Let's kick things off with some real red meat in Bob Sturm's weekly Decoding Linehan piece. While the Cowboys fixed the majority of their offensive issues against Tampa Bay, they still have a couple of potential trouble areas that need a lot of work.
I hope nobody minds me pointing a finger at the offensive line for a moment. As they all go to another Pro Bowl (it seems), I think we should also suggest that they need to clean a few things up. I would argue that it starts with this team allowing more sacks in the past three games than it had during any other stretch of the season. The nine sacks allowed in December mean that, in the NFC, only the Rams allow their quarterback to get sacked as much, and that Dallas already has allowed more sacks this month than it did in any other month all season.
This needs to be cleaned up quickly, of course. But the other issue has been linked to their lack of offensive success quite a bit recently -- penalties. Now, again, it is too simplistic to just say they are committing penalties and that they should just choose to not commit penalties.
Players generally commit penalties because they are losing a battle and are trying to prevent a disaster from happening. So, they hold; they fall back into desperation mode a bit. It happens when you ask someone to block someone they cannot block. This could go back to the injury of a blocking tight end, or that right tackle Doug Free is wearing down, or that left guard Ron Leary is not quite to the level of his colleagues, or that left tackle Tyron Smith is playing hurt. There are many possibilities here, but the facts are pretty clear: Only Baltimore and Oakland have been called for holding on offense more than the Cowboys have. The 28 holding penalties this year put them atop the NFC and at No. 3 in the NFL in a category you do not wish to lead.
ESPN puts a lot of stock in their proprietary quarterback rating (QBR) number. This season, it looks like the top QBR will come from one of the three quarterbacks tightly bunched at the top of the numbers and well ahead of everyone else: Matt Ryan, Tom Brady - and Dak Prescott.
Sitting less than a half-point behind Ryan is the Cowboys' surprising rookie. Prescott previously held the top spot after Weeks 12 and 13, before Brady briefly reclaimed the top spot after Week 14. Prescott vaulted Brady again this past week ... when Ryan chased them both down. Dallas concludes its regular season with a home game against Detroit (21st in Total QBR allowed) and on the road against Philadelphia (14th).
Gil Brandt, the long time personnel guru for the Cowboys, is still respected for his opinion in evaluating talent. He lists his dozen top young quarterbacks to build a team around - and has Dak Prescott as number three overall, as well as the top rookie in this bunch.
Troy Aikman is the lead NFL analyst for FOX Sports, and was a pretty good quarterback back in the day. His opinion of quarterbacks carries more weight than most, and he is not prone to hyperbole. So his take on Dak Prescott is worth noting.
"But we had him Week One when they opened up against the Giants and he walked into that room and I never felt the presence of a young quarterback like I did with him. And you say, ‘Wow! This is the most impressive young man I've ever been around at this position.' I really believed he was going to go out and play well, and I found that, shoot, before halftime that game, his very first start, I was no longer looking at him as a rookie. I felt my analysis kind of being along the lines of a veteran quarterback and what my expectations were of him on the field. And I thought it spoke volumes just how he carried himself."
There is more to leadership than stats and wins. Dak Prescott just continues to show that he has it all, with the latest being his gesture to Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith.
"It was great going to the Cowboy game tonight to see them against the Bucs. It was even more awesome to watch Zeke do it in person. And Dak Prescott," Smith said. "And Dak, I just want to say thank you, man. You sent flowers to me and my family during our time of need with the loss of my mother. Just shows what kind of character you have."
Prescott's mother died of colon cancer in 2013 so the loss of a parent is near and dear to him.
This is a very interesting attempt to quantify just how much the entire situation plays for each NFL quarterback position. As has been mentioned, a large part of Dak Prescott's success would appear to be attributable to the talent surrounding him in Dallas, and this analysis agrees, with the Cowboys tied for third in this ranking.
3. DALLAS COWBOYS *TIE* (9.6 SITUATION AVERAGE) PASS PRO: 9; RUN GAME: 2; WEAPONS: 3; COACHING: 6; DEFENSE: 28
The offensive line and RB Ezekiel Elliott are the foundation for the Cowboys and they make Dez Bryant (when fully healthy), Cole Beasley and Jason Witten even tougher to defend. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has been masterful at making it all work and setting up rookie Dak Prescott for success.
QBR ranking: 2. MV-QB ranking: 8. Prescott has been efficient but, let's face it, outside of the defense (which has improved), this is exactly the type of situation where a rookie QB can have instant success.
Jerry Jones has created a bit of controversy with his remarks about Tony Romo of late, but in an interview on SiriusXM, he made it clear why he thinks Romo has helped the team tremendously even without playing a down, especially with his emotional statement relinquishing the starting job.
