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Dallas Cowboys' Defense Breaks; 8-8 Season Looms

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COMMENTARY | On a day that saw the Browns beat the Bengals and the Bills beat the Ravens, it's easy to overlook the upset that happened in San Diego.

There, the Dallas Cowboys did nothing to ring the recurrent "choke" headlines, but instead lost a game to a team that pesters point-spread makers and are just good enough to give you concern, and just bad enough to give you confidence.

It wasn't a particularly bad loss, nor was it a good loss. There is such a thing as a good loss, by the way. A good loss is one where you can identify exactly what went wrong and know there's a fix; know that with the proper adjustment, those mistakes won't happen again.

That's what's troubling about the Cowboys 30-21 defeat to the Chargers. Weaknesses were exposed and they were too great for Tony Romo and company to overcome. Those weaknesses could be the same that hold this team back from their first playoff appearance in five years.

To be sure, Monte Kiffin's defensive scheme has made a big difference. His bend but don't break philosophy is superior to the Rob Ryan complexity and the Wade Phillips mediocrity, or at least that's the way it's been framed. But what we saw against the Chargers is the same thing every opposing defensive coordinator is going to see from this point forward. That is, the linebackers are fast, but with speed comes the compromise of size. And with that compromise comes the struggle of pass defense.

Without being too critical, it's worth pointing out that there's a big difference between covering a player and defending a player. Bruce Carter had Danny Woodhead pretty well covered on one of his two touchdowns, but Carter wasn't able to prevent the score. Sean Lee had a nice tipped-pass interception that he returned for six, but later got burned by an old and slow Antonio Gates for a 56-yard touchdown, which ultimately buried the Cowboys.

All that is to say is Carter and Lee are terrific players, and one bad game does not a failure make. Still, there has to be some concern here that the Cowboys can't stop opposing quarterbacks. They allowed three 100-yard receivers to the New York Giants in the first game of the season. In case you weren't aware, the Giants offense is quite awful in its current form. And in case you weren't concerned, the Cowboys have a date with Peyton Manning and the Broncos, who are averaging about 45 points per game.

The last thing you need from me is to rehash some old cliché of how defense wins championships. It's hardly true with the passer-friendly rules of the NFL. Modern times call for a great quarterback and play-making receivers. I believe the Cowboys have both. But the defense broke on Sunday and it's going to be tough to fix.

You also don't need me to remind you of how quarterbacks have terrorized this defense over the years. That fact, of course, led to some rather bullish decisions from the powers that be. No one dares deny that the Cowboys needed a major overhaul in the secondary. But I haven't met anyone that thinks the Cowboys were getting a shutdown corner when Jerry Jones traded up to draft Morris Claiborne. I've met even fewer people that think Brandon Carr is a standout cornerback that can handle target-heavy receivers by himself.

Basically, coverage sacks are not part of this team's DNA. Sure, even with injuries, the front seven is good enough on their own and they have plenty talent to harass passers. But if Kiffin's group is going to get picked on across the middle, the Cowboys are in for a long season.

At the end of the day, after the box score has been filled, we have to define what a winning season is. If a winning season simply means making the playoffs, then fine. The Cowboys are in perfect position to out-mediocre a bad NFC East and maybe even host a game in the New Year. If it means finishing better than 8-8 and making a run at the Super Bowl, then disappointment is sure to follow.

There comes a time when we just have to be honest with ourselves: the Cowboys two wins have come against teams that are a combined 1-7. Their two losses have come with plenty excuses and a lot of "could have won" nonsense. They're a .500 team right now and will likely be 2-3 after Manning and the Broncos get done with them. At this point, beating the Broncos wouldn't even count as a statement win; it would just be an upset that pays the electricity bill for a hotel in Vegas.

Losing to the Chargers was a statement loss. It was an upset that has been buried underneath headlines much thanks to the Browns and the Bills. It says the Cowboys can't go on the road and beat a team that doesn't even compare on paper. It says, even if Romo plays efficiently, the team will put him in a losing -situation. It says the Cowboys are an 8-8 team.

Thankfully, 8-8 will probably be good enough to win the division. And if not, I suppose it's not out of the question to think they can win seven of their next 12 games, is it?

Justin Bonnema is a freelance writer and a featured columnist covering the NFL and fantasy football.

Follow him on Twitter: @justinbonnema

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