<
>

At the bye, Cowboys have had some good, some bad

FRISCO, Texas -- Here is what the bye week isn't: a chance to fix things.

The Dallas Cowboys will spend less than two hours on the practice field on Wednesday and Thursday, and then players will get four days off before returning to work next Tuesday with their attention on the San Francisco 49ers.

Here is what the bye week is: a chance to reflect on the Cowboys' 2-3 start.

Clearly it is not what they envisioned. They were 4-1 after five games in 2016, and the notion of Dak Prescott keeping the starting quarterback job even when Tony Romo was healthy was just starting to take hold. They were running the ball better than just about anybody. Their defense was passable and making timely plays.

So far this season, the 25-point road loss to the Denver Broncos was an abomination. The back-to-back losses at AT&T Stadium to the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers were not as incriminating, but just as painful. Through the bad results there also was some good.

And that's kind of been the Cowboys' start to 2017.

"There's a lot of good in these games," said tight end Jason Witten -- who has seen his share of highs and lows since joining the Cowboys in 2003 -- after the loss to the Pack. "It's just a 60-minute game, and at the end of the day, you look and see a W and L."

Ultimately, that's how the Cowboys are judged. If the Cowboys slog their way to an 8-8 record or worse, there could be a lot of changes -- not just in personnel, but on the coaching staff, as well.

WHAT HAS WORKED

Prescott: Some might get caught up in the fact he has as many interceptions in five games (four) as he did all of last season. Some might note the near-interceptions saved either by a receiver or a defensive back's bad hands. But Prescott has played better so far this season than he did as a rookie, considering how the running game has struggled and the quality defenses he has faced. He is on pace to throw 35 touchdown passes. A case can be made that the Cowboys are asking too much of Prescott, but he is responding to the pressure.

DeMarcus Lawrence: He leads the NFL in sacks with 8.5. He has a career high in sacks after five games. He has been a consistent pass-rushing threat in every game. In the past two games, he has seen more attention from opposing blockers, which will be his life for the remainder of the season. What the Cowboys have to hope is that their other defensive linemen take advantage of the single blocks created by the double-teams of Lawrence. The last time the Cowboys had a defender with double-digit sacks was in 2013, when Jason Hatcher had 11.

Dan Bailey and Chris Jones: It's hard to separate the two, considering they always seem to be together. Bailey has made all seven of his field goal attempts, and his kickoffs have helped keep opposing kick-return units hemmed in. Jones has been even better at punting. Don't put too much into his 43.9-yard average. Twelve of his 20 punts have been downed inside the 20. He has just one touchback (and that was because his coverage unit let him down). Opposing teams are averaging just 5.6 yards per punt return.

Jourdan Lewis: He was beaten by Davante Adams for the winning touchdown in the loss to the Packers, but he has shown he has a long-term future. He has the Cowboys' last takeaway, an interception in the Week 2 loss to the Broncos. He is doing all of this without any training camp work. Because of how he has played, the Cowboys are looking at making Chidobe Awuzie, their second-round pick, a full-time safety.

WHAT HASN'T WORKED YET

The run game: Blame two new starters on the offensive line. Blame the threat of a six-game suspension for Ezekiel Elliott. Blame the defenses the Cowboys have played. Either way, the running game has been spotty. Elliott is fourth in the NFL in rushing but is averaging only 3.7 yards per carry. A lot of that is because of the nine-carry, eight-yard effort in the loss to the Broncos. He has had 85, 80 and 116 yards in the past three games, respectively. It has gotten better, and he had 13 carries for 85 yards in the fourth quarter against Green Bay. He finally looked like the runner of a year ago, in part because the Cowboys went to more misdirection runs.

Get a takeaway: It's up to 213 plays since Lewis' interception of Trevor Siemian. The Cowboys have had a few missed opportunities, but not so much it would make their turnover total palatable. The Cowboys have pressured the quarterback better than expected -- 16 sacks -- but have not been able to come up with interceptions. And they have just two fumble recoveries.

The new guys: The Cowboys are still waiting for meaningful contributions from their top two picks, Taco Charlton and Awuzie. Charlton does not have a sack, has not played a ton and might not be a lock for the 46-man roster. Awuzie can't seem to shake a hamstring strain. Jaylon Smith's comeback has been amazing after he missed his rookie year, but he has not made enough impact plays. The Cowboys did not make any big free-agent additions, but their best, cornerback Nolan Carroll II, could find it hard to be active going forward after missing time with a concussion.

WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN

Have the Elliott situation settled: This could come at any moment. Elliott and the NFL are waiting for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to make a ruling on the league's request to stay the injunction that is allowing the running back to play. If the league is granted the stay, Elliott will miss the next six games. Having this settled one way or the other will allow the Cowboys to make their plans. If they have Elliott, the Cowboys can focus on the run plays that have worked better lately. If they don't, they need to get Alfred Morris, Darren McFadden and Rod Smith up to speed in a hurry.

Sean Lee's return: The Cowboys have been lost without him. The defense has given up 63 points in the two games Lee has missed because of a hamstring strain. (The offense gave up an interception return to the Packers to account for one of the scores.) Without Lee, the Cowboys have allowed back-to-back 100-yard rushers. It might be too much to ask Lee to right all of the defense's wrongs, but his value to the unit is unquestioned.

Shore up the pass protection: As much as the focus has been on the struggles in the run game, Prescott has been forced to create on his own because of pressure, mostly up the middle, which goes back partly to the issues at left guard. The Cowboys can't live with Prescott running around to make plays on a weekly basis and consistently expect to win.