There is now no doubt in my mind that the Boys are a healthy organization. (Yes, I realize that word is ironic when you consider the health of too many of our players!) Improving over last year in almost every category? Check. Persevering through adversity? Check. Beating divisional rivals? Check. Finding cheap and credible ways to plug holes (Elam, Fiametti, Robinson, Daugherty)? Check. Instituting needed changes with a minimum of pain (i.e., firing overpaid Barber, RW, and most of the offensive line)? Check. Franchise quarterback who gives you a chance in any game, even when injured, even without his top target(s)? Check. A couple of playmaking beasts on defense (Ware and Lee--with Ratliff and others doing a creditable job)? Check. Winning record against teams with winning records? Check.
My question is now a different one: are the Boys contenders? I have some questions on this one. I've seen the this-year stats that show that the Redskins and 49ers are winning games, but my intuition tells me that even if we beat Detroit we will have only faced one sure playoff team: the Jets. We played them tough--heck, in the first half we had their lunch--but we still found a way to lose. If we squeak by Detroit and enter the bye 3-1, everyone will be ecstatic. But will we be a contender?
Here are the areas where I think we have to step things up to be a contender:
1. Offense: Protect and extend leads (see FiTaT for the "close game" fallacy). I'd say we have two needs here: a physical running back to spell Felix (along with effective blocking) so that we can run out the clock without handing the ball off to someone who neither gains yardage nor stays in bounds; and a quarterback who is as good at making smart plays as he is at making inspired plays. (Romo is rightly a hero these last two weeks, but that doesn't change the fact that so far he has managed to do what Costa only tried to do: cost us a W.) Oh, and a third: a play-caller who can restore my confidence in 1st-and-goal situations.
2. Offense: Extraordinary tight end play. Witten is always great; but for the Cowboys to be great, Witten needs to be Superman (as he so often has been), and one other tight end needs to be counted on for a touchdown catch here or there.
3. Offense: Free needs to be Free. The Left Guard remains the most important position. The Yugglies will face growing pains, and Costa will stop mis-snapping. But if Free doesn't return to form, it's a long season.
4. Defense: Make teams fear third down. I don't have any more to add here, since I'm still giddy over the improved play (especially 4th-quarter play) and the freakish stats of Lee and Ware. But this team has not met the best offense in the NFL, and it is giving up points, so it can probably step things up in order to really stop a playoff-caliber team.
What would you add to the list?