Time to move on. Yes, the win over the New England Patriots was both enjoyable and somewhat reassuring for fans of the Dallas Cowboys, but now they face the biggest challenge of the season as they travel to the Bay Area to face the San Francisco 49ers. We’ve had this one circled since the schedule was announced. The Niners have again become a major thorn in the side for Dallas the way they were a few decades ago, ending postseason runs two years in a row. This is going to be a major gauge of how good this Cowboys team is, and a possible preview of a rematch in January. That latter, however, is very dependent on how well Dallas performs the rest of the way.
So how important is this game?
Monday night, when I was too lazy to turn off the less than enjoyable game between the woeful New York Giants and the Seattle Seahawks, Troy Aikman brought up the postseason preview idea. It is a common one, with the implication this is a supremely important game for the Cowboys.
If they are unsuccessful, the road forward gets much more chancy. They would drop to 3-2 and have less room for error. It just magnifies how bad the debacle in the desert a couple of weeks ago was. They squandered a chance to add some padding for the tougher part of the schedule against a team that on paper is just not that good.
Every week is a different situation, of course, and the Dallas staff is hoping to have most of the starting offensive line back again, as they did against the New England Patriots. They really need them, with Nick Bosa and company ahead. The Cowboys appear susceptible to getting too tight or uncertain against some teams, a factor that might have been in play against the Arizona Cardinals. It’s temping to lay that on the coaches, but expecting them to manage the psychological state of the roster isn’t exactly in their toolkit. Still, this is another team that has had Dallas’ number for a while. That offensive line situation is certainly dicey again, with Zack Martin not certain to play and Tyron Smith looking unlikely to be ready this week. Mike McCarthy certainly has his work cut out for him, but so does Dan Quinn. There are just so many weapons on the 49ers’ offense.
But while the immediate reaction if this is not a win for Dallas will be wildly negative for many, a loss is not the end of the world. A big differential in the score would be very troubling, but if this were to be a close fought game that is decided by a one score margin, that is a different thing. It is clear that the Cowboys are still figuring some things out, like how to best use their receiving weapons, getting a consistent running game, the consistency of the defense each week, and incorporating new tools like Hunter Luepke and underutilized ones like KaVontae Turpin on offense. The entire Texas Coast offense still looks like a work in progress. There was a clear improvement from week 3 to week 4, but that was against a much less formidable foe than they will face this Sunday.
There will still be a dozen games remaining after this week. There is still an opportunity to win the division, although that will also be difficult if the Philadelphia Eagles keep figuring out how to win with some less than dominant performances. That makes this an important test for Dallas, especially for the defense against Kyle Shanahan’s offense. But however the game turns out, it is not the final determinant for the season. Just as we don’t want to overreact to a loss, we also can’t be too confident if the Cowboys do emerge with a win.
It’s a long grind to get to the playoffs. Perspective is important, if very difficult in the heat of the moment.
Health is already concerning
The offensive line is the biggest worry, but that is not the only place for concern. Another worry is that Micah Parsons seems to be fighting through some issues already. He has a huge impact when he is on the field. They’ve already lost Trevon Diggs for the season, although DaRon Bland has alleviated that with his team-leading three interceptions, two of them for touchdowns. If Parsons misses time, there is simply no one else that can do what he does as well as he does. The depth of the defensive line is some insurance, but he would be sorely missed.
The linebacking corps is thin with the loss of Devin Harper, who was waived in what turned out to be something of a miscalculation as he was claimed by the Cincinnati Bengals, thwarting the plan to bring him back to the Dallas practice squad. The Cowboys have signed Mikel Jones to the practice squad.
On offense, we always have to worry about Dak Prescott with the backups on the line. Using Deuce Vaughn in pass protection was clearly a failure against the Patriots, and they simply cannot do that against San Francisco. Vaughn’s use in that role against the Pats was triggered by the injury to Rico Dowdle, who has fought to stay on the field his entire time with the Cowboys. That show how even the loss of a backup can have an unfortunate domino effect.
This draft class has been disappointing
First-round pick Mazi Smith has been brought along slowly, and while he is starting to show up, his impact is much less than we have seen from first-rounders for several years. Luke Schoonmaker is doing a good job blocking, but has already had some troubling drops. DeMarvion Overshown’s loss in preseason is part of that depth issue at linebacker, as he was on a course to be in the rotation alongside Damone Clark and Leighton Vander Esch. Viliami Fehoke wasn’t even active against New England. Asim Richards has done little, Vaughn just hasn’t shown the ability to do much against NFL defenses, and Eric Scott and Jalen Brooks also are spending a lot of time on the inactive list.
It is very early, but this class just does not have the luster of previous ones, such as 2022’s. Tyler Smith was a day one starter and has already become a force at left guard. Jake Ferguson, Bland, and Damone Clark have all become starters, Sam Williams and Jalen Tolbert both are making more contributions, Matt Waletzko may be crucial OT depth when he gets healthy, and even the two members of that class no longer with the team, Harper and John Ridgeway, both caught on with other teams. That’s impressive, but also hard to sustain, and it looks like the law of averages or regression to the mean has finally caught up to Will McClay and the scouting staff.
But they partially redeemed themselves with the three undrafted players that have made the roster. T.J. Bass has been very important filling in on the offensive line, playing 148 snaps this season. Luepke seems to be gaining some trust from McCarthy and could be quite valuable if Dowdle continues to have issues. Even if Dowdle stays healthy the rest of the way, Luepke may carve out a role as a short yardage/red zone back.
The biggest find so far is kicker Brandon Aubrey, who has just been perfect since missing his first extra point in the rain against the New York Giants. He has silenced the concerns about the team rolling with him.
But a trio of undrafted finds does not make up for the lack of success for the rest of the 2023 rookies. Hopefully that will change, but it is highly unlikely this will ever be seen as a very good class.
Looking forward at the cap
The Cowboys have made some big signings this year, and now only have a bit less than $8 million in salary cap space for emergencies the rest of the season. They still have contracts to negotiate with Dak Prescott and CeeDee Lamb before the 2025 season.
That seems problematic. There is not a lot of space they can manufacture in 2024, although any signings will be structured to back load the cap hits. Right now, they only have a little over a million dollars in projected cap space for next season. They are going to have to go back to the restructuring well once again, primarily the Prescott and Martin contracts. That is one reason they will probably get the quarterback’s deal done first once the new league year begins, because they can generate up to $26 million by doing it as an extension, according to the numbers at Over the Cap.
Past 2025, things are pretty wide open, with the current projection for space $127 million, but that is rather irrelevant as any other contracts will eat into that as the cap impacts are pushed into the future. Still, it will take a lot more accounting acrobatics to get us there.
It’s hardly a burning issue, just something to keep in mind.