The 2016 edition of the Dallas Cowboys bears little resemblance to the bumbling team that staggered through last season. This is despite having a large part of the roster back and still enduring some of the same injury issues that impacted them in 2015, most notably the absence of Tony Romo. Much has been made of the addition of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, but that cannot explain how the defense is holding opponents to almost a touchdown less on average. Something is radically different this year. And I think I know what it is.
It hit me while preparing the news links post for Thursday. A few of the articles held parts of the puzzle, and one in particular really hit home. It caused an amorphous idea floating around in my head to gel suddenly. Let me see if I can put this clearly.
Last year, the Cowboys did not believe in themselves. This year, they do. There are a variety of things contributing to that, but in a nutshell, that is the real key to the early success of 2016.
This is the real contribution of Prescott to this team. He started things. He is not the only reason, but he is above all the catalyst.
Remember (painful as it may be) how the Cowboys struggled after Tony Romo was injured in the second week of last season. First Brandon Weeden, then Matt Cassel, and finally Kellen Moore were unable to lead the team to more than one meaningless win. The team seemed to fight hard each week, and often were close to wins, but inevitably things would slip away from them. In hindsight, there was a problem that the team had seen those three quarterbacks in practice, and it is logical that they knew what they were dealing with. All indications are that they did not really believe in any of them. Simply put, there was no confidence. The team was shaken and played desperately, but not with any faith that they could come out on top. And as the losses piled up, things just eroded further. This is a theory, of course, but it is one that fits what we witnessed week after week. Weeden actually did not play that badly at first, but as the games progressed, he visibly declined. Some of that was teams getting video on him, but his own confidence seemed to dissolve as the weeks went by, until the staff was forced to move to Cassel. And things went no better with him. By the time Moore got his starts at the end of the season, things were already lost.
The team thought it would have a healthy Romo for this year, but that hope was soon crushed. But before he suffered his injury, something important happened. After Kellen Moore was lost for the season due to a freak injury in practice, Dak got his chance. And in his very first preseason game, he was simply remarkable. He had a stunning 154.5 passer rating. Suddenly, the long-shot developmental quarterback looked like something else entirely: A winner. And he kept it up throughout the preseason.
Intangibles are the hardest thing to predict in sports, but they are often the thing that makes the difference. And despite the Romo injury, the Cowboys entered the regular season with a lot of faith in their rookie quarterback, and in themselves as a team. A very close loss in the season opener did not harm that much, and then the winning streak began. And as the wins have followed one after another, that belief that they can go on the field with anyone and come out on top has just grown. Prescott has played better each week, and so has everyone else. Elliott has clearly been improving, and that reflects the way the offensive line has worked out early season kinks. The receivers have gained confidence and made plays, even with Dez Bryant missing games.
And it has spilled over to the other side of the ball. One article from the news post was Jean-Jacques Taylor’s look at the defense, which has done very well in limiting scoring - but just about nothing else.
The Cowboys give up 4.35 yards per carry, 21st in the NFL. And 5.86 yards per play, 23rd in the NFL. They have forced only 29 negative plays, tied for 27th in the NFL.
The Cowboys have allowed a 45.1 percent conversion rate on third down, 29th in the league. Their nine forced turnovers is tied for 12th and their 11 sacks rank 24th.
The difference, Taylor concluded, was the tackling, which is markedly improved. You can certainly attribute some of that to coaching, but that is also something that is affected by confidence. The defenders just believe that they are going to make a stop, or break up a key pass - and that is how they play. They break down the ball carrier, not the other way around. They get stops. Not all the time, but at enough key moments to keep the other team from getting on the scoreboard. Playing with a lead, as they have through most of the season so far, also factors in.
That is why Geoff Schwartz’ excellent article on confidence hit home so much. He proposes, accurately I believe, that momentum is a fiction, but confidence is a real and decisive element in games.
I’ve never thought to myself on the field “well, here comes the momentum.” NFLers are a confident bunch. We wouldn’t have made it this far without knowing we’re great and extremely talented. But that confidence can waver in the face of adversity. It’s human nature. Offense, defense, and special teams can struggle individually or collectively.
If you haven’t read his take, follow the link and do so. He gives a couple of concrete examples of how confidence can swing in a game, and then bleed over into the following weeks.
What has happened for the Cowboys has been a snowballing level of assurance that they got this. They have come out and dominated supposed contenders from the opening kickoff, and they have fallen behind by two touchdowns early only to come roaring back and get a seven point win. It has affected, even infected, the entire team.
And that makes the Cowboys something of a rarity in the NFL at the moment. All across the league, you see teams struggling. Some are just having bad week after bad week, while others cannot maintain consistency. Quarterback play seems particularly bad this year. But Dallas has not one, but two apparently legitimate franchise QBs in Prescott and Romo. The supposed controversy over whether or not to insert Romo with Prescott playing so well ignores the fact that the team is not likely to suffer any loss of faith in themselves when the switch is made. The reactions of everyone on the team when Romo showed up and got in a little work early on Wednesday were universally positive. Those who have played with Romo for years know what he brings to the table, and you can be sure they are communicating that to the new players who don’t have that experience. As for Prescott, he knows he is now the future of the team, and that he is a rookie. If you haven’t, watch this clip of Eric Davis on the Rich Eisen show. He lays out exactly why Romo can help the team, not hurt it. (And it has to be mentioned that a lot of other smart people who write about the Cowboys, like Patrik Walker and our own Joey Ickes have been saying exactly the same thing for weeks now.) But this takes nothing away from what Prescott and also Elliott have done. They have been the major sources for the self-assurance that now suffuses the entire team. The great thing is that it is now strong enough to not depend solely on them.
The Dallas Cowboys know they are winners now. They believe they will be winners no matter who is lined up on the field, because the entire roster is contributing. There is no waiting for someone to come back from injury. They just play through, and know that they will only get better as players like Romo and Bryant get back in action. That, more than anything else, is why this season has gone so well. That is why there is real hope that it will continue that way.
The next step is to beat the Philadelphia Eagles. It could well be the biggest challenge so far this season, as the Eagles are also having some success with a rookie quarterback. But that is getting to be a familiar refrain for the Cowboys. And they know how to play that song very well indeed.