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Cowboys’ Championship Quest: How Did We Get Here So Fast?

After going 4-12 in 2015, the Dallas Cowboys are 12-2 in 2016 with two games to go, and have already locked up the top seed in the NFC, forcing playoff contenders to come through Dallas for the first time since 2007. How did this happen?

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

On September 5th, my first post as front-page writer for BTB asked: “How close is America’s Team to getting back on top?” Dallas was coming off a forgettable 4-12 season marked by injuries to Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. With the most touted rookie running back in years expected to return the Dallas running game to prominence, there was more hope for the season. But by this point, Tony Romo was already down with a new break in his back, and the Cowboys were rolling with a rookie fourth-round quarterback named Dak Prescott. My article only posed the question, and didn’t try to answer it. While I was very enthusiastic about Dak and Zeke’s arrival and thought Dak could play very well as a rookie, it’s not as if I predicted what has transpired this year.

Remarkably, 14 games later, with the Cowboys having wrapped up the first seed in the NFC playoffs with two games to go, and with first seeds having much better odds of making the Super Bowl than any other seeding, the Cowboys will certainly feel disappointed if they don’t make the Super Bowl.

How did we get here so fast? How did we exceed expectations so dramatically with Tony Romo hurt again for half of the season, and on the shelf for the rest? Here are eight factors that have played a significant role in the Cowboys doing much better this year than almost everyone predicted.

First, Dak Prescott Is Having One of the Best Rookie Seasons Of All Time

Rookie quarterbacks seldom:

  • Make the Pro Bowl, and are a leading candidate for multiple player awards, including league MVP.
  • Rank third in the NFL in quarterback rating, second in QBR, third in adjusted net yards per pass attempt, fourth in completion percentage, have a 20-4 touchdown to interception ratio, and rush for six touchdowns.
  • Lead the Cowboys to a record-tying eight games in a row of more than 400 yards of offense, and set the all-time team record with nine such games, with two games to go.
  • Set the team record for regular season wins in a row at 11, blowing away the previous record of eight.
  • Help the Cowboys become the first team to clinch a playoff spot, and first to clinch the top seed in its conference.
  • Are within one Cowboys victory from tying the all-time number of victories for a rookie quarterback, and two from setting a new mark, at 14 wins., which would also happen to be a new Cowboys’ team record for any quarterback.

They certainly aren’t expected to perform like this when they are taken with the 135th pick in the NFL draft, as a fourth-round compensatory pick, especially when that places them third on the team depth chart, and when the starter holds most of the Cowboys’ team passing records.

Except that Dak Prescott has done all this and more for the 2016 Dallas Cowboys.

Indeed, it’s Dak Prescott’s poise, leadership, and character that may be his best traits. He’s inspired the team, the fans, and the entire NFL community. He’s been the story of the season, perhaps the decade, in the NFL. But he probably couldn’t have done what he has without his fellow rookie star, Ezekiel Elliott.

Second, Ezekiel Elliott Has Exceeded Even High Expectations

As the fourth pick in the draft, the highest a running back has been taken since Trent Richardson in 2012, so many thought Zeke would have to be almost superhuman to justify drafting him over a defensive player that was seen as a greater need when allegedly “any” running back could excel behind the vaunted Dallas offensive line. Indeed, the Zeke v. Jalen Ramsey debate was the most hotly contested debate among Dallas fans until the Dak v. Romo debate eclipsed it.

Yet it is hard to find anyone doubting Zeke now. With two games left to go, he has:

  • Been selected to the Pro Bowl, and is a leading candidate for player awards, including league MVP.
  • 1,551 yards rushing on 310 attempts, for 5 yards per carry, 327 yards ahead of the #2 rusher in the NFL, DeMarco Murray, and within striking distance of Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record of 1,808 yards.
  • 13 rushing touchdowns, passing Tony Dorsett and Herschel Walker’s Cowboys’ rookie record of 12.
  • Rushed for at least 83 yards in all but his first game, with seven games out of 14 above 100 yards.
  • Added 31 receptions for 351 yards and a touchdown.
  • Been solid in his blocking duties.

Dallas is one of two teams to run the ball more than it passes it (Buffalo is the other), and is second in the NFL in rushing. This run-pass balance has led to a very efficient offense, and forced all but one opponent into a series of losing choices on defense. The physicality of the Dallas offense also tends to intimidate and wear down opponents.

But for Zeke, it’s more than just his on-field production that’s made a difference. It is the infectious energy and playfulness he brings to the team, keeping things fun.

Third, Sean Lee Has Played Every Down

Though snubbed again for the Pro Bowl, Sean Lee is having his best season. He’s the best player and “quarterback” on the Cowboys’ defense, which is surprisingly tied with the Denver Broncos for fourth in the NFL in points allowed after 14 games.

