After a 2-5 start, Mike McCarthy’s list of things to fix with the Dallas Cowboys is lengthy.
None of it matters, though, until McCarthy goes back to square one.
You can’t win in the NFL if you aren’t tough and together. You may not be able to win in high school that way. No amount of talent or scheme can overcome the basics of the sport at the pro level. You either play as a team, with a heavy dose of fight, or you lose.
It’s such a given that it is rarely even discussed, rarely even considered a must-do for a head coach, let alone something to be reconstructed in the middle of a season.
There was no pushing or shoving or throwing punches, all of which would have been justified, especially when Dallas was trailing 22-3 in the second half and thus could afford a penalty.
Worse, there wasn’t even some yelling, some jawing, some getting in Bostic’s grill.
There was nothing. Dalton was laid out and his Cowboy teammates acted like they didn’t care. It was shocking because some response, even tepid and showy, occurs in 99 percent of these situations.
This was the sign of a heartless team.
“We speak all the time about playing for one another, respecting one another,” McCarthy said Sunday after the 25-3 defeat. “That was definitely probably not the response you would expect.”
Definitely, probably not.
And it’s a sign that McCarthy needs to speak a lot more than “all the time” about “playing for one another.”
Due to the historic ineptness of the NFC East, the Cowboys still have a viable path to the playoffs. They are only a half game behind the 2-4-1 Philadelphia Eagles, who they visit on Sunday night.
For Dallas to make anything of this gift of an easy road, they need to do the first things first.
Fingers need to be pointed at the players, of course. No one needs the 56-year-old McCarthy out there trying to fight someone. His days as a juco tight end are well behind him.
Yet the culture of the team starts at the top. There are demands. There are expectations. There are non-negotiables. Maybe McCarthy assumed the basics were in place and didn’t focus enough on the proper response to seeing a headhunter knock his quarterback senseless.
Yes, that’s on the players. It shouldn’t matter that Dalton is in his first year with the team and replacing the glue of the franchise, Dak Prescott. Family is family. Next man up. Yet it happened, even among players from whom you would expect basic leadership.
“When I go into the locker room, there is no leadership void in my eyes,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas.
Both Jerry and his son Stephen Jones have expressed support for McCarthy, who was brought in to replace long-term coach Jason Garrett and take the Cowboys from decent to contenders.
McCarthy won a Super Bowl in Green Bay and regularly put together one of the best teams in the NFL. Dallas has been a disaster schematically and with fundamentals, particularly turnovers. So there is, again, a lot to do.
Yet for McCarthy, the challenge this week is something out of the Pop Warner leagues. In the ultimate team game, a team that isn’t a team doesn’t stand a chance. You have to play for each other. You have to defend each other. You have to fight for each other.
Dallas had no fight on Sunday.
Until that changes, until McCarthy can flip the mentality, then the rest doesn’t matter. It’s a strange coaching challenge for late in October, but here we are. Ezekiel Elliott’s struggles can wait. He can’t keep letting his team get punked.
More from Yahoo Sports: