Skip to main content

Writer's Blocks: Two Long Weeks & The Art Of The Must-Win Game

FRISCO, Texas -- I'm not one for hot takes, but this is as bad as the Dallas Cowboys have needed a win at any point in recent memory.

That's not how I originally intended to start my Week 7 column, but it's the only thing I come back to when I think about the issues surrounding this team right now.

So I'll spare you the monologue this week and we'll jump right into what I'm talking about -- and what I'm afraid might happen if the Cowboys can't find a way to finish with more points than the 49ers.

1.I really did wrack my brain when I asked myself "is this the most the Cowboys have needed a win during my time with the team?"

It sure feels that way -- at least during the regular season. You can automatically throw out the magical 2016 season. The Cowboys were 0-1 when they won their first game last year. After that, they reeled off 11-straight wins. Even with a couple of late-season letdowns, they cruised to a 13-3 record.

The 2015 was similar, but for different reasons. Dallas jumped out to 2-0, and then the season was torpedoed by Tony Romo's broken collarbone. You could argue that they desperately needed wins during that seven-game losing streak while Romo was absent. But doesn't that feel hollow when you consider that Romo re-injured himself during his second game back in action?

As promising as it started, that 2015 season was dashed in mid-September -- and it's ok to admit that.

You could make some arguments for 2014. The Cowboys lost two in a row in the middle of the season, again because of injuries to Romo. There was also the mid-December showdown at Philadelphia, which gave Dallas the leg up to win the NFC East.

I'm throwing those out. Because as clutch as those wins were, they weren't "must have" wins. Romo came back in Week 10, giving his team eight weeks to right the ship. And while the win in Philly was huge, the Cowboys still could have won the division without it.

That takes us all the way back to 2013, 2012 and 2011 -- the three seasons where the Cowboys lost their last game, with a chance to reach the playoffs.

A couple of things come to mind when I think about those season. Firstly, this 2016 team has far more talent than them. Secondly, this do-or-die moment is upon them in October, rather than December or January.

This certainly feels like uncharted territory for a Jason Garrett-coached Cowboys team.

2.Ok, but why does this game loom so large? Let me elaborate.

I'll start first with the things the Cowboys can control, as Garrett likes to say. Most obviously, this is the easiest opponent remaining on the Cowboys' entire schedule. Yes, that's true.

Of course, no opponent in the NFL is truly easy. Everyone in this league gets paid handsomely, and anything can happen on ay Sunday -- I get that. This San Francisco team is 0-6, but the 49ers have lost their last five games by a combined 13 points. They're not an easy out.

But break down the facts. San Francisco is about to give C.J. Beathard his first career start at quarterback. Carlos Hyde and Pierrce Garcon are good players, but Beathard is lacking in explosive options on offense.

Across the ball, the 49ers are breaking in a bunch of young talent and currently rank near the bottom of the league in total defense and scoring defense.

3.Contrast that with the rest of the schedule. After San Francisco, the Cowboys go on the road to play a division game against a red-hot Kirk Cousins. Then they host Kansas City, which has been the best team in the league to this point.

After the Chiefs, it's a road trip to play the reigning NFL MVP and reigning NFC champs in Matt Ryan and the Falcons. The week after that, it's a home game against the Eagles -- who currently have the best record in the NFC.

The home stretch features two division games, both of which are on the road. In between those two is a road trip to face Derek Carr and Oakland, as well as a home game against Russell Wilson and the Seattle defense.

None of this is to say the Cowboys can't win these games. They're a talented team, and they'll be capable of pulling out some wins. But there are some good squads and some high-caliber quarterbacks waiting ahead on the schedule.

Nothing is "easy" in the NFL, strictly speaking. But it's not going to get easier than a rookie quarterback and an 0-6 roster.

4.None of this even factors in the off-field issues that have beset this team for the past two weeks -- and really for most of the season.

The Cowboys have been embroiled in Ezekiel Elliott's battle against the NFL since August, so that's not exactly news. But it has only been two weeks since this organization was thrust into the epicenter of the debate over the national anthem, and where and how NFL players should peacefully protest.

Whether it's about Zeke or the anthem, this team has been faced with scrutiny. There has been a lot of anger, for one reason or another. There have been many uncomfortable questions. It's these guys' job to play football, but you could forgive them if the past month has felt like anything but.

I don't want to speak for Jason Garrett's ability to keep a team focused, but at some point enough has to be enough. Combine the actual, on-field struggles -- the leaky run defense, the inconsistent offense, etc. -- with the bevy of off-field talking points, and it's bound to get exhausting for everyone involved.

