Coming into this season, the Dallas Cowboys received attention for having one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. Yet here they sit at 2-3, with both of their wins coming against winless teams. They’ve been undisciplined on offense, inconsistent on special teams and completely incompetent on defense. The only bright spot has been the dynamic passing attack, but with the loss of Dak Prescott, even that looks to be in jeopardy, though we’ll see how well Andy Dalton fills in.
So what happened? Why is a team that is so good on paper so terrible on Sundays? The reality of the situation is this: the Cowboys are beating themselves.
The first area where the Cowboys can and must improve is a balance on offense. While the passing attack has been dominant, it has come at the expense of losing a once ferocious rushing attack. It may sound reductive, but increasing the number of rushing attempts per game will help almost all of the Cowboys’ problems. Since the Cowboys converted to a pass-first offense under Kellen Moore in 2019, the team has had difficulty starting games strong. This is a problem with coming out of the gate and immediately throwing the ball. Passing the ball is inherently less safe than running the ball. There is an increased chance of turning the ball over as well as of losing yardage with a sack. Contrastively, running the ball is usually more of a low-risk, low-reward play call. Even if your run play isn’t executed perfectly, you will almost certainly gain a few yards. This is why for decades the traditional philosophy of offensive coordinators was to run on the first and second down to set up for a more manageable third down.
Not only does running the ball keep drives alive, it actually helps the passing game. The days when Dallas had the best offensive line in football are now past; all-pro right guard Zach Martin is the only thing holding this line together as the Cowboys are now starting a rookie at the center and undrafted free agents at both tackle spots. Dak was athletic enough to work with this poor protection but Andy Dalton will not be. Here is where running the ball is again helpful. Strong rushing attacks slow down pass-rush. Not only does it force defensive lineman to stay disciplined in their run fits, but it wears them down physically. Taking blow after blow from offensive linemen and hard-hitting backs like Ezekiel Elliot takes its toll. It’s also easier to run the ball with a bad o-line than to throw with one. For proof of this look no further than the New York Giants and their strong running game with a terrible line.
The third and most important way that running the ball more will help this Cowboys team is that it will help their absurdly terrible defense. When an offense runs the ball effectively, they slow drives down and increase the team’s time of possession, meaning they are on the field with control of the ball longer. With an increased time of possession, the defense has more time to rest and to make adjustments.
Running the ball won’t fix everything, unfortunately. The Cowboys defense is truly terrible. They gave up over 300 yards rushing to the Browns and let the New York Giants, a team that hasn’t scored more than 16 points all season, scored 34 points. Granted 6 of those points came from a pick-six so let’s be fair and say 28 points. Still, 28 points from an offense that terrible is disgusting. The biggest problem isn’t a lack of talent, it’s a poor scheme. Mike Nolan is, simply put, the worst defensive coordinator in the NFL. I speak with no hyperbole. He hasn’t been a coordinator since 2014 and the last three years he was a coordinator, his defenses ranked 32nd (last), 27th and 24th. He has not led a top 10 defense since 2010. . . a decade ago. The only reason Nolan got this job as Cowboys DC is that the new head coach Mike McCarthy feels a sense of loyalty to him since Nolan gave him his start with the 49ers. When the year ends Nolan needs to be gone but the Cowboys can’t realistically fire and replace him midseason. So what can they do? They must adjust their scheme.
The best way to judge the effectiveness of a scheme, be it offense or defense, is by assessing how well it utilizes the strength of the roster. This is perhaps the biggest indictment against Nolan. It’s no secret that the Cowboys have one of the worst defensive back groups in the NFL. However, on paper at least, they should have one of the best front-7s, or defensive line and linebackers. Yes, this group has had to deal with injuries but even still the front seven should be the strength of this defense. The Cowboys’ defense should be good at stopping the run, and dangerous at rushing the passer. But that’s not what is seen on the field. Game after game, the Cowboys are incompetent in run defense and pedestrian in pass rush. The defense simply isn’t what it should be, which. is at a minimum an average defense. The scheme has to be adjusted and almost certainly simplified, to play to the strengths of its best players.
There’s a lot more about this team that I could get into: McCarthy’s bad habit of overthinking key in-game decisions, Moore’s bad habit of getting too cute with trick plays in vital situations and the special teams making simple mistakes in every game. But it boils down to this: the Cowboys need to be more balanced on offense, be more disciplined on defense, stop making mistakes on special teams, and stop getting in their own way.
Nothing that I’ve said here today is an earth-shattering revelation; these are basic mistakes that the Cowboys have made.. The good news, though, is that since the NFC East is so terrible on the whole, all the Cowboys need to do to win the division and make the playoffs is be competent. But even that might be asking for too much.