Cowboys Playing Pretender Yet Again, as Defense Is Just Too Bad to Overcome

Tony RomoIt’s like the record keeps skipping in Dallas, because we’ve definitely heard this story before.

The Cowboys have as much talent as any team in the NFL.  To start the season, they enjoy a couple big wins, endure a few close losses, put up video game numbers offensively and convince people around the league that they’re on the cusp of being a Super Bowl contender. Then, almost on cue, they fold like the fragile house of cards that they really are. Sunday was that moment for the 2013 edition of the ‘Boys.

Following what seemed like a character building win against the Vikings last week, the Cowboys were expected to give the NFC South-leading Saints a game worthy of its Sunday night billing. Instead, Jason Garrett, Tony Romo and the rest of their Cowboys companions threw up on themselves in what has become customary fashion and were completely outclassed by Drew Brees and a far superior Saints team in New Orleans. Brees threw four touchdowns, Mark Ingram — yup, he’s still alive and relevant — ran for a career-high 145 yards and Rob Ryan did the equivalent of the Nelson Muntz point and laugh to Garrett, Jerry Jones and the rest of his former team.

The offense was anemic. The defense was nonexistent. And the Cowboys yet again proved why they don’t belong anywhere near the phrase “Super Bowl contender.”

Romo threw for just 128 yards — his fewest in a full game since Week 2 of the 2009 season. The Cowboys ‘ offense managed just 193 total yards and nine first downs — their lowest output in both categories since Week 17 in 2007. And the defense allowed 625 yards of total offense and an NFL record 40 first downs on the night. Those are some historic lows.

The problems were evident on all fronts on Sunday, but some of them have been constant throughout the season and may even be irreparable given all the injuries. Even though the numbers wouldn’t indicate it on Sunday, the Cowboys do boast the league’s fourth-best scoring offense (27.4 points per game) and second-best red zone efficiency rating (66.7 percent) this season. However, the defense continues to be their Achilles’ heel.

Through 10 games, the Cowboys have allowed the most yards in the NFL, which translates to 439.8 yards per game — just .2 short of the NFL record set by the Saints last season. They also rank dead last in pass defense, giving up 313 passing yards per game, 28th in rushing defense at 126.8 yards on average and 23rd in scoring defense, allowing 25.8 points per game. With such a dismal performance across the defense, it’s almost a miracle that the Cowboys are 5-5 or even have a shot at the playoffs at this point. And it’s unlikely to get better anytime soon.

The Cowboys shouldn’t be as bad as the numbers show. They’ve got tons of talent spread across that defense, but, because of all the injuries, they’ve been forced to roll out a high school equivalent on defense each week. Starting defensive end Jason Hatcher still hasn’t returned from a neck injury. Middle linebacker Sean Lee is expected to miss three-to-four weeks with a hamstring injury suffered in Sunday’s loss. And a rash of other injuries on defense make it likely that those numbers only get even worse before they can get better.

Fortunately for their playoff hopes, the Cowboys have the bye week to resolve their issues before starting the second part of their season. Although, their schedule over the final six weeks could make a playoff push much more challenging.

Dallas will visit the Giants, who have found renewed life in recent weeks, in Week 12 before rotating home and away games the rest of the season. They’ll get a visit from the upstart Raiders in Week 13 and take a trip to Chicago for a Monday nighter the following week. Then the Packers will visit Big D, likely with a healthy Aaron Rodgers in tow, before ending the season with a couple division games in Washington D.C. and at home against the Eagles. It’s not exactly the most daunting final six weeks, but they won’t have a free ride into the postseason either.

It’s entirely possible that 8-8 could win the NFC East this season. The Eagles are tied with the Cowboys atop the division at 5-5 through Week 10, and the Giants and Redskins are just two games back at 3-6 each. Such mediocrity gives the Cowboys even more hope of making it into the postseason, but, whether they’re playing in January or not, it’s not like they’ll make much noise anyhow.

The Cowboys are currently constructed as a team set to get involved in high-scoring shootouts — even if they didn’t show as much in New Orleans. That’s not how teams typically win in the playoffs, though. The postseason is a much more strategic game predicated on defense and grind-it-out wins in the low-to-mid 20s. An entirely healthy Cowboys team might give them a chance in the wild card round, but they won’t be able to compete with teams like the Seahawks, 49ers, Saints and maybe even the Panthers on the road to New York.

The Cowboys’ four-year playoff drought may end this season, but don’t mistake them for a contender because they’ll only let you down.

Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.

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