It was fun while it lasted. One week removed from an intoxicating season sweep of the division-rival Philadelphia Eagles — which included the bonus satisfaction of handing a third loss to intolerable wide receiver Golden Tate this year — the bright silver and blue tail of the Dallas Cowboys’ comet has gone dark, and now a gigantic ball of rock is tumbling back toward terra firma. With the 23-0 embarrassment suffered at the hands of the rolling Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, the Cowboys’ winning streak has sadly ended at five games, forcing fans unwillingly back to a reality perhaps more grim than we’d like to admit.
A shutout is certainly demoralizing, and lest we hurl ourselves into the despair equivalent to the elation we’ve been riding for the last month, it should be stated that not all is lost. Glass-half-full-ers can point to plenty to make themselves feel better about the Colts game. The Cowboys did go into Lucas Oil Stadium as underdogs. After starting the season 1-5, the Colts had won six of their last seven, and they were every bit as hot as the Cowboys have been. Even the most Kool-Aid-drunk fan could be made to admit that there was a greater than zero chance that Dallas would lose at least one of their remaining games, such is the nature of the NFL and this team especially.
Despite being unable to lock up the division title and a postseason berth with a win against Indianapolis, it would take a lengthy and improbable sequence of events to block the inevitability that the Cowboys eventually do so. The ’Boys would have to lose out and either Washington or Philly would have to run the table to keep a division title from Dallas this season. Both opponents kept their seasons alive with wins on Sunday, with the Eagles improbably beating one of the best teams in the league in the Rams. With Dallas having to take just one game from either the train-wreck Buccaneers or dumpster-fire New York Giants who have nothing to play for, I still think the safe money bet is that there will be a playoff game at AT&T Stadium next month.
Though our ballooning bubble of confidence in this team may well have been burst, it’s not the loss itself that is so humbling. It’s what this loss has laid bare, what it has made so obvious that even the most inculcated Cowboys apologist must acknowledge it. When Dallas does enter the playoffs, they will likely be the worst team from either conference to compete in them.
Of course, only a fool would have begun planning parade routes through downtown after Dallas’ unexpected mid-season turnaround. In the back of our minds we knew (even if some of us chose to ignore it) that the current performance of the Dak Prescott-led offense isn’t going to be enough to get it done in the postseason. Don’t get me wrong, Dallas can move the ball. A resurgent Ezekiel Elliott is racking up yards and giving the “feed me” gesture to the point where he is the frontrunner to take the rushing crown this year. Wide receiver Amari Cooper has become a reliable third-down option and bona fide deep threat. Mix in a sudden coming-on of the no-name tight end group, and the Cowboys can definitely go the length of the field.
The problem isn’t driving the ball downfield. The problem is what happens when they get into the red zone. Inexplicably, this team cannot score touchdowns. The Cowboys came into the Colts game with a red zone efficiency of just .463, meaning they score a touchdown less than half the time they are within the opponent’s 20-yard line. This ranks 30th in the league. It’s getting worse, too. This number is just 27 percent over the last four games, despite the recent winning streak. The difference is staggering compared with the high-flying Saints, who have a 70 percent TD clip inside the 20, or the Cowboys’ own average of 63 percent over the previous two seasons.
The retirement of Jason Witten and release of Dez Bryant this offseason are undoubtedly contributing to the regression. The two players might not have scored as many touchdowns from inside the 20 over the last two years as they historically have, but the difference is that opposing defenses had to account for them. Cooper makes up for some of this, yet there’s not much in the way of receiving threats behind him. The makeshift O-line may account for a lack of confidence in the goal-line running game and has fostered a tendency away from it, a former staple of this offensive unit. And then there’s just a simple lack of execution. Even when they have a good plan drawn up, mistakes are forcing them into field goals.
This kind of deficiency with scoring opportunities just isn’t going to work – especially when the much-lauded defense is starting to show cracks, allowing 43 points and more than 700 yards in just the last six quarters.
I keep thinking at some point they will figure it out, but they seem to find new ways to blow it every week. Between overthrows, drops, turnovers, poor play-calling, penalties, blown blocking assignments, and sack-taking, the Cowboys can’t stay out of their own way. If the trend continues, it’s a death sentence in the postseason, as the games grow tighter and every possession counts more than the last one. They simply can’t afford to leave points on the field, regardless of how well their defense plays.
For maybe the first time in the Jason Garrett era, the Cowboys brain trust showed an uncharacteristic willingness and ability to make adjustments earlier this year. Before the bye week, the season was quickly sliding off the rails and something had to be done to stop the skid. They made a much-needed coaching change, traded for Amari Cooper, and adopted a newfound backs-to-the-wall aggressiveness, such as going for it on fourth down seemingly every time. All have paid dividends. Let’s hope they learn from the successes that their willingness to break from their self-imposed philosophical prisons has afforded and can find a way to jump-start this offense near the goal line. Or else that inevitable playoff game at AT&T next month will be their only one this year.