The Dallas Cowboys are having a rough season thus far but there have been bright spots which begin with Dak Prescott as the league’s leading passer.
The Dallas Cowboys are 1-3, but their record doesn’t exactly say who they are, which is why individual positions need grading across the team. With the first quarter of the 2020 season in the books, here are some grades that provide encouragement and also foment dejection as the second quarter begins on Sunday.
Why shouldn’t Dak Prescott, the NFL leader in yards (1,690), first downs (83), virtually the only competitive aspect of the team get an A-plus? He gets docked for the fumbles in Week 2 against the Atlanta Falcons and Week 4 against the Cleveland Browns.
Other than that, Prescott has been the one elite element on the team, let alone the offense. If the other parts of the team can elevate their play even slightly above average, the cumulative performance, just from Prescott’s play alone, should propel Dallas to win an anemic NFC East.
Ezekiel Elliott is at 3.9 yards per carry. He also hasn’t cracked the 100-yard mark through his first four games, the first time in his career. Perhaps the worst stat following Elliott around like a personal storm cloud are his three fumbles, which are the most in the NFL among running backs. DeMarco Murray could get away with it in 2014 because he was churning out 100-yard rushing games with at least a touchdown during his bout with fumblitis.
Elliott, even with his 432 scrimmage yards and four total touchdowns, has been kind of the problem for Dallas. If Elliott can lock down his ball security and increase his yards per carry, the Cowboys ought to have more control over the game’s tempo. Meanwhile, Tony Pollard has not been as explosive in relief of Elliott as he was his rookie season.
As a corps, you can’t really ask for more out of the Cowboys’ receivers. Amari Cooper is second in the league with 37 catches and fourth with 401 receiving yards and his 22 first downs are third-most in the NFL. Michael Gallup is third in the league with 21.2 yards per reception.
Among rookies, no one has caught more touchdown passes than CeeDee Lamb. And as an added bonus, Cedrick Wilson has grown into his own as a third-year receiver. Combined with Prescott’s stellar play, the Cowboys receiving corps have made Dallas a very entertaining offense through the air.
Things seemed bleak for the Cowboys’ tight end group when Blake Jarwin tore his ACL in Week 1 against the Los Angeles Rams. He was supposed to be the TE1 in the offense, and now that option was taken away. However, third-year tight end Dalton Schultz has stepped up with 18 catches for 219 yards and two touchdowns, tied with Wilson and Lamb for the most on the team.
The receiving corps is so explosive that the tight ends in the Cowboys offense can afford to just blend into the surroundings. However, Schultz is developing into a key option. Blake Bell has added four catches for 58 yards, as well.
Injuries are a part of the game, but they are also a part of the grade. The Great Wall of Dallas went from brick and mortar with Tyron Smith and La’el Collins at tackle to picket fence with undrafted products Brandon Knight and Terence Steele replacing them, which will probably be the case for the balance of the season with Smith and Collins undergoing season-ending surgeries.
Along the interior, the line was already hit with the retirement of center Travis Frederick. Joe Looney played well, but his injuries are going to force rookie fourth-rounder Tyler Biadasz to start. Connor Williams hasn’t even developed into a reliable Ron Leary type, which is why fans have been clamoring to give the former guard a shot (though he retired late this week).
Right guard Zack Martin is the elite piece that the Cowboys have to use wisely. Do they keep him at guard next to Biadasz, or do they kick him out to a tackle spot and shore it up? Coach Mike McCarthy and offensive line coach Joe Philbin have a challenge on their hands.
If there is a bright spot on the defensive line, it’s defensive end Aldon Smith who missed the last five years and is posting 4.0 sacks through the first four games. No one saw that coming, except maybe defensive line coach Jim Tomsula and Smith’s family.
Dallas was counting on veteran Gerald McCoy to play one of the tackle spots, but second-year Trysten Hill has collected 10 combined tackles, a tackle for loss, and two quarterback hits in his four starts. Free agent defensive end Everson Griffen has 1.0 sack, but defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence being silent in the sacks category has been a disappointment.
The coaches believe that Dorance Armstrong can provide rotational support, but the third-year pro has added just six combined tackles thus far. Tyrone Crawford’s return has garnered five combined tackles and a quarterback hit, and defensive tackle Dontari Poe has given Dallas seven combined tackles. The Cowboys giving up 690 rushing yards, the second-most in the NFL, is a cause for concern.
Leighton Vander Esch going on injured reserve with a broken collarbone has placed the defensive play-calling responsibilities inside Jaylon Smith’s helmet, and it shows. Like last season when Vander Esch was injured, Smith is playing at a more reactive pace and doesn’t seem to be the missile he was in 2018 that earned his contract extension.
Smith may have more tackles than Seattle standout Bobby Wagner (39 to 38), but he has one tackle for loss and just two pass breakups. Dallas needs Smith back to being an impactful part of the defense.
In the meantime, Joe Thomas has been a pleasant fill-in for Vander Esch with 31 tackles and two tackles for loss along with two quarterback hits. However, the linebacking corps is playing like just a bunch of guys, not a disruptive, patrolling part of the front seven they have relied upon for the past decade.
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan prefers having four to seven defensive backs in the secondary, not necessarily a couple cornerbacks and a couple of safeties. As such, that is how the secondary will be evaluated. The only playmaker in the secondary so far has been rookie cornerback Trevon Diggs with 26 combined tackles, 1.0 sack, two pass breakups, and a clutch forced fumble at the goal line in Week 3 against the Seattle Seahawks’ DK Metcalf.
Aside from that, Dallas’ secondary is composed of guys that fill a roster. Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, who is coming off of injured reserve, had a lucky interception in Week 1. Jourdan Lewis, who made good with his opportunities last season, has blended into the pack with eight combined tackles, a pass breakup, and two tackles for loss. The problem with the Cowboys’ secondary is they lack takeaways. If only there was a playmaking, All-Pro defensive back available right now to provide such an impact on the back end.
Greg Zuerlein is putting on a Brett Maher-like performance going 5-of-6 on field goals and 9-of-11 on extra points, which, when looking at the complexion and context of the Seahawks game, may have resulted in a loss in Week 3. Zuerlein did nail a game-winner against the Falcons and also executed the “watermelon” onside kick that gave Dallas a shot at its lone win of the first four games.
Punter Chris Jones is the fifth-worst in the NFL in punt average at 42.8. The kickoff return game has suffered from Pollard’s strange decisions to take balls halfway in the end zone and out into the field of play. The punt return game has utilized a nice mix of Wilson’s prudence with Lamb’s playmaking.
With the reality that NFL teams didn’t get to have offseasons, traditional training camps, and preseason games, that is how McCarthy’s staff is being evaluated. The coaching staff is relying on Prescott’s arm to bail them out of turnovers, their defense being a sieve, and their failed gambles.
Pandemic aside, it feels more like the first four games of Jeff Fisher coming to Dallas rather than a Super Bowl-winning coach who led the Green Bay Packers with an injury riddled roster in 2010 to a world championship. The only part of McCarthy’s analytics study during his sabbatical that has come to the field for Dallas are the gambles on fourth down and going for two.
McCarthy does have a history of leading teams through adversity to deep playoff runs. Dallas fans are hopeful this can be the case with a club that hasn’t been to the NFC Championship Game since 1996.
How would you grade the Cowboys thus far through the 2020 season? Share your marks with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.