There are usually several things mentioned in this weekly post on what we learned about the Dallas Cowboys during their last game, but against the San Francisco 49ers, one overriding lesson was very clear. The 2016 edition of the Cowboys is almost the complete opposite of the team that fell to 4-12 last year in all the really important aspects.
We all chalked up the failures in 2015 to key injuries, led by Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and Orlando Scandrick. There were also the four-game suspensions of Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain to start the season, the early season struggles to establish a running game with Joseph Randle, and it also was evident that the coaching staff was just not coming up with answers while the trio of Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore tried to replace Romo, with essentially no success.
However, this season started with Romo already injured, and by last Sunday’s game, Bryant, Scandrick, Tyron Smith, and La’el Collins had all been relegated to the inactive list, while McClain is basically gone and DeMarcus Lawrence was serving the last game of his suspension. Meanwhile Randy Gregory still has ten weeks to sit and has little chance of contributing at all. Arguably the team was worse off in terms of missing talent for the San Francisco game than any game in 2015.
Yet they came back from a 14-0 hole to win by seven, and from midway in the second quarter outplayed their opponent in every meaningful facet of the game. Now they sit at 3-1, something just about any Dallas fan would have signed up for in advance the moment Romo’s injury was confirmed in preseason. This team looks much more like the playoff squad of 2014 than whatever that was on the field a year ago, and seems to be reconstructing the winning formula from that year: Ride a superior offensive line, run the ball and control the clock, be efficient with the passing game, win the turnover battle, and employ a bend-but-don’t-break approach on defense.
Yet the comparisons to 2014 may be deceptive, because this is a very different team. In discussing this topic, Bob Sturm noted this fact that many have overlooked.
Did you know that there are 29 new players on this roster since the start of 2015? 29! That means that over half your squad doesn't remember being on the sideline in that playoff game in Green Bay.
That’s right. This team has been radically reshaped since that year of success. Obviously, the most significant changes happened since the end of the dismal 2015 campaign, but the process was well underway already.
So what exactly has changed? Let’s break it down into the key components.
The personnel. The most obvious impact has come from the dynamic duo of rookies, Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. There have already been literally thousands of articles and reports about Prescott’s amazing start to his NFL career, and there is little doubt that the Cowboys would be up a creek without him. Over the past two games, Elliott has begun to validate the decision to draft him fourth overall, with 278 yards rushing just in those two contests. He is now the league’s leading rusher, and like Prescott, he seems to be improving every game.
But they are just the most evident names. Joining them as impact rookies are Maliek Collins, who has already worked his way into the starting defensive line, and Anthony Brown, who has filled in for Scandrick and done surprisingly well. That is four successful starters (counting slot corner as a starting position) out of this year’s draft class after only four games. It is remarkable.
And there are the veterans who have upped their game. Start with Ronald Leary. After he lost his starting job to La’el Collins due to an injury last year, he was unable to regain it with the staff electing to stick with the talented but sometimes inconsistent Collins. Although he wanted a chance to start somewhere, he kept working when the team retained him as depth. And when Collins went out with his toe injury, Leary moved back into the lineup and looked like he never left. Next to him, Chaz Green has filled in for Tyron Smith far better than most hoped he could. He is not perfect by any means, but he is not failing, either, perhaps due to the veteran experience Leary brings next to him. And he has an incredibly fast reaction to the snap.
Chaz Green moving at the snap. pic.twitter.com/0XMZ4SimaN— ✭ DCBlueStar ✭ (@DCBlueStar) October 3, 2016
Brice Butler and Terrance Williams had a good game in Bryant’s absence, and Cole Beasley has been the main target for Prescott all season.
On defense, the story of the year is Morris Claiborne, who is playing at an All-Pro level so far this season. Byron Jones has gone largely unmentioned since moving to safety full-time, but for a secondary player, that is usually a good thing. And the biggest surprise is the play of J.J. Wilcox, who has aroused the ire of the fan base for years with his bad angles. This year he has been an asset in coverage.
The rest of the defense has not been overly impressive - except in one area. Since letting the New York Giants overtake them in the season opener, they have not surrendered a lead in the fourth quarter. Part of that goes to an offense that can control the ball late in games, but the defense seems to have solved the problem of the late-game collapses that we saw no less than six times when Dallas was tied or leading in the last period in 2015.
It is a combination of better depth and a clear infusion of some new talent. Overall, the players are all doing their part. And they aren’t alone.
The coaches have it figured out as well. About the only negative thing for the coaching staff is Jason Garrett’s current war of abruptness with the Dallas reporters. That is far outweighed (for the fans, anyway) by the positives. First is the amazing job they have done in developing and properly utilizing Prescott. He does not yet have a complete NFL arsenal of throws at his command, but it has not held the team back at all. The play-calling has certainly gotten more aggressive, going for it on fourth downs, trying on-side kicks, and the screen pass to Beasley to put the finish on the win over the 49ers.
And unlike the roster, this is almost entirely the same staff that the team had in 2014. There has only been one change of any real note, the departure of secondary coach Jerome Henderson. Joe Baker has had a very positive impact replacing him, and the new responsibilities of Matt Eberflus as the passing game coordinator also are likely playing a role. The disaster of 2015 actually allowed the staff to remain mostly intact - but if the team continues to win, you can be sure that some assistants are going to get offered promotions by other teams after this season.
Another thing that must be noted is how Garrett has unified this team. He never lost them when things were at their darkest last year, and now all you see from the team is unity and a positive spirit. That plays a large roll in the final element.
Attitude, attitude, attitude. There is no question that this team believes in itself. That may be making all the difference. Although the players and coaches all said the right things last season after Romo was injured, there is reason to believe that they never felt much confidence in any of the backup quarterbacks. Remember, they practiced with those replacements, and professional football players know who is for real and who is not. But since the first preseason game, Prescott has shown nothing but ability and determination, and the entire roster has responded, from his fellow rookies to elder statesman Jason Witten. Similarly, the team was universally ecstatic when Claiborne got his interception on Sunday. These men pull for each other and fight together to win. And success can breed success in the NFL.
Intangibles are so hard to judge, but right now, the Cowboys are certainly performing like they have them all in place. It is a far cry from the frustrated and somewhat shaken team of last year. Dallas has undergone a major makeover, and that has gone somewhat under the radar. Last year, there was a sense that the Cowboys hoped to just hang on until Romo and Bryant could return and help salvage things. Now, they are still waiting for the stars to get back, but not to save the situation. They know that as their best players get healthy, they are only going to get better.
With the start they have so far, that is the most encouraging thing of all.