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Battista: Eagles on top of dismal, three-win NFC East heap

One of the unfortunate byproducts of the safety rules for the NFL’s pandemic-shaped season is the loss of a favorite time-honored ritual: the Jerry Jones postgame press conference.

Other owners shake their heads at the spectacle, but the Jones post-mortem — sometimes held inside the locker room, one time a few years ago in the trainer’s room with Jason Witten receiving treatment on a nearby table — is the most reliably unfiltered view from the most important voice inside any franchise available. It is sometimes jaw-dropping and frequently hilarious, but it is always illuminating and a treasure for reporters.

Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan should feel very fortunate no microphone and camera can get near Jones this year.

The Cowboys lost to the Cleveland Browns, 49-38, Sunday and to understand the state of America’s Team, consider this — they are a watermelon kick from winless.

The Cowboys defense is among the worst in the league, a disorganized and confused mess, yielding eye-popping yardage and point totals that McCarthy called “outrageous.” The Cowboys lost four defensive starters early in free agency and then lost Leighton Vander Esch and Gerald McCoy to injury, so some of this had to be expected. But after the game, McCarthy said communication issues were evident from the first series while sloughing off the notion the defense wasn’t prepared. Whether this is scheme or personnel or coaching — or, most likely, some combination of the three — the Cowboys managed to give up 307 yards rushing even though the Browns’ best rusher, Nick Chubb, got hurt just before the end of the first quarter. And they gave up another three touchdown passes, meaning opponents have thrown 12 touchdown passes on 139 pass attempts, an average of a touchdown every 11.6 passes.

McCarthy talks a lot about complementary football — he did it again after Sunday’s game — and, given the stumbling defense, that means the offense has to roll up the points. Given the star power on offense, that isn’t an unreasonable ask. But the offense turned the ball over another three times, including fumbles on consecutive plays by Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in the first half that contributed to the 27-point deficit the Cowboys had to dig out of — “unacceptable,” Prescott called the turnovers — and an interception that ended the last-gasp comeback attempt. It was the third straight week the Cowboys have allowed at least 38 points — the first time that’s happened since the Cowboys’ inaugural season of 1960 — and the third-straight game that the Cowboys trailed by at least 14 points. Because they have been in such big holes for three weeks, there is no balance to the offense. On Sunday, Elliott had just 12 rushes, while Prescott attempted 58 passes, an escalation from the 47 and 57 attempts he had in the previous two games, respectively.

McCarthy was expected to bring his acumen with quarterbacks and his playoff experience with him to Dallas. But as much complaining and undermining as Jason Garrett endured in his nine full seasons as Cowboys head coach — and there was plenty, including in those Jones gatherings with reporters — he can say one thing. He never started a season 1-3.

“Four weeks is a pattern and this pattern has to stop,” McCarthy said.

The biggest takeaway from watching the Cowboys: It makes it much easier to defend Eagles head coach Doug Pederson playing for a tie with the Bengals in overtime last week. Pederson obviously didn’t trust his team — understandable given their own underachievement — and he has since second-guessed himself about not going for a win. But that’s a column for another day. The upshot is that the NFC East is like a garbage barge right now and that tie, combined with the Eagles’ first win of the season Sunday night over the 49ers, has the Eagles at 1-2-1, on top of the trash heap by a half game over the Cowboys and the Washington Football Team.

A month into the season, the NFC East has collectively just three victories, but that is guaranteed to improve next week, when the Giants and Cowboys face each other. The Giants are 0-4 and while the Washington Football Team has one victory, they are both in the moral victory stage of their respective rebuilds. Before the season-ending injury to Saquon Barkley, the Giants liked where their offense was and believed their offensive line was finally fixed. Without Barkley, the Giants have not scored a touchdown in their last two weeks, and have scored just three total this season. They have been competitive in three of their four games and for now, that has to count as progress. At least they are not the Washington Football Team, which is suddenly confronting the question of whether Dwayne Haskins is their franchise quarterback after all.

In the NFC East this season, it’s always uglier somewhere. And that, ultimately, is good news for the Cowboys. Half of their remaining games are against division opponents and given the softness of the division, and the struggles of the other teams, it’s hard to imagine that Prescott’s breathtaking passing pace — he is on track to pass for an astounding 6,750 yards, which would shatter the single-season record by almost 1,300 yards — won’t overwhelm Dallas’ opponents in many of those games. On Sunday, Prescott said he would give all his yards back for a win. Given the state of the division, Prescott may not have to make that choice too often to keep Dallas in what looks like a two-team race with the Eagles. Jerry Jones would probably have plenty to say then, too.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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