Concern or confidence? Five reasons for the Cowboys to feel both

Sunday’s loss to the Denver Broncos left a number of Cowboys fans reeling. Other fans, and the players themselves, brushed it off as a good ol’ fashioned butt-kicking without any long term implications.

So where does the truth lie? Should Cowboys fans be concerned with the team’s trajectory, or was Sunday an outlier?

It’s too early to tell, but here are five reasons why Cowboys fans should be concerned, and five reasons why Cowboys fans shouldn’t sweat it.

Five Reasons Cowboys Fans Should Be Concerned

1. New York doesn’t appear to be as good as we thought

Everyone was impressed with Dallas’ victory over the Giants in the opening week, but it may be that New York isn’t as good as folks initially thought. The Lions throttled New York on Monday night, so could it be that Big Blue is just a bad team? If the Giants are a bottom five team in the league then Dallas’ opening week victory simply means they beat up on a bottom feeder. Coupled with the thrashing the Cowboys took Sunday in Denver, it may be indicative of a middle of the pack contender.

2. Effort

While Ezekiel Elliott has been heavily criticized for giving minimal effort on Dak Prescott’s first interception of the game, the entire team seemed to come in unprepared and unmotivated. Ambivalence is a dangerous thing for a team to fall into. It’s a cancer that can be hard to cure. The 2008 Cowboys had all the talent in the world and cruised to a 3-0 start. Ambivalence and chemistry issues tore the team apart, leading to a disappointing 9-7 finish. You hope it’s an outlier, but Dallas’ blasé attitude for much of the game was troubling.

3. The offensive line was bullied

This normally wouldn’t be cause for concern, but Dallas experienced two significant changes on its offensive line this offseason. Denver has some elite players on defense, but even elite defenders typically struggle with Dallas’ front. With Tyron Smith’s nagging back issues, La’el Collins’ move to right tackle, and Chaz Green’s insertion into the starting lineup, maybe the whole is no longer equal to the sum of its parts. Could Sunday be a sign of chemistry problems with the personnel changes? I highly doubt it, but it’s at least worth monitoring.

4. The offensive play-calling was unimaginative

Dallas has to find a way to get Ryan Switzer and Ezekiel Elliott the ball. They are two dynamic playmakers who can create chunk plays on their own. Through two games, Scott Linehan has been seemingly perplexed about how to find alternative ways to let his playmakers make plays. It’s a scary reminder of 2015 when fans were begging for Linehan to do anything to get the ball to Dez Bryant with Tony Romo out.

5. Injuries

I wrote back in July about the most consequential variables facing Dallas in their pursuit of back-to-back NFC East titles. I ranked overall health as the #1 factor. So far, health has been an issue, particularly in the secondary. Dallas was forced to play reserve rookie safety Xavier Woods in the slot for much of the afternoon because they were so banged up. Jourdan Lewis is just returning from a hamstring injury, Chidobe Awuzie is still bothered by his hamstring, Orlando Scandrick has a fracture in his hand, Nolan Carroll has a concussion, Anthony Hitchens is out several weeks with a knee injury, and even Dak Prescott tweaked his ankle on Sunday. The piling up of injuries, particularly in Dallas’ vulnerable secondary, could be devastating.

You always deliver bad news first, right? Here’s the good news, Cowboys fans.

Five Reasons Cowboys Fans Shouldn’t Sweat It

1. It was an AFC opponent

The least consequential loss to your playoff chances is to a team in the opposing conference. There is no NFL playoff tie-breaker that looks at opposing conference record. On the other end of the spectrum, a division loss is the most damaging game you could lose relative to your playoff chances. Dallas has already notched a division victory this season, and the Giants and Redskins (the two teams directly behind Dallas in the division race last season) both have division losses on their ledger this season. Dallas has already managed to take care of business in the realm of “tie-breaker games.”

2. Dak Prescott has responded to adversity at every turn

Prescott had an ugly stat line on Sunday, but the good news is that he has shown the wherewithal to bounce back from bad games. Prescott’s three worst games of 2016 came against the Giants in week 1, the Eagles in week 8, and the Giants again in week 14. Prescott’s combined numbers in the following week’s games? 75-93, 80.6%, 818 yards, 8.79 yards per attempt, 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, 114.0 passer rating, and a 3-0 record.

3. Denver’s defense makes most everyone look silly

Dak Prescott isn’t exactly in rare company when it comes to being snuffed out by the Broncos. Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Jameis Winston, and Marcus Mariota are a combined 3-10 against the Broncos since 2015. Those six quarterbacks have 28 Pro Bowls and 9 Super Bowl appearances between them. Against Denver’s defense during this three year stretch, they combine for a 67.7 passer rating, 51.7% completion percentage, and 5.7 yards per attempt. Prescott looked human on Sunday, but that only means he had the same sort of difficulties with Denver that other elite quarterbacks have had.

4. It was the second game of the season

Teams are rarely a finished product after the first two weeks of the season. Everyone is still seeking rhythm, finding their identity, and working to integrate new roster variables. NFL.com’s power rankings had Dallas #21 after 2 weeks in 2014, but they finished the year tied for the best record in the NFL. In 2015, Dallas was a top 10 team in power rankings after week 2, but picked 4th overall the following April. You’ll also remember that Dallas began last season with the same record they have now: 1-1. That .500 record was dangerously close to being 0-2 if not for a 4th quarter comeback against Washington.

5. They’ve done this before

At its core, this is essentially the same team from 2016, and that team had no issues playing any style of football against any quality of opponent. The traits of the 2016 team were on display in week 1 when they beat the Giants by their largest margin in 14 years. Dallas has the tools necessary to be successful, and one game shouldn’t define their trajectory.

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