OK, so I didn't tell anybody anything. I don't know much about football. But I am a good reader. And so far, this season is everything that the smartest posters and writers on BtB said it would be--way back in the summer.
In the week to week, I see people acting elated--then disappointed--and always surprised. But nothing about this season has been particularly surprising, and there are quite a few sharp cookies out there who could be saying "I Told You So."
1. The O-line:
When I read the most knowledgeable people, they thought it would be better. That Frederick would change things. That Free would play better. That a year to develop would matter. Well, so far this O-line has easily, by any standard, gone from bottom quartile last season to top quartile this season.
Speaking of which, let me mention Brian Waters: Here the "I Told You So" is double edged. Smart people said Waters was a great player who would elevate our game. Smart people said an out of condition aging free agent is not a move that really makes an impact on a season. So what did we get? A great player who would elevate our game, for a handful of games. Not really a surprise, on either side.
2. The Effective, Sputtering Offense:
Another double-edged "I Told You So." There were people who were pretty sure that the O-line was the final piece (along, perhaps, with some hopeful developments at RB, TE, and WR) to make this the high-octane offense we always felt it could be. But there were others, a very bright minority, who tempered those expectations. Why? Because we as fans tend to overestimate the ups and downs of even the best players. Dez had an insane second half of last season--he was bound to regress to something closer to earth. Every team has 3-and-outs, every team struggles against certain defenses. Sometimes there are games with multiple drops. Sometimes a RB or WR has a down game, often because they're dinged up. Sometimes it's just a lot of picky stuff--penalties, bad calls, pinkies out of bounds.
The most telling percentages, such as YPA, show the Cowboys already had one of the more potent offenses throughout the JG/ Romo years. Armchair playcallers are always sure they could do better, but JG/ Romo have been effective at a statistically higher level than most other playcallers, year in and year out, in an extremely competitive league. It's very hard to improve an already high number. It's very hard to swap in a new playcaller and have an instant uptick when the old playcaller was already so good. Yes, I said it. We didn't have those top-10 and top-5 YPA numbers despite JG--we had them because of JG.
But there is good news on the "I Told You So." By continuing to lean on the undisputed skills of our receivers and QB, by using that extra second an improved O-line affords us, and by rolling with the inevitable unfortunate circumstances, we have managed to improve some of the things we wanted to improve. We are scoring in the Red Zone more. We are scoring earlier in the game. We are still dangerous with a couple of minutes to go. We've seldom looked like we looked in Denver, but our scores have been healthy.
Finally, we keep adding new weapons. Yes, this year (or at least this half of the year) it looks like Escobar and Hannah are disappointing. But this year (or at least this half of the year) Williams is performing beyond our wildest hopes--leading all rookies. You don't have to hit with every draftee, as long as you hit with some. Beasley is another guy who's really developing into something special, and therefore getting those slants we might have thrown Escobar/ Hannah. A good coaching staff does not go into the season with only one plan--they have multiple plans, and they roll with the ones that are working. Fans who felt good about this draft and our offensive weapons can still say, "I told you so."
3. The Hapless, Exciting Defense:
If the offense has been top-of-the-league for several years, the D has been nearer the bottom. We've tinkered with the secondary (Church, Carr, Claiborne) but never in a way that anybody thought was a full solution. Sometimes we seem to get close, and then someone goes down and we're playing Heath. There are things about the swarm-the-ball Kiffen mentality that seem to be working. So for some games, quarters, even whole games, we look like a pretty tight ship. But the players are still the same, the breakdowns have not gone away, and Peyton or Adrian Peterson or Calvin Johnson can make us look just sick. Historically, tragically, record-setting bad.
The D-line is the most interesting piece. If you told me how many no-names we'd be playing, I'd tell you we'd have a losing season. The fact that they can do what they've done, contributing big splash plays in so many games, is a big part of our winning record. But the fact is that this team dug itself into the D-line hole with a unit that hadn't been that successful for years, where all the pieces were aging. Ware-Hatcher are still beasts, but they are beasts who are missing a few more plays as the season grinds on. The perfect storm of a healthy 4-3 with Ware, Hatcher, Ratliff, Spencer might have made this a year to remember, but those who doubted that perfect storm would ever happen were being realistic, not pessimistic. We had a lot of guys in the pipeline whom we over-valued, and the one real developing contender (Crawford) was out before the season started.
What does that mean? It means we are getting the turnovers we didn't get last year, and Kiffen/ Marinelli seem to deserve some credit. We are responding to adversity/ injury FAR better than we would have under Rob Ryan's defense. But we are still a bad defense, measured by the measures that count most--ability to prevent splash play after splash play, from teams that are having good days. It is nice that we can now beat up on teams having bad days (the Redskins, the Giants, the Eagles), largely because of the turnovers. The fans who thought our new coaches would help, and the fans who thought we'd still be bad, can both say, "I told you so."
4. The slightly improving record.
The words I still hear from fans are words like "medicority" and "another 8-8 season" and "win one, lose one." The fact is that we haven't turned much around. We are still beating bad teams, and losing to good teams. To others, this season feels different.
This season is different. We are at the top of our division, not by a little, but by a lot. (You have to factor in the 3-0 record in division games). Our NFC record is great. Nobody has blown us out--and we've played teams, like the Chiefs and the Broncos, who are scary good. Given where we are right now, and the players who are coming back (Ware), we should be playoff bound. The fans who were optimists in the summer get to say, "I told you so."
I still think it's the competition, stupid. That isn't really a surprise; we've been beating bad teams, and losing to good teams, for a couple of seasons. That's because, contrary to all the memes, JG and his crew are showing a real stability and consistency. They haven't fallen apart against a losing team. This year, they've hung with everybody.
Against the good teams, they hit their ceiling. Romo can almost outduel the best QB in the game (Peyton)--but only almost. We can almost find a way to beat a team nobody else has beaten (Chiefs)--but only almost.
We've played five bad teams, and beaten all five of them. One was a nailbiter, largely due to dropped passes and sloppy tackling. But that Vikings team (Ponder finally getting it, AP finally being given the chance to be the game-changer he is) was not the same team that's been stinking it up. I feel good about the win. Our other matches with losing teams were comfortable, with leads for all or most of the game.
We've only had two games that fall between, and both were disappointments. The Lions (5-4) and Chargers (4-4) are better than their record; they've played tough schedules. If we were a really good team, we'd have beaten them. Realistically, this summer we knew we weren't going to go out there and win all those games. We hoped we'd make the playoffs--check. We hoped we'd dominate the division--check. We hoped we'd have what we needed to give us a chance against the very best teams in the NFL, any given Sunday--check. As a fan, I'll take it. And I'll tell you I told you so.