It still seems a bit unreal. The Dallas Cowboys are now tied for the best record in the NFC coming out of the bye week, starting a rookie quarterback and without their best wide receiver on the field the past three games. Not to mention that the NFC East they are now leading is now looking like the best division in the league. No one, absolutely no one, saw this coming when Tony Romo was injured in preseason. How in the world did this happen?
It is not a simple thing at all. As with most things in life, there are multiple elements that led to this moment. And while Dallas gets ready to face the Philadelphia Eagles in a game that now has a lot of importance, it seems like a good time to delve into just how this all came about.
What we are seeing is the result of years of building, not just the sudden emergence of Dak Prescott or the validation of drafting Ezekiel Elliott. Although many still have serious doubts about Jason Garrett, his fingerprints are all over this team. This is what he has been putting together since the day he became the full-time head coach in 2011. He has been consistent in his vision and message, and it is finally starting to pay off. It looked like it was in 2014, but then the Great Debacle of 2015 threw things into doubt.
For many NFL organizations, that would have been a time to go into panic mode and make major changes. But that did not happen in Dallas.
When NFL teams decide to blow things up, that means changes in the coaching staff. Teams are limited by the provisions of the CBA and salary cap from making too many changes to their roster. Player turnover has a sort of natural level that is pretty consistent across all franchises, about 20 to 25 percent of the roster each year. A few stalwarts will remain as the core of a team from season to season, with a lot of churn at the bottom of the roster. That is just the nature of the beast.
So when major changes are made, they are focused on the coaching staff. Head coaches can be fired, often with a complete replacement of the entire staff, or the assistants may shoulder the blame and get replaced. But Jerry Jones and Stephen Jones had faith that the staff that had a successful season in 2014 could set things right. And that staff was remarkably stable, given how much mobility there is among NFL coaches even for winning teams. Look at how many coaches from the 12-4 year are still with the team (staff tables from Wikipedia).
There were only two significant departures over two years, disgruntled offensive coordinator Bill Callahan and secondary coach Jerome Henderson. In both cases, it has been a clear case of addition by subtraction, as Scott Linehan has been simply brilliant in his use of both Prescott and Elliott while compensating for the missing pieces on offense, and the play of the secondary has been a whole order of magnitude better this season under Joe Baker and new coach Greg Jackson. Otherwise, there was simply some shuffling of responsibilities and a couple of additions. That is simply astonishing in the win-now environment of the modern NFL after a 4-12 season.
And the continuity of the staff is of massive importance for the players. They don’t have to learn a new system or terminology. The veterans can focus on improving how they do their jobs rather than changing. Integrating rookies and free agents is easier when the players alongside them already know what to do and what should be expected from the additions. Veterans like Romo, Sean Lee, Barry Church, Doug Free, and Jason Witten become de facto coaches on the field. It gives the Cowboys a tremendous advantage over teams that are making massive changes in scheme and philosophy. That may be best seen in the way the Cowboys’ offensive line is performing, paving the way for Elliott to lead the league in rushing as a rookie while keeping a lot of pressure off Prescott while he makes his reads passing. Yes, they are a talent-laden unit, but the fact that they have been working under an offensive coordinator and a line coach who has been with them for years just increases their effectiveness.
Within the staff, the continuity means that they now know exactly what the objectives are and how they should go about accomplishing them. As a head coach, Garrett may be the most consistent man in the NFL. His basic philosophy is unchanged since day one, and his message is completely unwavering. Now coaches and players alike are seeing the fruits of that, and it just reinforces everything. And as they find success on the field, the coaches are just getting better, as Bob Sturm noted in his recent piece on how the Cowboys have benefited from a stable staff.
That is the story in the bye week.
Not that this team has a QB controversy or a five-game winning streak, but that it is consistently outcoaching its opponent -- with the same staff that was looking pretty feeble last fall.
And along the way, another meme about Dallas has taken one more blow, although it lives on with zombie-like persistence among those who don’t look at what is really going on. Jerry Jones is still considered by many of the uninformed, including some highly paid members of the national media, to be mercurial and impulsive. But he made the decision to stick with his staff, largely because of the faith he has in his head coach, who undoubtedly was instrumental in keeping all those assistants. Now he is seeing the kind of success he so desperately desires (despite another silly meme about caring only about profits).
It is still a young season, and things may not continue to go so well from here on. But there is simply nothing to indicate that the team is about to make a nose-dive. They are even getting healthier with Dez Bryant, Orlando Scandrick, and others on the verge of returning to the field. Everything is somehow working well, and the Cowboys, unlike so many other teams, seem to be improving as a whole with each game. A great deal of credit for that has to go to the coaching staff for the simply outstanding job to date.
That is not the only reason for success, however. But for the rest of the story, you’ll have to stay tuned.