The best teams in the NFL find a way to play their best football in the month of December. The flip of the calendar to the final month of the year signals it is time to turn it up to make a long run in the postseason.
With that in mind, I am looking closely at the Cowboys' game tapes to see if they are built to make the Super Bowl run that everyone expects in Dallas. Here are my thoughts and observations after re-watching the Cowboys' loss to the Raiders:
Do the Cowboys need more grit?
It is hard to find many NFL teams with more talented rosters than the one Jerry Jones and Co. have assembled, but great teams are capable of winning games without their A-listers on the field. Sure, it is not ideal to play a game without the No.1 and No.2 receivers and two of the team's top pass rushers, but championship teams find ways to overcome adversity and the Cowboys have not been able to consistently get that done this season.
While the team's impressive road win against the Vikings without Dak Prescott led me to believe that the Cowboys had turned the corner as a tough-minded squad with the capacity to win in any circumstance, the recent slide has rekindled some of the doubts that I had about the team's collective maturity and overall mental toughness.
If this team is unable to knock off a struggling Raiders' team due to the absence of a few frontline players, will this team be able to overcome a loss of a key player during a playoff run? Considering how other teams (SEE Ravens, Cardinals, Packers, and others) are winning without some of their personnel, it is fair to wonder if the Cowboys are gritty enough to overcome a little adversity down the stretch.
Micah Parsons could be a star as a full-time EDGE rusher
The rookie standout is already one of the Cowboys' top defenders, but he could be a star if he focused exclusively on playing defensive end. Despite the team's original plans to feature Parsons as a hybrid linebacker-pass rusher, the Cowboys might have an All-Pro-caliber EDGE defender in No.11.
While Randy Gregory and Demarcus Lawrence are blue-chip defenders in their own right, the production and disruptive playmaking ability displayed by Parsons since stepping into the defensive end/outside linebacker role should prompt Dan Quinn to make the rookie a designated pass rusher who spends most of his time chasing quarterbacks instead of dropping into coverage.
Although it might take some creativity to craft a plan that enables Parsons, Gregory and Lawrence to occupy three frontline positions, the emergence of the rookie as an elite rusher makes it a plan that Quinn must consider to maximize the unique talents of his defense and his standout rookie defender.
Anthony Brown has a rough day at the office
I do not know if Brown prefers sweet potato pie over pumpkin pie to satisfy his sweet tooth, but walked off the field with a big slice of humble pie following a disappointing performance on Thanksgiving Day. The sixth-year pro looked overwhelmed and overmatched against the Raiders, and his handsy ways resulted in four defensive pass interference penalties.
Although some of the infractions were questionable calls, the "free yards" gained from the fouls enabled the Raiders to move the ball down the field in chunks. Brown's repeated violations will encourage future opponents to throw at him to see if he has cleaned up his technique and improved in coverage. How well he responds to the challenge of being a target practice could determine if the Cowboys get back to their winning ways.
Time to get back to basics
Whenever a team is mired in a slump, the best coaches will place a greater emphasis on fundamentals and execution to help the team get back on track. The Cowboys will undoubtedly take that approach to eliminate some of the bad football that has resulted in three losses in their last four games.
Offensively, the Cowboys must get back to utilizing a balanced approach that pushes the run-pass ratio closer to 50:50 in games. This team is built to run the football with a powerful offensive line and an explosive tandem of running backs with complementary skills. Kellen Moore needs to stick to the script by ensuring that Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard are the focal points of the game plan, with Dak Prescott and Co. taking a backseat to the running game. That does not mean the Cowboys must take a run, run, and throw approach with their play calls, but the offense needs to hit 30 or more rushing attempts each week to put the offensive line in the best position to succeed.
On defense, the Cowboys must get back to eliminating the big plays in the passing game by
playing with better discipline and technique. In addition, the secondary must increase their communication to ensure everyone is on the same page at all times. While the entire defense can continue to improve their tackling skills to limit some of the "catch-and-run" plays that are enabling opponents to move the chains on short throws that should be gobbled up by a fast and athletic defense.
Finally, the Cowboys must resolve their issues in the kicking game to get back on track. From the missed PATs and short field goals to the repeated gaffes with the punt and kickoff coverage units, the Cowboys must win the third phase of football each week to continue to chalk up Ws in the win column. John Fassel is viewed as one of the best specials teams coaches in football. It is time for his units to play like it
Dan Quinn gets an audition
The Cowboys' defensive coordinator will be one of the hottest names on the coaching carousel this off-season after his solid work with the defense. The former Atlanta Falcons' head coach will have an opportunity to wear the big whistle again this week while serving as the interim head coach against the Saints.
While his duties will not change much on game day, the perception of Quinn as a future head coach could change based on how the team responds to him on Thursday. Fair or not, the performance in a primetime game will leave a lasting impression, and owners looking for their next leader will pay close attention to how Quinn handles the team in an adverse situation.
Based on how the veteran coach has energized the defense with his energetic personality and ultra-positive approach, the Cowboys' defensive coordinator will likely knock his audition out of the box on a big stage this week.