The Dallas Cowboys have now played nine games, and if you as a fan do not admit that you are experiencing both shock and awe at the league-best 8-1 record, you are a bald-faced liar. This is the most incredible story of the season in the NFL. If they continue to excel, this could one for the ages. All the pain and misery of 2015’s 4-12 debacle are fading away.
And while it has been largely framed by the stunning emergence of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, it has been truly a team effort. The list of remarkable individual performances is long and continues to grow. But with the two rookies and that powerhouse offensive line grabbing most of the attention, there are some stories that are being overlooked. One of them is the biggest surprise of the year. It is not Dak or Zeke, because rookies are always something of a surprise when they come in and excel right off the bat. No, the biggest surprise is a veteran player who no one expected much of, J.J. Wilcox.
Quick, think of a blown coverage or missed tackle by Wilcox that has truly hurt the team this year. Can’t come up with one? You are not alone. And remember that he is playing in the secondary, which has been the only unit of the team that has been really depleted by injuries. Morris Claiborne and Barry Church were both out for the incredible win against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Orlando Scandrick was lost after a violent collision with Sean Lee (another unfortunate case of friendly fire). The Steelers had to attack the Cowboys primarily through the air, since they only were able to get 48 yards rushing, but the only real weak link in the secondary was Leon McFadden, who was beaten, among other times, on the faked spike by Ben Roethlisberger. Wilcox had his best game of the year as far as tackling goes, getting credit for twelve total tackles and one pass defended. And he was making big hits, drawing praise from the FOX team of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. He even earned Pro Football Focus’ best defensive grade on the Cowboys for the game. He has been very solid all season, and has just stepped up as the injuries have accumulated.
But back before the season as the final cutdown came, the vast majority of observers, fans and media alike, were all expecting Wilcox’s tenure with the Cowboys to come to an unceremonious end. His reputation for taking bad angles on ball-carriers was firmly established. He had repeatedly given up big plays, often at crucial times, through his failure to grasp the geometry of the football field. The question most commonly asked about him was “Why is he still with the team?”
It was not surprising that Wilcox had some struggles. He was a small-school product from Georgia Southern and had limited college experience as a safety. He hung onto a roster spot at first because of his excellent play on special teams, but was often forced into service in the secondary due to the defensive struggles of the team in the first years of his career. What is surprising to us who do not get to see all that the coaches do is the way the light seems to have come on for him this season. As part of a defense that is outplaying preseason expectations, he is now a fully capable safety, and has done an excellent job in Church’s absence. Paired with Byron Jones, the 2015 first round pick, he has helped the team with crucial stops. As the 400+ yards passing amassed by the Steelers show, it is still not perfect. But Wilcox has been far better than any of us would have imagined just three months ago.
In a way, he is just the most evident example of how the entire roster for the Cowboys has stepped up in this amazing season. Now, Wilcox has established himself as a good member of the defense. That is not to say he is due an invite to the Pro Bowl. But on a team that relies on everyone to do their part, he is far from a liability. And that is arguably the biggest surprise of the year based on what we thought we knew before the actual games were played.