Fourth, Cole Beasley Has Emerged as a Huge Receiving Asset

Cole Beasley has become Dak Prescott’s security blanket, along with Jason Witten. He has helped Dak on his completion percentage, success on third downs, and overall offensive efficiency. Consider the following Cole Beasley achievements this year.

  • He’s the Cowboys’ leading receiver, with 68 catches for 759 yards, ahead of Jason Witten on catches and Dez Bryant on yards.
  • He’s first in the NFL in Football Outsiders’ DVOA stat for wide receivers.
  • His catch rate of 77% is within 1% of being at the top of the NFL.
  • He’s scored five touchdowns.

With Dez Bryant’s numbers off, Beasley has helped the Cowboys offense return to near the top of the NFL.

Fifth, the Defensive Line Has Done Its Part

Among the most maligned groups on the Cowboys, there have been several recent articles recently pointing out how the Dallas defensive line is not really so bad after all. BTB’s Joseph Hatz recounted how the D-line has been recently dominating opponents. While no one on the line was up for the Pro Bowl, and none is among the leaders in sacks, each lineman has had one or more high points on the year, and collectively they are contributing to wins.

  • David Irving was named Defensive Player of the Week against Green Bay when he forced three fumbles, recovered one, batted down a pass, and got a sack. His fourth quarter against Tampa Bay last week was perhaps even more impactful.
  • Tyrone Crawford is tied with Benson Mayowa for the team lead in sacks at 4.5. He’s played the most snaps of any D-lineman. and is tied for third with team splash plays. He turned the game around in an early win over San Francisco, making the sack that started Dallas’s rally from a 14-0 deficit.
  • Benson Mayowa has been coming on strong of late, with a burst of sacks since he returned to the rotation. He’s eighth in team splash plays, but third in splash plays per snap.
  • Maliek Collins, as a rookie third-round pick, has played the second most snaps on the D-line this year. He’s third on the team with four sacks. One of four rookies making an unexpectedly huge impact for the Cowboys.
  • Terrell McClain has remained healthy all year, ranking fourth in total snaps. He has 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and is fourth in splash plays per snap. His play has kept free agent Cedric Thornton in a backup role all year.
  • DeMarcus Lawrence has been suspended or injured for much of the year, and despite that, has still contributed in the games he started.

Overall, no player has rushed for 100 yards on the Dallas defense, the only team in the NFL able to make that claim. And the team gives up the fewest yards rushing per game, at 81.

Sixth, Anthony Brown Has Kept the Secondary Together Despite Its Injuries

There have been multiple success stories in the Cowboys’ secondary this year.

Mo Claiborne signed a prove-it contract, and for seven games he was the cornerback Dallas was hoping for when they traded up in the draft to get him at the sixth pick in 2012. Yet he’s been injured for the Cowboys’ last seven games and can only hope he’s healthy enough to return to the team for the playoffs.

Brandon Carr has played all but four snaps, and been much better on the right side than he was on the left. In recent weeks, he was asked to shadow Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans, and except for one Beckham play, held them in check.

Byron Jones seamlessly moved to safety this season, where he remains a versatile force, able to roam the deep zones and cover players man-to-man.

But the biggest story in the Dallas secondary has been the emergence of sixth-round draft pick Anthony Brown. He’s now played in 70% of the defensive snaps, second only to Brandon Carr among cornerbacks. He’s filled in at the slot for Orlando Scandrick, and on the outside since Mo Claiborne went down, and the Cowboys have hardly noticed any difference.

Seventh, Ron Leary’s Retention Kept the Offensive Line Humming

Somewhat like Anthony Brown, Ron Leary has stepped in due to an injury - to La’el Collins - and done better than the player he replaced. He’s played 79% of the offensive snaps, and kept the offensive line to its high standards. Thank goodness the Cowboys decided to keep him this offseason instead of trading him.

Eighth, the Coaches Have Done an Incredible Job

Jason Garrett is a leading candidate for Coach of the Year.

Scott Linehan and Wade Wilson and Jason Garrett have helped shape Dak Prescott on the fly from a quarterback who never took a snap under center in college to a complete NFL QB who is running the complete Dallas offense as a rookie.

Rod Marinelli has taken a much-maligned defensive group and has them tied with the Denver Broncos for fourth in the NFL in points allowed through 14 games.

The additional coaches have also done a fine job.

Conclusion

The Cowboys aren’t yet where they want to be, with two games left and the playoffs on the horizon. But they’ve put themselves in a tremendous position to be successful and return to the Championship level that has been the hallmark of the Dallas Cowboys since Tom Landry was leading them to 20 winning seasons in a row, and Jimmy Johnson helped them win three Super Bowls in four years.

Could this year be the start of a new Championship era for the Dallas Cowboys?