After this game, if you were not wrung out emotionally, you aren't a fan. The Dallas Cowboys opened up against the St. Louis Rams looking like the team that got smacked by the San Francisco 49ers. They ended the game looking a bit more like a team that may be able to break the string of 8-8 seasons, although they still have a lot of work to do. It was notable for the way the entire team hung together and refused to give up. The offense got much more consistent after a pair of turnovers threatened to send the entire game off the tracks, and the defense started making big plays when they had to have them.
I can't single out just one player for a game ball. It may be cheating, but here are five names for your consideration. There are certainly others who deserve credit, but these five brought a little extra to the game.
Dan Bailey . His reliability is so good, it is now commonplace. His two field goals of course helped provide the margin of victory, but he gets a special ball for breaking the Dallas Cowboys record for consecutive made field goals. He has made 28 three-pointers without a miss. We take those for granted now, and we really shouldn't.
Anthony Hitchens. In the first two games, it was clear that Rolando McClain was a force at middle linebacker. He looked like the best player on defense and was showing no signs of any lack of desire to be playing the game. When he went out, there was a great deal of worry about how Hitchens, a rookie who had seen very limited play, would do filling in for him.
All he did was lead the team in tackles with 13, including a tackle for a loss, and defend a pass. No play was bigger than the fourth down stop that kept the Rams from extending a 21-17 lead in the third quarter. His day was not perfect, with one missed tackle in the first quarter that stood out, but he became steadier as the day went on. With Sean Lee gone to injury, not many would have named the linebackers as the strength of the defense, but that is exactly what they are starting to look like.
Bruce Carter. Another name not many expected to show up in places like this, but with the move to the strongside he has started to play like so many had hoped he would. He was second to Hitchens in tackles, racking up 12, and one of the biggest plays of the day was his pick-six to put the Cowboys up by 10 with 5:58 to go in the game. It turned out to be points the team had to have, as the Rams marched down the field to score another touchdown and were threatening again at the end before Morris Claiborne made up somewhat for a very rough day with his game-sealing interception. After a down year in 2013, Carter is becoming one of the stars of this defense.
Tyron Smith. He was up against Robert Quinn, one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. Quinn had 19 sacks in 2013, and with Tony Romo still recovering from his back surgery, Smith needed to keep him under control. He did. Quinn never got to Romo. As a matter of fact, with the exception of a sack that was wiped out by a penalty (that admittedly may have been a bit ticky-tack), Romo was not only not sacked, there were no quarterback hits according to the initial ESPN stats. After the game, several writers singled out Smith's efforts on a day where the offensive line was not nearly as effective in the running game, but much improved in protecting their quarterback.
Tony Romo. For the first two games, there were so many questions. After the frequently discussed back surgery, he was brought along with extreme care in the preseason. His performance in the first two games was just a shadow of what we had become accustomed to in the past few seasons, when he often was all that kept the Cowboys competitive. The worry was that the Romo of old was gone, defeated by the twin killers of NFL careers, time and injury.
The game started out badly, with a pick-six by Janoris Jenkins when it looked in the live coverage that Romo felt the pressure and didn't see Jenkins in perfect position covering Dez Bryant. He steadied himself, and had the long touchdown to Bryant in a bit of revenge on Jenkins who completely misread the play and left Bryant running free. Then, in the fourth quarter, with Dallas still down by four points, Dallas faced a third and thirteen at their own 13-yard line. The Rams only rushed three and dropped everyone else into coverage. Romo saw the green in front of him and took off, putting a move on linebacker Alec Ogletree to get the last five yards, picking up fifteen yards and keeping the drive that would culminate in the Cowboys taking the lead for good. He converted a third and fourteen along the way, and looked by far the best he has all season.
Those are my five players that had to be recognized. Did you see anyone else, or do you feel I overstated the case anywhere? Let us know who you'd give the game ball or balls to in the comments.