Cowboys Lose Their Identity. Temporary?

On offense, Dallas looked like a completely different team than it has for much of the season. Was this just an outlier, or a trend in the making?

Sometimes, being better isn’t good enough. Sometimes, being the hotter team doesn’t really matter. Sometimes, you just get your ass kicked.

That’s what happened to the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football, again, as the bullies got bullied in front of a rowdy home crowd by the supposedly overmatched team from Washington. Washington used their trademark (against Dallas) relentless pressure to thwart the Dallas offensive gameplan throughout the evening. They forced multiple turnovers, sprinkled in with several “shoulda-been’s”, to befuddle what had previously been running as a finely tuned machine. The visitors sacked Dallas five times on the night. The Cowboys fumbled four times and were fortunate to only lose possession on two of them. There were also multiple interceptions opportunities that weren’t cashed in Washington.

By the time the dust settled, the team led by Colt McCoy was running around the turf at AT&T Stadium, celebrating their own personal Super Bowls, following a 20-17 overtime victory. The celebration was as well-deserved as the one Dallas followers threw after defeating Seattle in Seattle earlier in the month. No one in the media went on record as saying Washington had a chance, yet in every phase of football they played a better game than Dallas did.

The loss dropped Dallas to 6-2 on the year, but still a half-game ahead of the Philadelphia Eagles, who lost on Sunday to Dallas’ next opponent, the Arizona Cardinals. Dallas dropped to a dismal 6-17 on prime time games that are broadcast on ESPN.

Not only did the Cowboys lose the game, but they also suffered their first major injuries of what had been a relatively healthy season. Tony Romo and his back bruise is the biggest concern. Reports after the game said it was a back contusion; a fancy word for a deep bruise. However an MRI and a CT scan followed and will remain a concern in a short week. Ron Leary strained his groin and was replaced late by Mackenzy Bernadeau. The biggest loss might have occurred on defense, as WLB Justin Durant tore his biceps and is done for the season.

Linebacker Bruce Carter just returned to the lineup and will now reassume starting duties at the position and his role in the nickel, with Kyle Wilber getting another shot at first-string Sam LB.

Even greater than the losses to injury though, the primary concern Dallas will have to deal with in preparation for Arizona and the second half schedule, was the loss of offensive identity. A temporary loss is not a problem. Good teams take missteps throughout a season. The true test of how good that team is shows in the resolve in bouncing back, correcting the mistakes that were made.

Dallas isn’t alone amongst the upper echelon teams that struggled this weekend. Indianapolis got bumrushed by the Steelers. Green Bay got rolled by 21 points to a Saints team that was 2-4. Detroit needed a referee clock screw-up to beat the lowly Falcons. The better team doesn’t win every week; it’s a league of parity and this is what happens to teams that don’t bring their A game.

Mistakes the kind Dallas has avoided making a habit of, were on constant display throughout the contest. That’s in addition to things that they’ve been able to overcome on a weekly basis. Here’s a laundry list of take-aways that should put the loss in a better focus.

For the first time since the San Francisco game the opening week of the season, the Cowboys allowed an opponent to dictate to them. That can’t happen. More than the run/pass ratio, the league-leading rushing totals.. the true evolution of the Cowboys offense into an elite entity was the fact that they have dictated the terms of the game to every other opponent on the schedule. That was not the case on Monday night.

However that run/pass ratio is pretty important, too. Dallas has had more rushing attempts than passes in five of their eight games. The three outliers? The season-opening loss to the 49ers, the overtime win against the Texans and Monday’s loss to Washington. That’s about as obvious a trend as you’ll find.

Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett holds his own against Jason Garrett and Tony Romo. Haslett’s defenses have been underachievers since his arrival in Washington, but over the last four-plus season, he has managed to frustrate and confuse the Dallas offenses at least once a season. On Monday night, Dallas had absolutely no answer for Haslett’s blitz packages, and seems ill-equipped to try something new against them.

For much of the first half of the season, the coronation of the Cowboys offensive line as the league’s best was entirely too premature. Since early in the year, the run blocking prowess of the unit was properly revered. However as a pass blocking unit, the inexperience left much to be desired. Over the last couple games they had improved, but they were unable to combat the rush this game. Dallas relinquished 5 sacks on the evening, the same number as they had allowed over the previous five games total.

