After beating the Washington Redskins 31-16 on Sunday Night Football, the Cowboys are tied with the Philadelphia Eagles for the divisional lead. Now, even without watching a single moment of football, one could take a look at the league standings and tell you that the NFC East leader isn't in the same ballpark as the best in the NFC North or AFC West.
Digging another step deeper isn't any better. The Cowboys' losses are all relatively acceptable. The Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos have all been tough outs so far this year. Heck, two of those three are undefeated.
The wins, on the other hand, aren't really anything to write home about. All have come at home against teams with a combined four wins between them. Beating the New York Giants, St. Louis Rams and Washington Redskins isn't anything special, not for a team with as much talent on paper as the Cowboys.
Watching the Cowboys instills even less confidence in their collective abilities.
Think back to that win against the Giants in Week 1. The Cowboys won thanks to six turnovers from a turnover-prone Giants team. It's always a bit of a statistical chicken-and-egg argument whether turnovers are "given" or "taken," but the more troubling matter is that the Cowboys still gave up 478 yards of offense and 31 points that evening.
When talking about the big D, we certainly don't mean Dallas.
Of course, Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones thinks it's all going to work itself out, as he told KRLD-FM's 105.3 The Fan (h/t Dallas Morning News):
I do believe this scheme is going to work. I think it’s going to create turnovers. I think the guys are playing hard for Monte and Rod Marinelli and the rest of the defensive staff. I think it’s going to improve. I don’t think it’s about not having the dogs. Certainly not going to make any excuses when it comes to injuries, but we really do have some really skilled players on our defense that I think are only going to improve.
Getting the 50-burger served up to you by Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning isn't the most embarrassing thing in the world, but allowing 31 points to the Giants (most this season) and 30 to the Chargers is less endearing for a defense that gave up on current New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in favor of Old Man Rive...I'm sorry, Monte Kiffin.
This is where Cowboys fans should probably gear up for a session of Tony Romo bashing. Fear not, Cowboys faithful! Your mercurial QB is (mostly) safe from my wanton path of destruction. Remembering only the most heartbreaking Romo interceptions would make for a lazy narrative that ignores the fact that he's actually good in clutch situations and, per NFL.com, in the fourth quarter.
Frankly, without Romo, this Cowboys team might be in the same boat as the Giants.
Their defense is similarly toothless, and their offensive line can be almost as much of a roller coaster. Admittedly, both tackles—Tyron Smith and Doug Free—have improved from last season and are outperforming my expectations, but leaning on guys like Ronald Leary and Brian Waters isn't a long-term solution. Center Travis Frederick is also performing well, but he's not immune to rookie mistakes.
In the end, the impotency of the Cowboys defense means that the offense needs to be next-to-perfect against any team that is going to put up any sort of resistance.
Looking ahead, the four games between now and the Week 11 bye are a mixed bag. Rough matchups at New Orleans and Detroit could be forgivable losses, while next week's trip to Philadelphia and the Week 9 home matchup against Minnesota should be wins.
Conceivably, this team could be at or just above .500 for their Week 11 bye, and we could know even less about them than we do now. After the bye, the schedule is pretty easy as well, with the only real trip-ups against Green Bay and Chicago.
Again, this team—simply by tumbling into an eight-to-10-win record, beating only the teams they far outclass on paper—looks headed toward playoff contention. The question, then, is: What also-ran do they expect to be waiting for them when they get there?
If the Cowboys don't manage to fix their defense and become less reliant on Romo's arm, they could end up as one of the most fraudulent playoff teams of our lifetime. For Cowboys fans hoping to see a perennial Super Bowl contender like the '90s teams they were used to, that might be the worst possible scenario.