While it was far from a perfect performance, the season-opening 19-3 win over the New York Giants was full of good things for the Dallas Cowboys. Most importantly, almost all the questions they had coming into the season were answered in a positive way. The revamped secondary was never really burned (although the absence of Odell Beckham Jr. did not hurt). The defensive line got to Eli Manning for three sacks, and should have been credited with a fourth. Dallas won the turnover battle with the only interception of the game, and likewise should have had another takeaway that a premature whistle cost them. Jaylon Smith was more than capable of playing in his current condition, and took over half the defensive snaps. La’el Collins and Chaz Green both had strong showings against the vaunted Giants defensive line. While Dak Prescott was not exactly crisp much of the game, he outplayed Manning and did not turn the ball over, perhaps his best attribute. There certainly was no sign of any kind of slump on his part.
Those are just some of the highlights. There are so many that it is hard to do more than just list them, unless you want a 10,000 word article. But in this case, it may be a good idea to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. It is just one game, as may have been mentioned before, but stacked on top of last season, it helps us see a big thing the game showed.
Dallas may have the formula to win. And that means to win a game, the division, or the whole thing. And what’s more important, most of the rest of the NFL is unable to duplicate or counter it.
What is that formula? It is a bit complicated, but it goes something like this.
1. Pick a side of the ball to be the strength of the team (for the Cowboys, that is obviously the offense).
2. Invest your resources heavily on that side to get it right.
3. Build from the inside out, and make the line the foundation of the team.
4. Use a run-first approach to exploit the trend with most other teams to smaller, quicker defenders to focus on pass defense.
5. While you put most of your top draft picks and cap space into the offense, use good drafting and some judicious free agent signings to keep the defense competitive and young (which equates to lower cost).
6. Don’t forget the special teams. Not only do the Cowboys have one of the best trio of specialists in the NFL (Chris Jones was amazing in the game, dropping all four of his punts at or inside the Giants’ ten yard line), but they put appropriate emphasis on ST aces when they put the roster together each year.
That is the plan that the Cowboys have been operating under for several years. However, like most things in life, the plan often does not go as you expect. Unlike most such examples, Dallas actually had the unusual experience of things going better than they planned.
- After deliberately taking Tyron Smith in the first round in 2011, they were more or less forced by how the draft fell to follow up with Travis Frederick and Zack Martin as first round choices, creating the core of the formidable front wall that makes the offense work. And then they outmaneuvered the rest of the league in signing UDFA La’el Collins, who should have been a first-round pick as well.
- Dak Prescott is the NFL equivalent of winning the Powerball. The odds against him turning into what he did were incredibly long, but not only did he bring much more to the table than anyone foresaw, he landed in the perfect spot to maximize and accelerate his development.
- Again, we have to emphasize that it is a small sample size, but the Cowboys appear to have gotten it right at all three levels of the defense this year. And the odds of doing that all at once are nearly as long as the ones they overcame with Prescott.
After the first Sunday of games, the NFL landscape suddenly looks very favorable for the Cowboys. In the NFC East, they have already vanquished the one team that they could not beat at least once in 2016. And no disrespect to the Philadelphia Eagles or Washington (which is code talk for total and gleeful disrespect), both of those teams looked very shaky in their game, where the Eagles seemed to win more because Washington just made the most mistakes more than anything else (along with a very questionable fumble call on what clearly looked like a forward pass that got swatted back in Kirk Cousin’s face). In the NFC as a whole, the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks had a similar game where both looked very flawed. And the Arizona Cardinals also went down to defeat at the hands of the Detroit Lions. While they managed a win, the Atlanta Falcons were tested by the Chicago Bears. Even the overwhelming preseason favorite to win the Super Bowl, the New England Patriots, got embarrassed in their season opener.
The Cowboys now seem to be confirmed as one of the real powers in the league. The only real flaw they showed in the Giants game was not scoring touchdowns when they got to the red zone. Hopefully that can be improved with work and getting that preseason rust knocked off. Even with having to settle for field goals on at least two drives that should have gone for seven, Dallas appeared completely in control of the game from the very beginning. That is largely due to the performance of the defense, which prior to the Monday night games, was already tied for the best rushing defense in the league, ranked seventh in overall yards given up, and tied for second in points allowed.
Some may voice a little concern over one factor that was involved. The Giants are known to have a weak offensive line and a less than impressive running game. That is true, and no doubt was part of the reason the Cowboys wound up putting effective pressure on Manning throughout the game. But here is kind of a dirty little secret that you ought to keep in mind:
Most of the rest of the teams in the NFL have weak offensive lines and less than impressive running games. It is now evident that there is an ongoing problem with O line play across the league, which not only makes running the ball much harder, but is putting quarterbacks increasingly at risk. While a handful of teams have been able to emulate the Cowboys in assembling a strong offensive line, most are having a much more difficult time. The reasons for the issues are multiple, and include the changes in the college game that ill-prepare most linemen for the transition to the NFL-style game, and the restrictions the CBA puts on practices that apparently are making bringing those new players up to speed once they get into the pros.
The Cowboys have totally bucked that trend, partly through focusing on drafting players that either have some experience in offenses that more resemble NFL schemes or that have identifiable traits that will translate, and also through years of effective coaching under first Bill Callahan and now Frank Pollack. Of all the things that Jason Garrett has done since becoming the head coach, his emphasis on having a strong O line to set up the running game may be the most crucial. And as Bob Sturm of the Dallas Morning News likes to point out, this is not a short-term fix. This is something that is sustainable over time as long as the team keeps doing the right things.
As a result of the past several years, when the plan all came together and Dallas also got lucky in some key spots, the Cowboys may now be set to make a real run in the playoffs. Of course, they have to keep it up for fifteen more regular season games. But if we look at both the first game of 2017 and the entirety of 2016, there is really little reason to doubt that they will continue along this path. Remember that the Giants game never really seemed to be in doubt once the Cowboys got their lone touchdown and went up by two scores. That is the kind of control that winners demonstrate. If they keep that up for a few more games, this could turn into a real steamroller of a team.