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What the heck is wrong with the Cowboys?

Dallas can’t keep up with good — or even mediocre — teams. That’s a problem.

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Cowboys’ 3-0 start was an illusion.

Over the course of three weeks, Dallas has shrunk from potential contender to .500 also-ran. Wins over the Giants, Dolphins, and Washington turned out to be hollow confidence builders for a team whose fatal flaws couldn’t be fixed in a single offseason. Where defeats to the Saints and Packers could be brushed off as solid efforts against the conference’s best, a 24-22 loss to the then-winless Jets wrote the team’s shortcomings in skywriting over the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.

The Cowboys’ passing defense, when pressed by anyone who hasn’t been a veteran backup at some point in their NFL careers, can’t get the stops they need. Dak Prescott, for all his early-season greatness, hasn’t been the kind of top-level quarterback who can navigate his team out of the first-half deficits his team’s faced during this losing streak. The Cowboys came into Week 6 with the league’s most efficient offense — their 7.2 yards-per-play was tops in the league — and now ranks 11th when it comes to turning those gains into points.

As a result, Dallas is 3-3 despite playing only two teams with more than two wins through six weeks of the season. A club once primed to run away with its division has been sucked back into its own nonsense like a horse crossing the Swamp of Sadness. And just like that child-scarring scene from The Neverending Story, it’s baffling and a little bit upsetting how we got here.

So how did the Cowboys plummet back to earth?

This offense has been toothless in the first half

Here’s how many points the Cowboys have taken into the locker room at halftime of each of their last three games:

  • three
  • zero
  • six

The last number would have been a three if not for a 62-yard field goal as time expired in the second quarter. Dallas has trailed in every game it’s played this season, and while that hasn’t been a problem against the dregs it faced in Weeks 1-3, better teams have used that advantage to keep the Cowboys at arm’s length in eventual wins.

Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s once exciting offense has been woefully ineffective early, providing the backhoe that’s dug the holes Prescott and company have failed to climb from with second-half rallies. This was on full display Sunday, as the Cowboys ventured into the Jets’ red zone on their fourth drive of the game, then became the first team in 55 tries to get that far and come up empty against New York:

As if to illustrate this grand point, New York scored turned this opportunity into a touchdown and an 11-point lead seconds later.

Sunday’s game also showcased another glaring weakness for this team — one we knew about through the start of the 2018 season. Without Amari Cooper chipping away at an opponent’s secondary, the rest of the Dallas receiving corps is easy to tame. The No. 1 wideout missed the bulk of that Jets showdown with a deep thigh bruise, playing only three snaps and making one catch for three yards.

While Prescott was able to spread the ball out — five different players had at least four catches — his impact was significantly lessened. The Cowboys averaged just 7.2 yards per target Sunday afternoon for a platoon led by Tavon Austin, whose five catches were his most in a game since 2016 (Randall Cobb, it deserves mentioning, also sat out with an injury). That number had been a league-high 9.1 in the five previous games.

Part of the problem there has been a lack of steady hands. Per ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, that group, including Cooper, has dropped six percent of their catchable passes the last three weeks — fourth-most in the league in that span.

Any mistakes past the line of scrimmage Sunday were extra grievous given missing pieces on it. Both starting tackles, La’el Collins and Tyron Smith, missed the Jets game due to injury. While that only led to one New York sack, Prescott dealt with pressure all afternoon. He was hit eight times by Jets defenders in Week 6, matching a season high set by a much more explosive Packers pass rush the week before. For reference, the Dallas QB had been hit only eight times total in his season-opening three-game win streak.

That lack of blocking helped dampen Ezekiel Elliott’s effect on the ground. The fourth-year tailback has looked much more mortal in 2019 than he has in years past, most notably gaining only 35 yards on 18 carries in a loss to the Saints. While he ran for 105 yards in North Jersey, he needed 28 touches to get there. Through six weeks he seems to be missing the extra gear that made him such a monster in 2016 and 2018.