It'd be one thing if the Cowboys were winning games. But all those issues combined with a losing streak is a bad recipe. If that losing streak is highlighted by a loss to an 0-6 team, it could be hard to recover from.

5.As I wrote in an earlier column, that L.A. Rams loss sure feels like one the Cowboys gave away. Even though the Rams are a good team, with a 4-2 record on the year, Dallas still held a 24-13 lead at home and let it slip.

If you lose to San Francisco, then you've lost two of your most manageable games to drop to 2-4.

If logic dictates that you need to win at least eight or nine games to earn a playoff spot, then you're talking about going 6-4 or 7-3 down the stretch -- just to have a mediocre record.

It's still somewhat early in the season, but this definitely doesn't look like a team that's going to rip off six or seven wins in a row. And with that in mind, you absolutely have to win the small number of manageable games you have.

Nothing is for certain, but let's be brutally honest. It's hard to imagine the Cowboys as a playoff team if they can't get a win in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday.

Given the talent on this roster, and the expectations when the season started, that's exactly why this feels like the Cowboys' most dire need of a win in quite some time.

6.Exhausting as it might be to talk about, though, I am so sick and tired of the people who simply want the Ezekiel Elliott situation to "go away."

Obviously, it's not fun to talk about. And to a certain point it takes a toll on you. But how absurd does it sound to say that from an outsider's perspective? Imagine being him.

We're now entering the third month since Elliott was originally suspended by the NFL and subsequently began to fight against that ruling. It has been roughly 15 months since the league initially opened an investigation into allegations of domestic violence against him.

I can't imagine how tired that dude must be. Tired of hearing about it, tired of stressing about it, tired of wondering what's going to happen.

And yet, he and his legal team can and should keep forcing the issue. It's impossible for me to say for sure what he has and hasn't done in his personal life, but Elliott was never charged with anything and he maintains his innocence. On top of all that, the NFL has bungled this whole thing from the word "go."

So, yeah. It's annoying. Zeke is still fighting against this ruling, and the Cowboys are about to play their sixth game. Theoretically, he could've just accepted this punishment, sat out and gotten ready to play. To further that theory, it's technically possible that he could still be suspended -- thereby missing games later this season.

Literally none of that matters, and it doesn't seem like anyone realizes that. Ezekiel Elliott is a really good football player, but he's also a person fighting to defend his reputation. If he really does believe he's innocent of those allegations, he should exhaust every possible outlet in clearing his name.

Anyone else placed in that situation would do the exact same thing.

7.There's very little doubt in my mind that Tyron Smith is going to play on Sunday against San Francisco. He was at practice Thursday, and he has proven on plenty of occasions he can get the job done on limited reps. Two weeks ago against Green Bay, he played well after not practicing all week.

The short-term isn't the issue here. But at this point, how can it not be concerning theway the Cowboys' All-Pro left tackle continues to manage back pain? Even after a bye week, Smith is still taking a limited workload during practice -- which suggests that he might not be 100 percent healthy for the rest of this season.

Again, none of this is a big deal in the present. If anyone can get up for a game on short practice snaps, it's Smith -- who I have repeatedly argued is the Cowboys' best player, period.

What bothers me is that it's now fair to call this a recurring issue for Tyron. Back problems forced him out of two games last season, and he was managing the problem at different times down the home stretch. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett has been sure to say that Smith's current problems aren't related to last year's. But back injuries are concerning for anyone -- let alone a 6'4 offensive tackle who spends the whole game bent over in a two-point stance.

Smith is only 26 years old, and he's currently under contract for six more years. Ideally, he won't hit free agency until he's 32.

But it's awfully scary to think that he'll be battling these problems as he gets older. Hopefully it's something he can put behind him when the week-to-week grind of the season is over.

8.It's always fun when a stadium sponsor is actually something I've heard of before.

So many of these corporate sponsors are bland, faceless conglomerations that just kind of glaze my eyes over -- EverBank, M&T Bank, NRG, Lincoln Financial, CenturyLink, FirstEnergy.

I straight up don't even know what most of these companies do, except I assume some of them are banks. But they're banks that I'd never know anything about if I wasn't a football fan.

So I appreciate places like San Francisco, where I assuredly know what Levi's are -- or AT&T here in Dallas-Fort Worth, because I spend my life on my phone. Y'all make me feel like a more intelligent football fan, so thanks.


This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content