Fans of the Dallas Cowboys have learned that there is only one thing in life that is guaranteed—nothing. Injuries and mistakes, whether physical or mental, have cost the Cowboys a chance to take control of the NFC East in a year that it appears to be wide open. Sunday was no different, as the Cowboys saw two key contributors go down with injuries and a chance to steal a victory on the road go wide left.
It's not all doom and gloom, however, as the NFC East still can be won. Dallas has shown glimpses of excellence this season, most notably in their season opening win against the New York Giants and then again on Sunday, in a game that saw the Dallas offense run at will against the tough Baltimore Ravens defense.
But fans of the team can tell you after six weeks of the season, that their record could and perhaps should be much better. Fans are searching for answers.
Is Jason Garrett the right man for the job? Can Tony Romo win the big game? Why can't Rob Ryan's defense stop teams?
After watching the Cowboys three losses, and to some degree their wins, you can look at two key areas that are costing Dallas games; injuries and mistakes.
Look at any team in the NFL, and take away their best defensive lineman. How would their defense look?
Jay Ratliff finally got to suit up for Rob Ryan and the defense on Sunday against Baltimore. Ratliff only tallied three tackles, but it is hard to put a number on the importance of Ratliff being a disruptive force in the middle. Ratliff is by far the best defensive lineman on this defense, and opponents have to game-plan for him much more so than perhaps a Josh Brent or a Sean Lissemore.
And speaking of Sean Lissemore, just as Ratliff came back to add depth to the position, Lissemore had to leave the game on Sunday with an apparent high ankle sprain.
The injuries don't stop there, they just begin. To start the season, Miles Austin and Dez Bryant were slowed due to hamstring and knee injuries, respectively. It is easy to argue Austin has not been able to go at full speed all season. Phil Costa, while no superstar on the offensive line, missed four games and finally returned against the Ravens. The Cowboys offensive line played their best game to date on Sunday, and it should be credited, at least in part, to the return of their signal caller in the middle.
Others have missed valuable practice time due to injury as well, including Jason Witten, Kenyon Coleman, Anthony Spencer, Gerald Sensabaugh, Marcus Spears and Barry Church, who is out for the remainder of the season. Injuries are a part of the game, and there is nothing you can do about them, but when you look at the significance of the injuries, and the names attached to them, you can give the Cowboys a pass on some of the problems they have had.
But you cannot let them completely off of the hook.
One week after traveling to the MetLife Stadium on opening night and knocking off the defending World Champion New York Giants, Dallas traveled northwest and laid an egg in Seattle, losing 27-7.
The Cowboys looked lost. They looked as if they took the 10 days between games and went on vacation. The offensive game plan was ineffective against a solid Seattle defense, and the Cowboys defense had no answer for rookie quarterback Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch.
Two weeks later, in front of the entire world on Monday Night Football, the Cowboys found a way to top their miserable Seattle performance and embarrassed themselves and their fans with a 34-18 loss to the Chicago Bears.
If you were to ask a fan of the Cowboys after either loss,"'What happened," you were almost guaranteed to be told that the team had no heart. They looked like they didn't care. And if you watched both games, it would be hard to argue that sentiment. At times, players on both sides of the ball appeared disinterested with false start penalties and holding penalties.
Head Coach Jason Garrett should remember what happened to his predecessor Wade Phillips. Phillips was often criticized for the number of penalties the Cowboys incurred during any given game. When the Cowboys were winning games, no one seemed to be as bothered by those penalties. When the losses piled up beside those penalties, however, Phillips was out of a job, and Garrett was given his chance.
Cowboys fans have targeted two players for their tendency to make critical mistakes.
Tony Romo is undoubtedly the biggest scapegoat in Dallas. Romo can do amazing things both with his legs and his arm, but under pressure, Romo tries to make something out of nothing and has had a tendency to throw it to the other team. The five-interception performance he had against Chicago had some fans clamoring for Kyle Orton.
Dez Bryant is as talented as any wide receiver in the NFL. It would be hard to find many guys in the league with his combination of size, speed and raw ability. But so far in his time in the league, Bryant has not lived up to the high expectations placed on him by Jerry Jones and the fans. Bryant leads the Cowboys with seven dropped passes in 2012. Cowboys fans are growing tired of seeing Bryant drop passes, but it is magnified even more with his well-documented off the field issues as well.
But there is hope.
Even in a loss on Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys showed signs of being a team that can survive tough battles on the field and compete for a division title. The offensive line dominated the Ravens for much of the game. Even after DeMarco Murray's foot injury forced him out of the game, the black sheep of the offense, Felix Jones, came in and had a great performance.
Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar saw action in the backfield and were effective as well. The defense was outstanding during the first half of the game, and at times in the second half.
The Cowboys have a chance to win the NFC East. They are 1-0 in the division, and have four games left still with Washington and Philadelphia, neither of which are unbeatable. The Giants are the leaders at this point, but they have a lot of the same issues as Dallas. You never know which Giants team will show up on any given week.
For the Cowboys to win games from here on out, they have to be lucky and stay healthy, which is the same as any other team in the league. But to become a better football team, they have to be more focused, starting with the quarterback, who has to stay within the offense.
The offensive line has to eliminate mental penalties and the defense has to know where they are and cut down on pre-snap confusion, too.
The Dallas Cowboys can win the NFC East in 2012, but they have a long way to go.