The first two weeks of the season, we celebrated the big Dallas Cowboys wins with a caveat that they may have done nothing but beat up on inferior teams. Now, after whatever that misbegotten mess was against the Arizona Cardinals, we are left in a state of real confusion. Was that the reality of this team? Was it just an aberration? It often takes four weeks or so to get a decent handle on the identity of a team each season. We reach that point against the New England Patriots on Sunday. Unfortunately, we still have the very conflicting information from the first three games to deal with.
There is a clearly bad path forward. Collapsing against the Cardinals may have revealed that the Cowboys are soft and can’t handle adversity. Countering that is the hope that this was just one of those games that, for whatever reason, always seems to crop up for Dallas, particularly when they are playing that team in red and white. If they can get their minds off that and clean things up, they should be able to look a lot more like they did the first two weeks.
There is no question this was a rather atypical game for the Cowboys. They had a rash of injuries, both lingering from the game against the New York Jets and new ones in practice. The big one was ACL tear that Trevon Diggs suffered in practice, ending his season. That seemed to have really messed with the minds of the defense, who looked dazed and confused at times. The offense had a numerically bigger issue. At the start of the week, we were eagerly anticipating seeing the full starting offensive line for the first time all season. By game day, Zack Martin, Tyler Biadasz, and Tyron Smith were all either ruled out or kept on the sidelines for the entire game. This was a stunning change in fortune. Keeping them all out may have been an overabundance of caution against a team the staff felt they could beat with the backups. If so, it was a huge miscalculation when paired with the almost inexplicable failures of the defense. What could be much worse is if this is just the beginning of persistent injury issues on the line, which will hamper the team as long as they continue.
Those things make understanding some of the other issues more difficult. How much did the makeshift line affect the dismal red zone performance? Was there just ongoing confusion about what the defenders were supposed to be doing, as seemed to be the case when Micah Parsons was visibly complaining at the end of the first quarter?
At least the team can work to improve those elements. Another thing that muddies our understanding was just how horribly this game was officiated. The officials threw more than 22 flags (some plays saw multiple penalties) and didn’t call fairly obvious infractions at other times. Everyone remembers clearly the pass interference call that was reversed in the end zone, costing the Cowboys a great opportunity to get more badly needed points. But there were some possible phantom infractions, and this missed holding call led to one of the biggest plays for Arizona.
Yes, the conventional wisdom is that you should never let the game be close enough for the referees to decide the outcome. But this kind of thing was going on all game long, and it is impossible to deny it had a real impact on the course of play.
The most important thing about that is how it clouds our view of what is really going on with the Cowboys. The hope is this team gets its head straight and comes out breathing fire against the Pats. The Pats do have what appears to be an inferior roster in most aspects. They also have Bill Belichick, still one of the most brilliant and even devious minds in the NFL. This is going to be a real test, and how Dallas meets it will have a great influence on how this year goes.
Every week we make predictions about how the Cowboys will do in the coming game, and I dread that this time around, because I really have no idea. The optimistic side says that they will shake this off and get to 3-1 to face the San Francisco 49ers in a game that is obviously going to be a real challenge. On the other side, we all saw how they kind of melted down in the Arizona heat. It would be foolish to dismiss that out of hand.
It is quite possible that the real indication here is that this is going to be a very up and down year for Dallas, making getting to the playoffs much harder than we had hoped. The argument that they are the best team in the NFC is blown out of the water, and we can hardly claim they are better than their NFC East rival the Philadelphia Eagles, who unlike the Cowboys, just keep finding ways to win when things aren’t going perfectly. This is going to be a true grind. If they can’t get things back on track when New England comes calling, it could become brutal. Mike McCarthy may suddenly be coaching to save his job, and even Dan Quinn’s star has dimmed after that very poor performance against the Cardinals.
One thing is certain, this is not where we hoped they would be after three weeks.