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Four lessons learned: Football is hard, frustrating, insane, and sometimes glorious

Remember this Cowboys’ win over Oakland.

Dallas Cowboys v Oakland Raiders Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Usually, this article looks at something we learned about the Dallas Cowboys in the most recent game. But the exciting, nerve-wracking 20-17 win over the Oakland Raiders did not really tell us much new about the Cowboys.

It did tell us so very much about the game of football. Here are some of the main ones.

The game has become too dependent on the rules and the officials.

We all know that the NFL has created a hair-splitting, dysfunctional situation on any catch that is at all questionable. It is becoming increasingly obvious to everyone that the way the rules are applied and penalties are called are horribly inconsistent, not just from game-to-game or crew-to-crew, but from play-to-play. Replay has become more of a crutch for the officials than a tool to try and get things right.

But mostly, the guys in the zebra stripes have just become too much the center of attention. You may be forgiven for wondering if they are not relishing the camera time just a bit too much. The Cowboys-Raiders game will now be forever known as the folded card game, where Gene Steratore used that piece of paper to demonstrate that Dak Prescott had converted a crucial fourth-and-one play. He claimed in a post-game interview that he was just confirming what he had already determined with his eyes, but then why go through all the drama if he wasn’t just playing to the camera?

I don’t want to say “diva”, but it seems appropriate here. The league went to having a number of full time officials this year to try and improve the consistency calling games. It has been a failure so far. I have no idea what the answer is, but maybe it is a perfect place for Roger Goodell to earn some of that performance=based money he is looking to deposit in his bank account.

Luck is such a huge part of the game.

There were two times when a pass was affected directly by a defensive player as it left the quarterback’s hand, one for each team. When Prescott got one slapped by a pass rusher, it went directly into the hands of Oakland cornerback Sean Smith, leading to an interception. But when almost exactly the same thing happened to Derek Carr, the ball landed in the hands of one of his own receivers.

That odd combination of events did not affect the outcome of the game, fortunately. In truth, the lucky breaks wound up favoring Dallas in the end, as the game was won on Carr’s fumble through the end zone. But that also showed that sometimes you have to make your own luck. Jeff Heath hustled on that play and became the hero of the game as he jarred the ball loose when Carr made the error in judgment to reach for the end zone rather than going out of bounds with a first down. If he had gone out of bounds, he had a chance to at least tie it and get to overtime if not win it outright by scoring a touchdown with no time left for the Cowboys. It was a freak play, but many NFL games wind up being decided by just that kind of improbable occurrence or bad decision-making.

This game in particular was one where neither team was able to take charge. Both struggled to get any real consistency on offense or really clamp down on defense when they needed to. You don’t want to rely on luck to win games. And you never turn those fortunate bounces down when they work out in their favor. It is one reason why the NFL can be so unpredictable and fun at times - when you come out on top.

It takes the whole roster.

Another huge play for the Cowboys came when punter Chris Jones made a read and decided to run the ball, converting a fourth and 11 into a first down with a brilliant 24 yard run. That led to the second Dallas touchdown of the game, a crucial score.

It demonstrated that Jones is not just a guy with a good leg. He made a beautiful cut as he hit the line of scrimmage that completely turned a defender around and got him open for the long jaunt. He is a really good football player, more so than most punters.

Another player who deserves a lot of credit for the Cowboys is backup tackle Byron Bell. Pressed into service after Tyron Smith suffered a knee injury (which fortunately does not look too serious, although Smith is questionable for the next game), Bell was not spectacular, but he was serviceable. Given that he was going up against one of the best pass rushing duos in the league in Khalil Mack and Bruce Irving, that is about all you can really ask.

An NFL team is seldom able to rely solely on its stars, but has to have all eleven players on the field contributing. The Cowboys got that in many critical situations. In the end, it was just barely enough - but it was enough.

It’s a league of parity - and that part is working.

Sure, there are teams like the Cleveland Browns that just can’t seem to figure it out year to year. But for most, even if there is no hope this year, next year can turn things around. The Los Angles Rams are the best example, suddenly one of the NFC powers now that they no longer have Jeff Fisher weighing them down. On the other side of the coin, one year’s success can turn to failure the next season, as the New York Giants have woefully experienced.

The result is that there is a constant turnover in playoff teams each year. Oh, sure, teams like the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers seem to just reload every year, but they have become the exception in today’s NFL. With two games left in the season, there are still multiple teams fighting for playoff spots, and it is likely we won’t know the last teams in until the final week’s games are done.

That keeps it exciting and interesting. The NFL is entertainment, something it needs to keep firmly in mind at all times. As Cowboys fans, we are still able to hope, although the path to the postseason remains difficult and treacherous. But with those hopes still alive, and a very real chance to get the first back-to-back winning seasons of the Jason Garrett era, we should work to enjoy it, and not descend into negativity. Even with the rash of injuries (another area Goodell and his staff need to really work hard on), NFL football is still one of the most exciting spectacles in sports.

Two games to go. Let’s ride.

And Go Cowboys!

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