With just under two minutes to go in the first half at AT&T Stadium on Sunday, the Cowboys had scored their third touchdown of the game and were apparently sailing in open waters with the wind at their backs, up 24-13. They were playing a young and talented Los Angeles Rams team that is certainly improved, but not up for this type of road challenge against a team that is simply better.
Everything was going very well. The patrons were quite pleased.
That was at about 1:25 p.m. yesterday in Arlington, when the officials reviewed what was a pretty clear touchdown by Brice Butler and reversed their own dubious judgement.
Within two hours, the plot had turned -- including a run of action that saw Dallas outscored 22-6 the rest of the way -- and the Cowboys' world had been turned upside down by these upstarts from the West.
And now, as is the habit in NFL cities when sudden change goes against the script, some are already bemoaning that this season is just not going to be the dream year that was so coveted after a few decades of wandering in the wilderness. And, let's be honest, they may be right. We know there is nothing more difficult in Cowboys land than putting successful seasons in succession. The last time this franchise put back-to-back playoff berths together was 2006-07 -- the first two years of Tony Romo's career. Before that, you had to go back to 1998-99, when Troy Aikman was the quarterback and new coach Chan Gailey was trying to squeeze one more run out of an aging roster that had hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the season three different times.
Whether the 2017 Dallas Cowboys have a playoff berth -- let alone a Lombardi Trophy moment -- in them this season remains to be seen, but the uneasiness of the average Cowboys fan today is not reassuring. And why would it be any other way? When the celebrated offense needed to put together a little time on the ball in the second half to shelter a defense that requires some sheltering, they put together four straight drives out of halftime that did not reach midfield. During those four drives, they snapped the ball 16 times for a total of 42 yards, two first downs and three punts (and an interception).
That put the Rams back out there again, which was not going well. Since Butler's touchdown, the Rams had gained 278 yards of their own, scored five times in six drives (thankfully for Dallas, just one of those five scores was a touchdown) and had gone from being well behind to up eight, 32-24.
From there, the Cowboys tried to rally and pull the day out of the fire, but for this offense to simply snap its fingers and return to a being machine that scores when it wants is much easier said than done. They put one drive together that cut the lead to 32-30, but the two-point conversion stalled with a penalty on Travis Frederick. The defense then allowed the Rams to move the chains for 12 plays, 68 yards and more than five minutes of the remaining 7:11. Anthony Brown had a chance there to be the hero with an interception on a very poor decision from young quarterback Jared Goff, but the ball fell to the ground. Do the Cowboys win if Brown catches that ball? You can definitely make the case. Several minutes later, if they had a little more courage, the Rams could have ended the game themselves with a touchdown but instead played for a field goal, leaving the Cowboys a small window to victory.
That window slammed shut, however, when the passing game was unable to deliver. The protection was poor, the throws were not precise, the catches not all made and the fourth-down desperation dump-off to Ezekiel Elliott was corralled a yard short of the marker.
Frustration abound on this Monday morning.
I spent most of 2016 marveling at the offensive machine Dallas had built through years of decision-making and development. I described it countless times as a "repeatable and sustainable" offense. In a league where the best teams seem to ask their rare franchise quarterbacks to perform magic tricks and miracles, the Cowboys merely ran their bulldozer down the field and destroyed anything in its path.
It was repeatable and sustainable because every week, a team would come to Dallas with grand designs and plans on how to shut it down. But the Cowboys had an answer for everything. You tried every move in the book and they had a counter ready. The story ended in 2016 only because they let their guard down for too long in the first half of their playoff game -- not because someone found the secret of how to slow them down.
But if there is one thing we learn from sports, over and over again, it is the truth that no matter how close you come to your dreams in one year, you must go all the way back to the start for the next year.
It doesn't matter that you were one step from the door in 2016. You don't just pick 2017 up at that juncture. No. You go all the way back down the mountain and start over again. This is how video games used to be, kids. You don't get to save your progress and restart there. You put in a new quarter and start back at Donkey Kong screen No. 1 to climb all the way back up the grid.
And not only that, but the teams that want you to fail have spent nine months trying to come up with new plans to force you out of your comfort zone. It is one thing to find success when it comes suddenly and out of nowhere, Dak Prescott. It is another thing altogether when the highest level of competition in your sport has spent an entire spring and summer studying your every move, tendency, strength and yes, weakness. Now, after decades of experience in this sport, those coaching minds have some ideas to test you over and over again to see if you can pass every challenge. If you do, then congratulations, you may join that group in the NFL that has enjoyed years of success while taking on all comers. They are the true superstars. There aren't many of them, but they are the ones who have shown to have almost no weaknesses.