"That wasn't done for the cameras, that's the way he feels," Jones said. "The competitor in Tony, he'll shoot nickels with you any time you're ready. He'll do anything to compete. He loves to compete. And that's what made it so special for him to step up and really, for the team, but for everybody involved, he took the coaches off the hook, whatever hook I'm on, he took me off.
"He took everybody, Dak [Prescott], everybody, off the hook when he said, 'This is Dak's job. He's earned it. I'm going to back him up, I'm going to give him tips every chance I get. I'm going to make that scout team look as close to the way any of these opposing quarterbacks would look. I'm going to do everything I can to help us win football games.' "
The Tony Romo story has one final chapter to play out in Dallas, and that is where his career goes next. It will be one of the major things to follow this offseason.
Neither side will risk harming that bond. This will be an amicable parting. There will be give and take on both sides, which is why it's pure speculation at the moment to say either a trade or release is more likely.
What can be said is that a release is cleaner and less complicated. Finding mutual ground for the Cowboys, Romo and a third party will be complex. It will involve not only compensation but a restructuring/reduction of Romo's contract to facilitate a deal.
Will Romo be willing to do that rather than hit the open market? Will the Cowboys feel compelled to release Romo, even though they're under no obligation to do so, as a sign of good faith and appreciation?
These are just two of many questions both sides must fully explore before a decision is reached.
Call it the best penalty ever committed. Ezekiel Elliott may have drawn a flag (that wound up not hurting the team at all), but he has done a world of good for the Salvation Army with his now famous jump into the giant kettle. And it turned out he was mic'd up.
The whole defense may well be finding some extra energy from the whole Sean Lee snub thing.
And there's this thought: perhaps Lee's snub will offer a fresh source of motivation for an underrated Cowboys defense heading into the final two games of the regular season and the postseason.
No Pro Bowlers from that side of the ball, though disappointing, underscores how the defense has exceeded expectations and defied criticism all season long: as an understated but pretty efficient unit.
Pretty much the entire team is not happy about Lee not being named to the Pro Bowl. But Tyrone Crawford pointed out the way for Lee and the team to have their revenge.
"And I told him," Crawford said of his conversation with Lee, " 'Hey, you weren't going to be able to go anyways.' "
David Irving had his second breakout performance of the season against Tampa Bay, and the Cowboys need to help him build on it. When asked about him, head coach Jason Garrett turned it into a teaching moment, as only he can.
"We have to help him find consistency. As a coaching staff, we have to make sure we keep the standard high for everything he does throughout the week and in his preparation," coach Jason Garrett said. "Typically, when we do that, he shows up in the game. Rod Marinelli does this as well as any coach I've been around in my life, and [defensive tackles coach] Leon Lett does it equally well.
"As he matures and understands the importance of it, he's in an environment that's going to help him get there. It's about his technique, his approach, his intensity, and that's not unique to David -- it's everybody on our football team."
See, there's not one aspect to becoming a more consistent player. It's about mastering the game's details each and every day, whether it's paying attention in meetings, perfecting technique during practice or taking advantage of every practice repetition.
There is a lingering meme that Dez Bryant is a selfish, immature player. It is so wrong.
Dak Prescott, a newbie in the offense, takes what he's given by the defense for the most part. Sometimes the ball finds Bryant; other times it doesn't. Three times this season he has caught just one pass in a game, something that had happened only nine times in the previous eight seasons.
And Bryant is OK with that, because winning games tops his priority list.
"We have a game plan. We have a real game plan," Bryant said. "We are a run-first team. We are a physical football team. For the wideouts, we have to contribute whenever we get those opportunities."
The win over the Buccaneers was in ways an off game for a couple of the most reliable players on the Cowboys' roster. But don't expect the team to rely any less on either of them.
Sometimes Jason Witten, who is closing in on 1,100 catches in his 14-year career, loses a fumble. Sometimes Dan Bailey misses two field goal attempts in the same game.
Both happened in the Dallas Cowboys' 26-20 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but it is difficult to see either becoming a trend.
Witten had just the fifth lost fumble of his career, and Bailey missed from both 56 and 52 yards, marking just the second time he has missed two attempts in a game in his career -- and the first time since his rookie season. Bailey has missed five attempts this season, matching the most he has had in his career, but all of the misses have been from at least 47 yards.
When he suffered a freak injury before the season, it looked like Darren McFadden might never play in a Dallas uniform again. Those of us (raises hand) who thought that turned out to be rather mistaken.
Raise your hand if you thought Darren McFadden's first carry of the season would come while playing fullback.
If you're name isn't Scott Linehan, you're lying.
McFadden made his 2016 debut in the 26-20 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He finished with three carries for 10 yards, including a third-down conversion on a 3-yard run as a fullback in the third quarter. He played 12 offensive snaps and two special-teams snaps.