Is the 2009 edition of the Dallas Cowboys different than its predecessors who have crushed our dreams with so many Dec/Jan failures? That's the question we all want an answer to and we're going to get it come Saturday, and hopefully some weekends beyond that. They've cleared some hurdles that tripped up their predecessors, big road wins in December, shutting out division rivals back-to-back, and riding a three-game win streak into the playoffs. That's something none of those other teams had going for it. Still, there's that nagging thought that with the chips down on Saturday, the Cowboys might go bust once again.
So far, this team is different. The December wins proved that. So how is this team different than last year? You can look at the atmosphere, the chemistry if you will, of the team. Gone is the circus of T.O., the circus of Pacman, the circus of Hard Knocks; all of that stuff. We talked all the way back in the preseason about the workman-like atmosphere of the Cowboys training camp. All valid thoughts and they have some play in the resurgent Cowboys and their ability to not go into the tank after two early December losses.
But when you get right down to it, football is won on the field, and the Cowboys have improved immensely in some key spots. In essence, this time they found the right guys to fix their holes. You try it every year - Zach Thomas anybody? - but this year, they seem to have gotten it right.
Start with the defense and Mike Jenkins. Can anybody deny this guy looks nothing like the player we saw in 2008? His improvement from freshman to sophomore has been dramatic, and it's allowed the Cowboys to do what Wade Phillips has always been known for - attack, attack and attack because you know your secondary can hold up. Jenkins not only has the speed to cover the fastest of the fast, but he also has exquisite timing when breaking up a pass. I can't count the number of times I've watched a WR run a go route, or hitch and go, or slant and go, or whatever deep route you want, only to have Jenkins running right along side him and laying out at the perfect time for when the ball arrives.
But that's only one half of the attack scheme this secondary allows, Gerald Sensabaugh has been the perfect strong-safety for the Cowboys. The guys a hitter, he makes good tackles, but his play in coverage has made us forget about the shortcomings of Roy Williams. With those two solidifying the secondary (nod to Orlando Scandrick, too), the Cowboys have been able to implement Wade's 3-4 scheme just as he's drawn it up in his head. The personnel match the scheme.
The Cowboys were having trouble at WILB, last year's experiment with Zach Thomas proved to be a bust because Thomas' size and age in this scheme just didn't work. Keith Brooking, also up there in age, but with the size to play the guards in the middle made the Cowboys hard to run on. The bonus has been his ability to rush the passer on blitzes.
To round out the Cowboys defensive renaissance is the guy we've been waiting on for a couple of years. Anthony Spencer showed flashes of brilliance, but never did anything consistently well besides play the run. That's not a bad thing, but what the Cowboys 3-4 defense really need was another dynamic OLB that could rush the passer - and make plays. Anthony Spencer has become that guy. He was all over the Eagles backfield on Sunday, just as he's been over the past month or so.
And with that, the Cowboys defensive fortunes changed. There's no reason that can't continue into the playoffs.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Cowboys have had two major lifts.
The biggest thing, and perhaps the biggest thing for the whole team, has been the emergence of a true #1 WR, Miles Austin. Roy Williams isn't that guy. Terrell Owens was in decline and wasn't that guy in his final Cowboys season. The Cowboys are a vertical offense, they have to have a guy who can get deep, and can catch, and can break a tackle. Without that, Jason Garrett's offense is severely hamstrung. Any offense would be, but because of the Cowboys scheme it's more important than most. Miles Austin gives us that guy. He also allows Patrick Crayton to return to the slot where he's among the best in the NFL. (Go ahead, look up Crayton's stats as a third-receiver, they're excellent). Roy Williams may end up being and expensive decoy that allows the Cowboys to take advantage of their other weapons, Austin, Witten, and Crayton; but as long as Austin is providing the deep threat, the Cowboys personnel match the scheme.
The other big improvement on offense comes from someone who was already among the Cowboys best players. Once Tony Romo had his epiphany after the Giants game that turning the ball over like he'd been doing had to stop, the Cowboys had found what they needed in their QB. Romo has played his best ball this season, and has been amazing in December and January. We loved everything about Romo, the unbelievable plays, the stats, the ‘moxie' and the rest, but it was the turnovers that really hurt. Interceptions and fumbles in the pocket were killers. No more. Romo has learned the value of the football.
Nod to Doug Free's excellent play in Marc Colombo's absence, to a healthy Kyle Koiser, and healthy running backs for more improved offensive play.
For me, those are the biggest reasons the 2009 Dallas Cowboys seem different. The have the right personnel, playing at a high level, that fits their offensive and defensive coordinator's schemes. Both schemes are proven winners in the NFL, now the personnel is running them according to form.
Injuries, chemistry, plain ol' good or bad luck; they all play a part in a winning or losing NFL season. The biggest part is played by the guys on the field, and the Cowboys seem to have collected the right mix for a playoff run.
Now don't go out and prove me a liar on Saturday.