At 3-5, Cowboys find themselves on familiar path

The Dallas Cowboys finished the first half of the season with a 3-5 record. Here's a look at how they have fared and what's ahead:

First-half rewind: Expectations were much higher than this for the Cowboys, and the focus is -- as it always is in these situations -- on the quarterback and the coach. Dak Prescott has played well at times, but he has lost four fumbles and been intercepted four times. He needs to get back to being that turnover-free quarterback of his rookie season, when he had just eight giveaways all year. Owner Jerry Jones said he would not make an in-season change with Jason Garrett, but that does not mean he should breathe easy. He has a lot riding on the final eight games of the season if he wants to guarantee he will be coaching this team in 2019. The Cowboys might be staring at their fourth 8-8 finish under Garrett, and this time a playoff-less season could lead Jones to make dramatic changes. He made one dramatic change already, trading a first-round pick to the Oakland Raiders for Amari Cooper. The receiver scored a touchdown in his first game with the Cowboys, but it came during a loss. Grade: Below average.

What needs the most improvement? The personnel isn’t changing, aside from minor tweaks. Jones said the head coach isn’t changing, but he did not completely rule out other changes on the staff. Effort has not been an issue for the Cowboys. Execution has, and sometimes they need help from the coaching staff to put them in position to execute better. When it comes to creativity, the Cowboys do not have what would be considered a forward-thinking offense, say, like the Los Angeles Rams or Kansas City Chiefs. The game plans will not change dramatically in the final eight games, but there has to be some imagination involved so every play is not such a knock-down, drag-out fight to gain a yard.

MVP: The Cowboys wanted to see DeMarcus Lawrence prove his 14.5-sack season of 2017 wasn't a fluke. He has 6.5 sacks and has been the best player on a defense that has been the strength of the team. With quarterbacks such as Carson Wentz, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees and Andrew Luck remaining on the Cowboys' schedule, Lawrence has to be a dominant force. If he is, then the Cowboys will have to make him one of the highest-paid defensive players in the NFL in 2019 with a huge, multiyear deal.

Biggest surprise: Byron Jones' move back to cornerback after starting the 2016-17 seasons at free safety has gone better than anybody could have predicted. He has been a perfect fit for what passing-game coordinator Kris Richard has wanted. He has the length to affect receivers at the line with press coverage. He is athletic and fast enough to stick with them all over the field. The only thing he needs to do is take the ball away, but opposing offenses are not challenging him very often.

Hurdle to overcome: Entering the season, the supposed strength of the team was supposed to be the offensive line, but it has not had Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick as he deals with the effects of Guillain-Barre Syndrome. His replacement, Joe Looney, has not played poorly, but the rest of the line has not played as well as expected. Right guard Zack Martin has come close to his Pro Bowl form, but tackles Tyron Smith and La'el Collins have been inconsistent, and left guard Connor Williams has had too many rookie moments. There's a reason why the Cowboys made a midseason switch at line coach, with Paul Alexander out in favor of Marc Colombo.