FRISCO, Texas – At least in 2020 we have some clarity.
Frustrating as this season might be, we at least have an idea of what we're looking at.
That's what we didn't have last season. As the Cowboys middled their way to an 8-8 record in 2019, we were at a loss for why. All of their top-notch players were healthy. All of their stars were producing. All hands were on deck. And yet, they never produced consistently. They rarely played well in the games they were supposed to win, and they never beat the tough teams on the schedule. It led to weekly debates about whether the roster was as talented as we thought it was.
We don't have to worry about that in 2020. This roster might have been talented in August, but it sure isn't looking that way in mid-October. And however many talented players might remain in Week 7, they certainly aren't playing up to the level of expectation.
Heading into another division rivalry on Sunday, the Cowboys find themselves behind a hell of an eight ball. Half the talent on their roster isn't available because of injury, and the half that is available isn't producing for them on a variety of levels.
If they can't find a way to reverse that – or at least mitigate it – they're going to have a hard time digging out of their current situation.
As usual, I'll elaborate.
- Remember 200 years ago – or at least, what feels like 200 years ago – when the Cowboys' front office signed three massive contract extensions in the month before the 2019 regular season?
The flurry of activity set the stage for the future of this team. The Cowboys signed Jaylon Smith and La'el Collins to big deals within a week of each other, and then they capped it off by signing Ezekiel Elliott to a $90 million deal the week before the season started.
Bookend those three signings with the DeMarcus Lawrence deal in April 2019 and the Amari Cooper deal in March 2020, and you're getting an idea of what this team considers its core. Throw in the Dak Prescott franchise tag for $31 million, and you've got six players accounting for almost $77 million – or roughly 40% of this year's salary cap.
- Obviously, for the percentage they take up, these are the guys an NFL team is counting on to pull the weight. To make the biggest differences.
For a variety of reasons, it's just not happening here in Dallas.
Obviously, Prescott and Collins are on injured reserve. Their seasons are done and they aren't adding anything else to this win total. For that matter, throw Tyron Smith and Blake Jarwin – another $10 million in cap space – onto the IR figure, as well.
The more concerning bit is what the Cowboys aren't getting from the core guys who can play.
DeMarcus Lawrence is typically public enemy No. 1 when talking about these types of things. Lawrence is definitely still a good player, and you can see his activity anytime you turn on the tape. At the same time, it's completely fair to point out that he has posted just six sacks since signing his extension – including one this season. It's also fair to point out that his one sack – the strip-sack of Daniel Jones in Week 5 – completely turned the tide of that game. But with a defense this bad, the Cowboys are counting on seeing those types of plays more than once every six weeks.
Smith is a far more fascinating case study. The blind statistics will tell you that he's currently third in the NFL in tackles. He's also capable of playing dominantly, as evidenced by his 14-tackle, half-sack, three tackle for loss performance against New York.
And yet, for all of that, you'd be hard pressed to find many people who think Smith is playing up to his billing. The Cowboys' run defense is atrocious, and the discipline of their front seven is exposed on a weekly basis, and Smith is in the center of it all.
Coming off the Week 6 loss to Arizona, Elliott is currently the most glaring issue. Considering the Cowboys have spent this entire season playing catch up, his production has actually been solid. He's currently on pace for 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns, not to mention another 540 receiving yards.
Obviously the problem is ball security. With two fumbles on Monday night, his season tally is now at five, and he has lost four of them. He's leading the league in fumbles lost, tied with Las Vegas quarterback Derek Carr. Only one other running back in the league has lost multiple fumbles, period – let alone four of them.
- That leaves Amari Cooper as one guy out of six who is justifying the contract.
Cooper has been one of this team's best chain movers, averaging 11 receptions per game. He's on pace for a 1,300 yard season despite sharing targets with dynamic talents like Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb. And he proved Monday he can still produce without Prescott, as he caught seven balls for 79 yards and a touchdown from Andy Dalton.
- Despite that, this isn't a recipe for success.
Elliott said it himself Monday after the Cardinals loss. Credit to him for calling it out directly.
"I am supposed to be a guy this team can rely on, supposed to be a guy this team can lean on when times get rough. And I just wasn't that today," he said.
Elliott speaks only for himself, but it's pretty evident that the quote could apply to a few guys on this team. It's not the journeymen or the developing players that are going to dig you out of a hole, it's the highly-drafted and handsomely-paid cornerstones.
Unfortunately, the Cowboys have lost a significant number of those guys to injury. But this season isn't going anywhere good unless they get more from the difference-makers they still have.
- Just one more fun (read: super, duper not fun at all) note.
The Cowboys' grand total in salary that's currently on injured reserve is somewhere around $57 million. That doesn't even include Gerald McCoy, who was released after suffering his quad injury.
In a year where injuries are absurd all over the NFL, no one wants to hear excuses. But I just can't ever remember such an absurd rash of injuries – and to players you absolutely can't afford to lose.
- I'm not trying to overreact in Week 6. There's a lot of football left to play, and you have to look at the big picture when it comes to major contracts.
But it is interesting to think that this could already be a crossroads for what the Cowboys look like in the future.
Regardless of what happens this season, you've got to imagine Mike McCarthy will be given several years to mold this team to his preference. To this point, he's only called the shots on one draft class and a handful of free agents – several of whom are already gone.
This league will quickly teach you that nothing is permanent. Not many things are even long-lasting. The remainder of this season will likely shape McCarthy's opinion about the core of this team and what he wants it to look like.
None of this is to say the Cowboys are going to gut their roster. A lot of their problems are injury-related, and obviously there are cap implications to consider when you make major roster moves.
But the next 10 weeks are going to be a heck of a test of this team's resolve. The Cowboys can still make the playoffs, but even if they do, it's going to be in the face of major adversity.
Regardless of how it unfolds, it'll be interesting to see what McCarthy thinks about his roster when this is all over – and what steps he takes to change it in 2021.