The good news: the Dallas Cowboys lead the NFC East with a 2-0 record by virtue of two wins against divisional opponents, meaning that they also hold a couple of early tiebreakers. The bad news: almost everything else.
When the Cowboys stormed the gates towards a 12-4 record and a rare playoff win, the health of its offensive corps stood front and center as one of the top reasons for the unlikely renaissance. Outside of a back injury that kept QB Tony Romo out for a home game, the Cowboys were remarkably steady regarding their 11 offensive starters, which included Romo, the league's best offensive line, RB DeMarco Murray, and WR Dez Bryant. Even as Dallas' defense was certainly better than expected, the offense was the team's calling card.
After two weeks in the 2015 NFL season, the Cowboys are sixth in total offense, but things are bound to change drastically as early as Week 3. The first game of the season brought a dramatic comeback against the Giants, but it also yielded a foot injury to Bryant, who was scheduled to miss at least 8 games. While Bryant's absence could be manageable, the loss of Tony Romo in Week 2 represents a much bigger blow.
Romo, who broke his collarbone for the second time in his career, has certainly become one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Even as he can't be considered in the same tier as megastars Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, or Andrew Luck, Romo is probably just a step below them. While his detractors can always point out to his well-remembered foibles, it is hard to argue against Romo's progress and what he means to the Dallas franchise.
With Romo's injury set to keep him inactive for the next 8 weeks, the Cowboys are without their top 3 performers from last season, counting that Murray left in free agency. It also means that the immediate future has change drastically for the Cowboys. Their odds to win the NFC dropped from 8/1 to 10/1 overnight, while they stand as 20-to-1 favorites to win the Super Bowl. Sports books now have them with the same odds of winning the NFC East as the Eagles, who started with the dreaded 0-2.
Even as it all seems bleak, the Cowboys have those two wins in the bank, and own a roster that seems prepared to face this contingency and fight for a playoff spot. How can they get by while their injured stars nurse their injuries? Today we take a look at three key factors that will determine if Dallas can withstand these turbulent circumstances and fight for a playoff spot.
The Running Game
It would be foolish to think that the Cowboys could replicate the league-leading rushing offense they had in 2014. However, the general consensus entering the season was that even as the team lost DeMarco Murray, the offensive line would be enough to remain productive even with lesser players in the backfield. Through two games, it hasn't been the case.
The Cowboys are 20th in rushing yards, and 27th in yards per attempt. The new duo of Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden has been underwhelming, with Dallas having no rushing touchdowns so far. Things will have to get better if the Cowboys are to have a chance. Romo's primary backup is Brandon Weeden, who is, numerically, one of worst quarterbacks in recent memory. Dallas just brought in Matt Cassel as Weeden's insurance policy, leaving the Cowboys with no real solution under center.
It is likely that teams will stack the box against the Cowboys and dare Weeden to throw. Even as the former Brown looked decent in 7 pass attempts after relieving Romo, history suggests that he will struggle as the starter, a role in which Weeden hasn’t won a game since December 9th, 2012. The Cowboys must direct games to a point where Weeden can become a game manager and avoid risks, and that starts with controlling possession through the ground.
Randle, McFadden, and third-stringer Lance Dunbar will be instrumental for Dallas if they are to stay afloat. Weeden has a safety blanked in Jason Witten for all kinds of short throws, while the offensive line must protect its quarterback to reduce even more turnover risks. The Cowboys will certainly fail to score as easily as they can do with Romo, but they still have weapons.
A Revamped Defense
The biggest feature through two weeks in Dallas has been a defense who has allowed only two touchdowns: one came after a turnover that left the Giants on Dallas' 1-yard line, and the other came in garbage time against the Eagles. For all intents and purposes, Dallas' defense has pitched shutout in the young season, and has the peripherals to back it up.
The Cowboys are third in total defense despite facing two presumed competitive quarterbacks, and are allowing teams only to have average drives of 1:55, the lowest mark in the NFL. Things are about to get a lot tougher as the league adapts to what Dallas is doing in defense, and the Cowboys will face their Romo-less stretch against teams led by Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, and a few others.
The season-ending injury to cornerback Orlando Scandrick may end up being as devastating as the losses of Bryant and Romo, but having Rod Marinelli coaching the defense can at least give Dallas fans a glimmer of hope. Greg Hardy will join the team on Week 5 just in time to face the Patriots, and he could be the ultimate x-factor for a team that will need all the help it can get.
Jason Garrett's Progress
Before 2014, Coach Garrett was a popular pick to be the first coach to be fired. Instead, he became a Coach of the Year candidate and earned his first division title after three consecutive 8-8 finishes. Just like the roster in front of him, Garrett showed marked improvements in 2014. 2015 will present the biggest coaching challenge so far, as Garrett and his staff must adapt on the fly to what suddenly is a completely different situation than what they had just a couple of weeks ago.
The Cowboys must know that they probably will be underdogs in six of their seven games without Romo, but four of those games come at Cowboys Stadium. Garrett must understand that expectations have shifted, and that the new goal is barely to survive this tough stretch to give the team a chance to regroup once Romo and Bryant come back. Romo is eligible to come back on November 22nd at Miami, where the Cowboys start the friendlier part of their schedule.
Proper play calling will be essential for the Cowboys, whose goal must be to not fall completely apart from here to the end of November. A BYE after Week 5 will help, as the team can go 2-5 or 3-4 without Romo and consider the results a big plus. It would be foolish to count out the Cowboys today, but the whole franchise must step up to the plate and deal with this tough stretch, or else 2015 will look a lot like many previous lost seasons in Dallas.