The first half looked so familiar that Mike McCarthy decided to acknowledge the elephant in the locker room.
The realization had hit: It’s happening again.
For the sixth consecutive game, the Cowboys were in a hole down at least 14 points. The offense had again fumbled and thrown an interception in the first half. Again, Andy Dalton’s group could not score a touchdown before halftime. Again, the defense couldn’t guard against big plays. Pick your poison of the 40-yard rush allowed on Washington’s first drive, the 26-yard catch to set up a 12-yard rushing touchdown up the middle on drive two or the busted coverage Terry McLaurin turned into a 52-yard touchdown on Washington’s fourth possession.
The unraveling looked all too familiar.
“We talked at halftime about the ‘here-we-go-again’ mode on the sidelines,” McCarthy said after a 25-3 loss at Washington dropped the Cowboys to 2-5 in his first season. “You know, we’ve got to move past that. That’s part of making progress throughout the season. We need to learn from our mistakes. We can’t keep letting our mistakes hold us down and hold us back.
“The only ones who are going to get us out of the hole are us as a football team.”
The week preceding their trip to FedEx Field was rocky. The Cowboys fell 38-10 at home to the Arizona Cardinals on Monday night. Tuesday, reports of players anonymously criticizing the coaching staff’s ability traveled far enough that McCarthy publicly addressed them. Wednesday morning, McCarthy acknowledged the resulting angst in a team meeting before practice. His message: If you have an issue, be a man and address it publicly with the team. By Friday, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s remarks had stooped to jabs that “you can lead a horse to water” but a 69-yard Arizona rushing touchdown up the middle felt “like putting a knife in your back.” An 80-yard Arizona touchdown against a three-deep zone was a brain lapse against a coverage that “it’s not like they’re too complicated,” Nolan said. “As a matter of fact, many high schools play those defenses.”
So how to explain Washington rookie running back Antonio Gibson rushing right through the middle of Dallas’ defensive line for a 12-yard rushing touchdown in the first quarter? How to explain McLaurin burning rookie cornerback Trevon Diggs over the top for that 52-yard receiving touchdown? Diggs said he got “lazy” staring at the quarterback. No defensive back was anywhere near McLaurin to bail the rookie out.
“It’s got nothing to do with scheme,” linebacker Leighton Vander Esch said.
Rather, says defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, this Cowboys team has insufficient “backbone.”
“We need more belief and more high spirits around this team,” said Lawrence, who notched his second sack in seven games. “And really, more fight. That’s really, I feel like, one of our weaknesses. We need to build a stronger backbone, fight and also make sure that we brought everything possible to come out with a victory.”
MORE:32 things we learned from Week 7 of the 2020 NFL season
OPINION:Cam Newton, Patriots look lost as they hit historic low
COWBOYS:Mike McCarthy questions players’ response to hit on QB Andy Dalton
The Cowboys can’t reverse season-ending injuries to quarterback Dak Prescott (ankle), right tackle La’el Collins (hip), left tackle Tyron Smith (neck), tight end Blake Jarwin (ACL) or defensive tackles Gerald McCoy (torn quad tendon) and Trysten Hill (ACL). They can’t magically cure shorter-term injuries, including concussions in the last two games to Dalton and right guard Zack Martin.
But coaches believe players can and must improve on ball security even if protection is left to second- and third-string offensive linemen. Defenders must tackle more cleanly and play with better gap integrity than they continue to show as opponents torch them at record rates.
The mistakes, like the injuries, look all too familiar. The nine games remaining on the schedule at times seem like an interminable length for a shorthanded team, while simultaneously offering far too little time to right the ship in McCarthy’s first Dallas season.
“I’ve stood in front of this camera too many times this year and spoke about basics we just haven’t put together yet,” McCarthy said Sunday evening. “I’d start with the turnovers. It obviously impacted the first-half field position and we didn’t handle the adversity of it – the points off of the turnovers. And we really didn’t get the run game going as we had planned. Then with that, they ran the ball too well against us. So, not a very good day.”
At 2-5, the Cowboys next travel to Philadelphia, where the 2-4-1 Eagles pace the NFC East. Frustration mounts. Disappointment, too. McCarthy said he needs to “quit candy coating” the basic fundamental skills on which his team errs weekly.
“We need to be much better,” McCarthy said, “and we’re running out of time.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein