FRISCO, Texas — The Dallas Cowboys head into the bye week with as many losses as they had in all of the 2016 regular season.
They are 2-3 and struggling one year after being the toast of the NFL with a league-best regular-season record of 13-3.
The Cowboys were expected to build on last season’s success and make a Super Bowl run in 2017. But they have struggled out of the gate because the defense has been decidedly worse than expected and the running game has not been the dominant factor is was a year ago.
The upcoming stretch after the bye week won’t be easy, either, with road trips to San Francisco and Washington followed by a home game against undefeated Kansas City.
The Cowboys, though, remain confident.
They believe they saw signs of progress in last Sunday’s 35-31 loss to the Packers.
“Well, I hate going into the bye week with a loss. But I think that this team, if there is such a thing, made a very competitive effort out there (against the Packers),” owner Jerry Jones said. “We’re going to see some things, you saw (David) Irving, that we’re going to be able to do with our front. We struggled with our linebackers, but we have a healthy (Justin) Durant, we have (Anthony) Hitchens back and we’ll have Sean Lee back. And we’ve got some guys that are young that have gotten some snaps that are going to be better players for us.”
The players feel good about their progress, especially on offense.
They have scored 30-plus points in consecutive weeks, albeit consecutive home losses to become the first team in history with that distinction.
But they’ve failed to put opponents away the past two games despite getting early leads.
“We’re 2-3 going into the bye. We’ve got a lot of work to do,” tight end Jason Witten said. “We’ll just stay together; this is a close-grouped team. Lot of football left. Certainly, there’s a lot that we’ve got to clean up going into the bye.”
Said running back Ezekiel Elliott: “Just regroup. Go get in the film room and figure out what you did wrong and what you did right.”
Quarterback Dak Prescott has been one of the team’s bright spots. He has 11 touchdown passes to four interceptions. He also has two rushing touchdowns.
Jones said Prescott played his best game against the Packers last Sunday.
Prescott finished the game 25-of-36 passing for 251 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. He had a 105.2 passer rating.
Prescott also rushed for 37 yards on four carries, including an 11-yard TD run that gave the Cowboys a brief 31-28 lead with 1:13 left in the game.
Prescott feels good about the Cowboys going forward.
“We’re getting to where we want to be,” Prescott said. “We have high expectations on ourselves and we have a high standard on the offensive side of the ball, and on this team. We’re getting to where we want to be and moving the ball. We’re converting on third downs; I thought we did a good job on that tonight.”
–The Cowboys want to get back to football and use the bye week to improve the problems that have plagued them during a 2-3 start. But first they had to get their arms and minds around owner Jerry Jones’ threat to bench anyone who disrespects the national anthem by taking a knee or raising a fist.
Players met before practice Wednesday to discuss the issue and air their frustrations.
And then Jones met with the team after practice. Jones reiterated during the meeting that he was taking pressure off them and putting it all on himself, the sources said, and that the focus on standing was in the best interest of the Cowboys and NFL from a business perspective.
Cowboys players have largely stood idly by during the national anthem as protests have swept the NFL since the start of last season.
None has followed the lead of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started taking a knee during the anthem last season in a silent protest against police brutality and racial injustice.
Defensive ends Damontre Moore and David Irving did raise their fists after the anthem before Sunday’s 35-31 loss to the Green Bay Packers.
Jones’ mandate has put the players in an awkward position, especially because it seems that he is siding with President Donald Trump, who called the protesters “sons of b—-” a few weeks ago and said the owners should fire them if they kneel.
Cornerback Orlando Scandrick remarked with “no comment” to seven questions about Jones and the meetings.
But his opinion was heard loud and clear before and after the interview session.
He blared the hip hop song “FDT” by YG and Nipsey Hussle at his locker as the media walked in. The song’s hook is a curse word followed by Donald Trump.
After his interview, Scandrick pointed to the pink cleats he’s wearing for breast cancer awareness and said this was “a cause” the players are allowed to support.
Irving escaped punishment for his raised fist.
He also declined to comment when asked about details of the meeting, except for acknowledging that Jones did speak to the team and the meeting raised more questions as well as providing some answers.
He said he didn’t know if he would raise his fist again. But he said the team was still united and it plans to focus on football going forward.
“Yeah, let’s just focus on football, you know, just put our focus toward football,” Irving said. “There’s nothing much more to talk about the issue, we’re just going to focus on football.”
Quarterback Dak Prescott spoke briefly on the issue, telling the Dallas Morning News, that the Cowboys got ironed out what they needed to get ironed out in the meeting with Jones.
–Running back Ezekiel Elliott tied Hall of Fame legend Earl Campbell in Sunday’s loss to the Green Bay Packers by reaching 2,000 career rushing yards in his 20th game. Elliott had 116 yards on 29 carries to give him 2,024 in his career.
Only Eric Dickerson did it quicker, in his first 18.
NOTES: DT Stephen Paea, who has been battling knee injuries since signing a one-year, $2 million in March, told the coaches he is retiring, per sources. It’s a huge setback for the defense as he is one of its top run defenders. But Paea has not practiced the last few weeks in an effort to manage the injury so he could play in games on Sunday. He played in the first four games, but was held out of last Sunday’s game against the Green Bay Packers. … CB Nolan Carroll, who signed a three-year, $10 million deal in March to come over from Philadelphia, was released. He gets to keep his $3 million signing bonus. Carroll was active for only two games with the Cowboys. He missed two games with a concussion and was inactive for last Sunday’s game against the Green Bay Packers because he was passed on the depth chart. The Cowboys liked the upside of rookies Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie to play behind starters Orlando Scandrick and Anthony Brown. … LB Justin March-Lillard signed with the Cowboys Wednesday. March-Lillard, an undrafted free agent out of Akron, spent the 2015-16 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs and was among their final cuts. After the Chiefs released March-Lillard on Sept. 2, the Miami Dolphins claimed him on waivers. The Dolphins then released him on Sept. 26 and the Seattle Seahawks claimed him on Sept. 27. … LB Damien Wilson was cleared Wednesday of all charges by a grand jury arising from a Fourth of July incident. Wilson, 24, was charged with two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, stemming from a parking lot dispute over the summer holiday weekend. According to a police report from the incident, Wilson “intentionally” backed into a woman while trying to find a parking spot at Toyota Stadium, and then brandished a rifle at a man. But Wilson won’t go to trial over the matter. He posted on social media that Wednesday was “a beautiful day.” … LB Sean Lee, who missed the past two games with a strained hamstring, was at practice Wednesday and should be back on the field when the Cowboys return after the bye against the 49ers.