Ron Jenkins/Associated Press
Through four games this season, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has played as well as any quarterback in the NFL. Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, he threw for 502 yards and four touchdowns with a passer rating of 112.9. It marked the third consecutive game in which he threw for at least 450 yards.
No quarterback in NFL history had done that before.
Given those ridiculous numbers, one might think the Cowboys were humming right along. Instead, Dallas is 1-3 and in full-blown panic mode following Sunday’s 49-38 loss to the Browns.
That’s because while Prescott has posted gaudy stats and the Dallas offense has been chewing up yardage through the air, head coach Mike McCarthy appears to have forgotten that the Cowboys have one of the NFL’s best running backs in Ezekiel Elliott. Plus, team owner and general manager Jerry Jones has constructed a roster that is loaded on offense but atrocious on defense.
Despite all those stats from Prescott, the Cowboys just aren’t particularly good—and there doesn’t appear to be an easy fix for what’s ailing them.
Ron Jenkins/Associated Press
Make no mistake, the biggest problem facing Dallas right now is the team’s defense—or lack thereof.
Any number of stats demonstrate just how terrible the Cowboys have been defensively under new coordinator Mike Nolan. But this one pretty much sums things up: Per Sunday’s telecast on Fox, Dallas did something that hadn’t occurred in Big D since the team’s inaugural season in 1960 by allowing at least 38 points to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 2, the Seattle Seahawks in Week 3 and the Browns in Week 4.
As David Moore wrote for the Dallas Morning News, Nolan allowed earlier this week that the results haven’t been there for his defense, although he also said the team needs time to jell on that side of the ball.
“Our systems were not in place when we all began,” he said. “But nobody looks at that. Neither do we when it comes to win and losses. It’s about winning games. However you can manage that, we need to do a better job of it.”
There wasn’t any jelling Sunday against the Browns. Instead, there was just more terrible play.
Against a Cleveland offense no one is going to confuse with the Kansas City Chiefs, the Cowboys had no answer most of the game. They allowed 333 yards of total offense…in the first half. With Nick Chubb on the sideline for most of the game following a knee injury, the Browns ran for a staggering 307 yards while averaging 7.7 yards per carry. For the game, the Browns piled up 508 yards of offense and 33 first downs.
The chunk plays that have plagued Dallas all season reared their head again in Week 4, too. The Cowboys allowed a 37-yard touchdown pass from Jarvis Landry to Odell Beckham Jr. and a 50-yard score on a reverse to Beckham that essentially iced the game.
That’s, um, not good.
It’s also not all that unexpected. As ESPN analyst (and former NFL player) Emmanuel Acho pointed out, it’s been a while since Nolan was a defensive coordinator. The last time he was, the results weren’t great.
In fairness to Nolan, a coordinator is only as good as the personnel at his disposal. The defensive personnel in Dallas aren’t imposing, and that’s on the man who constructed the roster.
Yes, injuries have played a part—the team lost defensive tackle Gerald McCoy before the season even began and saw starting linebacker Leighton Vander Esch go down in the opener. But those two absences aren’t the sole reason the Cowboys can’t stop anyone.
Due in no small part to the salary-cap issues that have seemingly plagued the Cowboys for years, Dallas lost a handful of defensive starters in free agency, including its best cornerback (Byron Jones) and most productive pass-rusher (Robert Quinn) from 2019.
Since signing a five-year, $105 million extension before the 2019 season, edge-rusher DeMarcus Lawrence has spent the past season-plus on the side of a milk carton. Linebacker Jaylon Smith’s level of play has dropped since he got $64 million over five seasons.
Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Over the first month of the 2020 campaign, the Cowboys’ best defender has been edge-rusher Aldon Smith—a guy who hadn’t played in five years prior to this season.
Now, the defense isn’t exactly McCarthy’s purview. But it stands to reason that if a head coach knows his defense is hot garbage, he might do something to limit that defense’s exposure—like, say, running the football.
Not if you’re McCarthy.
Four games into the season, Elliott is averaging 17.5 carries per game. And though he didn’t explicitly say so, the lack of usage might play a part in the frustration the fifth-year running back noted after Sunday’s contest.
Granted, Dallas has fallen behind the past two weeks. But even when the Cowboys were ahead Sunday, Elliott was more afterthought than engine. McCarthy just keeps dialing up passes.
That’s good for Dak’s stats and bad for the Cowboys.
McCarthy also dialed up a squib kick late in the fourth quarter that worked not even a little bit because the onside kick the team tried against Atlanta a couple of weeks ago worked too well.
This isn’t to say Prescott is blameless. Turnovers have plagued Dallas, as well, and Prescott committed two against the Browns. As Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News tweeted, a frustrated McCarthy indicated after the game that a multitude of maladies are plaguing Dallas right now.
Jon Machota @jonmachota
Most angry Mike McCarthy has sounded since becoming Cowboys coach: “It ultimately falls at my feet…What I don’t like is the pattern of the 4 games. The points are outrageous, time of possession is totally lopsided and we’re minus-7 in the turnover ratio. Not a winning formula.”
If there’s a saving grace for the Cowboys, it’s that the NFC (L)East is a complete dumpster fire in 2020. A full month into the season, not one team in the division has multiple wins.
However, the notion that these Cowboys are any kind of threat to make a run at Tampa and Super Bowl LV seems almost laughable now. Even if McCarthy alters his strategy to take pressure off the defense and the team cuts down on the miscues, the Cowboys can’t re-make their horrific defense on the fly. They just don’t have the personnel on that side of the ball.
If Dallas is even going to make it to .500, Prescott will need to put up remarkable numbers week after week. Maybe he’ll drag a 7-9 or 8-8 Dallas team into the playoffs. Then he will probably get a monstrous contract extension.
And the Cowboys will continue to be under McCarthy what they were under Jason Garrett: an also-ran in the NFC.