It’s becoming a little harder to come up with things we learn about the Dallas Cowboys. At first, there were so many questions and unknowns about this team, but as the seven (count ‘em) wins have piled up, the character and abilities have become clearer. Still, there were a few things that became a bit more in focus after the 35-10 beat-down of the Cleveland Browns.
Bounce back Dak
The come-from-behind thriller against the Philadelphia Eagles was also the first time all season that Dak Prescott really looked like a rookie. The multiple looks and constant pressure got to him until midway through the fourth quarter, and even though he turned it on as the team pulled the victory out, it still left doubts. There were too many times that the game could have gone the other way, especially on near-interceptions. Would he get his problems corrected and look more like the player he had been in prior weeks? He certainly seemed to acknowledge his problems with footwork.
All those worries were laid to rest against the Browns, as he had his best performance of the season. Admittedly, the Browns do not have nearly as good a defense as the Eagles, but there were absolutely no signs of the issues from the previous week. He dissected the defense with aplomb, and once he got his hands on the ball after the Browns scored a field goal on their first possession, things were never really in doubt as he led the team to 21 unanswered points, then capped things with 14 more in the third quarter. Dak was clearly back.
This defense looks more and more for real.
Rod Marinelli calls them the “Mighty Orphans”, a tribute to the no-name reputation they have outside of Sean Lee. Well, some of those names are going to be more familiar to people if they keep playing like this. They held the Browns to 10 points and 222 total yards, a little over half of the yardage the Cowboys amassed. That total included only 45 yards rushing. And after halftime, the Browns only got a paltry 28 yards total (aided, it must be said, by a ridiculously lopsided time of possession as the Cowboys held the ball for all but 7:36 of the second half). Maliek Collins took advantage of the ejection of their starting center to get not one, but two, sacks. And the secondary easily took the absence of Morris Claiborne and Barry Church in stride. Somewhat lost in the game was the improved play of the linebackers. Anthony Hitchens has taken a firm hold of the starting MIKE position, and Damien Wilson has similarly laid claim to the lesser-used SAM spot. Hitchens was second to Lee in tackles, and he and Wilson split credit for a sack. Justin Durant only saw the field for five plays, but made the most of them, with a sack, a tackle for loss, two total tackles, and a quarterback hit.
The Dallas defense is now tied for fourth best in points per game. They have even gotten to tenth in yards allowed per game, despite the “bend, don’t break” image. The performance against the overmatched Browns certainly helped there, but despite that, this defense is certainly turning out to be far more capable than any of us imagined at the beginning of the season.
The value of spreading the wealth
One other concern in the Eagles game was that Prescott seemed to be forcing the ball to Dez Bryant, especially early. That was not the case, although it looks at first that he just changed to looking for Jason Witten all the time, as the seemingly ageless tight end had one of the best games of his long career. But even a casual look at the video shows that Witten got the ball because he was just so open on many plays, and Prescott also found most of the other targets on the field when needed. Bryant drew extra coverage all game, and the Browns did limit him to just one catch on four targets, but that was hardly a win for them.
And the receivers were not the only example of spreading things around. After the game was well in hand, the Cowboys pulled Ezekiel Elliott, even though he was just eight yards short of the 100 mark. They let Alfred Morris absorb the hits in garbage time. The coaches even put Mark Sanchez in on the last drive to protect their star rookie, and Sanchez completed his only pass attempt to get on the season stats chart.
Controlling their own destiny
It’s a trite saying, but it is entirely true. As long as the Cowboys keep winning, no one can catch them with a one game lead in the loss column over everyone else in the NFC.
Of course, it has been pointed out that they have not exactly taken on the cream of the NFL so far.
However, look to the remaining eight games, and you’ll see that the upcoming opponents are 33-30-1, not exactly an intimidating number. And two of those opponents, the 4-4 Pittsburgh Steelers (next up) and the 5-3 Minnesota Vikings, are on three-game losing streaks and not showing many signs of righting things. It is not going to be easier going forward - but some of those earlier victories were supposed to be a lot harder than they were.
The Cowboys are showing every sign they are for real this year, and until someone stops them, they have the opportunity to march into the playoffs, with a decent chance of retaining the number one seed in the NFC.
It still seems incredible to type those words after Tony Romo was injured in pre-season, and players like Bryant, Orlando Scandrick, and Tyron Smith all missed games. But it is true. This team, so far, just has what it takes to overcome whatever obstacles it encounters.
Oh, and you may not have heard. Romo is getting healthy.