For now, the Cowboys are being defended differently. And with each week of success that opposing defenses have against Dallas, the book on how to do it gets a little bigger. If the Giants were the only defense to have ideas, it would be one thing. But the Vikings had the personnel to do it. The Broncos had the personnel to do it. The Cardinals and Rams both stymied the offense for large portions of their games. That doesn't mean the Cowboys are completely shut down. Not at all. But what it means is that the Cowboys are not able to hide their defense because they control the clock and game primarily from their offensive ground-and-pound strategy that, at times, seemed so foolproof last season.
Now, teams are forcing the Cowboys to win with their second- or third-best option. Last year, the Cowboys ran on first down more than anyone. They ran in the second half more than anyone. They ran overall more than anyone. This year, they rank 14th, 21st and 21st in those three categories, respectively.
They ranked near the top of the 10-play drive rankings. Now they are 21st. They ran the clock out. They were second in time of possession. Through four games, they are 28th.
Teams are forcing the Cowboys to stop running on first down. When things were going poorly in the second half Sunday, the Cowboys tried to get that offensive line cooking to take over the game. First-down run for Elliott on the initial drive coming out of the locker room was a tackle for loss. The next drive they had two first down runs, three yards for Elliott and two yards for Ryan Switzer on a jet sweep. The next two runs for Elliott on first down on the next two drives went for zero and minus-one yards. So, this dominant running team had five first-down runs for a total of five yards.
This, of course, is setting up second- and third-and-long. We know what is happening there, right? Run blitzes and bracketing of the easy targets in the middle of the field. Jason Witten and Cole Beasley are not going to be open every much, and they certainly aren't going to be very productive.
Beasley has had 20 balls thrown at him this season and converted six into first downs. That is a far cry from 98 targets last year for 51 first downs. And Witten? Twenty-eight targets this year for only five first downs. And in the past two weeks, two receptions for 12 yards.
So, this is pretty easy to decode, right? Defenses are congesting the middle, plugging up the runs inside, and then bracketing the security blankets. Defenses are challenging corners to man-up without much help and are willing to concede occasional outs to the wide receivers, assuming that if the Cowboys have to make a steady diet out of Prescott throwing outside the numbers against man coverage, he will miss on a throw at some point of the drive. That might be an interception, or it might be a punt. Either way, it beats the slow death of Elliott pounding them for 160 yards.
To make matters worse, when that is working, now you are asking more of your defense. The Cowboys have won the time of possession battle once this year, against the hapless Giants. Otherwise, the defense is being asked to play way more than it did in 2016 -- 288 defensive snaps already for the Cowboys' defense is 72 per game. Last year, they defended 65.7 snaps per game. That adds up quickly, especially when you can't get off the field.
The Rams had the ball nine times Sunday and never turned the ball over, punting twice. The Cowboys firmed up and held their opponent to field goals, but that is a lot of time to be defending.
Basically, if you want to know why your team is 2-2 this year, it is that your strength is not your strength at the moment. People (maybe even you) will blame your quarterback and defense, but those are just the easy targets. The reality is this: Your strength last year protected your quarterback and defense. Prescott was no gunslinger last year, he was an opportunistic quarterback who did everything he was asked to do and nothing he wasn't asked. But now, if your strength -- your devastating running game with an offensive line and running back who were the toast of the league -- is no longer capable of helping a young quarterback and a rather weak defense, then this season has no chance.
The All-Pros at left tackle, center and right guard have all put snaps on tape that suggest they are being challenged like never before, too. Collectively as a group, they no longer appear invincible. Maybe defenses are deploying too many players to beat them, but I have never seen Frederick beaten as much as I have in 2017. Same goes for Zack Martin and Tyron Smith. That doesn't mean they are lousy or even average. They are still fantastic players. But they are being given some real battles this year. And that says nothing about La'el Collins and the rotating left guard, or even the tight ends, where the battles are just as vital to give the running game some room.
There are many issues, and Green Bay week is here. That should reignite things going into the bye week as the Cowboys get to play their battered and bruised rivals who, at last check, have four guards and a center playing offensive line for them, in addition to injuries at running back, wide receiver, defensive line and everywhere else but Aaron Rodgers, it seems.
It is a marathon, not a sprint. It is a very long season, but the start has not been quite what everyone had planned when they found out Elliott would not serve his suspension. For many, it was supposed to be a continuation of 2016, and now they are reminded that that isn't how any of this actually works in the NFL.