Is he battling a nagging injury? Slowed by a depleted offensive line? Still ramping up to game shape after sitting out most of the preseason due to a contract dispute? There’s no real evidence as to why, but he’s snapped back into form in the past — he regained his league rushing crown last fall after a relatively disappointing 2017. Doing so again before November would be a boon for a Dallas team that desperately needs more hands to carry its offensive load.

All those factors swirled together to create a crap hurricane for the Cowboys, costing them a win in a game where they’d been seven-point betting favorites. But placing this latest loss at the feet of the offense isn’t entirely fair.

The defense falls apart under pressure

These are the quarterbacks Dallas has beaten in 2019:

  • Eli Manning
  • Case Keenum
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick

All three have been benched at some point, though injury concerns played a role in Keenum giving way to Dwayne Haskins in Week 4. Teddy Bridgewater couldn’t do much in his shot against the Cowboys, but Aaron Rodgers (understandable) and a returning-from-mono Sam Darnold (oh) each found holes en route to hanging 58 combined points against a team that had only allowed 56 through the first four weeks of the season.

There are several culprits to blame here. Chidobe Awuzie was one of the league’s least efficient cornerbacks in 2018 and has yet to show lasting improvement in 2019. He was the man responsible for Robby Anderson’s 92-yard score Sunday. He was a full five yards behind Anderson when that ball was caught after getting beat by an extremely lowkey stop-and-go near the line of scrimmage:

Leighton Vander Esch, one of 2018’s most promising defensive rookies, is suffering through a major sophomore slump. Opposing ball carriers had broken through 18 percent of his tackle attempts through the first five games of the season, a rate twice as bad as last year’s.

The pass rush has regressed as well. Jets QBs had been sacked on 24 of their 144 dropbacks coming into Week 6 — an absurd 16.7 percent of their pass attempts (though 16 of those came with Luke Falk’s behind center). Darnold was sacked just twice over the course of 34 designed pass plays when the Cowboys came to town. That’s not what Dallas had been hoping for when it signed DeMarcus Lawrence to a five-year, $105 million extension last spring.

Can the Cowboys be fixed, or is Jason Garrett finally doomed?

Make no mistake, this was a demoralizing loss for the Cowboys. That distaste bled onto the television broadcast with more than three minutes remaining in a one-possession game:

Garrett, of course, bears the brunt of the criticism for this sudden downturn. Falling into a 18-point hole against an 0-4 Jets team is the kind of mistake that gets a coach fired — even if team owner and GM Jerry Jones isn’t willing to admit it right now.

Dallas and Garrett, for all their flaws, aren’t cooked yet. The rest of the NFC East is a wreck, and the 3-3 Cowboys are currently tied with the 3-3 Eagles atop a division whose winner may top out at nine wins or fewer. Beating Philadelphia in Week 7 could be the edge they need to claim the East’s first repeat winner since 2004.

The Cowboys still have one of the league’s most talented teams, especially once everyone gets healthy again. Even though asking Prescott to keep up the MVP-caliber pace he set against underwhelming opponents to start the season is a tall task, he’s still a good-to-great quarterback whose presence unlocks several chapters of offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s prospective playbook.

The defense has too much raw talent to remain this bad as well. But cohesion remains the Cowboys’ biggest enemy, and while other teams find a way to create something larger than the sum of their parts, Dallas has trended in the opposite direction.

This isn’t new! The Cowboys have been 3-3 under Garrett before and rallied to a winning record. Hell, they’ve done so in each of the past two seasons.

That’s a reason for optimism. It’s also a reason for concern. Garrett’s Dallas teams appear to fall into the same trap of underachievement each year, rebounding just enough to save his job but not enough to pose any real threat come January. If he wants to lead this team into 2020, he doesn’t just have to fix the problems that have led to a three-game losing streak — he needs to change the chemistry that has limited the Cowboys to “good” but never “great” in his 10 years at the helm.