Two wins and two devastating injuries—what's the net effect on Dallas's playoff prospects?
This is an article from the Sept. 28, 2015 issue
You'd be hard-pressed to find an undefeated team that lost more in this season's first two games than the Cowboys. But it's worth asking: Even after receiver Dez Bryant (Week 1) and quarterback Tony Romo (in a 20--10 dismantling of the Eagles on Sunday) went down with serious injuries—both Bryant's broken right foot and Romo's fractured left clavicle are expected to require roughly eight weeks of recovery—is this season really over for 2--0 Dallas, as some people are suggesting? Considering how the Cowboys' defense has played so far, and given the current state of the NFC East (not good), could Dallas realistically stay in playoff contention until their two stars return?
The answer starts with Brandon Weeden, who will step under center with Romo (above) out. The book on Weeden: He's 5--16 as a starter, although 15 of those losses came with the woeful Browns. In his one start as a Cowboy, a loss to the Cardinals in Week 9 of last season, when Arizona's defense was terrifying, Weeden completed 18 of 33 passes for 183 yards (40 coming on one screen pass) and one touchdown, which came with the Cowboys trailing by 18 late. He threw two interceptions and led the team to just one field goal in his first nine drives—and that was with Bryant in the lineup.
Weeden was much sharper in replacing Romo against the Eagles on Sunday, completing all seven of his attempts, for 73 yards, including a 42-yard touchdown to Terrance Williams. Still, many of his passes weren't terribly difficult.
The soon-to-be 32-year-old can make all the throws and has decent mobility, but his biggest weakness is that he has little feel for pressure and where it may be coming from, which leads to rushed throws and unnecessary hits in the pocket. In his mechanics, he takes longer than normal to release the ball, allowing sharp defenders to undercut his routes. That happened on both of his interceptions against the Cardinals last year.
In order to stay in the playoff race with a quarterback of this caliber, it would help if the Cowboys' running game got closer to the level it reached in 2014. So far this season Dallas has averaged just 3.4 yards per carry, tied for 26th in the league, compared with 4.6 last season, which was No. 3. If that doesn't happen, there's at least hope in coordinator Rod Marinelli's inspired defense, which has held Eli Manning (70.7 rating in Week 1) and Sam Bradford (65.6, Week 2) in check, and which has so far allowed all of two offensive TDs against two of last year's top 10 offenses. The Dallas D could get even better once end Greg Hardy and linebacker Rolando McClain (both suspended through Week 4) and end Randy Gregory (right-ankle sprain; expected back in October) return to the lineup.
With the Giants and the Eagles in disarray at 0--2, and with the 1--1 Redskins not a proven threat, it's conceivable that the Cowboys could win just two of their next eight games without Romo and Bryant, and still be in contention at 4--6, with only the Packers looking formidable in their final six games. Dallas figures to be the underdog in each of its next eight outings, save possibly against the Buccaneers, but this banged-up team should contend in every one of those, excepting matchups against the Patriots and the Seahawks.
The Cowboys may be stripped of their stars, but don't turn out the lights on this team just yet.