It doesn't feel like it, but the 2015 Cowboys still have everything to play for. Despite the first five games of the season going as badly as they possibly could have, the Cowboys are still in decent shape to win the NFC East. They can still make the franchise's first NFC Championship Game since the 1995 season and they are still capable of winning the Super Bowl. Save for the Super Bowl thing (the Patriots are really, really good), they don't even need a miracle for any of those things to happen. All the Cowboys need is a little bit of luck over a small sample, starting Sunday, to keep themselves in the fight for everything.
Beginning with a broken foot to superstar wide receiver Dez Bryant on the opening night of the season, everything in 2015 has been slanted against the Cowboys. Tony Romo, the team's only indispensable player, went down with a broken collarbone the next week. Brandon Weeden, Romo's replacement, has been just OK enough to make it frustrating when the Cowboys lost all three games he started. It's all been desultory, exhausting stuff, but the rest of the season starts this weekend.
Weeden is out. Matt Cassel, Weeden's replacement, isn't a much better quarterback, but at least he introduces some hope into the Cowboys' system. Thanks to Weeden's single, disastrous 2014 start against the Cardinals last November and his utter lack of success as a starter for the Browns, we knew what we were going to get from him — no creativity and a guy who could only make enough plays to consistently win if he was backed by the 1985 Bears defense. With Cassel, anything is possible. The USC product could play like he did in 2008, when he won 10 of 15 starts for the Patriots after Tom Brady tore his ACL in week one, or he could play like he did during his recent stint with the Vikings, when he was unable to assert himself at the top of a depth chart that included Christian Ponder. At the very least, Cassel seems to have been given license to try to make things happen. Jerry Jones, speaking at a Wednesday press conference, told the media to expect more shots taken downfield — and the mistakes that come with creative decision making. Weeden was either not given the leeway or was scared of taking the risks Jones promised Cassel will.
In his three starts, Weeden's average pass attempt went just 4.3 yards past the line of scrimmage. When teams stacked the box to counter the shallow crossing routes and passes to running backs that Weeden relied on, he never adjusted, throwing the same passes while seeing them go for fewer yards. Despite Weeden's completing 20 passes in a row at one point against the Patriots in week five, the Cowboys failed to score an offensive touchdown, putting up only six points.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
With Cassel, the Cowboys are trying something different. Maybe Terrance Williams will morph back into the deep threat he's been when he's been at his best thanks to more targets down the field. Maybe stretching things out will give slot receiver Cole Beasley more run to operate. Maybe the Giants, who aren't any good, won't be able to keep seven or eight guys in the box every down and the Cowboys' three-headed running attack will actually be able to maintain production for more than a quarter at a time.
These are all things that could happen, and forcing a drastic change in the team's universe should help things along. The defense, too, could help. Greg Hardy, as impossible as he is to root for, looked terrific as a pass rusher for stretches against the Patriots. Randy Gregory, the team's rookie defensive end who's been out since the first game of the season, is the Cowboys' second most talented pass rusher. He's back Sunday. Bryant will be back next week against Seattle, if he doesn't give it a go on Sunday.
With everyone back and everyone healthy, the Cowboys will be very good, the team everyone expected them to be before the season. Until then, until Romo comes back sometime around Thanksgiving, they've got to do just enough to keep themselves in it. Three wins in the intervening five games, against, say, the Giants, Eagles and Buccaneers would be enough to give Romo a shot. That might not happen, but at least the Cowboys aren't making us think about a certain definition of insanity.