All of the sacks weren’t on the much-talked-about zero blitzes either. They had a lasting effect too, but on three of the five sacks, Washington got home by only bringing one extra rusher. There was simply a failure of Dallas to properly adapt. DeMarco Murray, who normally is one of the league’s best protectors, failed on several attempts and made life difficult for quarterback Tony Romo. Romo made life difficult on himself on several plays by not adjusting to the free blitzer that walked up to the line of scrimmage. His accuracy and composure in the pocket was at a less than desirable level all evening. The pressure clearly had Romo rattled, and was no more obvious than the final play of the game, where his pocket was cleaner than it had been most of the night, yet he felt the need to break out his patented spin move. He also had the option to attempt to gain the necessary first down by running, though with his back injury it would have been an interesting jaunt even with all the green pasture ahead of him.

Even though Jermey Parnell has acquitted himself well, the absence of Doug Free was felt in this game. Dallas is ridiculously thin on the offensive line, specifically at the tackle position. It should be a safe assumption that against the relentless pressure, Dallas would have chosen to employ a six lineman set instead of keeping James Hanna in the line of fire so often. Alas, with no serviceable third tackle, that wasn’t an option.

Free might be available for Dallas against Todd Bowles’ expected pressure when Arizona swoops in next week.

Maybe the lack of a veteran presence left the young line a bit flustered. There were several plays where Dallas simply failed to pick up free men, even when they had enough guys kept in to block. Other plays, Dallas never adjusted to being outmanned with alternate strategies than the two playcall options they came to the line with.

Head coach Jason Garrett noted after the game that they team has previously been able to burn Washington when they sent the house in order to get pressure. In this game, however, the receivers weren’t able to avoid the first defender when the opportunities arose.

Dallas running backs averaged 7.4 yards a carry on 23 carries. Yes, they lost two fumbles and recovered a third on a bad QB-RB exchange when Brandon Weeden was in the game. However, this team’s essence for the entire 2014 season has been pounding the rock. In a game where they never trailed by more than seven points (and tied it on the following possession), Dallas didn’t so much abandon the run; they abandoned their identity.

Is it possible that Dallas chose to forego the run because of the early fumbles of Murray and Joseph Randle? Although it would stand to reason the constant turnover risk the running game has presented, the dropped interceptions that Romo almost had in this game would seem to serve as big as a risk. Yet still, when the Cowboys had perfect opportunities to utilize the running game they didn’t.

No situation was more obvious then when Dallas chose to throw three passes in overtime, while they were trailing 20-17.

Dallas gained eight yards on first down, in a situation where they would 100% be going for a fourth down conversion. Yet they never again tested a Washington defense that had yet to show they could stop the league’s leading rusher. The identity Dallas has forged over the first half of the season wilted for one game.

Those weren’t the only egregious errors that cost Dallas. Murray’s fumble in the second quarter after an impressive 36 yard reception happened at the Washington eight-yard line. That is a direct loss of expected points, and emphasizes what CowboysHQ has harped on all season. The turnovers are nullifying the great yardage gained on the ground by the offense. For more on this, reference our weekly Advanced Stats Notebook previews.

The wideouts also contributed to the lackluster performance. Dez Bryant failed to haul in multiple easy catches, including a would-be touchdown by Brandon Weeden. Terrance Williams also contributed a big drop with a bodycatching effort that should have been a huge gainer.

On offense, Washington played a safe gameplan decorated with the occasional deep play, and capitalized on the Dallas defensive mistakes in pursuit and tackling. Rolando McClain missed four tackles, three of which would have been tackles-for-loss. Barry Church, a normally sure tackler, also contributed to the problems, with his own missed tackles. Dallas’ defense had given up yards on the year, but had been a sure-tackling group that rallied to the ball. That facet of the team was missing on Monday.

Washington even fixed their special teams unit overnight, at the expense of the Cowboys. At the halfway point of the season, it feels safe to say that Dallas’ special teams has taken a step backward from their 2013 performance under Rich Bissacia. Dwayne Harris seems unsure of what to do on returns, running into a pile of his blockers, taking hits when he should be fair catching the ball and generally struggling to produce. He didn’t fumble this game, but his four on the season makes him the only NFL non-QB other than Murray in the league’s Top 15 of fumblers for 2014.

Even though they seemed to be out-talented, it all added up to the overtime win for the road team. Dallas will have plenty of work to do on a short week, to ensure that the mistakes don’t become trends. The new “best” team in the NFC has warts of their own, and a victory Sunday that renders Monday night’s performance an outlier will go a long way towards justifying all the attention Dallas has received thus far this season.

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