"I'm going to go back to that old saying, 'it's an ugly baby, but it's my baby.'" -Jerry Jones
The multi-billionaire owner is not lying when talking about his 2015 Dallas Cowboys. In a season where they have lost Tony Romo twice now and were without Dez Bryant for five games, they find themselves one game back of first place in a dumpster fire of a division race. It's hard to believe with a record of 4-8, but the Dallas Cowboys have been in every contest they've had except games against perhaps the NFL's best two teams, New England, and Carolina. In fact, as a starter, Matt Cassel has gone 1-4 with all four losses by a combined 18 points.
In Monday night's win, Cassel wasn't perfect having thrown for zero touchdowns and completing 16-29 passes for 223 yards. However, perhaps the best stat of the night was zero turnovers by the ten-year veteran. That didn't stop the Cowboys from attempting to get in their own way with two turnovers by Darren McFadden and one by Devin Street. Needless to say, the Cowboys finally found a way to win ugly instead of finding new ways to lose. How Dallas got Cassel his first victory as a Cowboy was by playing lights out on defense. They didn't create turnovers, but this defense played their hearts out with amazing performances by Sean Lee, Barry Church, and Rolando McClain.
They say that good defense wins championships, maybe the Cowboys defense can help them win their division championship. Why not the Dallas Cowboys? They aren't playing any worse than the other three teams in the division. They have the best defense in the division, top 5 in the league based on yards per game. Is this the formula for the Cowboys to win the East? Well, it's practically been the formula all along, just, this time, it actually worked. Perhaps this Cowboys team has the will to fight its way to a consecutive division crown. Though it is a daunting task, here are three reasons to have confidence:
1. Cassel And Bryant Are Finding Rhythm
The more Dez removes himself from the foot injury the better he's going to play and though it has taken a while, it looks as though he may trend upward as the season closes out. Cassel laid out a beauty for Dez in the fourth quarter after missing him earlier in the game. The more these guys get to work together, the better they are going to get and it may be enough to win a few more games than expected. Bryant only had three catches for 62 yards in Monday's game, but all were in the fourth quarter setting up two field goal attempts that decided the outcome. Now, if Cassel can find a way to get Bryant more involved during the entire game, they can really get this offense clicking again. Cassel is on an audition for his job next season and Dez Bryant is his meal ticket to sticking around.
2. Lucky Whitehead Is Ready To Contribute
One of the most underrated losses of the season was Dwayne Harris' defection to the New York Giants. You don't have to look too far to see the point as he had his second return for a touchdown just this past week against the Jets. With that said, without Lucky, this Cowboys team was probably looking at another L. Whitehead showed the wiggle to slip and slide through coverage for big gains. After losing the starting role after a fumble in the preseason, Whitehead has stormed back and perhaps it is time to let the young man handle all those duties. Honestly, as bad a season as it has been, the Cowboys need to just let it fly. They have everything to gain with not a lot to lose looking at the grand scheme of it all. The special teams unit has played pretty well this season except for their inability to get good field positioning. Lucky gives them the chance to be even better with his speed and return abilities. It's pretty much the reason he made the team so now is the time to find out what they have.
3. The Cowboys Defense Is Really Good
Finally, Rod Marinelli called some blitzes and found more than marginal success doing so. On the very fist play of the game, Church was sent on a safety blitz and that allowed DeMarcus Lawrence to sack Kirk Cousins. Over the course of the season, the Cowboys pass rush has been a one-man job with Greg Hardy creating the most havoc. In this game, Marinelli finally started dialing up the blitzes. The true credit belongs to Sean Lee and Rolando McClain. Blitzes do not work unless you can disguise them properly and boy did those linebackers come through. They held on to the last second and it caused issues for Washington all night long. If Dallas can continue to build on the rhythm going forward, they can become a dangerous team. As I mentioned earlier, the Cowboys are the 5th ranked defense in the NFL based on yards per game. What they really do well is limit the yards allowed by opposing offenses with only 326.5 yards per game. They also aren't exactly giving up a lot of scores either:
Dallas ILBs Sean Lee and Rolando McClain have taken a combined 541 coverage snaps without giving up a touchdown this season— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 9, 2015
I don't know how the Cowboys have kept guys out of the end zone when all but one of their corners being Byron Jones has a negative grade by PFF standards. Now if they could just figure out how to get some turnovers then they would really be in business.
As Jerry Jones said; this isn't a pretty one by any means, but it's been ugly all year in this division. If three 5-7 teams are currently tied to win the NFC East, there is no reason why the 4-8 Cowboys can't channel the 2008 Chargers team. That team sat at 4-8 in December, three games back from the division-leading Broncos. Denver dropped two as San Diego won two and it set up a showdown for the division. The Chargers won 52-21 and even knocked off the 12-4 Colts in the opening round of the AFC Playoffs. The Cowboys are mathematically still as alive as anyone else, but they must scratch, claw, and fight their ways to the end. If there are two things that Jason Garrett led team has, it's heart and the ability to fight until the whistle.