Every now and then, Jerry Jones turns down the volume on the Dallas Cowboys hyperbole. He refrains from extolling the greatness of his stars, refuses to be overly generous with his head coach and trades his unflagging optimism for grounded realism.
Five games into the season, one can only hope that moment of temperance has arrived for the Cowboys owner. A man who just a few days ago invoked the name of the New England Patriots' Tom Brady when dreaming of the future of his own quarterback, Dak Prescott. But also a man who most accurately summed up the measurement of his franchise on Sunday night, following a fairly lopsided 34-24 home loss to the Green Bay Packers.
"What you see," Jones said, "is what you get."
Go ahead and preach to the congregation after this one, Jerry. Because where it concerns Dallas, I can tell you there are no lies in that statement.
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After five weeks, here is what we see from the Cowboys: They're unquestionably talented, more offensively creative and good enough defensively to throttle bad opponents. Without a doubt, there is potential to live up to some very lofty expectations in 2019.
Now here is what we get about the Cowboys after five games: They're undeniably soft when lined up against playoff-caliber opponents — as likely to self-inflict problems as they are to impose chaos across the line of scrimmage. They can be sluggish, out-of-rhythm and remarkably inconsistent. The coaching preparation and play-calling can be questioned and some of the young cornerstones can look highly overrated.
When you pull back and absorb all of that, it becomes easier to dial in Dallas for what it is. On one hand, the Cowboys are a three-win team that had its victory total pumped up on creampuffs who are now a collective 2-12. On the other hand, Dallas is a two-loss team that looks incapable of beating playoff-caliber talent. This is a special kind of conundrum that drives Cowboys fans crazy. Not because they know they have a gifted team, but because they know they have a gifted team and now they have to rely on head coach Jason Garrett to program the buttons correctly the remainder of the season.
Sometimes it's difficult to tell what is harder to swallow in Dallas — a bad roster with no hope, or a good roster with the hope largely leaning on a head coach the fan base has never really come to trust. The latter is what Dallas has now, meaning fans will be left to grapple with whether Garrett can coach the roster into cohesion and consistency. Up to now, the simple truth is he hasn't. Not the last two weeks, anyway. They’re the only weeks that matter now, since a big win against either the New Orleans Saints or Packers (or both) could have provided some sense that Dallas is a legitimate playoff or Super Bowl contender.
Instead, the Cowboys feel like a work in progress.
The offense? Inside it, you have Prescott, who hasn't quite established himself on the spectrum of the league's elite starting quarterbacks. He has spent two games against good teams looking familiarly uncomfortable, largely because of an offensive line that is talented but infrequently healthy. All of which has created an underrated learning curve for offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, whose play-calling seems to find a peak rhythm coming out of halftime — suggesting that he's still better at adjusting to a defense than scripting for it out of the gate. That makes sense, given that this is always the biggest jump for players who transition into coaching roles, where the new terrain is in the pregame scripting and not the in-game adjusting.
If that struggle for Moore is real (and I think it is), it places the onus on a Dallas defense when facing equally talented teams. Because the Cowboys have already had several games where the defense has been forced to hold the fort for the first quarter or beyond, while Moore has dialed in his offense. You can do that against bad teams, but it becomes more difficult when it's a talented team like the Packers, who showed a capability to both run over Dallas and set a tone in the process. In turn, the resulting hole put additional pressure on Moore and Prescott, who reacted with mistakes and a largely one-dimensional offense that was playing catch-up from start to finish.
In the process, some of the Cowboys' defensive breakdowns became evident, either from missed tackles, missed assignments, bad reads or lack of pressure. Frankly, the talent up front on the defensive line didn't look good enough at times. And the tandem of talented young linebackers — Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch — alternated between scintillating and maddening from the beginning of the game to the end. By the time the group found a late groove against an offense that didn't have star wideout Davante Adams, the Dallas offense couldn't be perfect enough to make up the gap.
And if that wasn't enough, the special teams failed, too — from missed field goals to costly penalties that can't happen against quality opponents. Failures that would have resonated significantly if the game had been closer. But it wasn't, thus providing a little bit of cover for kicker Brett Maher as he attempts to get himself on track moving forward.
If all of this sounds like Dallas has got a litany of problems, that's because it does. The bottom line: It has the talent to have gone into New Orleans and have beaten the Teddy Bridgewater-led Saints, but it looked lost on offense and fumbled the game away late. And it certainly has the kind of roster that should never have fallen into a pitiful 31-3 hole at home to a Packers team that lacked its most dynamic wideout. Don't let the late-game comeback erase the litany of mistakes that typically define bad teams.
There is no getting around the past two weeks for Dallas. They were the measuring-stick games. Not the wins over the hapless Miami Dolphins or Washington Redskins. Or the victory over the New York Giants, who hadn't yet replaced Eli Manning with sparkplug rookie Daniel Jones. And next week's road tilt against the New York Jets? That won't be much of a barometer, either.
In truth, Dallas has two weeks to get itself together for the Oct. 20 game against the Philadelphia Eagles, in a matchup that should put one of the franchises alone atop the NFC East. The Jets game should be nothing more than a solid tuneup for that divisional showdown with the Eagles. If it isn't — if Sam Darnold returns for the winless Jets and they suddenly become a handful — then this becomes a whole other conversation around Dallas. A very familiar conversation about Garrett and the coaching, and when ownership is going to attach some action to expectations.
Five games in, those expectations shouldn't have lessened, even if the faith in the Cowboys has. As Jones said: What you see is what you get with this team. And right now, that's just good enough to not be considered bad.
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