The Cowboys’ devastating loss to Washington on Sunday was another low point in what’s becoming a devastating season. Nothing has gone right for Dallas during a year that once held so much promise. Now the team is left in tatters.
The Cowboys have an easy excuse for everything that’s gone wrong in the form of Dak Prescott’s season-ending ankle injury, but that’s a reductive way to examine the season. The reality is that while Prescott getting hurt was definitely a turning point, there are far more problems with the Cowboys than just their franchise quarterback.
Now, serious questions loom over how they progress. Not just in 2020, but beyond.
This season was supposed to be one of promise for the Dallas Cowboys. Mike McCarthy was specifically chosen as the team’s new head coach because the roster was viewed as one ready to challenge for a title immediately. A number of challenges from a worldly perspective and an injury one have made the climb all the more steep, but they’ve also highlighted the true problems with the organization. Dallas has a culture issue where they are unable to handle adversity well. It’s possible that McCarthy is the guy to finally treat that disease, but that potential prognosis is one that is going take a while to take hold. In the here and now the Cowboys are a group that is somehow finding places to sink beyond their weekly rock bottom, but the Dodgers won the World Series so either the Cowboys or New York Knicks are up next to end their drought. Would you really bet on the Knicks?
In need of a change at the top, the Cowboys reshuffled their coaching staff behind Mike McCarthy, best known for returning the Packers to prominence and winning a Super Bowl. Despite being out of the league for two years, Jerry Jones elected to hire McCarthy in the hopes he could take a talented roster to the next level, rather than electing to roll the dice on a young, unproven coach.
It echoed the decision by the team in 2003 to hire Bill Parcells, which ended in mixed success. It didn’t help that the Cowboys had a bizarre offseason, much of which centered on Dak Prescott. Dallas wasn’t 100 percent sold on Prescott being the franchise quarterback the team needed, hesitant to give him a major payday as a result, instead placing him under the franchise tag.
From there the free agency period followed a similar model of low risk, known quantities, signing proven players like Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe for the defensive line, and revamping the secondary with new faces as well. Curiously the team elected to bring in Andy Dalton, recently released by the Bengals to be their backup quarterback. In terms of talent, Dalton was fine for a backup — but he had a wildly divergent skillset to that of Prescott, meaning there wouldn’t be much offensive continuity if he needed to step up.
Obviously the prevailing factor in the Cowboys’ unfortunate downtick was losing Prescott for the season, but the defense has been so abysmal that it’s unclear if even having a healthy quarterback would make an impact. Dallas boasts one of the worst defenses in the league, giving up over 400 yards per game — and more importantly a league-worst 34.7 points. Teams can score on Dallas at will, which naturally pulls the focus away from a run-based offense led by Ezekiel Elliot, who is on pace for 258 carries this season, his lowest since an injury-shortened 2017 where he missed five games.
Now the Cowboys have to throw to stay in games because the defense is bad, taking touches away from one of the best offensive weapons, and fundamentally altering the offense in a bad way. Couple this with Elliot’s propensity for fumbles this season (four so far) and there’s nothing really going right for Dallas on either side of the ball.
Most recently Dalton was injured in a helmet-to-helmet hit, putting him in concussion protocol and furthering the downward spiral of this organization.
Dallas is mathematically still alive in the limp NFC East, but really this team feels done. A lame duck 6-10 finish to win the division might earn some brownie points and good feelings, but it’s not helpful for the team long term.
The next nine games need to be pure evaluation for the Cowboys, not just for talent on the field, but at every level of the organization. It’s not like McCarthy and Co. were burning the league up prior to Prescott’s injury, and Dallas can’t afford to waste its two young offensive talents with another poor coaching staff that don’t know how to use them.
From there the biggest decision will be for Dallas to put up or shut up on Prescott himself. The team couldn’t decide if he was worth top-flight QB money, but if he returns healthy someone is going to be willing to pay it. If the Cowboys decide to move on they need to hope they lose as many games as possible, putting them in the mix for a top quarterback in the draft. The idea of going with proven veterans isn’t a move for this team that can get them over the top in the NFC.
This isn’t a disaster. It’s more needing to correct a few missteps, which can me more difficult than a full overhaul. Either way, Dallas can be an elite team — but the Cowboys need to get out of their own way and not overthink this moving forward.
Dallas lost its identity when their starting quarterback went down, but the problem is far deeper. A cultural shift is needed to keep this team together, but there are still looming questions about what’s worth keeping. Much depends on how much rope Mike McCarthy is given to turn this around, but there’s no doubt that Jerry Jones is getting frustrated. This was supposed to be a year to get over the hump, not contemplate a rebuild — but here we are. Either way, it’s going to be fascinating to watch, and for millions of Cowboys fans a scary time to support the team.