This has been the second season in a row for the Dallas Cowboys that has been hard to really wrap your head around, but for such wonderfully different reasons than with the Great Debacle of 2015. The almost unbelievable turnaround from that lost year just stuns us all. With Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott leading the offense, that talented line just bullying other teams, and their own overachieving bunch on defense, the Cowboys are suddenly ranked among the true elite of the NFL. And the stories just keep piling up. From a huge game by the seemingly ageless Jason Witten to players like J.J. Wilcox stepping up when least expected, the team just keeps finding ways to win.
Most of the spotlight has been on the players, which is pretty normal in sports, but for a bit, I want to heap some praise on the people who don’t suit up. The coaching staff and front office have done simply incredible work in building and directing this team. If things continue on the current path, there are going to be a lot of awards coming to Dallas, and some of them need to go to coaches and executives for this team.
Start with the driving force behind what the Cowboys have become, head coach Jason Garrett. When he was first promoted to the job, there were many who looked at him as a mere puppet for Jerry Jones, a yes-man with no real power. That image has been completely shattered for anyone with eyes and ears and even a fraction of a brain. Outside of the New England Patriots, there is no team in the NFL that so completely reflects the vision of the head coach. Garrett has had his growing pains as a game-day coach, but from the very first moment he took the reins, he has had an unwavering concept of what this team should be.
"It started with how we wanted to build our football team in 2011. We made a decision that we had to rebuild our offensive line and it started with Tyron Smith," Garrett said. "We wanted to be a physical team, we wanted to be a team that travels well and a team that can play well against all types of teams in any kind of environment.
"The best teams in this league over time have been able to run the ball, control the line of scrimmage, and that's the kind of team we want to build."
The Cowboys first began to realize that vision in 2014, and it has come to full fruition this year. Garrett drove this, and it took not only his design, it took years to assemble this machine. Now he has it in place.
But it goes beyond just the long-term construction of the roster. It also required the creation of a unified attitude and approach to the game, and this year there is a phenomenal level of buy-in. With the departure of players like Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain, everyone who wears the Star is completely on board. When players speak, you hear Garrett’s voice. Even the owner sometimes sounds like it is Garrett pulling the strings, not the other way around. Garrett has permeated every aspect of the team with his beliefs. This is his team in a way very few coaches in the league can claim.
And his assistant coaches deserve a great deal of the credit. You can go up and down the staff and point out superb jobs like those done by Frank Pollack, Joe Baker, and Matt Eberflus, but the accomplishments of coordinators Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli have been simply outstanding.
Marinelli has been given far less in the way of draft capital to work with than Linehan has, and some of his most talented defenders have been limited by suspension and injury, including DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, and Jaylon Smith. Yet he has managed to somehow produce a defense that is tied for fourth in points allowed per game, the most meaningful of all defensive statistics. He has only one verified star player in Sean Lee, but he is somehow stymieing offenses. As is being mentioned frequently, the Cowboys have not given up more than 23 points in any game, and have not allowed any receiver or running back to reach the 100 yard mark this season, something no other team in the league can claim. What the Cowboys do each game is come with relentless energy and swarm to the ball. The tackling is usually sure and players are seldom out of position. They simply all do their jobs, and the results have been far better than any of us imagined. They also are benefiting from that ball control offense, which is limiting the number of snaps they play, keeping them fresher than their opponents.
And Linehan cannot get too much praise for what he has done with a rookie quarterback. Yes, Prescott was a remarkable find, but Linehan has played to his strengths and brought him along about as perfectly as possible. He also has been gifted with what may be the most complete running back in the league, but give him credit for properly using the weapon called Zeke. Dallas presents defenses with a true choose-your-poison dilemma. You may be able to stop the run or the pass, but you are not going to be able to stop both for long, even when they have a rough game, such as happened against the Philadelphia Eagles. Eventually the Cowboys found their offensive rhythm and forged an improbable win. And they did it without panicking or abandoning the formula they use every game.
The coaching has been remarkable, and the job done by Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones, and Will McClay in building this team has been just as significant. Make no mistake about how they work, either. Despite the zombie-like meme of Jerry as a mercurial, impulsive meddler, the personnel moves are done as a collective effort, spearheaded by those three. There have been some missteps along the way, but no team is able to be right with every draft pick and free agent move. They have been lights out in the first round for years now, and this year has produced not only another incredible first-round pick, but the team’s future at quarterback, an increasingly disruptive starting defensive tackle in Maliek Collins, and cornerback Anthony Brown, who has allowed the team to play through the absence of first Orlando Scandrick and then Morris Claiborne without missing a beat.
The one thing that Jerry Jones should get almost full credit for is first selecting and then sticking by Garrett. Of the six years he has been head coach, he has been seen as on a hot seat all but two, the 12-4 campaign of 2014 and this year. Three 8-8 seasons and then the collapse of last year all were rife with speculation that Jones would impatiently sack Garrett and go hire another tired coaching retread. But Jones is just as bought into the philosophy of his head coach as any of the players. He gave him time to build both the staff and get the players he needed, and then showed a great deal of patience after last season. Most teams would see a large turnover in the staff even if the head coach did not lose his job after that kind of collapse, but there were minimal changes, with only the departure of Jerome Henderson being of any note. And it is not insignificant that the secondary has been the strength of the defense without him.
Now Jones is enjoying the results of going with continuity over knee-jerk reaction, and so are all Cowboys fans. The team still has to continue their winning ways to finish the season, but there are no real indications that will not happen. The players are getting it done on the field, but the front office and coaches are just as instrumental in this amazing season.