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The Star aligns: How the Cowboys have gotten to their improbable position as playoff contenders

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Admit it. You had moved on to thinking about the draft (with no first-round pick) after Dallas started 3-5.

New Orleans Saints v Dallas Cowboys
His impact has been tremendous.
Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

I will not deny it. I was just one member of the swelling tide that thought the season was over for the Dallas Cowboys just four weeks ago. Despite being a long-time fan and supporter of Jason Garrett, I was ready to throw in the towel and admit it was time to move on. The team was 3-5, trailed both Washington and Philadelphia, nothing seemed to be working on offense despite the defense keeping them in game after game, and now they no longer had a first-round draft pick after trading for Amari Cooper. Despite his arrival and a shakeup on the coaching staff, they had just lost to the Tennessee Titans because they simply could not score enough points and it was time to abandon hope for this year.

Pass me that crow. It is delicious.

The four-game winning streak has been surprising, breathtaking, and even stunning. It has turned this season so far into one of the most exciting, and at times bewildering, ones in my decades of following the Cowboys. The high point so far was the incredible win over the New Orleans Saints last Thursday. The Saints were considered to be the best team in the NFL at the time, and still have to be in that conversation. But the fearsome Dallas defense made an unequivocal statement, the offense did just enough, and now the Cowboys sit atop the NFC East with four winnable games left (but certainly not ones they can overlook, despite having more of a margin for error than they did before).

It is one of the more improbable stories in the NFL this season. However it turns out, what we have seen the past month has been an incredible performance that hopefully is long from being done.

How did it happen? This story did not start during the bye week. It goes back much farther than that, and includes several key events, both good and bad, that encompass the entire year. Here is a timeline.

January coaching shake-up

Coming off the disappointing 2017 season, Dallas did a major remodel of the coaching staff. One thing that still seems, in retrospect, to not have been the best way to proceed, was to retain offensive coordinator Scott Linehan while revamping his assistants. What turned out to be the most significant part of that, and turned out very negatively, was to replace offensive line coach Frank Pollack with Paul Alexander. Subsequent reports have indicated that the players on the offensive line actually wanted to see assistant Marc Colombo promoted after Pollack left. As we later found out, they had a point.

On the positive side of the ledger, the Cowboys brought in Kris Richard to be the defensive passing game coordinator and secondary coach. With the departure of Matt Eberflus to become the defensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts (who Dallas visits in a couple of weeks), it is also strongly believed that Richard is the heir apparent to Rod Marinelli if the latter should decide to retire soon.

The Dez decision

Most were somewhat shocked when the Cowboys released wide receiver Dez Bryant. His performance was declining, and there was a perception that he was not a good fit with quarterback Dak Prescott. Many thought he would be snatched up by another team that could use his talent better. But instead, he remained unsigned until the New Orleans Saints came to terms with him in early November. The anticipated return to Dallas never happened, though, as Bryant was injured before ever taking the field for New Orleans.

Free agency

The divorce from Dez meant that wide receiver was now a priority. But the Cowboys would basically whiff there, as Allen Hurns has been largely a non-factor and never came close to fulfilling the role Dez once had, and Deonte Thompson has been released after having even less impact.

But there were two key acquisitions during the main part of free agency that turned out to be very important for Dallas. One was Cameron Fleming, signed to be the swing tackle after the team cut ties with Chaz Green. Fleming has filled in for Tyron Smith while the All-Pro is dealing with injuries, and while he has not been nearly the same level of player, he has been good enough to help keep the win streak alive. And in what was thought to be a signing for depth during training camp, the team acquired kicker Brett Maher. That became perhaps the biggest free agent signing of 2018 when the team stunned everyone by releasing Dan Bailey. Subsequently, it has proven to be the right move, as Maher, while having some misses at times, has done noticeably better than Bailey has with the Minnesota Vikings. The staff apparently saw that Bailey was just not the same after suffering some injuries and made the hard but correct call.

And free agency does not have a set time in the NFL. The Cowboys would make two other key additions later on. In May, they acquired defensive tackle Antwaun Woods, who has become a force in the middle of the defensive line. They also picked up Xavier Su’a-Filo in early September for additional guard depth, and he has filled in at left guard during the win streak with some success, although he struggled during the Saints win, probably due to his own injury issues.

The surprise retirement

With their top wide receiver dismissed, the Cowboys got some stunning news at the start of the draft when it was reported that star tight end, and likely Hall of Fame member, Jason Witten, was hanging up his cleats to join the Monday Night Football broadcast team (a career that has gotten off to a rockier start than his playing one). It left Dallas with two huge holes to fill in the passing game.

The draft

Reactions to taking linebacker Leighton Vander Esch varied from wait-and-see to outright anger. Taking a player with a very limited resumé and a perceived lack of ability to shed blockers in a position that was seen to be declining in importance did not make much sense to most. He was seen as insurance for the almost inevitable injury to Sean Lee, which was not believed to be a good value for his draft cost. And the Cowboys passed up on receivers like Calvin Ridley and D.J. Moore, plus offensive linemen like Isaiah Wynn, who were all seen as better talents at positions of greater need.

Boy, were we ever wrong. Vander Esch has become one of the rookie stars of the league, playing at an All-Pro level and inserting himself squarely into the DROY discussion. When the injuries did happen for Lee, instead of the defense coming apart as it did in 2017, LVE became a wolf-hunting engine of destruction. Alongside Jaylon Smith, he gives the Cowboys arguably the best duo of seek-and-destroy linebackers in the league - one that may terrorize offenses for years to come.

