5 Moves the Dallas Cowboys Need to Make to Fix This Mess
Were the NFC East not such a spectacular mess, the conversation around the Dallas Cowboys would center on the long-term outlook despite the 38-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football that bumped them to 2-4.
Instead, there's still some odd dash of hope.
Despite tying for the worst loss ever at AT&T Stadium and some historical defensive ineptitude, the Cowboys technically remain atop an NFC East boasting three teams with one win apiece. That the team could lead a division with a minus-45 point differential says it all about an almost humorous situation.
From getting back to basics to even changing up the lineups, there are a handful of things the Cowboys can do to start turning around the brutal start to the Mike McCarthy era.
Clean Up Turnover Issues or Find Players Who Will
It sounds so simple, yet not addressing the elephant in the room would go down as malpractice.
The Cowboys are minus-12 in turnovers, which as ESPN's Todd Archer pointed out, is their worst mark through six games since 1960.
Ezekiel Elliott is going to come under the most scrutiny here, as he should. He coughed up the ball twice Monday night and rookie wideout CeeDee Lamb fumbled too, though his was at least recovered. Dallas conceded 24 points in the loss on four turnovers, dashing any chance at a normal game.
Elliott has fumbled seven times in his last 13 games. His starting spot isn't at risk by any means, but he's sitting on one run of 20-plus yards through six games with five touchdowns and four fumbles lost. Dallas simply needs better from its $90 million running back, especially with Dak Prescott out.
And that's an idea that extends to everyone. If the players can't get the fundamentals right, the coaching staff needs to have the willingness to sit players and set the tone because while the record isn't good enough, they're still in playoff contention.
Adjust the Offense
File this one under the "easier said than done" column, as going from Dak Prescott (who still leads the league in passing yards despite not playing in Week 6) to Andy Dalton alters the possibilities of an offense in a big way.
But start by not kicking a 58-yard field goal while down 25 points and go from there. The Cowboys need to adjust the tone alongside the schematics.
And schematically speaking, things need to open up again. Dalton isn't Prescott by any means, but the new starter averaging just 1.3 air yards per completion in the first half, per ESPN Stats & Info, isn't going to cut it (Prescott averaged seven yards).
Granted, it would help if Dalton had a little more time behind a struggling offensive line, but firing off the ball on pre-determined reads right after the snap isn't going to cut it, either. Arizona defenders like Budda Baker feasted on this, and Dalton's supporting cast is too strong to pigeonhole the attack into one read.
McCarthy comes from an offensive background and has a ton of weapons to work with, so adapting the plan shouldn't be a huge hurdle. Aggressiveness and spreading it around has a way of compensating for a makeshift line and Dalton has been plenty viable with a strong cast of weapons in the past.
Back to Defensive Basics ... and Maybe Some Lineup Changes
How bad are things for the Dallas defense?
The unit has already allowed 14 passing scores and 10 rushing touchdowns. It's on pace to set an NFL record with 581 points allowed. It has also allowed one of the five worst point totals ever over a team's first six games.
There's also this noteworthy comment from NFL Media's Bucky Brooks: "The Cowboys DBs have a tough time doing the simple things. They don't know how to work thru picks and rubs in man coverage. There's no communication with 'Banjo' or switch calls. It's almost as if they've never practiced against this stuff or talked about it. It's silly."
When even dependable big-money stars like Jaylon Smith look lost (55.0 Pro Football Focus grade so far), it's time to dial things back and get simple. It's fair to point the finger at the offense putting the defense in bad spots via turnovers, but fundamental issues, a lack of pressure (11 sacks), little in the way of turnovers (one interception, two forced fumbles) and historic pacing point to things needing to get back to a bend-but-don't-break mentality.
Going back to basics might make things more predictable for opposing offenses, but better execution should lead to an uptick in performance. Excuses about an odd summer and otherwise go out the window six weeks into the season.
Make a Splash with an Addition to the Offensive Line
If the Cowboys are still serious about contending this year, the front office can't sit still and continue with this offensive line.
Monday night, Dallas had to play two undrafted players at offensive tackle in Brandon Knight—who will miss time after knee surgery—and Terence Steele. Tyler Biadasz, a rookie, managed center. Guards Connor McGovern and Connor Williams looked lost after Zack Martin left the game and didn't return.
Protecting Prescott was important, but downgrading to Dalton means it's even more so if the Cowboys want to remain competitive. Whether that means hopping into free agency for a guy like Josh Kline or even talking to another team about a trade is hard to say, though both options are worth a look.
In the past, Dallas' league-best line helped control games and mask other issues. With that mask off, the Cowboys don't have a choice but to put out feelers on talent upgrades for the short term.
Change the Focus
Unfortunately for the Cowboys, the current mess they're in isn't exclusive to this season, so the long-term perspective has to come into play.
Getting Prescott back under center will help in the future, provided Jerry Jones' front office and the star quarterback's reps can come to an agreement on some sort of long-term pact (or another franchise tag).
And that's just item No. 1. This is merely Year 1 for a new coaching staff in the post-Jason Garrett era and players are already frustrated, with some even telling NFL Network's Jane Slater the staff is "totally unprepared. They don't teach. They don't have any sense of adjusting on the fly."
Clearly, culture items, and perhaps coaching responsibilities, are things worth examining. So is the checkbook, with six players counting for north of six percent of the team's total cap allotment in 2021 before any sort of Prescott extension. Meaning, the upcoming trade deadline should get a look with the future in mind, too.
The Cowboys shouldn't tank, and it doesn't seem the NFC East will let them, anyway. But they're a miracle comeback and late field goal away from an 0-6 record right now.
Backing into the playoffs could be fun, but if the organization doesn't quickly turn an eye beyond this season, the mess could easily extend into 2021 and beyond.