Dallas Cowboys

Cowboys at the bye: Breaking down the good, the bad and what needs to happen

The Cowboys’ defense has been hanging its collective head while giving up points in bunches this season.
The Cowboys’ defense has been hanging its collective head while giving up points in bunches this season. mfaulkner@star-telegram.com

The Dallas Cowboys managed to create plenty of drama during their bye week.

After falling below .500 with Sunday’s loss to the Green Bay Packers, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones became the first NFL owner to declare he’d discipline players who protested during the national anthem.

That didn’t sit well with some players and the team met with Jones on Wednesday to discuss the matter. A parade of “no comments” came from the locker room later that day.

On the field, two opening day starters are no longer with the team. Cornerback Nolan Carroll was cut and nose tackle Stephen Paea retired.

To top it off, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans lifted an injunction on Thursday afternoon that cleared the way for the NFL to impose its six-game suspension on star running back Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott could still pursue other legal options to play, but for now he’s suspended.

This is certainly not how the Cowboys envisioned a bye week unfolding, but it falls in line with what has been a roller-coaster season to date. We take a look at what’s gone right, what’s gone wrong and what needs to happen for the 2017 season to be a success.

On Wednesday, Cowboys players met with owner Jerry Jones to discuss his stance on the national anthem protests. Orlando Scandrick and David Irving remained mum, but did share a couple interesting thoughts.

The good

1. Dak Prescott. Prescott had arguably the best rookie season by a quarterback in league history a year ago. He threw for 3,667 yards with 23 touchdowns and four interceptions. He’s having an impressive sophomore season despite the team’s record. He’s on pace for 35 touchdown passes and more than 3,800 passing yards, along with 400 rushing yards and six TDs on the ground. Prescott has been the furthest thing from the problem through five games. Said coach Jason Garrett: “He’s playing really well. He’s really doing everything we ask him to do. He makes so many plays within the scheme, throwing the ball to the right guy on a consistent basis. And then when things break down, making great plays with his feet and his arm out of the pocket.”

2. DeMarcus Lawrence. The Cowboys have longed for a “war daddy” pass rusher and Lawrence is playing that early on. He led the league with 8.5 sacks through five games and is on pace for 27. The NFL record is 22.5. The 8.5 sacks are already a career-high and the man known as ‘Tank’ needs to continue to be a bright spot on defense for a team that has lost consecutive home games despite the offense scoring more than 30 points. Lawrence has been the best player on a reeling unit. Lawrence is on pace to be the Cowboys’ first double-digit sack guy since Jason Hatcher had 11 in 2013.

3. Special teams. Punter Chris Jones may be the MVP so far. No joke. Jones has had 12 of his 20 punts downed inside the 20, a pivotal stat that has let the Cowboys win the field position game often. And kicker Dan Bailey has been his reliable self, making all seven of his field goal attempts and all 14 of his point-after attempts.

The bad

1. Takeaways. For a defense that had its sights set on 40 takeaways, this is an underachieving start. They’re on pace for 10 (rounding up). The Cowboys haven’t had a takeaway in their last three games, and every coach in the organization will tell you that’s the No. 1 difference between wins and losses. The defense has gone 213 plays since last getting a takeaway (a Jourdan Lewis interception in Week 2 at Denver).

2. Running game. Forty percent of the offensive line turned over this off-season with Ronald Leary leaving for Denver and Doug Free heading into retirement. That’s a significant change for a unit that starts five guys. Couple that with a six-game suspension facing Ezekiel Elliott and the running game seems lacking. There have been flashes of the 2016 dominant run game, but it’s been too inconsistent for much of the season. Said center Travis Frederick: “It’s a little thing here or there. Once those things go away and you’re clicking and grooving — that’s what you saw last year. We haven’t gotten it yet and we need to continue to work on it.”

3. Newbies. The Cowboys had plenty of turnover on defense and it hasn’t translated too well. First-round pick Taco Charlton hasn’t made much of an impact through five games. Safety Jeff Heath, in his first year starting, has been exposed at times. So has linebacker Jaylon Smith, getting his first action after 18 months of rehab. The biggest free agent addition, Carroll, has been cut, and another addition — Paea — retired. This is not what the Cowboys were hoping for when each joined the organization, or were anointed starters.

The future

1. Zeke-less life. The Cowboys have to find a way to re-establish themselves as a dominant run offense — with or without Elliott. It’s what made them so successful last season, being able to eat up the clock and methodically drive down the field to points. With Elliott suspended, it will fall to veterans Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden, as well as Rod Smith, to carry the load by a committee approach. Morris and McFadden have been 1,000-yard rushers in the league, and will have to show some of that ability with Elliott sidelined.

2. Defensive improvement. The Cowboys have scored more than 30 points in the past two games. That would have been enough to win 15 of their 16 regular-season games last year. The defense has to be able to shut down teams when given double-digit leads, and create takeaways. Getting All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee back, after two games out with a hamstring injury, should help the defense get its edge back.

3. Young promise. Charlton has been ineffective and rookie defensive back Chidobe Awuzie has been injured. But rookie cornerback Lewis has flashed promise early on. The Cowboys liked what they’ve seen from him enough to release Carroll. Plus Lewis’ play will give the Cowboys flexibility to give Awuzie more time at safety, a position that hasn’t flourished early on. And the unending hope is that Charlton continues to develop and hits his stride at some point this season. After all, most pass rushers take time to develop in the NFL, although Charlton hasn’t done much to inspire optimism.

Miami Dolphins players and head coach, Adam Gase, talk about the new rule about not kneeling on the field during the national anthem.

A group of Cowboys fans drove nine hours from Mexico, and brought a brand new grill they made just for the game. Every year for the past decade, this group of guys choses a game to serve as a reunion, and this year they stepped up their cultural c

Cowboys at 49ers

3:05 p.m. Sunday, KDFW/4

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram