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So What Did You Expect?

Dallas loses a close game and suddenly the coach, the RB, the QB and both coordinators are finished? Gracious. Some players are marking time, like Keith Davis and, apparently, Bradie James. As for the rest, be honest, did you really expect 13-3, or 12-4 from this squad? I've gone back and looked at the preseason prediction thread and the answer then was no. So what has changed to make so many people so pessimistic? The offense has showed it can move the ball and score so now lots of folks expect 28 points every week. How many of you hoped it could put up that much once in a while before the season started?

This is a rebuilding team. It has a lot of vets on offense, but the defense is still under scaffolding. Notice that with every passing week Chris Canty and Marcus Spears take more downs from Ellis and Coleman? That this week Jay Ratliff got in on the fun with a sack? I wouldn't be surprised if Thomas Johnson get some reps at nose tackle soon. This team has youth and depth to spare up front. The '05 Cowboys don't have that luxury at LB. All the athletic young LBs are starting, with the exception of Kevin Burnett, and I suspect they're being cautious with his scoped knee.

This team should be judged against the 1990 Cowboys, not the '93 or '95 editions. Were people criticizing Jimmy this way in '90? Most definitely. I distinctly recall a conversation with two uncles who were convinced Jimmy would be fired after his team began that season 3-7. I also recall a lot of uncertainly in the press about Troy Aikman, which echoes the second guessing that's starting to appear about Julius Jones.

I see a lot of tunnel vision going into the reactions. Let's take a step backwards and gather a little perspective. Just one year ago, the Cowboys were 2-2 after four games. They were coming off a mystifying 26-10 loss to the Giants, where they had controlled the middle of the game, but gave up big plays and touchdowns.

That team had some major holes that were apparent from the week one loss to Minnesota. The secondary showed no ability to cover anybody. Everybody was wondering why Terence Newman's play had regressed. The Cowboys had escaped from Washington with a 21-18 win in game three, but that was courtesy of a trick play bomb to Terry Glenn. Pete Hunter had torn his ACL in that game, and the right corner was down to rookies Bruce Thornton and Jacques Reeves. Tony Dixon was flailing at strong safety and Roy Williams was out of his element as the free safety. Nobody on that unit offered encouragement.

The 2004 Cowboys were one week away from the defining game of that season, a demoralizing last-minute 24-20 loss to the Steelers. The Giants and Steelers losses were the beginnings of a seven game stretch that saw Dallas lose six and never hold a single opponent to less than 21 points.

Terry Glenn went down for the season one week after the Steelers meltdown and took the deep passing game with him. Julius Jones was an unknown entity, on the bench with a broken scapula. The right side of the offensive line was a mess. The ancient Richie Anderson held the backfield together. Only Jason Witten offered the offense hope.

Now, fast forward one year. The Cowboys are the same or better at EVERY position on the offense. They have youth and depth on the defensive line. That line produces sacks, even if they come sporadically. The '04 Cowboys could go games without making an opposing QB break a sweat. The corner play has improved dramatically. Roy Williams is back at his natural position. The linebacking play, as poor as it has been at times, is no worse than last year, where all three starters regressed from their inspired play of '03.

There are some 2-2 records where the arrow is pointing up and there are some 2-2 records where the team arrow is pointing down. The arrow was negative last year. It's pointing up this year.

The bigger question should be the level of expectation for this team. As I've said, I compare them to the '90 squad. In week 11, the young Jimmys earned the first benchmark win of their reign. They broke a three game losing streak with a 24 to 21 victory over the Rams that sparked a four game run to 7 - 7. Of greater significance was that for the first time, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin all had superior performances in the same game. The '90 team was flawed, but it learned that day that it was capable of bigger things.

The next steps in the team's evolution were benchmark wins over the Redskins and Eagles in the last weeks of '91. The 24-21 win over Washington began another late season run that propelled a sputtering 6-5 team to 11-5. It also ruined any thoughts the 11-0 Redskins had of a perfect season. The 25-13 win at Veterans Stadium three games later ended an eight game losing streak to Philadelphia.

Notice something similar about those '90 and '91 teams and the current model? The streakiness? The early inconsistency? Both of those teams endured severe growing pains in the first ten games before they gelled. It would not surprise me to see this team go through a similar extended frustrating phase.

The final step in the team's evolution came in October '92, when the Cowboys seized a foundational victory over the Eagles. The 20-10 win was remarkable for its style; Dallas went toe-to-toe with an Eagles team that had beaten them 31-7 in September. Emmitt Smith became the first back to gain 100 yards on the Eagles in years. With the score 13-10 Dallas midway through the final quarter, the Cowboys went to a two-back, two-tight end set and ran Smith at the Eagles six consecutive times. They drove from their own 20 to the Eagles' red zone. Most of the plays were run directly over Reggie White, the Eagles' leader. On the seventh play, Dallas crossed up the exhausted D with a touchdown pass to Daryl Johnston.

The game marked the first time that Dallas surpassed the Eagles in talent and confidence. Dallas would win ten of the next eleven meetings between the teams, including two playoff games. It took control of the NFC East away from the Eagles and Redskins that day and did not give it up until three new titles were in the trophy case.

The 2005 Cowboys are incapable of a foundational win this week against those same Eagles. Dallas has improved its talent base and should be more competive, but it still cannot yet line up position by position with the Eagles and slug it out. The best we can hope for is a benchmark win that puts Philadelphia on notice that Dallas is on its way back.

Realistically, the most we can hope for the rest of the year is more benchmark wins. We may have already seen one against a San Diego team that slew the champion Patriots at Foxboro last week. We may have to wait several more weeks, but if a truly season-shifting game occurs, it will probably have Demarcus Ware taking over the defense and Julius Jones regaining his late- season touch in the same game.

Regardless of when, or if it comes, patience is the best prescription. Bill Parcells has taken a very Jimmy Johnson-like tack, playing rookies at key positions and in key situations. He will learn in fast motion which kids he can trust and which kids will have to be replaced. Jimmy suffered a lot of verbal cheap shots from "experts" and foes alike who ridiculed his young skill position players and his "college defense." But nobody laughed when those kids all grew up fast. And nobody should be too hard on Parcells for trying to fast track some Jimmy-like results. Certainly not after four games.

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