Dez Bryant, gone. Tony Romo, gone. Who’s it going to be this week? Jason Witten?
The 2015 version of the Dallas Cowboys have run into some brutal luck in the early goings, losing their top two offensive weapons to injury in consecutive weeks. Despite their 2-0 start atop the NFC East, Bryant — one of the best wide receivers in the league — suffered a broken bone in his foot in week one and is expected to miss six to eight weeks. Romo, the quarterback and unquestionable leader of the club, left Sunday’s 20-10 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in the third quarter with a fractured left clavicle. He is reportedly expected to miss about eight weeks.
Losing any two players on offense at such an early stage of the season is certainly cause for worry. The fact that both injuries are to body parts that are crucial to the duo’s individual positions on the team — plus the magnitude of the players lost — have some readying for a quick Dallas collapse and surrender of their division lead.
This post will discuss why the NFC East, at this still very early juncture of the year, is still the Cowboys’ division to lose.
It’s probably not a popular theory among NFL analysts, but the Cowboys should still have enough on offense to compete without Bryant and Romo. Obviously, all of the attention will be on Brandon Weeden — the 31-year-old quarterback with all of 21 career starts under his belt — who is being tasked with replacing Romo. Weeden’s 5-16 record as a starter and his 27:28 career touchdown to interception ratio aren’t pretty, but he should be able to win some ballgames during his run as the main man in Dallas… with some help.
Without Bryant in the fold, targets like Witten, Terrance Williams, and Cole Beasley are becoming that much more critical to the Cowboys’ offense. Each of the trio provide a unique skill set that could possibly help Weeden ease into the starting role. Witten is the big, veteran tight end who is still above average at his position. With his 958 career receptions, the 33-year-old can provide a boost to Weeden’s confidence. (Note: Witten suffered two sprained ankles and a sprained knee during Sunday’s win.) Williams is the mega-talented deep threat with Bryant out of the picture. The third-year-pro caught his first touchdown of the year on Sunday, hauling in a 42-yard bomb from Weeden. Beasley is the quick, shifty wide out who should be a beneficiary of Weeden’s passing when he elects to dump off screen passes or slants for short gains.
Like their division-rival Giants, the Cowboys employ somewhat of a running back-by-committee, three-pronged attack. With Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar and Darren McFadden leading the way, Dallas is in the middle of the pack in terms of rushing yards per game in the early stages. Expect their 94.5 yards average to increase over the next couple of months with head coach Jason Garrett relying on the ground game more often.
Perhaps the Cowboys’ biggest strength that they still have is their run defense. While it is a bit premature to look at statistical averages after just a pair of games, Dallas’s defensive figures are impressive nonetheless. The fact that they’ve done this against two division counterparts speaks even more volumes. They are currently allowing a league-low 53 rushing yards per contest. Throw in their 10th-best passing attack — allowing an average of 204.5 passing yards per game — and you have a defensive unit that is one of the best in the game right now. With linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive end Greg Hardy projected to return from suspensions for the week five showdown against the New England Patriots, the “D” in “Big D” may become even more stout.
Let’s take a look at the anemic “competition” that the Cowboys have in the division shall we?
It’d be difficult to find a team that has looked worse through two weeks than the Eagles. Other than the center, the two positions in football that touch the pigskin the most times in almost every game are the quarterback and running back. Both of these are major areas of concerns right now in Philly. We’re only 12.5% of the way through the regular season, and Eagles head coach Chip Kelly has already said that “everyone involved with the offense” would be “evaluated.” According to ESPN Staff Writer Phil Sheridan, Kelly will not be making any major changes in offensive personnel quite yet though. Still, the 0-2 Eagles cannot feel too confident in a turnaround with the way Sam Bradford has looked as the starting quarterback. Their prized off-season acquisition — running back DeMarco Murray — has made matters worse with his less than impressive start to his Philadelphia career.
Also standing in at 0-2 are the Giants. Of course, every fan of the blue and white know that the G-Men could very well be 2-0 if not for some poor execution down the stretch in their opening games. The Giants have lost by a combined five points against the Cowboys and Falcons and have an intriguing Thursday night home match up against the Redskins coming up. Simply put, Eli Manning and company are in a state of flux right now and until they begin to make better decisions with the football in crunch time, they should not be seen as a threat to the Cowboys.
Remarkably, right now, the Redskins are the biggest competition to the Cowboys. At 1-1, Washington could be 2-0 if not for a blown lead against the Miami Dolphins in week one. The Redskins are currently ranked first in the entire NFL in overall defense, allowing just 234.5 yards of offense per game. Their offense is being carried by a solid running back duo of Alfred Morris and Matt Jones and currently ranks 11th in the NFL with 361 yards of per contest. Despite the solid start, can you really trust Kirk Cousins at quarterback for the next few months?
The Cowboys have a tough few games coming up (vs. Atlanta, at New Orleans, vs. New England,) but if Weeden and the rest of the crew can secure at least one win and go into their bye week at 3-2 or better, they could still be the division leaders entering a big week seven rematch against the Giants.
Follow Victor on Twitter @vbarbosa1127.