In the rest of the draft, they selected Connor Williams in the second round, a college offensive tackle they converted to left guard, with mixed results so far. His injury made the Su’a-Filo signing much more important. More successful has been the third-round pick at wide receiver, Michael Gallup, who has improved as the season progressed, and had something of a breakout game against the Saints with five catches for a team-leading 76 yards, and could have added a long touchdown had Prescott not overthrown him. Dorance Armstrong has been part of the defensive end rotation, and Dalton Schultz has become more important in the tight end group since Geoff Swaim was injured. The last four picks have not had any impact, with QB Mike White riding the bench all year, LB Chris Covington only having a special teams role when he is active, and WR Cedrick Wilson on injured reserve. RB Bo Scarbrough was released and now is with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The disappointing first half of the season

Things got off to a very rocky start as the Cowboys were unable to win on the road, and except for a blowout win over the Jaguars, had to scrap for wins at home. The receiver-by-committee was not working for either the wideouts or the tight ends. Opponents were keying on stopping Ezekiel Elliott, execution was just bad, and Prescott was struggling in the first few games.

That got the team to 3-4 at their bye. Something needed to be done. Two things were, and both were surprises.

With their first round pick in 2019, they got their WR1

Out on the west coast, new/old head coach and master football con artist (he somehow convinced Mark Davis to give him a 10-year deal worth a reported $100 million after sitting out from the game for a decade) Jon Gruden has conducted something of a fire sale with his roster. Prior to the Cowboys calling, he had already shipped off defensive tackle Khalil Mack, who has been a new Monster of the Midway with the Chicago Bears. In midseason, he decided to shop wide receiver Amari Cooper. Looking at their dismal situation at the position, Jerry and Stephen Jones, Will McClay, and presumably Jason Garrett put their heads together, and decided to outbid the rest of the league for Cooper’s services. (The Eagles reportedly had an offer of a second-round pick on the table.) Cooper donned the Star, and the results have so far made the cost worth it. Everything about the offense is better. Dak is making more completions, Zeke is seeing more running room, and Cooper has already won an Offensive Player of the Week nod with his 180-yard, two-touchdown performance in the Dallas win on Thanksgiving. Now, with Gallup across from him, the Cowboys have a real one-two punch at wide receiver.

And the front office wasn’t done. A week after the blockbuster trade for Amari, they admitted their mistake in bringing in Paul Alexander by firing him and belatedly giving Marc Colombo the job he probably should have had all along. They hedged their bet by also bringing back former offensive line coach Hudson Houck as a consultant and mentor to Colombo. The effect on the offensive line was immediate, as they have been doing much better since, even with the rash of injuries.

It took another week and the team’s first (and so far only) home loss to the Titans, but things were just about to get on a roll.

Taking it to the Eagles in their own house

Although Washington was leading the division and already had a win over Dallas, the defending Super Bowl champions (pardon me for a moment while I clean my keyboard with bleach after typing that) were seen as the biggest challenge for the Cowboys to overcome. Sitting at 3-5 going into Philadelphia, it was thought that the only real hope for Dallas to salvage something out of this season was to find a way to claw to the top of the NFC East, which was looking rather weak to that point. That would have to start by beating the Eagles. As has been mentioned, the Cowboys had not won a game on the road. It was a make-or-break game for a team that, offensively at least, had looked already broken.

Instead, they came away with a 27-20 win, never trailing, and overcoming the Eagles tying the score twice in the second half. It was a major boost to their confidence.

Back-to-back wins on the road

Next up was a second road trip, this time to the Atlanta Falcons. It was a game with a lot more significance than just trying to get back to .500 on the season, because almost exactly a year before, that was where the Falcons broke the 2017 Dallas season. The team was without Zeke, who was starting his suspension, and they absolutely terrorized Dak, sacking him eight times as the Chaz Green experiment failed miserably.

It was a closer fight than the previous week, as the Cowboys trailed twice and had to drive with less than two minutes on the clock and the score tied, but Prescott was up to the task, Elliott had a monster game both on the ground and catching the ball, and that Maher guy put the game-winner through the uprights. The ghosts of 2017 were exorcised, and hope was alive again.

Getting one back from Washington

Cooper’s big game has already been mentioned, but this win was big, because it now meant that the Cowboys had a tie-breaker over Washington, as well as a winning record for the first time in the season. As always happens for the annual Thanksgiving game, they had to do it on a short week, and they came through in the clutch.

The stunner

Then came the biggest, baddest performance of the year. Despite the return of many of the offensive struggles, particularly red zone futility, turnovers, and sacks, the Cowboys rode one of the all-time great defensive performances to win a game over the Saints that almost nobody thought they had a chance in. They shut down Drew Brees in historical fashion and escaped with a win and their current 7-5 record.

It has been a memorable season so far. But how it ends up will be far more important. What is so different at this point is that almost everyone expects the Cowboys to make it to the playoffs. They cannot afford to slack off at all, however, with the Eagles coming to AT&T Stadium for their second match-up. Both Philadelphia and Washington are still stalking them, so Dallas has work yet to do.

But it has been quite the ride already. It’s gone from surprises in the offseason to near-absolute despair at the halfway point of the schedule to a growing confidence that this team can do something special. At the moment, they may be the most dangerous team to face in the NFL. Now to see how the final act plays out.