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Dallas Cowboys Week 12 Checklist: What Got Accomplished Versus Las Vegas

It's bigger than the penalties.
By |
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys lost to the Las Vegas Raiders in overtime, 36-33. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

It wasn’t pleasant, mostly due to the penalties. So. Many. Penalties. We’ll talk about that. But the takeaway is much bigger. Here’s what the Cowboys accomplished:

Poured cold water on all that Super Bowl talk ✔ 

One bad loss is an aberration. Two of them mark the start of a pattern. Now the Cowboys have suffered three ugly defeats in four games, and so we must declare the last month a full-blown trend—a sharp downward one that should make us press pause on declaring this team a serious contender.

To be clear, no one was off base (me included) labeling the Cowboys as such through the season’s first nine games. The offense was lethal, the defense opportunistic, and the play calling sharp. Even Mike McCarthy’s coaching, gameday warts and all, has instilled a measure of resilience in Dallas that had been sorely lacking during the Jason Garrett era. That’s all still true, especially when they return some of the key contributors who have been absent in these last two losses.

But three losses in four games shift the Cowboys away from the benefit of the doubt and toward the burden of proof. We need to see all of those elements working in concert once again to trust that the real Cowboys are the bunch we’ve seen on their best days this year, not the one that hasn’t sniffed a lead in their last nine quarters of football. We need to see the defense that was such a pleasant surprise in the first two months, not the one that Las Vegas dissected for 509 total yards of offense and nine plays of 20 or more yards despite losing star tight end Darren Waller, their best pass catcher, in the first half. We need to see consistency on special teams, not one brilliant kick return touchdown by Tony Pollard—the Cowboys’ first on Thanksgiving since 1971—amidst more unreliability from Gregory the Legory (still making it A Thing) and some end-game embarrassment by C.J. Goodwin, normally the ace of the unit.

We need to get some clarity on whatever the hell is going on with the offensive line, which saw Tyron Smith return to the lineup and shift Terence Steele over to right tackle, thus benching La’el Collins (presumably for an awful game against Kansas City) while keeping Connor McGovern in the starting lineup at left guard (even though he also looked questionable versus the Chiefs) but then rotating in the deposed Collins and Connor Williams for a series, only to then shift them back out and stick with the original starting lineup—and, yes, it’s as tiring for me to type as it is for you to make sense of. And we need to know if the Cowboys are still in the takeaway business. After recording a +8 turnover margin in their first four games, they’re now -3 over the last five.

In sum, we need to see a lot. Some elements have begun to correct themselves, none bigger than the passing game, which sizzled in the fourth quarter thanks to Dak Prescott and Michael Gallup, both of whom looked borderline anonymous in the first three. Improved health will go a long way, too. Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb each stand a chance of being back in the lineup next Thursday at New Orleans, and Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence aren’t far off, either.

Dallas can right the ship in all of these areas. There is a big difference between demonstrating something they haven’t proved capable of versus getting back to doing what they know how to. Even in the interim, they’re not a bad team, nor one that should be sweating making the playoffs. They still lead Philadelphia in the division, and even if that slips, they’re in the driver’s seat to nab a wild-card berth. It would take a lot more failure for all of that to vanish.

They’re just currently a ways from great. And it’s on them to show us otherwise.

Reintroduced us to the world’s cutest child ✔

If you watched Hard Knocks — well, first of all, I’m sorry. It was mostly a waste of time. I say “mostly” because there were redeeming moments, the bulk of which came any time Aaiden Diggs, son of Cowboys cornerback Trevon, graced the screen. Lest you forget, the kid is adorable:

Well, good news, gang: Aaiden’s back to spread some holiday cheer. He works in some solid shade—“Today, I want to give thanks to all the quarterbacks that throw my dad the football. You are all greatly appreciated!”—but the whole 58 seconds are just delightful. Certainly more delightful than anything we saw from this officiating crew.

Got burned by DeSean Jackson yet again ✔

The world is an everchanging, increasingly scary place. Maybe that explains why I felt a perverse shred of comfort watching an extremely dusty DeSean Jackson shred the Cowboys’ secondary for what felt like the 382nd time:

Jackson has spent the bulk of his 14-year NFL career in the NFC East as an Eagle or a member of the Washington Football Team, which means Dallas is well versed in getting toasted by one of the fastest receivers of the millennium. Just how versed?

OK, but those are just a handful of admittedly rather large moments, and moments do not a career make. Right?

Oh. That doesn’t include the penalty calls drawn, either, such as the two defensive pass interference penalties he earned in this one.

Yesterday marked the third different decade Jackson has scored a touchdown on Dallas. He’s enjoyed a hell of a career, but the 34-year-old is mostly a shadow of himself at this point, totaling just 31 receptions over the past three years heading into today and already on his second team of this NFL season after the Rams released him earlier in the month. I’m sure that won’t prevent him from finding the end zone against the Cowboys sometime in 2032.

Made a helluva play that didn’t matter in the slightest ✔

If the smartest football play of the Cowboys’ season gets nullified due to officiating and thus didn’t exist, did it ever truly happen? I’m going to make an executive decision and rule that Keanu Neal’s massive assist in a would-be fumble recovery—it was ultimately ruled an incomplete pass—did because Neal’s on-the-fly thinking deserves to be celebrated:

Roberto labeled it the football equivalent of Derek Jeter’s famous flip to home plate, which feels about right—if not in practice, then definitely in spirit.

The Raiders gashed Dallas’ defense up and down the field, and Neal was part of the problem, missing at least three tackles on the day. It feels appropriate, then, that the Cowboys’ best moment on that side of the ball was a play that technically didn’t exist. But that doesn’t mean it should be erased from memory, either.

Reduced Skip Bayless to this ✔

Picked up the laundry ✔

It would be disingenuous to hang every bit of the Cowboys’ absurd penalty yardage on them given the way Shawn Hochuli and his officiating crew commandeered this game. Overtime or no, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong when one game features 28 flags for 276 yards. According to Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith, you have to go back to 2003 for the last time two teams each accumulated at least 14 penalties and 100 receiving yards. So if you want to quibble with one or more calls that went against Dallas—this supposed roughing the passer call against Micah Parsons was especially egregious—well, I won’t stop you.

But Dallas also entered this game averaging a league-leading 7.7 penalties per game. They nearly doubled that Thursday, racking up 14 of them for a franchise-record 166 penalty yards. It is hardly mutually exclusive, in other words, to label this game a total ref show and also point out that this is a major hurdle for Dallas to overcome.

There’s no clean way to partition the blame, either. Some of it falls on McCarthy because to one degree or another, discipline always falls on the head coach. That’s how football works. But is McCarthy responsible for Goodwin’s getting popped for back-to-back neutral zone infractions prior to Las Vegas’ game-winning field goal, or is that more on special teams coach John Fassel? How about Anthony Brown racking up a mind-melting four defensive pass interference calls, every one of them on third downs? I’d submit more of those are an indictment of Brown’s play—in this case, lack thereof—than anything pertaining to Dallas’ culture or mental toughness.

No amount of litigation—either of today’s infractions or the season’s—changes the larger calculus: they keep happening because things aren’t getting done correctly, and when enough things don’t get done correctly, teams lose football games. No, the Cowboys are not healthy, and, yes, having their best players on the field would go a long way toward making this sort of thing matter less. Talent often compensates for mistakes.

But the margins narrow the deeper we get into the season. And given all the things we need to see them sort out, the Cowboys can’t be beating themselves on top of that, too. Right now, their opponents have an easy enough time doing that without their help.

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