We're at halftime of the '09 season and the Cowboys enter the intermission on the high, winning their fourth straight game, rising to 6-2 overall.
The jump was no fluke, as these tables demonstrate:
|Games 1-4||Games 5-8|
|24 points per game||30 ppg.
|401 yards per game||408 yards per game|
|164 rush ypg.||115 rush ypg.|
|237 passing ypg.||294 passing ypg.|
|6 turnovers||5 turnovers|
|Games 1-4||Games 5-8|
|371 ypg.||302 ypg.|
|115 rush ypg.||91 rush ypg.|
|256 pass ypg.||211 pass ypg.|
|6 sacks||15 sacks|
|4 turnovers||7 turnovers|
Steady improvement across the board. The offense was producing yards in bunches and has continued, though the mix has shifted from the run to the pass. You can see the Miles Austin effect in the passing yards per game, which have jumped almost 60 yards per contest since Austin became a starter.
The defense has been much tougher to run against and to pass against, though the turnarounds on that side of the ball came much earlier. No team has run effectively against the Dallas front since the season opener in Tampa. The low point for the pass defense came the following week when Eli Manning ripped them apart. The secondary has steadily improved since then.
The weakness has been inability to close out games, though they made the necessary stops against the Eagles Sunday night. The Chiefs drove for a late, tying touchdown, and the Falcons and Seahawks each put garbage-time TDs on the board. If this unit wants to improve in the third quarter, the 60 minute men we just saw will have to replace the 55 minute men on a more consistent basis.
What a Difference Some Health Makes
One year ago, the Cowboys were coming off another tough, 4-point win and were at a very respectable 5-3. That's the only real similarity between the '08 bunch and this one.
On last year's offense, Kyle Kosier, Felix Jones and Sam Hurd were already gone for the year. Tony Romo was rehabbing his broken pinkie for the second of four weeks. Flozell Adams was playing with one good arm and one good hand. Miles Austin was rehabbing a bum knee for the second time since Oxnard; new Cowboy Roy Williams was learning the playbook and how to fit in with that Terrell Owens fellow. His QB was Brad Johnson.
On defense, safety Roy Williams had just been placed on I.R. Adam Jones was suspended. Terence Newman was rehabbing from hernia surgery and Anthony Henry was on his 19th nervous groin strain. Zach Thomas was playing one inside linebacker spot and looking like a human pinball at 227 lbs.
The injuries this year have been far less severe and of much shorter duration. Marion Barber and Felix Jones have missed games but are back in the lineup. Roy Williams rib injury proved the happy accident that forced Austin into the starting lineup. On defense, Gerald Sensabaugh missed some time with a broken thumb, but has played remarkably well since returning with that thumb in a splint.
There's only one games worth of difference between last year's Cowboys and this year's bunch, but it seems like so much more.
Mid-Season Game Balls
I'm going to crib Aaron's idea and note the coaches who have distinguished themselves thus far this year:
Todd Grantham -- It's not Jay Ratliff and a bunch of guys anymore. Igor Olshansky and Marcus Spears are pushing their men backwards and resetting the line of scrimmage on wide runs. Stephen Bowen has stepped up his pass rush, as has Jason Hatcher. Junior Siavii was a big question mark but he's giving Dallas the active dozen or so snaps they need to rest Ratliff.
Reggie Herring -- Anthony Spencer is still looking for sacks but he's extremely active against the run, covers well, and is doing a fair Carl Banks impersonation in his second year as a starter. Herring has gotten Victor Butler to perform. He has three sacks in very limited time and could match Greg Ellis' '08 sack totals with a modest uptick in production.
Dave Campo -- His guys looked great in the Alamodome, then all stumbled against the Bucs and Giants in weeks one and two. Nobody is ripping him now. Mike Jenkins was the first to snap out of the post-Giants funk and has three interceptions at right corner. He looks like an emerging star. Terence Newman has a newfound desire to hit people and is no longer giving up the deep throws we saw the first month. Orlando Scandrick found his game last weekend and had another good game this week. The Seahawks and Eagles each completed a seam on him but Scandrick had skin-tight coverage on both plays. This is the guy we saw last year.
First Half Assistant Coach of the Year
Ray Sherman -- The Cowboys keep giving this guy low picks and undrafted free agents and Sherman never complains. He just develops his kids and they're making him look great right now. Austin has made plays for a full month now and his bomb against a tough Eagles secondary suggests he's won't disappear. Kevin Ogletree showed an Austin-esque ability to rack up YACs against Philly. Look at his two flanker screens from yesterday and you see a guy who attacks corners and safeties like a halfback. He's got some power and can slither and spin. Patrick Crayton and Sam Hurd pick their spots, but at least one of them makes a big play each week.
Sherman has three UFAs, a 7th rounder and a 1st rounder in his arsenal. They're all producing. A nod of recognition and gratitude goes Ray Sherman's way. If Michael Irvin was The Playmaker, Sherman could be called The Playmaker Maker.
Special Mention to the Front Office
The Cowboys didn't spend much in the offseason, but their investments have paid huge dividends. Bart Scott and Ray Lewis were the big ticket ILB free agents. Dallas was linked to Lewis for a while, but what Cowboys fan wouldn't want Keith Brooking right now? The Ravens wish they had his contract, instead of Lewis' long-term monstrosity.
The Cowboys passed over big-name, greybeard safeties Brian Dawkins and Darren Sharper and brought in Gerald Sensabaugh. Dawkins and Sharper have given their new teams huge boosts,but it will be interesting to see if they can maintain their level of play for 16 games. Sensabaugh has filled the need at strong safety, combining solid coverage with aggressive run support.
Dallas' biggest move involved scaring the Jets off Miles Austin. New York had an offer sheet prepared but didn't follow through after the Cowboys made it clear that they would match any offer. Think the Jets would prefer Austin today, or Braylon Edwards?
The team paid small money and has seen big results from Austin, Brooking and Sensabaugh. Their plan to eliminate the malcontents and the stupid has done nothing but good thus far. A tip of the cap to Tom Ciskowski, Stephen Jones and that Jerry Jones guy.
Now, get back to work!