Let's be clear here; this is not the worst football the Dallas Cowboys have ever played. There has been worse. Much worse. We have all seen the team at times, over the years, appear hopeless and without a clue. We have all seen years where the team might struggle to compete in the Big 12. This isn't that.
There is hope on the radar. Maybe not the type of hope that suggested that Super Bowl 50 was a reasonable objective just a month ago, but absolutely the type of hope that says 2015 can be salvaged. Because it still can be. But, we better do something quick.
That is why I am arguing for the desperate attempt of moving things around. It isn't the fault of any one man in this mix for the way things are right now with the Cowboys offense. But, the possibility of adjusting a thing or two during this bye week simply must happen.
They can't keep going with the Brandon Weeden/Scott Linehan approach right now. Something in that mix is making the Cowboys offense too easy to defend and it is actually a bit difficult to completely sort through it.
On one hand, you have an offense that seems to be running on every single 1st down. This is an admirable example of stubbornness when it is working - you will recall that nobody ran more on 1st down in 2014 - but when it puts your team in too many undesirable passing situations, it ceases to be admired.
The Cowboys' first eight opportunities to throw into favorable situations on 1st and 10 resulted in seven runs and a quick passing opportunity to Joseph Randle out of the backfield which was essentially another run. These play calls come through the offensive coordinator, Linehan, who clearly believed his best chance at competing in this game was to attempt to ride his offensive line to the end-zone repeatedly.
If only it were that easy.
Unfortunately, the Patriots were sitting on these efforts, and at halftime, the Cowboys had attempted 13 run plays that resulted in 40 yards. Also, unfortunately, they only moved the chains one solitary time from running the ball, which is more of the same from that idea that seemed logical in June, but illogical during the season. You know the one, the Cowboys will simply ground and pound the NFL into a fine dust by lining up anyone you want to grab and putting them behind the "Great Wall of Dallas". The idea was that this offensive line could win games because of their superior skills.
Of course, anyone who has watched NFL football for 15 minutes knows that isn't how this works. Defenses do not get run over in the NFL very often, and when they do, it is because they are put in a bind where they must respect the pass and therefore dare not dedicate troops to the line of scrimmage, lest easy aerial attacks over their heads ruin the day with quick strikes. But, if you give even a bad defense a free pass to not worry about any vertical threats and just focus on the run, it is a rather repeatable truth in this league that you will not have much success running into run looks.
And that is just for bad defenses. What about trying to run into a New England defense that has won a Super Bowl in the past 9 months and has one of the great defensive minds of our lives deciding how to destroy any Dallas hope?
Which brings us to the other hand of the Cowboys offense. So, if Scott Linehan thinks the only way to attack New England is to try to run through a brick wall, that speaks pretty loudly about the alternative of giving Brandon Weeden full authority to try to attack through the air. They knew that wouldn't work.
If Weeden was the type of Quarterback who could first make sure in presnap that he could get a team in the right play after analyzing the defensive alignments, then comfortably survey the field and find the proper place to go with the football during the chaos of a play, and finally deliver the ball in a safe and catchable fashion, there is a very good chance he would still be in Cleveland.
We know he has massive limitations. We know he is the type of backup QB that seems like a reasonable idea until he has to play. We know he is a QB who gives each play about 33% of the time he should before the ball is out of his hands. How do we know this? Because, anyone who has ever been to training camp has seen it happen over and over again in scrimmages and preseason games. And do know who else knows it? Bill Belichick and the Patriots.
We also know that the receiving options are quite limited as well. Devin Street has been in the NFL since April of 2014 and has caught 4 passes for 49 yards in his entire career. Lucky Whitehead was undrafted this spring and caught the first NFL pass of his career yesterday and if he never catches another one, he will end his career with "-3" yards. Gavin Escobar was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2013 draft as a receiving threat tight end. And in those three years of healthy football, the Cowboys have never figured out what to do with him (aside from throwing him a number of red zone fades that seem to work about once every four attempts), and he remains on a 100-yards-a-season pace. Weeden seldom looks at any of them.
That leaves the usual suspects of Terrance Williams, Jason Witten, and Cole Beasley. Williams has struggled mightily without Dez Bryant to prove that he is more than a complimentary deep threat. He has a real difficult time with tight coverage and his inability to catch a ball in traffic does not give QBs a lot of faith to throw at him. Witten and Beasley were the focus of Belichick, and at times in this game they would both receive double coverage on key 3rd downs. That is both smart for the defense and a reminder to the offense why you cannot simply wait until 3rd down to attempt to move the ball through the air.
