Playoff Hopes in Limbo

Are the Dallas Cowboys destined for another 8-8 season?

Are the Dallas Cowboys destined for another 8-8 season?

Dallas Cowboys sidelines
The Cowboys have failed to win close games this season. Photo courtesy of Dallas Cowboys
Sean Lee of the Dallas Cowboys
Sean Lee had two interceptions against Detroit but it wasn't enough to tip the scales.  Photo courtesy of Dallas Cowboys
Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions
Matthew Stafford ripped the Cowboys for more than 400 yards. Photo courtesy of Dallas Cowboys
Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions
Calvin Johnson had an impressive 329 yards receiving. Photo courtesy of Dallas Cowboys
Dez Bryant makes great touchdown catch
Dez Bryant's improbable touchdown catch was overshadowed by his temper tantrum on the sidelines. Photo courtesy of Dallas Cowboys
Dez Bryant meltdown on Dallas Cowboys sideline
Dez Bryant had an epic meltdown in the Cowboys 31-30 loss to the Lions. Photo courtesy of Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys sidelines
Sean Lee of the Dallas Cowboys
Matthew Stafford of the Detroit Lions
Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions
Dez Bryant makes great touchdown catch
Dez Bryant meltdown on Dallas Cowboys sideline

Eli Manning. Phillip Rivers. Peyton Manning. Matthew Stafford. These are professional passers. The Mannings have Super Bowl rings. Rivers and Stafford have playoff berths.

They’re also the four quarterbacks that have toasted the Dallas Cowboys for at least 400 passing yards in a game this season. If you’re looking for a common denominator, start there.

Sunday’s loss to Detroit, a 31-30 debacle that never should have gone down the way it did, saw Stafford throw for 488 yards — 329 yards of which went to Calvin Johnson. But that’s another story.

Why is the quality of the quarterback a common denominator? Think about it. Alex Smith. Sam Bradford. Robert Griffin III. Nick Foles.

Those are the four quarterbacks that failed to throw for more than 400 yards against the Cowboys. In fact, only one of them threw for more than 200 yards. The Cowboys are 3-1 in those games.

 When the Cowboys face a quarterback with elite credentials, they struggle mightily to stop the pass.

Smith, Bradford, Griffin and Foles are not among the Top 10 quarterbacks in the NFL. Griffin may get there one day, but he’s not there yet.

Aside from Smith, they’re also young, and that may have been the one thing Smith had working in his favor when he led the Chiefs to a 17-16 win over the Cowboys in Week 2. Those veteran wiles kept him out of trouble. 

The trend is clear now. When the Cowboys face a quarterback with elite or near-elite credentials — say someone on Tony Romo’s level or better — they struggle mightily to stop the pass.

The only thing that saved the Cowboys on opening night against the Giants, it appears, is that the Giants committed six turnovers in their 36-31 loss. Turns out the four the Cowboys forced against the Lions wasn’t enough.

The larger issue is why? Why are these elite or near-elite quarterbacks destroying the Cowboys pass defense? 

Against the Lions, you could use injuries as an excuse. Safety J.J. Wilcox was hurt. Cornerback Morris Claiborne and safety Barry Church left the game with hamstring injuries. But the units weren’t decimated against the Giants, the Broncos and the Chargers and the same thing happened.

Is defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s vaunted Cover 2 scheme flawed? Well, I’ve seen it in person when it’s working, both this year and during his days in Tampa Bay. The scheme works. But it’s all about execution and personnel. If you don’t have that, then you’re in trouble.

When you look at those games the Cowboys’ secondary didn’t execute. They were vulnerable up the middle of the field, where the Cowboys have some of their youngest defenders. They’re transitioning to a new coverage scheme and playing roles they weren’t drafted for. It takes time to adjust so you don’t want to throw in the towel on any of them.

But while they’re adjusting the Cowboys are only marginally better now than they were a year ago. And if you’re scouting the future, it’s easy to pick out the wins and the losses the next eight games, based on the quarterbacks.

And the future spells 8-8 once again.