FRISCO, Texas — The easy thing to say is that even at 2-5, the Dallas Cowboys have a chance in the NFC East.
While technically true, what evidence is there through seven games that the Cowboys can figure things out and start to win games?
They are closer to 0-7 than they are 3-4. If not for an implosion by the Atlanta Falcons and a recovery of an onside kick in Week 2 and two late sideline catches by Michael Gallup in Week 5 against the New York Giants, the Cowboys could be in position to have the first pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
Unless things change dramatically, they might be in that mix anyway. Imagine that, Cowboys fans.
Yes, there have been injuries. Dak Prescott, Tyron Smith, La’el Collins and Blake Jarwin are done for the season. But with the exceptions of Gerald McCoy, who suffered a torn quadriceps in training camp, and Trysten Hill five games in, they have not lost a defensive player of note for the season.
“S—, we’ve just got to play better,” Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott said after Sunday’s 25-3 loss to the Washington Football Team.
As simple and as true as just playing better sounds, the Cowboys also need something else. They need something bold. They need something to change.
In 2018, the Cowboys were 3-4 after a 20-17 Week 7 loss to Washington and going nowhere. The next day after the game, Dallas traded its 2019 first-round pick to the Oakland Raiders for Amari Cooper and the team lost one regular-season game the rest of the way to clinch the division.
That fix seemed easy. The Cowboys had no playmakers on offense and Cooper’s arrival changed the group’s dynamic.
Does Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones make another significant trade to help the defense? He said on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas last week he would be more inclined to be a buyer at the trade deadline than a seller. But who could come in and completely change the dynamic for this current Cowboys’ defense?
But Mike McCarthy did not sound like a coach who is ready to make a bold in-house move.
“I mean, we’ve had so much change just in our everyday function. I think the important thing is to stay the course. We understand the method and the things we need to do better,” McCarthy said. “This is a process and obviously, we’re not exactly where we want to be today. We’ve been challenged with a lot of moving parts as far as a lot of different players playing. So, we’ll continue to work and I do believe we will turn this in the right direction.”
What should happen then if changes are unlikely to be made on the player front?
How about making a change at defensive coordinator with Mike Nolan.
“It hasn’t crossed my mind,” McCarthy said. “I’m focused on getting better each and every day. So, you know, that’s where we are.”
For years with the Green Bay Packers, McCarthy was loyal to Dom Capers, but some of that, in part, had to do with the fact Capers was the defensive coordinator when the Packers won Super Bowl XLV. In 2005, Nolan hired McCarthy as his offensive coordinator with the San Francisco 49ers.
Nolan’s defense is on pace to give up 555 points this season. The Cowboys have given up 200 or more yards rushing in three of their past four games. Washington ran for 208 yards. It averaged a league-worst 82.2 yards on the ground per game in the first six weeks.
The Cowboys have not had an interception in 183 pass attempts and have recovered two fumbles this season. The change in scheme simply has not worked, whether Nolan has simplified the scheme this season or not.
“We just have to start fast and finish fast,” Cowboys defensive end Everson Griffen said. “It is a little draining, but at the end of the day we are professionals and we’ve got to be able to bounce back, go out there and attack and do our job, and I feel we aren’t doing that right now. We’ve got to go back to the drawing board and we’ve got to go out there, play better defense, be gap sound and fight to the very end.”
How about move on from players?
Mike McCarthy reacts to Andy Dalton taking a helmet-to-helmet hit from Jon Bostic that forced Dalton out of the game in the Cowboys’ loss.
Sometimes that task is easier said than done because of salary-cap limitations, however, teams tend to overthink these things. With two wins, the Cowboys should now start seeing what their younger players can do.
Defensive tackle Dontari Poe was brought in on a two-year, $8.5 million deal that included $3.5 million guaranteed to help slow the run because of his size at 346 pounds. He was not credited with a tackle Sunday and had nine total through the first six weeks. As mentioned, the Cowboys have been getting gashed on the ground.
Cornerback Daryl Worley has seen his playing time cut drastically in the past two games. He signed a one-year deal worth $3 million that included $2 million in guarantees. If cornerback Chidobe Awuzie is healthy enough to play, then Worley could be on the block. The Cowboys were high on corner Reggie Robinson since they drafted him this year in the fourth round, but he has been inactive every game.
Multiple sources said the Cowboys have shopped Griffen, who had a sack against Washington, but have not found any takers. Would the Cowboys be better served to keep playing Griffen, who is on a one-year deal that has $3 million in guarantees, or develop fifth-round pick Bradlee Anae, who was inactive for the first time with the return of Randy Gregory from suspension?
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Lastly, the boldest move for the Cowboys to make now would be for McCarthy to assume playcalling duties from Kellen Moore.
In Green Bay, McCarthy said he would never not call plays after giving it up for a short spell in 2015. Upon his arrival in Dallas, one of the first things he did was keep Moore and name him the Cowboys’ playcaller.
Since Prescott’s injury, the Cowboys have scored one touchdown and kicked two field goals. The passing game has been nonexistent. The running game has not fared much better.
Such a move would not be fair to Moore, though. The turnovers aren’t his fault. The injuries to Prescott and the offensive line aren’t his fault. Can Moore increase what he’s doing to help quarterback Andy Dalton? Yes, but McCarthy is not sitting passively on the sidelines, either.
The Cowboys were led to McCarthy because of his offensive approach, his previous records and his playoff success. While there is in-game communication between McCarthy and Moore, how is the head coach truly impacting games? It’s the same question many had for his predecessor, former coach Jason Garrett.
Expecting different results and using the same approach is not the right answer. They need something bold.