Here is why I hope people read this part of my conclusions carefully, rather than merely a headline. This is not about blaming Brandon Weeden for being Brandon Weeden. The Cowboys knew what he was and obviously were rationalizing to themselves the premise that if any contender loses their "QB1" for 2 months, they are going to be in big trouble, too. That might be true, but this isn't "any contender", this is your contender. The Cowboys watched Weeden in camp in 2014, again in fill-in duty in 2014, in the offseason of 2015, and in training camp in August. On each occasion, he repeatedly checks-down and doesn't show any patience to let routes develop or any comprehension on reading a defense. Yet, they didn't really seem to attempt to go in another direction because they were betting that Romo would be fine.
And when he wasn't, the plans for the offensive line, the receiving corps, and even backup QB crumbled into a bit of a mess.
This was manageable against Atlanta's defense or even New Orleans. Linehan and Weeden actually had the offense in a reasonable position in each game for most of those contests. But, New England had no trouble whatsoever solving this elementary riddle and then looked bored for the rest of the day on defense.
Take Witten and Beasley away, and the Cowboys cannot complete a forward pass unless it is a dump off to the safety valve with a degree of difficulty that most high school QBs could pull off.
And, you can believe that the New England tape is going to be used going forward. And while the return of Dez Bryant will make things better (assuming he resembles the Dez Bryant we have grown accustomed to and not an injured version who hurried back too quickly) it won't solve the "book on Weeden" that has been quickly written.
So, frustration grows. It grows with the fans and the public, but it also grows in the room. You might have moved on to Rangers baseball, but to the men who played in that game yesterday, their focus is looking to Jason Garrett and the coaching staff and wondering what are they going to do about those next four games after the bye week.
Are they going to keep running the ball into brick walls and watch Weeden give a play a "one Mississippi" before he dumps it to another Running Back on 3rd and long? Or, is it time to try something a bit more appropriate for the desperate measures that must be taken in desperate times?
You see, this team pulled the trigger on a trade for Matt Cassel 3 weeks ago, tomorrow. They did it, not because he is a savior, but because they clearly thought that over the course of 2 months, they might need someone to save Weeden out of the bullpen. Cassel is not Dan Marino, but he is a guy who has started 72 NFL games, and his team was smiling after 34 of them. That 47% win percentage is not getting him to Canton, but Weeden's 21% (5 of 24) screams that it might be time to try any alternatives that might be available. If you need 2 of the next four, 47% seems like a number worth grabbing on to.
Like I said at the top, this season is not lost. It feels lost right now, but at 2-3 in the NFC East, they are still in the middle of things and the objective after the bye week is to win 2 of the remaining four games before Romo is eligible to return. If somehow Romo is ready to go for Miami and the team is at 4-5, then I believe the Cowboys will still be the team to beat in this division, and perhaps the resolve that they have been forced to show will serve them well down the stretch.
But, they can't keep doing this. With each offensive possession, Weeden is showing the league what he can and can't do. The latter list is much longer than the former, and defenses and coordinators are too smart to not take advantage of this if you give them the chance.
That is why I go with Cassel immediately. They have 14 days to prepare for their next battle, which is against the New York Giants. The Giants have a Monday night affair at Philadelphia next week and therefore the Cowboys can rest and rejuvenate, hopefully, get even more players back from injury, and then start fresh with a veteran QB who at least has seen a lot of football at this level and might provide a spark against an opponent who is on a short week and hasn't seen Cassel yet.
Yesterday demonstrated some promising things from the defense that you can put some hope into and then the Dez Bryant return might ignite a little energy, too.
But, the sideline was flat yesterday because they knew 13-3 at the half was basically all that New England would need. The QB and the offense were as impotent as anyone could imagine and it was hard to squint and see how that would change if they keep running the same ponderous offense.
Unless, perhaps, you pull the trigger on this Quarterback change. Matt Cassel is not a solution to too many QB problems, but he might be an improvement in this one. Do not confuse this plan with a foolproof guarantee of success moving forward. It isn't. But, they simply cannot keep going with the plan they had. They have to show their players that they are not mailing in this next month and hoping Romo can save them. They are trying any desperate idea they can come up with to scratch out a win or two before November 22nd.
Weeden gave it his best effort and produced a couple moments that were better than expected. But, now, they have no choice. They have to try the other guy.