What better time to check on the progress of the Dallas Cowboys than after their bye week? Coming off of one of their most embarrassing performances in recent memory last Monday against the Chicago Bears, the Cowboys have had some time to lick their wounds and get healthy before 12 straight weeks of football to finish 2012.
Will the 'Boys be back in the playoffs at the end of that run, or will they be on the outside looking in for the fourth time in five years?
Here's a state of the union breakdown of where Jason Garrett's team sits through five weeks.
What They Should be Thinking
We've followed up one of our biggest wins in recent memory with three flat, borderline-embarrassing efforts against inferior teams. Now, four of our next five games come on the road, with only one of those next five opponents currently at .500 or worse.
No team in the NFL has scored fewer total points than we have, and a running game that was supposed to be a strong point this year has produced just 3.4 yards per carry, which ranks 28th in the league.
Yeah, DeMarco Murray hasn't been able to go anywhere. Part of the blame has to go to Murray, but a lot of it falls on our struggling offensive line. We brought in Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings to shore up the guard spots in the offseason, but Pro Football Focus ranks Bernadeau 68th out of 71 qualifying guards.
I mean, what does it say about our line that its top performer thus far wasn't even on the team six weeks ago? Ryan Cook has stepped in for the regularly injured Phil Costa and has at least been average. It's devastating that we can't at least say the same for tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free, who have taken a combined 12 penalties and 27 hurries through four games. Respectively, Smith and Free are ranked 53rd and 64th among 69 qualifying tackles by PFF.
Combine that with the lack of focus and consistency we've seen from prime pass-catchers Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, and it's easy to see why Tony Romo's passer rating has dropped off from 102.5 in 2011 to 78.5 in 2012. To put that into perspective, Romo's never completed a season with a rating lower than 91.4.
And while it's great that the defense appears to have gotten much better on the back end, a lack of consistent pressure from the front seven has caused our sack rate to drop and put too much of an onus on the secondary. As a result, we've still given up nearly 24 points per game against three far-from-superb offenses the last three weeks.
A major issue is that the defense has only forced four turnovers in four games, which is better than only three other teams. But only the Chiefs have turned it over more often than we have on a per-game basis. As a result, we have the second-worst per-game turnover ratio in the league.
Can we really overcome all of these issues against a very tough schedule to make the playoffs in a very strong division?
Witten appears to have turned a corner, and at least Miles Austin and Kevin Ogletree are there to provide support if Bryant continues to struggle with drops and other mental mistakes.
The offensive line might just need some time, and the bye week might have helped significantly. We've seen Free shine on the right side, and Smith is too talented to keep struggling this much. The interior of the line is still a concern, but that was also the case last year, and Romo and Murray still had successful seasons.
Sean Lee is a superstar and the main reason why we have a top-10 run defense despite facing some very good backs early on. Ray Rice could have trouble with Lee and the under-the-radar Bruce Carter in Week 6.
Despite that lack of a consistent pass rush, we've given up fewer passing yards than any team in football. And you have to believe that DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher will begin to pick it up with that much help on the back end. Plus, we should be getting All-Pro nose tackle Jay Ratliff back soon. While replacement Josh Brent has fared well in Ratliff's stead, we should be able to get more of a push on third downs with Ratliff back in the lineup.
Will the Cowboys' offensive line improve?
More chemistry and practice time for the line means less pressure on Romo, while more pressure defensively means more of an opportunity for that talented secondary to make big plays. And that's precisely how you reverse that negative turnover ratio.
Making a 180-degree turn like that won't be easy, but we clearly have the talent in place. It's not time to panic only a quarter of the way through the schedule.
What I'm Thinking
Stock Rising (offense): Miles Austin
After being plagued by hamstring problems last year and throughout the offseason, Austin has found a new groove this season while managing to stay on the field. He's been extremely reliable and consistent thus far and is on pace to put up 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns, which would rival his big 2009 campaign. Considering how much the Dallas offense has struggled, that's pretty amazing.
Stock Rising (defense): Bruce Carter
It's no longer a debate between Carter and the veteran Dan Connor. The 2011 second-round pick was a disaster during an injury-plagued rookie season, but has battled back to become one of the team's most steady defenders in his second year. It helps playing next to Ware, Spencer and Lee, but Carter's been a force against the run and has shown signs of being a sneaky-good pass rusher too. Just don't ask him to cover anyone in a big spot.
Stock Dropping (offense): Dez Bryant
It's time to start wondering if Bryant has what is required upstairs to become a reliable top receiver. He just doesn't appear to have the focus to deliver consistently. I mean, he put up a career-high 105 yards against the Bears but still managed to do more harm than good in the final tally. This was supposed to be a breakout season for the former first-round pick. Now, there's a chance that'll never come.
Stock Dropping (defense): Morris Claiborne
Nobody on defense has been hugely disappointing, and I'm not surprised that Claiborne's had a few stumbles out of the gate, but considering the expectations some had for the No. 6 overall pick, he's the closest thing the defense has to a disappointment. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 79 percent of their passes thrown Claiborne's way, putting up an average passer rating of 128.0 on those throws, per PFF.
The good thing about the next five games being so tough is that the Cowboys will find out pretty quickly coming out of the bye if they're going to be contenders or if they're going to once again fade away despite a slew of talent.
I'm always trying to avoid overreaction, but despite high preseason expectations for the 'Boys, I'm beginning to fear it'll once again be the latter scenario. Of course, I've been wrong before.
It should be noted that, although the next handful of games will be crucial, a loss in Baltimore this weekend wouldn't be surprising nor crippling. The rest of the division should be in tough in Week 6, and if you're going to drop games, they might as well come on the road against non-conference opponents. But if they can't hang in with the Panthers, Giants, Falcons and Eagles beyond that, we'll all be out of excuses.