The 2016 season continues to look like a very different and far more enjoyable thing for the Dallas Cowboys and their fans than the Great Debacle of 2015. We are now getting to the point where the team is starting to take a more definable character. Here are some things we learned in the 31-17 victory against the Chicago Bears at AT&T Stadium.
Zeke is just fine. After seeing him get off to a slow start in the season opener and then have two fumbles in the second game, some fans were beginning to worry about Ezekiel Elliott. Had the Cowboys made a mistake using their fourth-overall pick on him? There were many who were calling for Alfred Morris to get the start against the Bears. You can imagine that many were standing by on Twitter and Facebook to start laying into him if things went even a little bit wrong.
That urge was quickly quashed when Elliott burst up the middle for 21 yards on the first play of the game. From there on, he would pile up 140 yards on 30 carries, and add 20 more on two receptions. And with an offensive line that would end the game with two of their starters out, his work as a pass protector was also excellent. On one play, when La’el Collins, who was trying to play through a toe injury, was badly beaten, Elliott stoned the pass rusher, saving Dak Prescott at least a hit and allowing him to get the pass off. He is now tied for second in the NFL running the ball. And as the offense continues to run more and more effectively, he is likely to challenge for the top spot soon.
Hanging on to talent is a good thing. Collins’ injury forced him to sit out the second half, and he will likely go on IR as a result. But prior to the season, the Dallas staff decided not to trade away guard Ronald Leary, and now that looks like an absolutely brilliant decision. Leary came in for Collins and picked up playing just as he was before the injury last season put Collins in the starting job. While Leary is not likely to make as many splash plays as Collins, he is also a more consistent player, and he brings much more experience to the field. There is no indication that the line will be worse off as a result of the switch, and with Tyron Smith having his own injury issues, Leary will probably inject some needed stability on the left side. The team still hopes Collins is the left guard of the future, and Leary will almost certainly depart in free agency next year. But he is going to start for at least half of the regular season games, which will just drive up his price - and will probably net the team a very nice compensatory pick.
There is much more depth this year. Nick Eatman was the first to discuss this in his article at the mothership, but this team is handling the early season injuries far better than it did last year. First and foremost is the incredible start for Prescott. He continues to not only play with that often mentioned poise, but he has shown steady improvement in each game. That stability at quarterback is the biggest single factor for the team - but hardly the only one of note. Orlando Scandrick was out for the game, but Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr and Anthony Brown handled the job quite well. In Tyron Smith’s absence, Chaz Green had a very solid game at left tackle. There was a great deal of uneasiness about relying on him as the swing tackle, but now that third-round pick used to acquire him is looking like a pretty decent investment. And as our own Joey Ickes noted on Twitter, those are three of the “money five” positions. Last year, the concentration of injuries in key spots like that devastated the team. This season, “next man up” is far from just a hollow Garrettism.
Pass rush is still a huge issue - but it hasn’t doomed the team yet. The Bears came into the game having given up eight sacks, making them one of the most vulnerable teams in the league. But the Cowboys were unable to muster a single one. The closest they came turned out to be a self-inflicted wound as Brian Hoyer basically strip-sacked himself to surrender a key fumble. The Cowboys used the so-called “elephant line” of four defensive tackles to try and generate some pressure while also stopping the run, but the results were mixed at best. Still, there is some hope that things might improve. Ryan Davis, the recent free agent defensive end pick-up, only played eight snaps in the game, but tallied the only quarterback hit on Hoyer. Tyrone Crawford had two tackles for a loss, and rookie Maliek Collins added another as he continues to play very well for a rookie. And DeMarcus Lawrence only has one more game to serve out his suspension.
Still, the Cowboys have to find some way to get pressure on the quarterback. It looks like they are going to try and play the cards they already have. Rod Marinelli needs to find some answers, and quickly. If he doesn’t, the lack of an effective rush threatens to be the Achilles’ heel that will limit how far this team can go this season.
The coaching staff is doing a very good job with this team. Twice already, the Cowboys have gone for it on fourth down when they were in Dan Bailey range. And they have succeeded both times. Add in the failed onside kick attempt from the Washington game, and it certainly looks like Jason Garrett is not playing things as conservatively as his reputation would lead you to expect. The job they have done with developing Prescott at warp speed is remarkable. Clearly, the raw material was far better than anyone believed possible, but they have done a truly superb job of maximizing his talents so far. And the Cowboys are striking early, having scored on the first possession in all three games. Red zone efficiency has also improved with every game, and the 24 point explosion in the first half against the Bears carried the team through to the victory. Had Terrance Williams not had his second bad play of the season, the game would likely have become a real blowout in the third quarter. As it was, the team had enough already on the board to win, and the insurance TD by Dez Bryant sealed the deal.
Things are not perfect, and the Bears are admittedly one of the worst teams so far this season. But the Cowboys got a convincing win and played the last nine minutes of the game in prevent defense and keeping the ball on the ground to use up the clock. Now they face a game against the San Francisco 49ers, led by Shiva, the destroyer of franchises (AKA Chip Kelly), that looks to be another winnable one. If they can notch another W and have a real streak going, the team is looking to be in good shape for the return of Tony Romo. There are still real concerns, especially on defense, but there are also legitimate reasons for optimism. Just think back to that moment in preseason when Romo was lying on the ground in pain. Who could have imagined then that the Cowboys would be in this position after three weeks?