If, as I am beginning to believe will happen, the Dallas Cowboys make it into the playoffs and have a bit of a run, there will be a lot of discussion about how the team finally got it turned around. Coaching changes, new roles for other coaches, the draft, some free agent acquisitions, a better job (so far) of handling injuries . . .
Obviously, it is not just one thing. It is a multitude of things, some big, splashy moves, plus other things that are somewhat under the radar. Trying to sit down and sort out how this all works together gives you an appreciation of just how hard it is to build a winning program in the NFL. There are so many things that have to be fitted together. It is a puzzle with dozens of pieces. 53 players, plus the practice squad, plus the other players brought in as the season progresses to replace injured ones or just to churn the bottom of the roster, plus the coaches, plus the other staff, plus the owner/GM. Add in the funny bounces that the ball sometimes takes in the 16 regular season games, and your head starts to spin trying to wrap itself around all the things that can go wrong.
We have discussed things like the surprising success of the patchwork defensive line under Rod Marinelli, the improved play of tackle Doug Free, the overall impact of Monte Kiffin's 4-3 scheme, and how the reassignment of playcalling duties from head coach Jason Garrett to offensive coordinator Bill Callahan, all major, positive developments. Those are the big, obvious things. But there are many, many elements that are combining for the team this year and all of them are small but important parts of the effort to turn the Cowboys into a winning franchise again. Here are some other, sometimes overlooked items for your consideration.
The penalty bug may have finally been overcome. It is harder to notice the absence of something, so it is not surprising this has not gotten a great deal of play. After years of so many frustrating penalties that often killed drives or kept the defense from getting off the field at crucial times, Dallas has seen a significant drop in yellow flags.
Through three games, the Cowboys have been penalized 16 times for 139 yards. Only nine teams have fewer penalties than the Cowboys through three games.
This was one of those things that seemed to be such a disconnect from the Way of the Rooster. Garrett preaches discipline and being responsible, but Dallas always seemed to have far too many yards that it gave to the other team from mental mistakes and bad technique. With a reduction of nearly 50% from last year (31 flags for 238 yards three games into 2012), Dallas is not stopping itself nearly as much, and only one call, the pass interference flag on Morris Claiborne against the Kansas City Chiefs, has had any real impact on the outcome of a game.
One player who has had a big part of this: Doug Free. In addition to all the rest of his issues last year, he drew 15 penalties, or almost 13% of the team's total. So far this year: None. It is just another way Free has almost magically morphed into one of the best offensive tackles in the league, something he jokes about.
Doug Free: "2nd year with [Callahan] can definitely help. 2nd year at RT can help...I am not going to say any more about the magic potion."— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) September 26, 2013
This may also be a sign of better overall mental discipline throughout the team. Why it is happening now rather than last year, I certainly don't know. But I am very glad it is.
It looks like the team finally hit on a draft class. There have been some clear successes the past few years, but in terms of numbers, the draft has not been all that great for the Cowboys. Over half the 2011 and 2012 classes are either gone or injured. But the 2013 class is all on the roster, and is making an impact already. Travis Frederick, of course, has started from day 1, and now J.J. Wilcox has joined him on the starting roster. Gavin Escobar is rather quietly working his way into a bigger role, and the annual return of Miles Austin's hammy to the injury report, plus Dwayne Harris being nicked up, is making Terrance Williams more and more important. It is still quite early, but not only does this look like quality, but the picks seem to fit exactly what the team needs, as someone pointed out elsewhere.
A banged up Austin, hobbled Harris, an improved o line.. A d line that can excel w/ street guys. Tell me again about this dumb draft?— Blogging The Boys (@BloggingTheBoys) September 26, 2013
This is one of the luckiest things to happen to the Cowboys. Yes, I said luckiest, which is the view of a professor at the Wharton School of Business named Cade Massey.
"Some teams have great years, other teams have bad years - and it matters," Massey said. "But those differences aren't persistent year-to-year, which tells me that they are chance driven. Something between 95 and 100 percent - I'm not exaggerating - of team differences in the draft is driven by chance."
That is a topic I might get into later, but for now, I just wanted to throw the thought out there that there is a lot of chance involved in drafting players. Even with tremendous research and effort, it still can go south, and on the flip side, a seeming foolish choice may pan out quite well. It looks like the odds have finally turned in Dallas' favor, at least so far. And as far as fitting the players drafted into the needs of the team, well, that does look like a very good job, again based on early returns.
The injured players who are back with a vengeance. Last year, the biggest obstacle the team faced, especially on defense, was the never-ending stream of injuries. And when a player goes down like that, you can never be sure they will ever come back and be productive.
But most of the players who were lost last year are off to very good starts for the Cowboys. Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, DeMarco Murray, Chris Jones, and Orlando Scandrick are some of the players who were out for significant numbers of games and who have come back this year looking like their old selves. But perhaps no one has had a bigger return to the stage than Barry Church. He is not only back, but may be better than he was before he missed thirteen games with a torn Achilles tendon.
Church has 14 tackles, a tackle for loss, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble so far, according to the Cowboys' stats.
"I feel like I'm quicker for some reason," Church said. "I don't know. Maybe they put something in there?
In his Achilles?
"Magic dust or something," he said.
Is his locker close to Free's? And exactly what kind of magic stuff are they talking about?
Whether we can thank the football fairies or not, there are a lot of players that the Cowboys had to do without that are, so far, carrying the load for the team. And if the experience with the defensive line is any indication, the team seems much better prepared to face the inevitable challenges of players missing games.
The team just seems ready this year. It all may just be perception, or just that there has been some tangible early success, but the players seem like they are comfortable with winning. One thing that I saw discussed by others, and wrote about myself at times, was that this team needed to learn how to win. In the past couple of seasons, Dallas would seem to tighten up when things started to go well, almost like they were expecting that notorious other shoe to drop. For whatever reason, there are people in the world who just seem incapable of dealing with success. They seem to sabotage their own lives when things are looking up, as if deep down inside they could not handle the idea of deserving anything good.
The biggest thing that indicates this may have changed, at least to me, is that in the two victories this season, the Cowboys have never been behind. And that is despite Dwayne Harris' muffed punt in the opening minutes of the game against the St. Louis Rams. This team is not just learning to live with success, it is building on it. The confidence seems to be contagious, and spreading. It is a good thing.
We have been hearing some of it since the start of training camp, but you tend to hear that from all but the most dysfunctional teams in the pre-season. Now, it sounds more real with the way Dallas is performing. Whether it is George Selvie talking about how his coach inspires him, or Tony Romo taking some pleasure in having more time in the pocket, you just hear a team that is not only ready to succeed, but truly believes it should.
Now, all of this may be subject to radical revision if the current trends don't continue. But whether I look at the standings, use the eyeball test, or delve deep into statistics, I see the same things. The Cowboys are a team finally on the rise, playing in an otherwise woeful division. And it is not one thing. It is a combination of many things, all of which are finally fitting together the way they should. There is a lot of football left to play this season, of course,but it's been a long time since I was looking forward to it with so much excitement.