Helman: Why I Still Feel Oddly Optimistic About The Cowboys' Prospects

IRVING, Texas -- I don't know what's happening to me this season, but I seem to be in the middle of a role reversal.

Typically, I'm the guy keeping an even keel, staying down the middle and doing my best not to buy the hype, regardless of whether it's good or bad. I can still remember the hate mail I got last year when I was slow to buy the Cowboys' success – like when I incorrectly picked them to lose in Seattle, or when I correctly picked them to fall out of the playoffs in Green Bay.

That's why it feels so strange that I, of all people – the supposed downer of this entire staff – feel so strangely optimistic in the midst of a four-game losing streak.

I've had two days to digest that strange feeling, and I think I can justify it with some points about why the season isn't over -- yet.

So bear with me:

 1. That offense looked awfully familiar

Matt Cassel made some of the dumbest decisions of the Cowboys' 2015 season on Sunday evening. There's no way to justify that, and there's no way to defend a three-interception day from any quarterback. It can't happen.

Move past that, though, and you see an offense that looked an awful lot like what we got used to in 2014. The Cowboys ran a lot, and they ran successfully – 233 total rushing yards on the day, for an average of 5.7 yards per carry. Even with the interceptions, Cassel completed a solid 63 percent of his passes when he had to, and his passes kept the chains moving.

It wasn't quite the balance we saw with Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray. In 2014, the Cowboys ran roughly 51 percent of the time and threw about 49 percent. Sunday's split was more like 60-40 in favor of the run. But against New York, the Cowboys still showed some ability in both facets of the offense, and they looked far more potent than they did when Brandon Weeden was calling the shots.

Not to dogpile on Weeden, but his lack of success stretching the field had me dubious that Dez Bryant could make him a better quarterback. If you remember back to last year, Dez was a relative non-factor when Weeden started against Arizona.

When Dez does eventually return, I think Cassel has the ability and the confidence to get him the ball. That should only help with the run game and short-yardage passing, as defenses will have to pay respects to the deep ball.

Cassel has to clean up his decision-making, but I'm pretty confident the Cowboys will be able to move the ball in the coming weeks.

2. The foundation is there on defense

Just like Cassel has to limit the turnovers, this defense has to force some. There's no way around it. Simply put, it's embarrassing for the Cowboys that they've only generated a takeaway in one of six games.

That's a tricky stat to work around, because how can you definitively improve it? Dallas has come so agonizingly close to so many turnovers, and it hasn't fallen their way. If there's one criticism I could make, it's probably that their defensive backs aren't making enough plays on balls. But it's not an exaggeration to say they're a handful of bounces from a much more respectable tally.

The stuff they're doing around that doughnut isn't bad, though.

I mean, in two games against New York, the Cowboys allowed an average of 181 passing yards and 40 receiving yards to the explosive duo of Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. Normally known as a Cowboy killer, Manning did not throw a touchdown pass against Dallas this season.

The rushing defense could stand to improve, as it is currently 20th in the NFL in yards per attempt, with an unhealthy average of 4.2 yards per carry. That's not great, but aside from the Atlanta game, it's hard to point to an outing where the run defense was completely ineffective. In fact, Dallas is eighth in the league in total defense.

Scoring defense is problematic, but I don't need to remind you how much of that goes back to the offense.

There's plenty that needs correcting, starting with the fact that the Cowboys need to generate takeaways. But they're not incompetent. If you watched this team in 2013, you know what an incompetent defense looks like.

This is a talented defense that has only put together one complete performance, and that was their fantastic effort in the 20-10 win against Philadelphia. I don't think it's a stretch to say they're capable of picking up their play.

3. This stretch is still manageable

I can't allow myself to be too optimistic – that just wouldn't be my style. The Cowboys had opportunities to win in New Orleans and New York, and they didn't get it done. That's going to hurt them in the long run, and it might even keep them out of the playoffs. Seriously, imagine how much better you'd feel at 3-3 right now, let alone 4-2.

But I digress. The point is, my goal for the Romo-less Cowboys is still attainable. I said back in September that they needed to find two wins before Romo was eligible to return on Nov. 22 against Miami.

You've got to assume this team isn't going unbeaten down the stretch, even with Romo. I'm adding two losses to the record once Romo comes back, just to be safe – that's just the competitive nature of the NFL. So if the Cowboys are going to have a shot at a 9-7 record this season, you'd prefer them to be no worse than 4-5 when he gets back.

That means Dallas has to win two of its next three games, and that sounds daunting as hell given the way the last month has gone.

It's not as daunting as it could be, though. The Seahawks are runaway leaders in sacks allowed this season, with 31. That alone gives me reason to believe the Cowboys can put up a concerted effort this weekend. We haven't seen a one-dimensional offense really get the better of this defense to date, and that seems to be what Seattle has.

Following Seattle is a home game against a schizophrenic Philly team that has only put together one strong performance this season. Following the Eagles is a trip to Tampa to play a rookie quarterback who has thrown seven interceptions in six career appearances.

Even if the Seahawks prove to be too much this weekend, the opportunity for a 4-5 record is still out there. It's not ideal, to be sure. But very little has been ideal since Jordan Hicks landed on Romo's collarbone back in Week 2.

If the idea is to give Romo a chance – even just a slight chance – at pushing this team into the playoffs, then very little has changed in the last few weeks.

The Cowboys have blown a couple of opportunities to help themselves, but this doesn't look like a hapless team to this point. That alone is cause for hope that they can turn it around.

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