Why have the Dallas Cowboys experienced so much regression since the start of the 2023 season?
If you step back and look at the trajectory of things over the first five games, it is clear the Cowboys are moving in the wrong direction. They opened the season with arguably the easiest four-game stretch on their schedule, and it looked at first that they would fully capitalize on it. Dallas came out blazing against the New York Giants with a complete domination of their division rivals. Then they handled the New York Jets with ease, although facing Zach Wilson instead of Aaron Rodgers at quarterback certainly made it easier. The 30-10 final score seemed a bit anticlimactic.
Then came the mystifying breakdown against the Arizona Cardinals. It was a failure across the board, which turned out to be a harbinger of what would come against another NFC West opponent. The Cowboys would rally against the New England Patriots, although a disturbing trend of red zone failures carried over from the Arizona game.
Last Sunday, it all came apart. In one of the worst performances of Dak Prescott’s career, and for the team overall since Mike McCarthy became head coach, they were battered, overpowered, and flat-out humiliated by the San Francisco 49ers. It was a true nadir for the team, and the possible explanations are depressing. Worse, this may not be the bottom.
This is the time of the season when teams should be hitting their full stride, the way the 49ers have. The Cowboys next opponent, the Los Angeles Chargers, won the two games before their bye last weekend, and may be hitting their stride. That argument is bolstered by the expected return of Austin Ekeler. He gives Kellen Moore and Justin Herbert one more very effective weapon to wield against Dallas. Early in the season, we thought Dan Quinn’s defense would frustrate opponents, but facing the arsenal San Francisco threw at them, that defense was stunningly incompetent.
What may be the most disturbing part of it all was that the Cowboys had been focused on the San Francisco game since they lost to them in the playoffs last January, and had managed injuries to try and face them with all available hands on deck. That is a big argument against them getting things turned around for their second trip to the West Coast in a row. Yes, they know Moore quite well, which should be something Quinn can use. But Moore spent two years on staff watching Quinn as well, so that may be a wash. Moore isn’t in the same league as Kyle Shanahan, but sadly we already have evidence this defense can be beaten by other offensive minds and quarterbacks, like (checks notes) Drew Petzing and Josh Dobbs.
Meanwhile, the Dallas offense was a total mess last week, and as noted, the cracks were already showing. While five games is still a small sample size, the obvious trend has been that the Cowboys do fine when they get off to a quick start, but are absolutely befuddled if they fall behind. It is undeniable that Prescott was not even close to playing well enough last week. The Texas Coast approach has overall been hugely disappointing so far. The play-calling is suspect and the players don’t seem to have a clear idea what they are supposed to be doing.
After five weeks, that is alarming. We are past the point where the lack of work in the preseason should be a factor. The way they seem to be getting steadily worse is even more of a red flag. They finally got the full starting offensive line on the field in Week 5, and it looked worse than it did when they were using backups. The run game was anemic to start the game and became irrelevant once the points deficit grew to two touchdowns.
It looks like they need the bye after the Los Angeles trip, and it would have been even better if they had it now. But they have to play the Chargers, and it is hard to muster optimism about this game.
A win now seems a real necessity, and just scraping by is not going to be that encouraging despite how it should lift spirits. At least that would show some reversal of the downward spiral the entire team seems lost in. If they don’t win on Monday, the task of getting things turned around during the bye week becomes huge. And 4-2 is a far better situation than 3-3. There will only be eleven games left, and the remaining schedule is full of teams that are winning at a fierce clip, most notably their division rival Philadelphia Eagles.
The number of losses and the dazed, confused state of the team is a double whammy. Even a comfortable win over the Chargers will still leave us wondering week to week which version of this team is going to take the field. You want to point to wins as what can carry forward, but the losses loom far bigger. Dallas has unfortunately shown us that they can lose to a relatively bad team and have no answers against a truly good one.
They have to start finding those answers now. The coaches and players have to overcome that 42-10 shock to the system. McCarthy and Quinn need to be looking long and hard in the mirror and working overtime to get themselves right. The players have to do more than say the right things. It all comes down to what they put on the field, and we are going to have to see something good to believe it.
The great fear here is that the failures become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy for the Cowboys. I have long feared that they are susceptible to letting things get into their heads, something that may have been exhibited against both the 49ers and Cardinals. Both those teams just seem to have Dallas’ number for several years now. At least they don’t have that kind of history with the Chargers. It is a thin reed to cling to, and with the Cowboys headed in such a negative direction this year, it may not be enough.
Worry is the order of the day.