"We've all heard that we have to learn from our mistakes, but I think it's more important to learn from successes. If you learn only from your mistakes, you are inclined to learn only errors."
- Norman Vincent Peale
Every season, I find myself pleasantly surprised by the play of unheralded newcomers. Someone who was never expected to be that much of a factor - a real factor, steps out from behind the shadows and into the light. They ‘wow' us with performance that belies their hype or, more appropriately, lack thereof.
Case in point, going back nearly five seasons (has it really been that long?) I was blown away by Nick Folk. The rookie place kicker selected in the 6th round who was perfect from 49 yards and in. Find a draftnik who thought THAT guy would be in the Pro Bowl. Not. Gonna. Happen. But that's the beauty of this thing we call the NFL season. Every year, it seems those diamonds in the rough just come shining through.
In 2008, Zach Thomas showed he had a whole lot more left in his tank than anyone thought. Tashard Choice proved to be a whole lot more valuable than most 4th round running backs tend to be and had a string of games against Pittsburgh, the Giants and Baltimore that made people think Dallas would have a three-headed monster in the backfield once all three players were completely healthy.
The next season, Keith Brooking looked like the Free Agent steal of the year and quickly became the emotional center of the Dallas Cowboys defense, which was one of the most stingy, in terms of points, in recent memory. Another player who caught the eye of many was Victor Butler who, after one of the worst drafts in the franchise's history, seemed like a real find as a 4th round rookie Outside Linebacker opposite DeMarcus Ware. Clearly though, 2009 was Miles Austin's ‘coming out' party as the oft-injured undrafted Free Agent from a small school played his way into the Pro Bowl.
In 2010, even as the wheels were coming off of what was supposed to be a season in which Dallas played the role of first-ever host in the Super Bowl, there were some bright lights in a sea of darkness. Of note, the team saw its backup QB Jon Kitna come off of the bench in a pinch and complete nearly 66% of his passes with a 16/12 TD-to-INT ratio and, maybe just as important, infused the team with his passion and energy. Even more important to the long-term future of the team, Dallas seemingly found its first O-lineman through the draft in years after watching Doug Free do a yeoman-like job at Left Tackle for 16 games.
That brings us to the current season and, interestingly enough, this year may well prove no slouch when juxtaposed with prior years in the area of ‘needles located in the proverbial haystack'. In fact, once the books on 2011 close, this team may be THE stand out in the area of outstanding yet unexpected performances in the post-Jimmy Johnson era.
First, who in the heck is Tony Fiametta and where has he been all of our lives? When Fiametta has been in the game, the Dallas running game has shown a propensity for doing things most Dallas fans are unaccustomed to seeing, like picking up a 3rd and 2 or a 4th and 1 against teams with high-powered defensive fronts. Throwing his body into the mix with reckless abandon, he has helped open holes unseen in Dallas since Moose hung up his cleats. Credit the pro scouts for picking this guy up after two rather nondescript years in Carolina (okay, that could describe many of the Panthers players, but you get the point).
What more can you say about "steely" Dan Bailey? Through eleven games, the undrafted kicker from Oklahoma State has done nothing except set the NFL place kicking world on fire. He's only the NFL's most accurate FG kicker with 96.4% accuracy and he seems to have changed Dallas' mind about having a kickoff specialist. As if that wasn't enough, he has played a decisive role in four of Dallas' seven victories. For a team that was in dire straits in this area, he is truly one of those unexpected, yet welcome surprises.
It pays to have and build positive relationships in life. Never was that more true for Dallas than in the case of Laurent Robinson. For whatever reason, things just didn't come together for Robinson during his first two NFL stops in Atlanta and St. Louis. However, once Robinson was released by the Rams and later dropped by the Chargers in camp, word spread to Dallas through the NFL coaching tree about Robinson's crisp route running and ability to separate. The injuries to Dez Bryant and Miles Austin afforded him a chance, potentially his last, to stick on an NFL roster and he has not disappointed. Through nine games - with only four starts - he has eclipsed his previous best performance with 38 receptions, over 550 yards and 7 TD's. Again, that's nine games, four starts and no training camp! He's developed a great on-field rapport with Tony Romo and that trust between them has netted several big plays for a Cowboys offense in dire need of them.
Lastly, what list of surprises would be complete without DeMarco Murray's prominently mentioned. Now, one could argue that a third rounder is SUPPOSED to be a big-timer and play like this. I wouldn't...mainly because it's a poor argument, especially as it pertains to the Cowboys. Jason Williams, Robert Brewster, James Marten, Jason Hatcher and Stephen Peterman. Those are the names of Dallas' 3rd round picks dating back to 2004. You have to go back eight years to find a well-spent 3rd rounder from Dallas (Jason Witten). Obviously, when we hit on one, we REALLY hit on one. Without question, Murray has been a revelation, drawing early comparisons to some of the NFL's best running backs. NFL color commentators swoon over him with quotes like " he doesn't have any weaknesses" and "he can do it all" and "the sky's the limit for this kid". Murray, as long as he remains healthy and keeps the ball off of the carpet, could be the next great Cowboys back. Maybe eleven games with five starts IS a little premature in calling this kid the next great NFL running back, but you have to love what you've seen thus far. He has all of the tools and he really does have amazing potential. The idea of seeing him run behind a further-improved offensive line and a healthy Fiametta makes many a Cowboys fan giddy. Rightly so.
Regardless of how the season goes, from here on out, one thing is sure; Dallas has done a terrific job (if not the best in years) in identifying players who not only have played major roles but also look like long-term fixtures for the team to build around. It's important to note that the players all revolve around the offense and special teams but if the Cowboys' talent evaluators can learn from their successes and create a similar impact on the defense going forward, you have to like the prospects of building a roster with the talent needed to reach their goals.