Normally, I find the bye week interminable. This year, it is somewhat different. I don't know if it is because the Dallas Cowboys are in such a good position or because there are multiple games that really impact their playoff position, but that normal sense of things just dragging on and on is absent.
Whatever the reason, this has been a very entertaining year. Dallas has been a true surprise to many. Even those of us who always keep a good supply of the blue Kool Aid on hand have felt a little amazed at just how things have gone. Although there are still six very important games to play, there are some things about this team that have already become clear.
Zack Martin was a brilliant draft pick. It was more or less accidental, since the team had several other players that they targeted. But when all the other targets were taken, and Jerry Jones was talked down off the Johnny Manziel ledge, Dallas took Martin, and it just looks smarter with every passing game. Or every running game, for that matter.
OCC has already pointed out that Martin is the leading the Pro Bowl vote for all guards. Dallas' offensive line has been getting a tremendous amount of positive press this season, but the interior has really stood out. Martin, Travis Frederick, and Ronald Leary give the Cowboys a talented and very young group that bring both solid stats and a real beat-you-down attitude. Dallas has built both phases of the offense on the line, and as long as Tony Romo is able to line up behind them, this team should be able to score as many points as it needs to. So far, only a puzzling lapse in coaching and Romo having to miss a game has slowed them down since the opening loss. Martin, amazingly, may be the best offensive lineman the team has, and could hold on to that distinction for a decade to come.
The coaching staff is doing an incredible job. Jon Machota wrote an article about how this group of assistant coaches stack up historically for the Cowboys, which you probably saw in Rabble's Thursday morning News and Notes post. It is too early to be sure how to rank them all time, but there is no question that there is some very good work going on. The only part of the team that needs a lot of improvement is the special teams, which has had some disturbing breakdowns of late. Outside of that, the theme seems to be overachieving, which comes right back to the coaches. Bill Callahan gets a good deal of credit for the offensive line performance mentioned above. All the offensive skill positions are doing quite well. Rod Marinelli has this version of the defense playing far better than last year's.
But the best job of all may be what Matt Eberflus has done. As I mentioned during an exchange on Twitter, he has had to deal with the absence of more talent in the linebacking unit than the rest of the team combined. Since the offseason, the Cowboys have lost Sean Lee, DeVonte Holloman, and Justin Durant to injured reserve, and both Bruce Carter and Rolando McClain have missed games. Somehow, Eberflus just keeps lining up players and getting top performances. Carter, while inconsistent, has shown flashes of the talent that led to his being drafted. And Anthony Hitchens would be vying for team Rookie of the Year honors if it wasn't for that Martin kid. The team is facing a very real question about what will happen with Marinelli at the end of the year. Eberflus would likely get the first look from the team if they have to replace Marinelli. However, if Marinelli stays, there is a very good chance Eberflus will get a call from some other team looking for a defensive coordinator.
This team has gotten tough. There were always some tough players on the Cowboys, with Romo and Jason Witten right at the top of the list. But collectively, the Cowboys always seemed too soft at the core, which seemed to be part of how they fell just short each of the past three years.
Now, that softness seems to be gone. The only real threat to it is if Romo is not able to play, but if he is out there, the rest of the team follows his lead. I and others have said that the clearest example of this was the 68-yard touchdown to Dez Bryant against the Jaguars as the first half was winding down. That was not the play calling that had characterized the first three years of Jason Garrett's tenure as head coach. That was Scott Linehan and Tony Romo kicking the other guys while they were down - to keep them down. It may not sound very nice, but it is how you establish yourself as a dominant football team. Add that to a defense that is playing much better than almost anyone expected, and is starting to find ways to put the quarterback on his butt, and it does not look like there will be any late season swoon this year.
The Cowboys are still media magnet number one. The recent imagined tempest about Bryant's contract and some incredibly sloppy reporting about supposed police and fire department activity at his house is proof that this, at least, has not changed. Negative press about the Cowboys is gold, and there is still a reluctance to cover some things positively (imagine the coverage if Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Andrew Luck had come back two weeks after fracturing transverse processes). For good and bad, there is still a fascination with America's Team that will not go away.
Which is just fine.