Wheels About to Fall off Yet Again for the Depleted Dallas Cowboys

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 11, 2013

NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 10:  Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys reacts to an errant throw against the New Orleans Saints during a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on November 10, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  New Orleans won the game 49-17.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys technically lead the NFC East thanks to a head-to-head tiebreaker advantage over the Philadelphia Eagles, but I can't remember there ever being less hope for a division-leading team 10 weeks into an NFL season. 

The Cowboys simply couldn't compete with the New Orleans Saints on Sunday night, falling to 5-5 in 2013, 21-21 since the start of 2011 and 133-133 since 1997.

This is an average yet horrifyingly inconsistent football team, and with injuries once again ripping the defense apart, it's obvious that the 'Boys are going to be vacationing before the divisional playoffs arrive for the fourth consecutive year.

With top pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware far from 100 percent and preseason defensive starters Jason Hatcher, Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff, Sean Lee, Justin Durant, Morris Claiborne and J.J. Wilcox all injured, the Cowboys stood no chance in New Orleans.

As a result, Drew Brees and the Saints became the fifth team this year to score 30 points against Dallas and the second to post more than 48 points against the Cowboys.

In their franchise history, the Cowboys have played 813 regular-season games. In only two of those 813 games have they given up more than 600 total yards. The first took place two weeks ago in Detroit, and the second took place Sunday night in New Orleans.

On paper, their two worst defensive performances in team history have been their last two road games.

Cowboys: Most Yardage Surrendered in Team History
Yards allowedDateOpponent
1. 625 yardsWeek 10, 2013Saints
2. 623 yardsWeek 8, 2013Lions
3. 583 yardsWeek 11, 1991Oilers (Houston)
4. 570 yardsWeek 14, 1985Bengals
5. 562 yardsWeek 16, 2012Saints
Pro Football Reference

Even if Lee, Hatcher, Durant, Claiborne and Wilcox return and Ware continues to improve, it might soon be too late for this team to recover. We won't speculate too much, but Lee's injury was bad enough that he was ruled out immediately, and it's been a long time since Ware has been his All-Pro-caliber self.

And it's not as though this defense was dominant even before those injuries.

Lots of teams have been very successful despite defensive problems. Hell, look at that Super Bowl XLVI matchup between the New England Patriots and New York Giants. Both of them ranked in the bottom six of the league defensively that season.

However, the Cowboys aren't special enough elsewhere to compensate for what has happened to the defense. Tony Romo was only 10-of-24 for 128 yards Sunday night, and Dez Bryant was held without a catch for nearly three quarters. They didn't lack balance against the Saints—at least early on—but DeMarco Murray has also struggled to stay healthy and the play-calling has been problematic. 

The Saints were 9-for-12 on third down; Dallas was 0-for-9. The 'Boys surrendered an NFL-record 40 first downs while running only 43 offensive plays of their own.

How do you come back from a performance like that, especially when it's combined with the collapse that took place two weeks ago in Detroit and an embarrassingly shabby performance at home against Minnesota one week ago?

The Cowboys have now used 17 different defensive linemen this season. The linebacking corps could be down two starters now too, with ESPNDallas.com's Calvin Watkins reporting that both Lee and Durant suffered injuries on Sunday. The secondary is already without 50 percent of its starters.

Lee was a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) grades him as the best inside linebacker in football.

Without him last season, Dallas gave up an extra 0.8 yards per carry and 4.5 points per game.

Without him on Sunday, it was much uglier. Keep in mind that when he left Sunday night's game, the Cowboys led 10-7. From that point forward, they gave up 42 points in less than three quarters.

At least they now have a bye week to rest up, but that might not be enough to save this season. The Eagles are red hot and could take control of the division next weekend, whereas the Cowboys' schedule won't be friendly after that.

Dallas has to play the Giants, who have won three straight, on the road in Week 12. It also has to face Chicago and Green Bay in December. 

This doesn't feel like a particularly special team when healthy. And when it's more banged up than anyone else in football, it has the look of a team that could be on the verge of falling off a cliff in the second half of the season.