FRISCO, Texas – Just down I-30 at Six Flags, the Texas Giant soars 2.1 miles from AT&T Stadium. That's a poor (but accurate) attempt at a metaphor for the first five games of the 2018 season.
Consistency is the hallmark of good teams, but the 2-3 Cowboys need to stay on this rollercoaster ride for another week. It's been lose, win, lose, win, lose … and now they need a home victory Sunday against Jacksonville to keep pace in what's been a middling NFC East race to date.
That's where we start in this week's 3 & Out:
we're only five weeks in, but a trend has developed regarding the offense's level of performance and the venue in which they're performing.
At home, the point totals haven't been electric – 20 and 26 points in wins over the Giants and Lions – but the offense has played cleaner, more efficient football. Protection for Dak Prescott has been better, the running game has been more effective, the third down percentage has been higher. Numbers aside, there's just a better tempo and rhythm to their approach and execution.
On the road, the offense has totaled 37 points in three losses. Three NFL teams topped that in Week 5 alone: the Patriots (38), Steelers (41) and Saints (43).
What's the main difference? While it's flat wrong to highlight only one area – from the playcalling to the players' execution – the offensive line has been the foundation of this team's success for the last several years. Everything starts up front, and they've acknowledged that first and foremost they must do a better job controlling the line of scrimmage away from the comfort of AT&T Stadium.
It's not just pass protection. Nine of Ezekiel Elliott's 20 carries against Houston went for zero or minus yards.
"I do think you see signs of everybody playing well together," head coach Jason Garrett said. "Just hasn't been consistent enough, and part of it has been the communication part.
"I think we've played our worst three games on the offensive line on the road, and that's just something we have to get better at. You play road games. Crowd noise is a part of it. We've just got to do a better job, everybody staying on the same page, being assignment sound and doing what we need to do. At times good, at other times not good enough."
Part of it is adjusting to new personnel. Rookie Connor Williams is making progress at left guard. Joe Looney has been solid at center, but there's no denying the value of having Travis Frederick – an All-Pro caliber player – as the pre-snap point man.
Elliott is the best player on this football team and the offense's engine. But you can argue he's carrying too big of a load right now.
Sure, Elliott is versatile enough to be a featured part of the passing game and a dangerous bailout option against blitzes. But it's been 31 years since a Cowboys running back also led the team in receptions. Elliott has an NFL-best 480 rushing yards and a team-high 22 catches – and he's been battling through knee bursitis the last couple of weeks.
Herschel Walker lead Dallas in both categories in 1987, and that team went 7-8.
The Cowboys' collective approach at wide receiver will naturally suppress their overall numbers. But the team is still searching for the right mix around quarterback Dak Prescott, and last Sunday the group combined for six catches and 80 yards. Tight end Geoff Swaim has been a bright spot, accounting for chunk plays of 31 and 43 yards in the last two games.
Again, there isn't one single reason for the offense's struggles in their three losses. But they've got to find a way to make defenses pay for sending extra pressure, and Elliott is only part of the solution.
I Have No Idea…
exactly when Sean Lee will return from his hamstring injury – he's week to week at this point – but the Cowboys' young talent at linebacker should put less strain on the 32-year-old going forward.
Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch were key factors in the defense's multiple goal line stands against the Texans. Vander Esch, their first-round draft pick, has been active and physical. Watch Smith race across the field to sack Deshaun Watson just before halftime and tell me he isn't a completely different player this season.
When Lee is healthy, he's mostly been an every-down guy. His instincts and communication skills are invaluable, but perhaps a slight reduction in his snaps would help his overall durability the rest of the way. We already saw the Cowboys rotate him out for a series in the first two games against the Panthers and Giants.