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Writer's Blocks: On An Un-Fun Season, And The Concept Of "Must-Win" Games
FRISCO, Texas – I don’t think I’ve ever had so little fun covering a football season.
The beauty of being a sports writer is in the work – or “work,” I should say. It’s not the most lucrative industry in the world, but it sure is fun. I get paid a living wage to talk and write about football, and I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve dreaded going to work in the five years I’ve been here.
All of that said, this just isn’t what we thought we were signing up for during that long offseason, was it? Between the Ezekiel Elliott drama, the national anthem debate and the seemingly endless line of disputes in the news, this whole season has felt like such a slog. And that doesn’t even include the 5-4 record on the field – the mark of an average football team.
I think all of that extra weight helps explain what feels like a bleak attitude among the fan base these days. Why would anyone who watches the Cowboys have a good feeling right now, when seemingly so little of the news about this season has been good?
Off the field, it’s one bit of drama after another. On the field, the results have been inconsistent, and the team is coping with a litany of injuries going into a game against the hottest team in football – not to mention arguably its fiercest rival.
But in my experience, nothing is ever as extreme as it seems – whether for better or worse. Last year, when this team was reeling off win after win, there were plenty of concerns worth considering. This year, even with all the problems besetting them, I don’t think the Cowboys’ prospects are as grim as they look.
Follow my logic, if you will:
1. Call me crazy if you want, but I don’t view this game as a “must-win” by any stretch of the imagination.
I suppose it’s a “must-win” if you’re trying to win the NFC East. But to be brutally honest, I think the Cowboys’ dreams of winning the division died in Atlanta last weekend.
Instead, the Cowboys look like one of about six teams with wild card aspirations, alongside Atlanta, Detroit, Washington, the NFC South runner-up and the NFC West runner-up. I’m sorry, Green Bay and Arizona, but I’m not including you in this discussion without your starting quarterbacks.
Of course, losing to Philadelphia isn’t preferable, as it’d drop the Cowboys to 5-5 with a 4-4 record within the NFC.
That said, I can think of worse places to be than .500 with six games to play. Obviously, it’s going to be tough to keep pace with so many solid teams in the NFC wild card hunt. But firstly, the Eagles are the best team the Cowboys are going to play in the next month. On top of that, I trust that the Cowboys will get better as the season winds to a close.
Tyron Smith, Sean Lee and Dan Bailey should all be healthy enough to return at some point. Ideally, you’d like to think at least one or two of them should be back in time to play the Chargers on Thanksgiving. Further down the road, the Cowboys will get Ezekiel Elliott back in time for two seemingly big games against Seattle and Philly.
If they can weather this mid-season storm even a little bit, I think some breaks should finally start to swing the Cowboys’ way.
2. This is the part where I readily admit that this theory of mine, that Philadelphia isn’t a “must-win” is contingent on one very unavoidable fact.
Bottom line: the Cowboys are going to need to rip off another three-game win streak in their games against Los Angeles, Washington and New York. Whether or not they can do that is a completely separate issue, but I think it’s damn-near unavoidable if this team is going to make a playoff push.
The Chargers have a fierce pass rush and a Hall of Fame quarterback, but they’re still a 3-6 team playing a short week on the road. The Cowboys have already proven they can beat the Redskins, and they have the benefit of playing them at home. And then there are the Giants, who look like they’ve packed it in for 2017.
Winning a game in the NFL is never “easy,” strictly speaking. But those are three games you absolutely have to win if you’re a playoff contender. If the Cowboys can do that, it sets up a difficult but manageable trip to Oakland. From that point on, they have Ezekiel Elliott back in the lineup.
3. I certainly wouldn’t call this a favorable situation. I read earlier this week that the Cowboys only have a 25 percent chance of making the playoffs. And that’s fine. It’s definitely going to take a hell of an effort over these next seven weeks to pull it off.
All I’m saying is their hopes don’t rest on this week alone.
