in five games, raising questions about this team’s playoff prospects.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers
There’s just too much getting run over.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys sit at 3-2 after the humiliating drubbing from the San Francisco 49ers. That is already veering toward chancy territory for making the playoffs. The rest of their schedule frankly looks harder than the first four games were, and they managed to lose one of those. They currently have five future opponents that have the same record they do or better, including the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles that they will meet twice. Monday night’s opponent, the Los Angeles Chargers, sit at 2-2 due to them coming off their bye. Not only do they have the extra time to prepare, they have won two in a row.

Having so many teams at or above .500 ahead is a major concern, because the pattern so far has been clear. The Cowboys will beat up on some inferior teams, although not reliably, and just look like a steaming pile of incompetence against good ones. The last game was supposed to be a serious test of whether they could finally get past the 49ers, and they failed it in laughable fashion. It won’t take many more of those for the losses to accumulate to the point this once promising team is sitting at home in January wondering what happened.

As often happens, trying to find solutions before it is too late is very complex, because the loss on Sunday night was a complete and total systemic failure for both the offense and defense. They couldn’t move the ball, unable to reach 200 yards while turning it over four times, and had no answers for the San Francisco offense. The supposed stars of the Dallas roster were all neutralized, including the much anticipated return of the full starting offensive line.

It’s hard to figure out where to even begin with this. Dak Prescott had a simply pitiful outing, but the offensive scheme seemed to do him absolutely no favors. There just weren’t open receivers when he dropped back to pass, and when there were, he misfired on his passes. The running game was even more futile than the passing. Jake Ferguson, CeeDee Lamb, and Tony Pollard all caught the ball well, but the pass rush was constantly in Prescott’s face and forcing incompletions or worse. The defense did manage to slow Christian McCaffrey as a runner, but Brock Purdy dissected them with brutal efficiency while Jordan Mason ripped off one long run after another.

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As has become traditional, a ton of blame has been heaped on Prescott, but in our humble opinion, we also need to be focused on some other names, head coach Mike McCarthy, defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. They did not have this team prepared at all for this game, and looked frighteningly inept in their game plans and play-calling.

McCarthy placed a big bet on himself by taking the play-calling duties after the dismissal of Kellen Moore, who is now with the Chargers, and so far, he should be worrying about losing it all. He does just fine with a lead, but once the Cowboys fell behind against the Arizona Cardinals and the 49ers, almost nothing worked. The red zone has become a source of great frustration, but in Levi’s Stadium, Dallas couldn’t even get past the SF 20 except for the lone touchdown throw to KaVontae Turpin. Some of the issues stemmed from a lot of poor execution, but that also falls on the head coach for that lack of preparation and focus.

Kyle Shanahan coached rings around McCarthy. We had to watch receivers getting wide open for Purdy all game, and a big part of that was the play design. McCarthy had nothing similar. Yes, Prescott had some bad throws, but seldom was there a clearly open man for him to find. The lack of success running the ball hurt Dallas early, when they couldn’t sustain drives, but as the San Francisco lead grew, the Cowboys had to turn more and more to the pass to try and catch up, until it was obviously far too late.

While it may be more of an impression than anything, the team just looks desperate when they fall behind, and that again goes back to McCarthy’s leadership. Schottenheimer gets part of the blame here, because his chief responsibility is helping with the scheme and game plan, and those were so very bad in the humiliating loss.

While McCarthy took a risk, Quinn was never seen as an issue - until the past three weeks. Suddenly his defense, which we believed to be loaded with talent, is looking confused and inept. The performance in Arizona was a big red flag, although fears were allayed a bit when they beat the New England Patriots handily. But Mac Jones was not exactly an impossible puzzle to figure out, where Purdy had them looking lost. Again, that is probably more due to Shanahan. Still, this was the worst Quinn has been out-coached since he came to Dallas.

Now the Cowboys have to figure out how to get things back on track, or this season could enter an early death spiral. For the first time, the playoffs look to be in jeopardy. Recency bias is a factor, but remember this is two bad outings for the team in just five games, and the third flop against the 49ers in a row. With the Eagles already threatening to run away with the division, we have to consider that this may be a wild scramble for Dallas to get a wild card bid. It is a fairly weak conference, but they cannot afford many more completely disastrous outings. It is also the time of the season when injuries start to take their toll, and with special teams ace C.J. Goodwin lost for the year and Leighton Vander Esch headed to IR, the attrition is starting to bite.

When you have a whole bunch of glaring problems to fix, it just lands more heavily on the coaching staff. They have to come up with more effective plays to put their players in a position to succeed, and now have a lot of possible weaknesses they much adjust for. Against Los Angeles, they have a possible advantage in knowing Moore so well, but he will have a strong motivation to show up the team that let him go while pointing the finger of blame at him.

This game against the Chargers has become a crossroads for which direction Dallas goes. And not just for this season. It’s a crossroads for the entire franchise. This game against the Niners was perhaps the 2023 Cowboys at the height of their powers - minus Trevon Diggs, obviously - and it wasn’t even a contest. The Niners didn’t just dominate them in every facet of the football game, either. They took their soul. And the team must now go searching for it, and find it in enough time to manage a formidable Chargers offense.

There’s a lot of doubt in Cowboys land, even among the most ardent Dak defenders. If the offense looks pedestrian against a Chargers defense that currently ranks 24th in points allowed and 32nd in passing yards allowed per game, though, even those defenders may no longer have a leg to stand on.

One game is not enough to erase the stink of what transpired in San Francisco, but a win going into the bye is essential if they want to have any hope of even a shot at a rematch. Let’s hope the embarrassment suffered on Sunday night fuels this team to prove they aren’t the Cowboys of recent history, because rest assured - things can get a whole lot worse from here if they are not careful.

They really need a big bounce-back game, but it will hardly be proof they can make a run this year. They have just been too up and down. At best, we will have some hope they might get back into contention if they beat Los Angeles on Monday. But if Dallas goes into their bye week 3-3, a sense of panic will no longer seem like an overreaction.

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