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How The Cowboys' Season Has Come Together

There is a perception that Dallas has come out of nowhere to claim the best record in the NFL. What has really happened is that several things came together at once.

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Ronald Martinez

The sense of disbelief over the 6-1 record of the Dallas Cowboys is palpable. In some cases, and especially in some cities, it is being met with downright denial.

For many of the faithful (including a lot of people who write for and read Blogging the Boys), this was not completely unforeseen, but even the most wildly optimistic of us are still a little - OK, a lot - surprised at how good it has gone since the team (and particularly Tony Romo) got that opening day loss out of their system.

It is not that the Cowboys have finally gotten things right. It is that they have pretty much gotten EVERYTHING right, all at the same time. The more you look at it, the more amazing it becomes that so much aligned for Dallas.

The ownership and the head coach. Jason Garrett was originally given a four year contract by Jerry Jones as the head coach. As it turns out, that was just the right length of time. It took three years of 8-8 seasons for Garrett to get everything in place, including reforming the draft and free agent acquisition processes and finally convincing Jones to let him hire the assistants he wanted. Although the actual roles of Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, and others like Will McClay in all this cannot be completely known, it is fairly safe to say that Garrett took on the role of change agent along with the title of head coach. His fingerprints are all over nearly every major move by the Cowboys, particularly in the last year or so.

Now, with everyone fully indoctrinated in the continuous and all-encompassing process, including the uncanny way everyone associated with the organization will lapse into Garrettspeak when appropriate, or just at random, the staff is working together extremely well. Jerry Jones'  impulsive tendencies have been dampened and decisions are now being made in a much more logical, consistent, and productive manner.

The coaching. The only reason Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli would not receive recognition as assistant coaches of the year is that they may steal too many votes from each other. In fairness, both should share an award in this category.

Linehan has created a true offensive machine, with a balanced attack that has not been seen in Dallas since, you know, those three guys. I'm not getting into the comparison thing here, because the offensive success is about the whole package, including the WR2, tight ends, and especially the offensive line. But Linehan is doing this with 10 of the same starters that Dallas put on the field last season. Only Zack Martin (and what a brilliant draft move he is looking like) is new, and while he is certainly an upgrade, that can hardly account for what is happening when Dallas has the ball. Talent has something to do with it, but Linehan's main contribution has been what he has done with it. Most importantly, he has run the ball, run the ball, then run it some more. That has allowed Romo and the passing game to become much more efficient. Through the air or on the ground, but mostly likely both, this edition of the Cowboys will get it done.

After all the apocalyptic prophecies proclaiming how unimaginably, historically bad this defense was going to be, an argument could be made that a lot of people should just cast a vote for Marinelli right now based on how much crow he has forced them to choke down. While I think the realization is starting to dawn that the talent level was not quite as bad as most thought, and that Rolando McClain may turn out to be the most important free agent signing in the NFL this season (think about it), there is no doubt that Marinelli has gotten his defenders to lay everything out on the field. It takes no real analytic ability to see that whatever eleven players he has on the field at any time, they are all going to be headed towards the ball with nothing but malice and ill intent in their hearts. It brings a tear to my eye every time I watch it.

But it goes deeper that just the top guys on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Bill Callahan has already gotten well-deserved praise for what he has done with the offensive line. Mike Pope, another Garrett hire, turns out to be crazy like a fox with his bizarre drills for the tight ends. More importantly, those TEs are now doing an outstanding job of blocking as well as providing crucial receptions. DeMarco Murray has certainly benefited from the iMac owners up front, but he is also showing improved vision and use of his blockers, and you have to assume that running backs coach Gary Brown has a hand in that. And Matt Eberflus has done a largely unsung job of coaching around the injuries to Rolando McClain and Bruce Carter.

The talent. How many players on this team are having the best year of their careers? Throwing out rookie Martin, of course, it can certainly be argued that all on the offense except perhaps Tyron Smith, who has been a little uneven, are doing just that. Romo? Check. Murray? Big, big check. Dez Bryant? Jason Witten? Gavin Escobar? Terrance Williams? Travis Frederick? Ronald Leary? Doug Free? Checkity check check check. Amazing what a good player does when he is surrounded by other good players, right?

If you want more proof, the Cowboys offense has the highest overall grade in the league from Pro Football Focus. This score, for those that don't know, is arrived at by grading each player, and then totaling all the individual grades. That is some outside support for the contention that the offense for Dallas is playing at, well, the highest level in the NFL.

And as I mentioned, the defense is passing gas in the general direction of those who claimed they were totally devoid of NFL level ability. Rolando McClain is an absolute destroyer in the middle of it all, but Orlando Scandrick, Tyrone Crawford, Barry Church, Bruce Carter, Jeremy Mincey, and now Terrell McClain have all made convincing cases that they were being overlooked. Plus the talent level may well  be going up with DeMarcus Lawrence, Amobi Okoye, and Josh Brent all coming available in the next few games.

Oh, and don't forget Dan Bailey, the most accurate placekicker in the history of the NFL.

Suddenly, a team that always seemed to have a wide gap between its handful of stars and the bulk of its players is seeing a much more consistent level of talent up and down the roster. Jermey Parnell, Justin Durant, James Hanna, and Sterling Moore have all shown that having to call on a backup is not the looming iceberg in the night that it was for last year's team. It took years of better drafting and being a lot smarter in the free agent market, but the talent from 1 to 53 (or maybe 63, counting the practice squad) is as good in Dallas as it has been in a couple of decades.

Injuries. For obvious goatmouthy reasons, I am a tad nervous about discussing this, but the relative health of the Cowboys this season is simply huge and cannot be ignored in this discussion. Only four starters have missed significant time. Free was ably replaced by Parnell, and Eberflus and Marinelli worked around the games Carter and R. McClain sat out. The only player lost for the season so far is Morris Claiborne, and he was never quite healthy to begin with. There are many who will argue that the team actually is better off with him on IR and Sterling Moore taking his snaps.

This is one element that is at least partly dependent on luck, even though the Cowboys have been working hard on finding ways to alleviate some of the injury issues in the past. Revised stretching and warm-up routines and some nutritional work may have had a part in the lower rate this year. The fact that the once-prevalent hamstring injury has been a lot less heard about would indicate that some progress has been made (and the team is now looking at how to cut down on the groin strains that have started happening). Nevertheless, there is still a large element of chance in injuries, and the Cowboys have finally found themselves on the fortunate side of that particular statistical distribution. After two years of oddly concentrated injuries on the defense, the team was perhaps due a good year. Whatever the reason, the latest injury report is a far cry from last year's.

Romo was just taking Romo Wednesday on a Thursday because of the Monday night game which replaced playing on Sunday. (Is it wrong that I enjoyed writing that sentence?) Jakar Hamilton is reported to have missed the practice for personal reasons, and is expected to be back. That means that the players who are expected to be unavailable to play due to injury are Free, whose absence was covered quite well by Parnell, and Jack Crawford, who is pretty far down on the depth chart. That's it. Two players missing the game in week 8 of the season, and the important one (Free) is expected back in a week or two.

This kind of health makes an enormous difference in how the team is able to prepare and execute from week to week. Next man up is necessary, but in almost all situations (except very rare ones like the Claiborne/Moore example) you want your starter out there. I think the logic there is pretty self-evident.

All these things have come together for Dallas. Part planning, part cultural change, and part serendipity, this confluence has propelled the Cowboys to the top of the standings, a place no one imagined they would be just seven weeks ago. But it has taken all of these things together. Take away one, and Dallas would certainly not be doing as well. Keep them all together, and the Cowboys might just be the team to beat in the NFL.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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