4. It seems like there was some confusion about why Ezekiel Elliott dropped his case against the NFL when he made the announcement that he’d no longer be fighting his six-game suspension.
The question seemed to be: “If this is about clearing his name, why did he take it this far only to drop it?”
I haven’t talked to Zeke recently, so I can only speculate. But I think the answer is fairly straightforward in that he took it as far as he could – at least in regard to having a reasonable chance of winning.
When Zeke’s appeal for a preliminary injunction was denied, it guaranteed that he’d sit out at least four games, with his next chance at an appeal coming on Dec. 1. Judging by everything I’ve heard and read in the past week, his chances of winning that upcoming appeal were even slimmer than the ones that faced him in his last loss.
The writing was on the wall. Whether he’s guilty or not, and whether you agree or disagree that the NFL absolutely bungled this situation (which it did, by the way), it finally looked like Zeke had come to a dead end and was going to have to serve his suspension.
Had he continued to fight, the likeliest outcomes were that he’d have eventually had to serve the suspension in 2018 – whether that was during a potential playoff run or at the outset of the 2018 season. Either scenario is highly undesirable.
As frustrating as it might be, especially since Elliott has maintained his innocence throughout this process, it just doesn’t seem like it would’ve made sense to keep pressing the issue.
5. Having gotten all of that out of the way, it absolutely doesn’t mean that Zeke made the wrong decision by trying to fight the NFL’s decision.
It’s easy to tell someone to accept a suspension and stop being a distraction when it isn’t your livelihood or your reputation on the line. As a result of this entire saga, Ezekiel Elliott has been pinned with some incredibly unflattering descriptors – despite not being charged with anything, let alone convicted. On top of that, this suspension is going to cost him roughly $2 million of salary.
If you were facing a similar situation, I’m very comfortable betting that you’d have done the same thing. As much as my team might mean to me, I’d have a hard time accepting that kind of hit on my reputation, as well as my bank account.
And if you followed Zeke’s lead and you fought, it wouldn’t make you wrong if you ultimately realized your situation and backed down. Sometimes in life you’re presented with unfair situations, and oftentimes you can’t overcome them. That’s just the nature of the world. But it doesn’t make you foolish for trying.
It’s hard for me to even evaluate what happened in Atlanta last weekend, because it was such a shocking display of ineptitude. It’s unusual when a full NFL team records six sacks in a game – let alone one player.
Adrian Clayborn’s domination in that game left me with no idea of how to evaluate the rest of this team. How can you properly judge Dak Prescott when he typically has no time to throw? How can you grade the running game when the offense is that one-dimensional?
Alfred Morris struggled to just eight rushing yards in the first half, but the Cowboys picked their efforts up enough that he finished with 53. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry, and the Cowboys ran for 107 yards as a team.
Those numbers are all encouraging, provided your offense is balanced enough to sustain some movement. The Cowboys weren’t last week, as eight of their 10 possessions were either ended or severely affected by a sack.
7. I know what I just wrote, but I wonder if the Cowboys should opt to sit Tyron Smith for this game.
I know he’s an All-Pro caliber player and that he’s going to do everything in his power to get ready for this game. I also know how hapless the Dallas offensive line looked without him manning the left side in Atlanta.
Jason Garrett pointed out as recently as Thursday morning that you only get 16 games in a season and all of them are important. But rather than rush Tyron back for this division game, maybe it’s smarter to let him sit and continue to rest his ailing groin and back.
As I already established, I don’t necessarily view this Eagles game as a must-have. Winning it would make your life easier, but it isn’t going to dictate your playoff hopes. The Eagles are also incredibly good, and rushing Tyron back into action might not make any difference in the win/loss column.
Instead, maybe you give him the extra week to get ready for the Chargers. I’m well aware of how scary it sounds leaning on Bell and Green against a front as talented as Philadelphia’s, but I’ve got to believe some more creative game planning can help with that.
If giving Smith the extra time can help him last through the home stretch of the season, I’d much rather do that.Read