After the complete and total domination of the Cincinnati Bengals, the Dallas Cowboys present a bit of a problem for this game ball post. How do you pick someone? Everyone was so good. Ezekiel Elliott continued to look like the best running back in the NFL, getting 134 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, plus 37 yards receiving. He even recovered the onside kick attempt late in the game. Dak Prescott still hasn’t thrown an interception (unlike, say, Carson Wentz) and was absolutely commanding on the field. The offensive line totally bullied what was supposedly the best defensive front they have faced. The receivers were in good form (nice stiff arm, Jason Witten). And the defense was almost as good. Four sacks, a ton of pressure that kept Andy Dalton off balance all game, under 100 yards rushing given up, and two of the most beautiful pass breakups you will ever see by Byron Jones and Morris Claiborne, while rendering A.J. Green largely irrelevant.
So instead, this game ball is a special kind of recognition. It goes deeper, to acknowledge something that needs to be talked about more. It is awarded to the entire coaching staff, who have done something no one would have predicted before the season: They now have the Dallas Cowboys playing like one of the elite powers in the NFL - without Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, or Orlando Scandrick, and having missed games already this season from Tyron Smith and DeMarcus Lawrence.
Maybe that seems like something of a cheat, but take a minute to consider a few things. First off, up until Prescott fumbled the ball away on a sack, the Cowboys were dominating the game in a way that just isn’t supposed to happen, especially against a team that was supposed to be one of the AFC’s main playoff contenders. Yes, Cincinnati now has a losing record on the season - but that is partly because the Cowboys just hung the worst loss of the year on them. They lost by twelve points to both the Steelers and the Broncos, two other teams expected to be in the playoffs from the AFC. They held the Bengals to over 50 yards less rushing the ball than their average coming into the game. Much of the yardage and all of the points yielded in the game came in the fourth quarter after it was really already decided. And they absolutely shredded Cincinnati’s defense, especially on the ground. Everyone said that this was supposed to be the greatest test for the Cowboys so far this season. Instead, it was the easiest win by far. That is largely due to an outstanding game plan on both sides of the ball, and simply superb play-calling all the way.
Of course, all the planning and scheming is not worth anything without good execution, and the players to a man stepped up. But a large part of that has to go to the long hours of preparation in practice, going all the way back to training camp and even the OTAs. And then came the hammer blow of Romo’s injury in preseason. Last year, his loss in the second game of the season doomed the team, because it was simply not prepared to handle his absence. But this year, the coaches were determined that would not happen again. They had two outstanding rookies to help, but the “next man up” has gone beyond Prescott and Elliott. It encompasses everyone. The offensive line and skill players are all making play after play. And after being just good enough in the first three wins of the season, the defense was a completely different animal against the Bengals - and it was the Cowboys that were the real beasts. The pass rush was a huge factor, racking up four sacks and putting constant, disruptive pressure on Dalton, mostly from the rushmen, who finally lived up to the name. Meanwhile the linebackers kept the runners in check while the secondary was once again the strongest unit on the field. A large amount of credit has to go to the coaches, especially for what they have done with Anthony Brown and J.J. Wilcox. Brown has made Scandrick’s absence a total non-factor, while Wilcox has become an actual asset in pass coverage.
This is simply not last year’s version of the Cowboys. In retrospect, the decision to not blow up the coaching staff after the Great Debacle of 2015 was brilliant. They have responded by finding answers for all the questions, at least in this game.
Success breeds success in the NFL, as in many other things. Dallas is starting to gain some real swagger, and suddenly the next game against the Green Bay Packers does not look at all intimidating. It still is likely to be an even greater challenge than the Bengals were supposed to be, but the Cowboys are not going to be fazed in the least going up north to play it. They are now the NFC East leaders, and they are very confident in themselves. There is no guarantee of the outcome, of course, but there is little doubt that Dallas can put up a real fight against Green Bay.
And no matter what the final score in that game, the Cowboys will come out of the bye week with at least four wins. When Romo was injured against the Seattle Seahawks, many considered the best case scenario to be that the team could be at .500 when he returned, assuming the seventh game, after the bye, was when he would be ready. Now we know that the team is in better shape than that, and could even have a fifth win to add. This is a far better situation than anyone really had faith could happen.
The coaching staff deserves huge amounts of credit for that. They prepared the players both physically and mentally for this. Now the team is one of the league leaders in wins, and it is just going to get better as Romo, Bryant, and Scandrick get healthy. And there is no reason to even consider rushing any of them back, because the players filling in for them are doing so well. The players up and down the roster believe in themselves. Their play on the field is justifying and reinforcing that belief. All reports are that the atmosphere in the locker room is not just good, it is downright elated. And it should be.
So this game ball goes to Jason Garrett, Scott Linehan, Rod Marinelli, and all the rest of the coaches. They have built the team that Garrett envisioned. They are getting the results he said they could. This year is off to an incredible start. Kudos to them.