Something very odd is going on with the Dallas Cowboys, including the media that covers them and we who comprise the fan base. They are facing a very important early season matchup with the arch rival du jour Philadelphia Eagles. They go into the game without their most dynamic offensive player, Dez Bryant, one of their most dynamic defensive players, Randy Gregory, and possibly without one of the starters on the all-important offensive line, Ronald Leary. Just a year ago, this would have been cause for alarm and panic for the fans and forecasts of doom and gloom from the writers who cover the team. But now, there is a fairly calm acceptance of the vicissitudes of the NFL. All of the discussions focus on how the team is going to approach the game and hopefully overcome the unfortunate injuries.
Admittedly, the conclusions here are based on a specific source, namely my personal Twitter timeline. It is heavily weighted towards writers and other observers of the team that have proven to be rational and perceptive, at least in my eyes. Still, it is markedly different from past years when such mishaps befell the team. There are several reasons that come to mind for how things are different than in the past.
First and foremost is that there is a lot of faith in the coaching this year. Jason Garrett and his staff always have approached these situations without despair. The attitude since he became head coach is clearly that you work to control those things you can and not waste time worrying about what you cannot. What is different is that it seems that even much of the fan base has absorbed that philosophy. This is something that has been earned, both by the successful season last year and the remarkable comeback victory over the New York Giants in the season opener. The remarkable turn of events that led to the thrilling one-point victory can be attributed in large part to the focused, never-quit approach of the Cowboys, as well as the confused and inept decision making of the Giants. Garrett has come far in his ability to manage game-ending situations as well as his reliance on his excellent coordinators, Scott Linehan, Rod Marinelli, and Rich Bisaccia. Where once it was expected that things would be mishandled at a critical point, now there is a belief that the Dallas sideline will make the correct decisions to maximize the chances of winning.
There is also a growing acceptance of just how good Tony Romo is as a quarterback in these situations, especially now that he is surrounded by talent on the offense. Even without Bryant, he has a multitude of targets for his passes. That was true during the fourth quarter of the Giants win, and even the national media seems to be willing to admit that the 'Romo is a choker" meme is completely wrong, as in an article on him from Forbes.
This type of a comeback isn't something we see from average or mediocre quarterbacks. It takes a certain talent and mentality for a signal caller to pick his team up the way Romo did on Sunday night.
For Romo, it's something he has done time and time again throughout the past couple seasons. He did it against the Detroit Lions in the playoffs last January, and against this very same Giants team in New York last year. In fact, Romo has accumulated the most fourth quarter comebacks in the NFL since he took over as the team's starter back in 2006.
That is one key difference between the Cowboys and the Eagles going into the game. Romo is a proven quantity in big games now. Sam Bradford, while very talented, is still all about potential. He had a very good second half before Philly eventually fell short against the Atlanta Falcons, but his first half was cringe-worthy. It should not be forgotten that the last chance for the Eagles evaporated on an interception. That is exactly the kind of play that Romo was so often castigated for in games where he was trying to pick the team up and carry it to victory.
So how can the Cowboys hope to prevail against the Eagles, who have been established as a five point favorite or so by the oddsmakers in Vegas? We have to look at what the two teams did in the first game, although week one of the NFL season is always a bit of a shaky foundation to base much on. Nonetheless, here are some things to consider about what the Cowboys will bring to the field.
The running game. A lot has been made about the lack of yards Dallas gained on the ground, only getting 80. But the Eagles were even worse, only gaining 63, which tied them with the Oakland Raiders for next to least in the league. This is probably somewhat deceptive for both teams, since both had to attempt comebacks and had to go to the passing game. Still, it is worth noting that Joseph Randle alone outgained the entire, very highly-paid running back stable in Philadelphia. Before the Cowboys were forced to get away from running the ball, they looked capable. Darren McFadden did not really get enough carries to have a good read on what he can contribute, but he did have one impact play on his 19-yard pass reception.
There is also an interesting wild card in Christine Michael. He got rave reviews from his work with the scout team. It is unknown if he will get a chance this week, but in a game where the Cowboys are looking to make up for the absence of their most dynamic weapon, they may be willing to give him a shot.
The receivers. With Bryant in the locker room, the Cowboys still ate up yards in chunks, largely due to Lance Dunbar and Jason Witten. Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley also overcame some early issues and provided key receptions during the late scoring drives. Romo does not lack for options, and not having Bryant on the field may add a level of uncertainty to the coverages. (Well, we can hope.)
The Cowboys traded for Brice Butler to bolster the depth at wide receiver, and it is hard not to remember what Romo did with Laurent Robinson, another unheralded pick-up for depth.
The offensive line. Mackenzy Bernadeau came in for Leary, but no matter who was doing the blocking, Romo was almost untouched the entire game, only taking one hit that would probably have drawn a flag if the name on the back of the jersey had been Brady or Manning. The Eagles likely will be a bit more of a challenge, but this line will likely be up to the challenge, even if Leary does miss the game as expected.
The pass rush. Randy Gregory may well be the biggest loss to account for this week. And there was a certain amount of disappointment that the Cowboys only got one sack of Eli Manning. The Giants used a lot of quick passes, and the Cowboys will probably see a lot of the same from Chip Kelly's infamous hurry-up, no-huddle offense. But Dallas did get pressure on Manning. Ryan Russell is likely to get his chance to play, and the rushmen pride themselves on position flexibility. Look for Marinelli to move his linemen around a lot to keep the pressure on Bradford without having to use a lot of blitzes.
The linebackers. Sean Lee is back. And it is a good thing. He just led the team in tackles, including a TFL. Anthony Hitchens tied with Barry Church for second most tackles, and Kyle Wilber was active when he was on the field. Keeping the Eagles' running game corralled is going to take another strong game from them, but they look ready. It took them a half to get their feet under them against the Falcons, but that is unlikely to happen again.
The secondary. Surprisingly, this might have been the best unit on the field for the defense. They did not give up a reception of 20+ yards the entire game, something they never did all of last year. Admittedly, the Giants were missing Victor Cruz, but Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, and Tyler Patmon were more than capable of limiting the passing attack. The Eagles offer what looks to be a more potent group with players like Jordan Matthew, Zach Ertz, and Darren Sproles. And Philadelphia will likely also use a lot of quick passes. Dallas' secondary showed they could handle this with some very sure tackling, highlighted by J.J. Wilcox's early hit on Odell Beckham Jr. Even when passes were completed by New York, they did not go far. The pass rush and the coverage have a symbiotic relationship. Pressure on the passer makes the task of the secondary easier, and better coverage gives the rushmen a better chance of getting to the quarterback. Hopefully that combination will limit the damage the Eagles can do through the air.
This is a challenging game for a Dallas team that is missing some very talented players, but they are not letting it faze them. This is a determined and quietly confident group of Cowboys. We may get a very good idea this early in the season which team is the real leader in the NFC East.