It’s no secret that the Dallas Cowboys break their 16-game regular season down into four quarters.
Suffice it to say, the first four games didn’t go as expected, with the team sitting at 2-2.
It hasn’t been the smooth-running machine of a year ago when the Cowboys reeled off 11 consecutive wins before finishing 13-3 behind rookie sensations quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott. They were thought to be staking a claim as the new power contender of the present and the future.
So far, the Cowboys look nothing like a team primed to reach the Super Bowl, a place they haven’t been since 1995, their last of three title teams in the 1990s.
Elliott and the running game, the foundational philosophy for any Cowboys success, have been pedestrian at best.
Prescott had the finest season of any rookie quarterback in NFL history in 2016 but has not been as accurate or efficient this year.
Overall, the Cowboys have been plagued by injuries, inconsistency and execution breakdowns. They are possibly staring at their fourth 8-8 season in seven years under coach Jason Garrett if they don’t get things turned around.
Elliott said there is no panic in the locker room and tight end Jason Witten agrees, though he acknowledges they need a win against Green Bay Sunday.
“We’ve got to win more games. You don’t want to be .500,” Witten said. “I think that’s the focus for all of us. We all have to play better. We’ve got to take advantage of it when we have teams that we can really eliminate in these games.
“The standard is high. Ultimately, you’ve got to do it more. I am motivated by the fact that everybody has taken that same approach.”
What has gone right
The thing that has gone right initially was Elliott being on the field for the start of the season after his six-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy for allegedly assaulting an ex-girlfriend was blocked by a Texas judge’s temporary injunction.
However, the Cowboys are still 2-2 and the ground game with Elliott hasn’t been a difference maker.
The emergence of defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who has a sack in every game and leads the NFL with 7.5 sacks, is making a huge difference. He finally looks like the real deal as a pass rusher.
Defensive tackle Maliek Collins has displayed flashes of dominance in the middle.
Punter Chris Jones had 11 of 19 punts downed inside the 20 and played a key role in the two wins.
Cornerback Orlando Scandrick looks like his former self again. Rookie defensive backs Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods have shown immediate flashes, demanding more playing time.
What has gone wrong
The best offensive line in football has been anything but that through the first four games.
There have been struggles with new starters at left guard and right tackle being added to the mix of Pro Bowlers in left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and Zack Martin. La’el Collins has been solid at right tackle, but Chaz Green has struggled at left guard and then missed a game with injury. And there is a reason why Jonathan Cooper, who played in place of Green against the Arizona Cardinals, lost the battle for the starting job in training camp.
The line issues have caused the running game to struggle while also contributing to Prescott’s efficiency issues, especially on third down. He doesn’t have as much time to read his progressions.
The offense has not been able to control the ball or the clock, exposing the inherent shortcomings on defense because it has been on the field too much.
The top two picks in April’s draft, defensive end Taco Charlton and cornerback Chido Awuzie, have made no impact. Awuzie has the excuse of being been injured. But Charlton, picked in the first round to contribute immediately, has stood out for his lack of productivity.
Safety Jeff Heath has been a disappointment so far as a full-time player.
That linebacker Jaylon Smith has had to be a full-time player because of injuries has mitigated the feel-good story of him being on the field. He is recovering from a devastating knee injury that caused him to miss his rookie season in 2016.
A preseason knee injury to Anthony Hitchens put Smith on the field as the starting middle linebacker, maybe a little sooner than planned.
Smith leads the Cowboys with 45 tackles and leads the front seven in snaps played.
Why there is hope
Because it’s early in the season, there is no reason to panic. But the need for an increased sense of urgency has been acknowledged.
The Cowboys say the offense has shown signs of progress the past two games by scoring 28 at Arizona and 30 points against the Los Angeles Rams.
“The last seven quarters, we really feel like we’ve started to come around,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “I feel really good. Looking at the last seven quarters getting in the goal zone, the red zone, eight times and have seven touchdowns and a field goal. That’s a good trend for us.”
The defense should get better because the rookies in the secondary will improve and reinforcements are on the way.
Defensive end David Irving, the best player on the defensive line at the end of last season, returns Sunday against the Packers after missing the first four games under NFL suspension for using a banned substance. He and Lawrence could make a formidable force.
Hitchens also should return against the Packers which would ease the load off of Smith at linebacker.
Linebacker Sean Lee, who missed last week’s game against the Rams with a hamstring strain, may also miss this Sunday and use next week’s bye to get healthy.
Awuzie’s return from a hamstring injury gives the Cowboys more athleticism, versatility and flexibility in the secondary. He can play cornerback and safety.
The overall optimism hinges on Elliott being able to stay on the field through his legal battles.
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals will rule on his fate next week. If the injunction is overturned or is thrown out and Elliott is forced to serve his suspension immediately, hope for a possible playoff run might become futile, given the team’s start to the season.
Dallas Cowboys 2017 Schedule
Sept. 10 Cowboys 19, New York Giants 3
Sept. 17 Denver 42, Cowboys 17
Sept. 25 at Cowboys 28, Arizona 17
Oct. 1 vs. Los Angeles Rams 35, Cowboys 30
Oct. 8 vs. Green Bay (KDFW/4) 3:25 p.m.
Oct. 15 Bye
Oct. 22 at San Francisco (KDFW/4) 3:05 p.m.
Oct. 29 at Washington (KDFW/4) 3:25 p.m.
Nov. 5 vs. Kansas City (KTVT 11) 3:25 p.m.
Nov. 12 at Atlanta (KDFW/4) 3:25 p.m.
Nov. 19 vs. Philadelphia (KXAS/5) 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 23 vs. L.A. Chargers (KTVT/11) 3:30 p.m.
Nov. 30 vs. Washington (KXAS/5) 7:25 p.m.
Dec. 10 at New York Giants (KDFW/4) 3:25 p.m.
Dec. 17 at Raiders (KXAS/5) 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 24 vs. Seattle (KDFW/4) 3:25 p.m.
Dec. 31 at Philadelphia (KDFW/4) Noon