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What we learned: Dallas Cowboys fail first test of Andy Dalton era in Week 6

The Dallas Cowboys were losers in their first game without Dak Prescott, but there were takeaways that can help them as they begin a stretch against NFC East rivals.
Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy, left, talks with staff members in the second half of an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals in Arlington, Texas, Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

DALLAS — We’re about to find out what these Dallas Cowboys are made of. 

They currently sit at 2-4 and are licking their wounds following another blowout loss. Make no mistake about it, it got ugly on Monday night, and the hope for the Cowboys now is that they can scratch and claw their way into the playoffs by winning their moribund division.

It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of belief in the Cowboys these days, but if they are going to make a run at taking home an NFC East crown and then look to make some noise in the postseason, they need to learn these lessons from Monday night’s debacle.

Andy Dalton cannot carry this team

The Cowboys had a thoroughbred, a winner and a leader at quarterback with Dak Prescott. Even if things looked bleak early in games, Prescott usually rose to the occasion to bring the team back and put Dallas in a position to win. 

The Cowboys might not have always won those comeback attempts, but they always fought with Prescott, who hoisted the team onto his back for many weeks during his run of 69 consecutive starts dating back to Week 1 of the 2016 season.

It feels like in Week 6, the team forgot that they didn’t have their MVP season-caliber QB behind center as they fell back into old habits early and were expecting their signal caller to dig them out of a hole. That was a big, unfair ask of Andy Dalton and it became an impossible one as the game wore on.

Dalton, although a capable QB, isn’t built to carry the offense, or the team. Even in a game without mistakes, he’ll need to be better than he was against the Arizona Cardinals going forward and the team is now aware of it.

The veteran signal caller can’t be counted on to be what Prescott was and the Cowboys must adjust, that was clear on Monday. Also clear, the Cowboys need to extend Prescott because they have now seen what life is like without him.

Ezekiel Elliott cannot hold the ball

Without Prescott, it felt like the Cowboys were going to try to run more of the offense through Elliott and get back to a style that worked well for them early in Elliott’s career. Utilizing Elliott more does appear to make sense since he’s been one of the best backs in the league since entering the NFL. 

However, Elliott has not resembled the All-Pro running back he’s paid to be so far this season. He hasn’t been efficient in the run or passing game and his sudden issues with fumbling the ball has lost games for the Cowboys. The two fumbles in consecutive series after a scoreless first quarter on Monday night doomed Dallas to play from behind, which put the pressure on Dalton.

The Cowboys need to figure out how to make the passing game– with its big three receivers– work for Dalton. Elliott can be a part of that process, but the wideouts are now the playmakers that make the offense tick. 

Even so, the unit needs to be more harmonious behind their broken offensive line and with a backup QB, but unless Elliott starts to take better care of the football on his touches, he doesn’t look like a first option.

The defense needs more playmakers

The Cowboys have been embarrassed on defense on a weekly basis and it wasn’t any better against the Cardinals. The unit struggled to contain QB Kyler Murray and RB Kenyan Drake throughout the evening. They certainly were unable to keep up with speedy wide receiver Christian Kirk, whose two scores were partly the result of just being a better athlete than those that Dallas have in the secondary. 

The defense was constantly beaten to the edges and couldn’t contain Murray when he was out of the pocket, which allowed the Cardinals to extend drives and keep the Dallas defense on the field.

Simply put, the Cowboys don’t have enough elite athletes on defense. They might have some good individual players, but there aren’t many playmakers, and that was evident in the game against Arizona and has been evident all season.  

Talent has nothing to do with their effort

It’s one thing to be beaten, but it’s quite another to watch as players give up on plays. There were far too many examples of Dallas defenders loafing instead of giving their best effort once the Cowboys were down a few scores.

There have already been rumors swirling around that the players are upset with the coaching staff, so the concern becomes that the players are giving up. While Dallas doesn’t have the elite talent on defense to allow their skills to help them win on every play, they can win enough to make stops with effort and that hasn’t been there this season.

If that continues, presumably things will only get worse for the Cowboys. While the NFC East may be weak, and the Cowboys may currently sit atop the division, eventually a lack of effort will knock them off even that meager pedestal.

Do you think the Cowboys will be able to finally learn from their mistakes in time to turn things around? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.