Dallas still needs a strong finish to make this a successful season, but they are certainly well positioned for it, and not many saw this coming. Be honest. How many of you really, truly believed that the Dallas Cowboys would be 7-3 at the bye? Raise your hands. All the rest of you, make note of these people. They lie.
Aided by a very healthy roster after the week off, Dallas can start a real drive for the playoffs against the New York Giants this week. As pleasing as it is to have the team off to such a good start, it is vastly more satisfying when you recall the many, many, many predictions of a horrible, terrible, very bad, no good season for the Cowboys. If you don't remember some of the specifics, follow this link. It is fairly obvious that, at least to this point, the Cowboys have far exceeded expectations this year.
The overall performance of the team has been aided by players all over the roster who have also stepped up their game and surprised us. This raises the question: Which player has most overachieved so far this season? Here are a few names for you to consider.
Zack Martin. Yes, he was a first-round pick, and was expected to start from the first day he arrived in Dallas. But he has done much more than just prove he is able to play at this level. He is arguably the team's best offensive lineman so far this season, on a line that already had two first round picks. He has been recognized as often outplaying his linemates both by the local media and by national sources, such as Pro Football Focus. They have him rated as the second-best right guard in the league, and the best guard overall in the NFC. He is a key part of why the Cowboys have had such success running the ball, and he has still not been charged with giving up a sack by PFF. That is pretty incredible. Here is the take of another fairly talented player.
"I call him a "rook-star." That man is a monster." - Dez Bryant about Cowboys rookie O-lineman Zack Martin. pic.twitter.com/5bTgggtLd6— Pat Doney (@PatDoneyNBC5) November 20, 2014
Ronald Leary. This one may surprise many, but think about it. Going into the season, who would you have picked as the weakest link on the O line? Although some may say Doug Free, I think Free's performance last season had eased some of the concerns about him going into this year. I think Leary would be the logical choice, and yet there has been almost nothing said about him this season, except when Mackenzy Bernadeau had to fill in for him and everyone realized that they really, really missed Leary. This is about exceeding our expectations for players, and Leary has quietly done just that. Not bad for a guy who couldn't get drafted because of concerns about a knee condition.
DeMarco Murray. You have to include him. Yes, he has probably the best run blocking in the NFL opening holes for him, but he is also one of the best in the league once he is past his blocking. PFF has a rating for running back elusiveness, defined as "a runner's success beyond the point of being helped by his blockers". Murray grades out as the fourth best back in the league. He also rates highly in every other one of the unique statistical measurements that PFF has, like breakaway (big play) percentage and pass blocking efficiency. And he is the only rusher to exceed 1,000 yards already, leads the league by 282 yards, and set an NFL record for consecutive 100+ yard games to start a season. Yeah, we all saw that coming.
Rolando McClain. Sean Lee was gone for the year. DeVonte Holloman would soon be out of football as well. That left Dallas pinning its hopes on a still-young player who had retired from football twice already. It was the very definition of grasping at straws.
Well, that turned out to be one hell of a straw. McClain has done so well at middle linebacker that even Lee is willing to talk about shifting to the weakside position to keep McClain on the field next year. McClain has been disruptive on the field and is talked about as a player who leads by example.
He is third on the team in tackles, despite missing one game and playing with injury in others. And he is tied with Bruce Carter for the team lead in interceptions, including one spectacular diving grab against the Tennessee Titans that really got a lot of people's attention. Many around the league were laughing at Jerry Jones for trading for McClain last summer. None of them seem to find it very funny right now - especially if they still have Dallas ahead of them on their schedule.
Anthony Hitchens. Like McClain, Hitchens was seen as a possible fill-in for Lee. Like the McClain trade, most people scoffed at the idea that the fourth-round rookie could have any hope of doing that. This was just one of the factors that led to some of the expectations that this was going to be an even worse defense than the 2013 version.
As it turned out, Hitchens was not the fill-in at the Mike position Lee had filled. He is the fill-in for all three linebacker slots. His role varies from coming off the bench in relief to starting, and he has done whatever the team asks him to do. Even better, he seems to be improving from week to week. His role became even more important after Justin Durant also went out for the year, leaving Dallas shorthanded again at linebacker. With McClain and Carter both missing games, Hitchens has been vital in keeping the defense going. Somehow, this banged up unit has been a real strength for the defense, and HItchens has been the most reliable linebacker so far, at least from the standpoint of health.
Those are my suggestions for the biggest overachievers on the Cowboys, but I am sure there are others that could be considered. Vote for your favorite, or add your own nominee in the comments.