The Dallas Cowboys sit at a very frustrating 3-3. Frustrating, because in all three losses, the team was so close and had the opportunity to win. So many things would go right, and then something would come unglued. A blocked punt that is nearly the only mistake made by the special teams all season. Strong and effective quarterback performances that dissolved into disastrous spates of bad throws and route running mistakes. A running game that didn't produce when needed, and a defense that played superbly until the very last drive by the opponent. The team just did not seem to have it together.
Now it is time to go to Philadelphia and play the Eagles in the Sunday night showcase. If the Cowboys can notch a win, they will be considered a contender to go on and win the NFC East based on being undefeated in the division and having a fairly soft schedule the rest of the way. The Eagles will be likely be out of the race at 2-5. If the Cowboys lose, the Eagles will not only be back in the thick of things, but will have that win over Dallas, and the road ahead will become much more difficult.
Prior to last week's big win over the St. Louis Rams, Dallas was stuck in a series of close games, having seen eleven contests in a row decided by four or fewer points. No one was able to dominate the Cowboys, but they were not able to bully anyone else. Bashing a winless team that is without their starting quarterback may not be the greatest indicator that everything has finally fallen into place, but it's all we have to go on. And there are some encouraging trends.
What I see after the jump.
Success in football depends a great deal on putting all the pieces together. A strong front seven on defense is not very effective with a porous secondary. Good throws by a quarterback are wasted when they clank off the receiver's hands. Speedy and elusive running backs can't do much when the line isn't getting any push or opening lanes in front of them. Being able to go up and down the field isn't any good if you can't score once you get in the red zone. A well executed two minute drill can be wasted if the placekicker is wildly inconsistent.
Every one of those issues I just described is based on the Dallas Cowboys teams of 2010 and 2011. There were games lost because of each. Jason Garrett and his staff have had to find solutions for each one of them. At this point, I think they may actually have done so. And the answers are in many cases a little unexpected.
The issues with the defense as a whole were turned over to Rob Ryan. I feel that the biggest surprise of the season has been that it was Rob's Mob that got it together first. They have been solid from the first game, and currently rank first in rushing yards yielded per game and fifth in total yards. I think the Big Robowski is staking a strong claim to being named Assistant Coach of the Year (by whoever awards that). He took a unit that was, frankly, getting pushed all over the place, and with a new scheme, a new attitude, and a couple of free agent veterans who knew his system, he has come up with the bullies he talked about, and not just on the defensive line.
This bunch has turned into a real best-case scenario. DeMarcus Ware, the acknowledged superstar, has not disappointed. The line has been wreaking havoc, and the return of Jason Hatcher from injury should only improve things. The surprising emergence of Sean Lee as budding star, the return of the 2009 version of Mike Jenkins, and a wily veteran free-agent, Abram Elam, are all parts of this success story, but the amazing thing is that everyone on defense is playing well. Most fans were planning on this unit jelling by about midseason. Fortunately, Rob had his own plans.
The receiver issues were largely addressed before the season, with the exception of depth. That became an immediate problem as Miles Austin and Dez Bryant both missed time early on, but the signing of Laurent Robinson seems to have provided a reliable 3rd wide receiver and injury backup. Meanwhile Jason Witten (who, for reasons I won't go into, I keep trying to rename Jacob) is still the best all around tight end in the game.
The other end of the passing equation is Tony Romo, who had caused more than his share of consternation and despondency this year. And yet, almost no matter what stat you look at, he is in the top ten quarterbacks in the league. If he can keep the interceptions down the way he has since the bye, and get that famous rib healed the rest of the way, he can take this team a long way.
Along with the arrival of Rob Ryan, the big story coming out of the preseason for Dallas was the massive rebuilding job done on the offensive line. At first, it looked like the Yuglies were going to do pretty well as Tyron Smith turned out to be the real deal (as OCC points out), but their inexperience started to become an issue that could not be ignored by the Patriots game. Then Bill Nagy went down and onto IR, and a sick feeling settled in the pits of many of our stomachs. We desperately needed an answer, especially with the rather pitiful exhibition of rushing at the end of that game in New England.
In another plot twist that would be rejected in Hollywood because it is too improbable, that answer appears to be Montrae Holland. One of the late cuts in camp, derided with the nickname Lumpy for showing up overweight and out of shape, he took his dismissal not as the potential end of his career, but as a wake up call. Fifteen pounds lighter, he, like Abe Elam, has been most valuable because of his knowledge of the system. One game is not conclusive, but the signs are positive. I don't know if the O line can still properly be called the Yuglies, but I'm willing to fudge it a bit because I was one of the first on the bandwagon for the name.
The running back situation was also affected by injury, with Felix Jones going down. This followed the lack of work during the preseason for rookie DeMarco Murray. Everyone knows what happened when he got his first start against the Rams. And if you are a regular reader here, you also know that a big part of his success was the return of Tony Fiammetta, who is looking to be the first genuine fullback the Cowboys have had in years. And the Rams game not only showed that DeMarco is a legitimate starter, but it identified the best backup on the team in Phillip Tanner, a development I personally am very gratified to see, after waiting all season to see him get a touch.
Everyone noticed the eruption in rushing yards against the Rams. You may have overlooked that the Cowoys had four trips to the red zone, and got three touchdowns and a field goal. One of the TDs was Tanner's initial NFL score, and that six yard bulldozing job was almost as exciting to me as Murray's 91 yard streak to paydirt. Again, this is a small sample size to deal with against a team that was in real trouble, but at least they figured out how to convert.
One thing that we have seen enough of this year is the deadly accurate kicking by Dan Bailey. With only one miss all season, he has already won a game for the team and leads the league in total field goals made. And he has made everything over 30 yards.
On top of all that, the only player that looks to be missing the Eagles game is Felix, and it is beginning to look like his injury was a blessing in disguise. (I am a little concerned about the report of Mat McBriar being added to the injury list, but I haven't found any details, and it sounds like he is still available.) When you take all the things going on, it looks like the Cowboys may have all the pieces falling into place. This team has looked like it has the talent and the coaching to be a contender from the very beginning. Now the execution seems to be happening and the early injury issues are largely resolved.
In ways, very similar arguments can be made about the Eagles, particularly in the injury area. It will be interesting to see which team is actually getting its act together to make a run for the division.
Who am I kidding? I'm just interested in seeing the Cowboys pound the Eagles. I hope that is exactly what happens.