“I speak for all the mediocrities in the world. I am their champion.” – Antonio Salieri, Amadeus
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Late in the fourth quarter, the Dallas Cowboys complete a heroic drive to score a touchdown and take the lead against the Green Bay Packers, then are forced to face the daunting task of giving the ball back to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense. The Cowboys defense need only to hold them off for a minute and change and the game is won. Instead, Rodgers discount double-checks his way down the field and scores, sealing another Packer victory.
This of course is precisely what played out on Sunday at AT&T Stadium, as the Cowboys fell 35-31 to the Packers, exactly according script, complete with Rodgers’ last minute impression of Mola Ram ripping the collective still-beating heart out of Cowboys fans’ chest and parading it before their tear-stained eyes. “Kali-ma!”
In spite of Dak and Co.’s tenacity on their final drive, I never expected the Cowboys to win this game. As the first quarter of the season has come to a close, it’s obvious the Packers are an elite team in the NFC, and the jarring reality of what kind of team the 2-3 Cowboys really are is becoming clearer, too. That, sadly, appears to be a fairly average team.
The irony is that there is no single aspect of this team that could be considered “average.” It’s a collection of positive and negative extremes that cancel each other out. They boast a top 10-scoring offense, but that’s completely neutralized by a bottom-dwelling defense, ranked 29th in points allowed. The Packer game made it now two weeks in a row that the offense didn’t even have to punt until the 3rd quarter, they held a lead at the half, scored at least 30 points, and ended up losing. At home, no less. For whatever reason, perhaps inexperience, perhaps lack of conditioning, this defense fades down the stretch, and when it’s absolutely necessary to make a stop, they just can’t do it. As much as there is to be optimistic about the Cowboys offense, there’s more to pull your hair out over the defense. Whether you see it half empty or half full, it’s obvious the Cowboys glass contains only half.
It’s what happens when you pour all of your resources into one side of the ball. This season, the Cowboys field among the league’s highest paid at seven offensive positions: tight end, wide receiver, tackle, center, running back, fullback and quarterback. (Yep, the ghost of the Tony Romo contract still haunts.) Add to that the likelihood that Zack Martin will be the highest-paid guard in the league before long, and they’ll run the gamut. It’s no wonder they were forced to let five defensive starters go in free agency last year, including almost the entire secondary. What that leaves you, with painfully few exceptions, is a defense consisting of second- and third-tier role players and rookies. The result? An offense that, when clicking, steamrolls opponents, and a defense that in turn, gets steamrolled. The difference in games comes down to a play here or a play there, or sometimes, simply who has the ball last.
A season of games decided by razor-thin margins translates into a record that reflects it. With a schedule that still draws the Chiefs, the Raiders, and the Falcons, as well as five toss-up division games, an 8-8 record grows in probability by the week. Lucky for us, we have an extra seven days to stew on this reality as the Cowboys head into the bye week.
The NFL is built for parity. It’s one of the things that makes it great. The quality of teams exists on a nice wide bell curve. There are a few teams at each of the tails, the Browns and the Jets won’t sniff more than a few wins in any season, and the Patriots and, yes, the nauseating Packers are perennial contenders, but most of the league lives in the normal distribution, the area reserved for the mean, the average, and the mediocre. The space where they’re up one year and down the next. The space that has been a nice comfy home for the Cowboys for the last quarter century. They don’t seem to be in much of a hurry to move out of it.