FRISCO, Texas – They call it the "red zone," the 19 yards separating the 20-yard line from the goal line.
Last year, might as well have been called 19 yards of "pay dirt" for the Cowboys, scoring touchdowns on 40 of 56 entries, with an additional 14 field goals. That meant scoring red-zone touchdowns 71.4 percent of the time and points 96.4 percent of the time.
This season, so far for the 3-1 Cowboys, inside the 20 might as well be the Twilight Zone. Weird stuff seems to happen. Sort of incongruous for the team tied for the NFL lead with 19 red-zone possessions, leads the NFL converting 51.6 percent of their third downs and fourth in points scored per game, averaging 31.
But so far, the Cowboys have scored only seven touchdowns on those 19 trips inside the 20, ranking 30th at a 38.6 percent rate in the NFL. They've been forced to settle for 10 field goals, the good and bad of the situation, since those field goals account for all but three of rookie kicker Brandon Aubrey's 13 straight to start the season.
The culprit? Execution, reminding of former Tampa Bay head coach John McKay during the Buccaneers 0-14 inaugural 1976 season. When asked what he thought of his team's "execution," he replied, "I'm all for it."
The worse part of this humbling production inside the 20 would be these last two games because the Cowboys in the first two games scored touchdowns on five of 10 trips. Not great but at least 50 percent. Yet in the past two while going 1-1, they have scored touchdowns on only two of nine trips in this now Twilight Zone, having to settle for five field goals.
"I think it's a combination of things," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said earlier in the week. "More importantly, at the top of the list (why) is execution. … I think we are fractions away from executing on some of those plays."
You know, Jerry has a point if we dive into the box instead of just putting a bow on these early-season failures to punch the ball across a goal line as if protected by a bunch of border buoys.
Against Arizona, in the 28-16 loss, the Cowboys scored just one touchdown on five red-zone trips, and the first and successful one was almost sabotaged by a Terence Steele false start on first-and-goal at the 10 and then Brandin Cooks landing out of bounds the next play in the end zone before Rico Dowdle weaved 15 yards on a screen for the touchdown.
Next, on a third-and-goal, a blitz hitting Dak Prescott causes a high throw incomplete. Next, third-and-goal at the 3, a dropped shotgun snap from backup center Brock Hoffman complicated by a Chuma Edoga hold sabotages that series. Next, a poorly blocked CeeDee Lamb end-around run delays that series. Next, a 2-yard Tony Pollard loss, then a missed block all led to Dak's ill-advised pass into the end zone intercepted.
And this poor execution followed the Cowboys into the 38-3 wipeout of the Patriots. First, on third-and-goal at the 1, Pollard went the wrong way for a handoff, running right into Prescott for minus-4. Next on a third-and-2-at the 6, the Cowboys turned an unblocked Ja'Whaun Bentley pressure into a sack. Next, a 10-yard holding penalty on Tyler Smith complicated a first-and-10 at the 14, along with a missed blitz pickup by Deuce Vaughn turning that possession into a field goal. All that before finally, finally, rookie fullback Hunter Luepke scores a touchdown on a 3-yard run.
Now on to San Francisco while thinking when facing the No. 2 offense in the league, the Niners averaging 31 points a game, no can do leaving four points on the field each time kicking these gimme field goals.
- O-Line Shuffle: Maybe, just maybe, for the first time this season the Cowboys might have the starting five offensive linemen on the field at the same time. Hasn't happened yet, right, with left guard Tyler Smith missing the first two games, Tyron Smith, Tyler Biadasz and Zack Martin missing Game 3 and Tyron Smith still out for Game 4. But at this point, things look encouraging. Biadasz and Martin returned in Game 4, and while Martin did leave somewhat early, at least on Wednesday he and Tyron Smith were doing rehab, though listed on the official injury report as "rest." Head coach Mike McCarthy seemed optimistic both would be able to play on Sunday. Just remember, offensive lines matter. Go ask Giants quarterback Daniel Jones, sacked 10 times Monday night by Seattle.
- Push This: Finally happened, players injured with this rugby-nonsense push-play for quarterbacks trying to pick up 1 yard. The Giants lost two players in that Monday night mauling at the hands of Seattle on said push-play that, by the way, was unsuccessful. Center John Michael Schmitz and tight end Daniel Bellinger suffered game-ending injuries on the first-quarter play. Just wait until a shoved QB is injured, then we'll see a rule change.
- Defense … Defense: The Cowboys have given up just four touchdowns so far this season, three of those in the Arizona loss, leaving them tied for the NFL lead with Baltimore for fewest TDs allowed. Although the Ravens defense has only given up three, since one opponent TD was on a return. Now the Cowboys face a San Francisco team having already scored 14 touchdowns, third most in the NFL, behind Miami's 20 and Buffalo's 16.
- Special Teamer: Second-year receiver Jalen Tolbert has shared fourth-receiver duties with KaVonte Turpin, enjoying his best performance of his short career Sunday with career highs of four receptions, 53 receiving yards and a long of 18 yards. But on top of that, Tolbert is becoming known as a special teams contributor despite never playing special teams at South Alabama and having no special teams snaps in his rookie season. But sure made a name for himself with that special teams tackle on punt coverage against New England, dropping Patriots returner Demario Douglas for a 2-yard loss with a mighty physical hit. Tolbert has played his first 46 special teams snaps in four games this season, registering two tackles. "The best game of my career," Tolbert said of Sunday's performance.
- One-Liners: The Cowboys are just one of two teams holding the 49ers to less than 30 points in the last 10 games (including playoffs) during that 19-12 playoff loss last season, meaning they have scored at least 30 in all four games so far this season … Cornerback DaRon Bland's two interceptions on Sunday gives him three in four games this season and eight in his first two years in the NFL, most of any player since the start of the 2022 season … The Cowboys have turned their 10 takeaways this season into 38 points, second to the Bills with 11 takeaways for 40 points … And while the rookie Aubrey is tied for the NFL lead among kickers with 48 points, fueled by his 13 consecutive field goals made, also equally impressive is he's No. 1 in touchback percentage on kickoffs with 28 of 29.
Let's invite Cowboys Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman for this week's final word, harkening back to his days when these Cowboys-Niners regular season and playoff games were must-see TV and at the time prime tickets to grab, which will be the case come Sunday at 3:25 p.m. at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., when the Cowboys meet those undefeated 49ers.
"They play a style of football that reminds me a lot of some of the teams I was part of," Aikman said on 1310 The Ticket of having to play the Niners. "They're very physical. If you're going to play the 49ers, whether you're playing their offense or against their defense, you better bring some physicality, because if you don't match that, you're going to have a really tough time. That's why Dallas in the postseason has had a hard time.
"This is going to be a great game. It's a great matchup between what I think are the two titans in the NFC, along with Philadelphia."
Say no more.