A tradition unlike any other: The Cowboys falling apart down the stretch

·NFL columnist

Nearly everything failed. From the offensive line to the defense. From the special teams to the quarterback. Across the full spectrum of tackling, throwing, catching and play-calling. And when the Dallas Cowboys’ first shutout loss in 15 years had subsided – by way of a 23-0 thumping from the Indianapolis Colts – they were fortunate the team bus even started.

Phrases like “embarrassment” and “too hot to trot” were tossed out. That’s not who we are was a general theme. Along with some proclamations that Dallas may have gotten a little too gassed up on its own headlines.

“I think we needed a reality check,” running back Ezekiel Elliott told reporters.

OK. How about this for a reality check: These Dallas Cowboys – despite digging themselves out of a hole and smoothing out some rough edges during a five-game winning streak – still look like the same, old franchise that finds a way to fall apart when everything is supposed to be coming together. You can call that a coaching problem. You can blame some talent holes. You can curse the decades of Jerry Jones failures. But whatever you do, don’t call this team anything different than so many others that have teased the fanbase and then collapsed when it mattered most.

That’s the reality, and here is the check: Until Dallas proves it’s capable of something different than the decades of frustration we’ve come to know, assume this kind of loss. Where the only silver lining is reaching for a suggestion that getting beaten down on the road against a good (but not great) team is somehow precisely what the franchise needed.

Truth be told, the Cowboys could have used a quality win over the Colts more than some kind of motivational busted lip. Dallas needed to close out the NFC East. It needed to clinch a postseason berth. And maybe more than anything, it needed to show that it could beat another playoff-caliber team, since the only victory it has fitting that description is the 13-10 squeaker over the Saints.

That’s right. If you’re counting true quality wins over potential playoff teams, Dallas is now going to finish with just one of those this season. The Seattle Seahawks? A 24-13 loss. Houston Texans? A 19-16 loss. The Tennessee Titans? A 28-14 loss. And now against the Colts Sunday, arguably the most embarrassing loss of the season – coming at a time when Dallas was supposed to be ready for this kind of road game.

QB Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys suffered an embarrassing shutout in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
QB Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys suffered an embarrassing shutout in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Before you brush off this loss so easily, consider that set of defeats. Because as compelling as the Saints win was, the overall picture against quality teams remains as concerning as ever. And it will stay that way, regardless of what happens against the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants in the final two games of the season.

Keep it in mind if Dallas finishes 10-6 and renews expectations. Keep that 13-3 team in mind from 2016, which achieved a No. 1 seed and lost to the Green Bay Packers after a playoff bye. Keep all of those 8-8 middling seasons at the front of your mind, because, really, has this edition proven to be exponentially better?

No, it hasn’t.

Right now, Dallas is a team that climbed back into the playoff picture by virtue of a great defense, a successful trade – the acquisition of Amari Cooper – and a staggering spate of injuries for the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins. That combination of circumstances opened the door for a five-game winning streak and cultivated an assumption that Dallas was actually a more complete team than any of us thought.

In truth, the Cowboys haven’t proven that. Not yet.

The Saints win was fantastic. There is no taking away from that, even if the Cowboys offense was less than spectacular in the win. The offense? It has gotten better with the addition of Cooper and the expanded use of Elliott. The defense? It has been spectacular in spots and consistently good in most others.

But even inside of that, there remain some fundamental flaws. The defense had a spate of horrific tackling against the Colts. The special teams failed at a critical early juncture, allowing a blocked field goal. And quarterback Dak Prescott – well, his box score could have been exponentially worse. That single interception could have easily been three, but Colts defenders dropped a pair of balls that hit their hands.

In fact, if you’re searching for a reason why the Cowboys will eventually flop this season, it’s the same one it has always been: the offense. Now that Cooper has laid down some film in the scheme, teams are going to do what the Colts did Sunday, making him a high priority and forcing Prescott to either fit the ball into tighter spaces or choose other options. Which isn’t a good thing, because Elliott can only carry this offense for so long. And there were times against the Colts that he started to look a little more beat up than usual.

Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan hasn’t mustered any signature offense-driven wins for Dak and company. (AP)
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan hasn’t mustered any signature offense-driven wins for Dak and company. (AP)

All of which brings us back to offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and the reality that he hasn’t suddenly revolutionized the playbook. While it’s clear Cooper has helped to open up some opportunities, the scheme didn’t look remotely as creative as the one operated by Colts head coach Frank Reich. If anything, Cowboys fans and ownership got a ringside seat to the difference between a forward-thinking offense versus a scheme geared for the previous decade.

Consider how woefully beaten up the offensive line is at this point in the season. Dallas was playing the Colts with a banged-up Tyron Smith, and no Zack Martin or Travis Frederick. Despite this, Linehan called a jumbo package on fourth-and-1 at the Indianapolis 3-yard line during a critical early juncture. In 2016, that call makes sense. In 2018, with all the injuries, it’s asking for trouble. Which is exactly what Dallas got, with Elliott getting hit for a loss behind the line scrimmage.

It was a frustrating first-quarter moment, coming one drive after the blocked field goal and preceding a punt on the next drive. Before the Cowboys knew it, they were playing from behind. With an offense that does not play well from behind, no less. It’s that kind of stretch that undercuts this team, same as it always has.

Call it embarrassment, as Elliott did. Or take a cue from Prescott and suggest this was a correction for a team that was “too hot to trot.” But don’t ever buy that this isn’t who the Dallas Cowboys are. Because it is. And until they prove otherwise, it always will be.

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