There are two major storylines heading into the Cowboy’s next game, a road trip to face the Chargers in Los Angeles. First, there is the question of how this team will respond after getting demolished by the 49ers in a game they themselves billed as a measuring stick. Second, it marks the first game squaring off against former Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, as well as former quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier.
The more important of these two has to be the team’s response from that 49ers loss. It would be fair to say that this is the lowest this Cowboys team has felt under Mike McCarthy since Week 5 of 2020 when Dak Prescott was lost for the year.
Everyone was hyping up that game against the 49ers, and they got completely and totally dominated in every fashion. Players were shell-shocked after the game, and some made comments that seemed as if they were deflecting responsibility from them and onto others in the organization. Quite simply, the mood of the team as a whole looked miserable after that one.
Of course, the Cowboys have developed a reputation under McCarthy for bouncing back strong after a loss, and that was put on display just a week ago when the Cowboys dominated the Patriots following their loss to the Cardinals. But McCarthy’s team hasn’t suffered a loss of this magnitude yet.
They had a few blowout losses in 2020, but none were necessarily a shock given the team’s lengthy injury report each week. The Cowboys have suffered losses to teams they were favored over in the last three years, but each was framed as a momentary lapse in focus and quickly corrected. Even when the Cowboys have lost to really good teams, it’s been a close final score that reflected Dallas at least being competitive.
But the Cowboys lost by 32 points to a team that was favored by just four, with three of those points being more or less made up by the homefield advantage the 49ers had. The last time the Cowboys lost this bad in a game that was supposed to be close was in November of 2017 when the Eagles blew out the Cowboys 37-9. That was the team’s second game without Ezekiel Elliott, and coming on the heels of the dreaded Chaz Green Game the week before. It was the worst loss suffered in AT&T Stadium until 2020, when they played their first game since losing Prescott for the year.
In other words, it’s been a long time since the Cowboys were so thoroughly embarrassed. Will they be able to respond like they always do? Since 2021, the Cowboys have lost consecutive games just once, and that came in 2021 when they played four days later after losing to the Chiefs. During that same span, when winning after a loss the Cowboys have done so while outscoring their opponents 334-140. They need that kind of response right now to prove - both to the world and to themselves - that Sunday night’s game will not define them.
Complicating things is the aforementioned reunion with Kellen Moore, who is four games into his new role running the offense for Justin Herbert and the Chargers. By most metrics, Moore is having plenty of success: the Chargers are eighth in yards per play, fifth in yards per attempt, seventh in points per game, fifth in offensive DVOA, and fifth in EPA/play.
Herbert is off to a great start this year too, currently sixth in EPA/play and seventh in QBR. He’s completing 71% of his passes for just over 1,100 yards and has thrown seven touchdowns to just one interception. He’s also one of the least pressured quarterbacks in the NFL despite having been the opposite for the last couple seasons. Moore has also unleashed Herbert’s cannon of an arm, as the quarterback ranks fourth among quarterbacks in attempts per dropback that go at least 20 yards downfield.
As good as Moore and Herbert have been, though, the Chargers sit at 2-2 on the year thanks in large part to their porous defense. They’re giving up the fourth most yards per play and the ninth most points per game while ranking 22nd in defensive DVOA and 25th in EPA/play allowed. Head coach Brandon Staley calls the defense, and his unit’s poor showing has contributed greatly to many fans calling for his job. The hope for the Chargers is that the bye week gave them enough time to get the defense figured out.
The hope for the Cowboys is that it continues to be a problem, because McCarthy and Dak Prescott could certainly use a palette cleanser after being unable to move the ball against the 49ers. There are also high stakes for McCarthy, since he effectively fired Moore in order to take over play-calling himself. If his offense once again struggles, and Moore’s offense continues to thrive, the pressure on McCarthy will be dialed up even more than it already is.
Regardless of how it happens, though, this team badly needs a win. They have to stop the bleeding after they were bludgeoned by the 49ers if this locker room is to stay intact. Losing this game right before heading into the bye could put the Cowboys - and McCarthy - in a very difficult position.