The Cowboys have essentially wrapped up the NFC East crown, but the No.1 seed is in sight if the team takes care of business over the next three weeks.
Given some time to study the Cowboys' most recent performances, here are some thoughts and observations on America's Team:
Defense wins championships
It is hard for Cowboys' fans to come to grips with the notion of a star-studded offense taking a backseat to an unheralded defense that is playing at an elite level, but this team's Super Bowl chances hinge on the performance of DQ's squad.
While I would have never guessed that would be the case based on the unit's struggles last season, but Quinn's magnetic personality and simplistic scheme have energized a defense that is loaded with a handful of athletic defenders. From the non-stop hustle of a unit obsessed with taking the ball away to fundamental focus from a coaching staff loaded with teachers, the Cowboys' defense is playing lights out football between the lines.
With the defense playing at a high level, the Cowboys have been able to chalk up wins without the star-studded offense lighting up scoreboards around the league. The drastic improvement of the defense has enabled Mike McCarthy to lean into a complementary football strategy that ties the three phases together on game day.
Moreover, the Cowboys are better prepared to make a deep postseason run behind a defense that specializes in creating disruption and taking the ball away. Considering the impact of turnovers on determining the outcome of games, the Cowboys' opportunistic defense could be the difference in a playoff run that leads to a Super Bowl appearance.
Practice makes perfect
If you had a chance to watch the Cowboys in training camp, you know that the defense's propensity to create turnovers is not a coincidence. The Cowboys' practice schedule featured more takeaway drills than any practice session that I have watched in my 25-plus years around the league. And the consistent drill work has certainly paid off based on the Cowboys' league-high 31 takeaways in 14 games.
From each defender's unique ability to punch the pocket or pry the ball loose with a tomahawk chop to the secondary's improved ball skills and catching ability, the Cowboys' defense has improved due to a greater emphasis on turnovers with more takeaway drills featured in practice.
As I watched the defense run through the turnover circuit each day in Oxnard, I wondered if the commitment to takeaway drills would produce better results on game day. It is clear that practice makes perfect when it comes to generating turnovers. If the Cowboys finish the season as the NFL's takeaway leader, you can best believe other teams will copy DQ's practice format in 2022.
What's up with Dak?
Despite the dismissals of a slump by Jerry Jones and Mike McCarthy, the Cowboys' star quarterback has not played great football over the past seven starts. Prescott has thrown for 300-plus yards once during that span, while also posting a 9:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
With the veteran taking 16 sacks and averaging just 6.46 yards per attempt during that span, the Cowboys' passing game looks nothing like the aerial assault that was torching defensive backfields during the first half of the season. The decline in production has been one of the reasons why the offense has not put up the explosive totals that many observers expected when reviewing the roster prior to the season.
Studying Prescott's recent play, the star quarterback has been off the mark as a passer in key moments. Whether it is due to a lack of chemistry and continuity from the revolving door at the wideout spots, there is something off between No.4 and his pass-catchers.
The disconnect between Prescott, Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup has resulted in more interceptions and mistakes from a quarterback who was garnering MVP consideration earlier in the season. Given how those miscues are derailing the Cowboys' offense, it is imperative for McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore to find a way to get their quarterback back on track down the stretch.
Mike McCarthy needs to re-evaluate his game management strategy
The veteran coach was expected to transform the Cowboys into a title contender with his experience, expertise, and tactical acumen. However, the Cowboys appear to win some games in spite of the decisions of the one-time Super Bowl winner.
From a series of special teams blunders on risky gambles to poor clock management decisions, the Cowboys have repeatedly struggled with the chess moves that are required to win at a high level. Sure, the players are responsible for the execution errors that have led to second-guessing, but McCarthy has not done a great job of putting his team in the best position to win with his planning and strategic moves.
Against the Giants, the decision to delay before calling a timeout prevented the Cowboys from taking a shot at the end zone before settling for a field goal attempt. While I understand the importance of walking away with at least three points, the Cowboys let precious time tick off the clock before calling a timeout. With ten-plus seconds to go before the half, the Cowboys had more than enough time to take a shot in the end zone to see if they could score a touchdown before settling for a kick.
Although McCarthy could have made up his mind prior to the final play, the offense did not look like they had a clear understanding of the plan at the moment. With more critical game management decisions on the horizon, the Cowboys need their head coach to be on his game when it counts in the postseason.
The offensive tackle by committee approach pays dividends
It is unusual for an NFL team to voluntarily utilize a platoon system at offensive tackle, but the Cowboys' decision to split reps between Terence Steele and Ty Nseke could payoff in the playoffs.
By playing each backup blocker significant snaps, the Cowboys were able to prepare sixth- and seventh-best offensive linemen for the playoffs with valuable game reps. Despite receiving plenty of work in practices as rotational players, there is nothing like playing in a real game to keep your skills sharp.
With Tyron Smith working through injuries and COVID-19 protocols ravaging lineups, the Cowboys might have secured an insurance policy against some last-minute scratches down the stretch.