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Cowboys hot topic: A question of identity

Did we finally see the real Cowboys against the Rams, or was that just an impersonation?

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Los Angeles Rams v Dallas Cowboys
Is more of Tony Pollard on the way?
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

This was the Dallas Cowboys team we were hoping to see all season. Against the Los Angeles Rams, they were dominant. More importantly, they were dominant in all phases of the game. The offense was incredibly impressive during the 24-point run that salted the win away. The defense stopped Todd Gurley cold, and harassed Jared Goff all game. There were even more pluses than minuses for the special teams, like Kai Forbath nailing three field goals while mishitting two kickoffs out of bounds.

Going into the game, the Cowboys knew that any result didn’t change having to beat the Philadelphia Eagles this week to sew up the NFC East berth in the playoffs. What the 44-21 runaway victory did bring was an indication that a postseason appearance may turn out to be more than just a token one-and-done affair.

If, of course, what we saw last Sunday was the real Cowboys.

This team has been struggling all season to establish an identity. Up until the Rams game, that identity seemed to revolve around making too many mistakes to win. Turnovers, letting bad quarterbacks look like All Pros, dropped passes, predictable offensive plays, lack of adjustments on defense, missed field goals, horrible starting field position due to special teams dysfunction, crucially bad, often boneheaded penalties - Dallas didn’t have just one or two problems. They pretty much had them all. About the only thing they did seem to be able to rely on was a strong connection between Dak Prescott and his wide receivers, particularly Amari Cooper and the emerging Michael Gallup.

In one game, it all changed. The Cowboys won the turnover battle, Goff put up a simply terrible performance outside of the first half scoring drive and garbage time, instead of drops we saw great grabs by Cooper and Jason Witten, Kellen Moore had arguably his best day calling plays. The defense was pretty much in the right place at the right time after that first Rams TD, Forbath was perfect on field goals and PATs, the Cowboys actually had better starting field position on average thanks to the Sean Lee interception (and still had touchdown drives of 90, 75, and 97 yards), and the team only had four penalties assessed against them, for a paltry 16 yards. They simply eliminated most of their own mistakes, with a bit of help from the referees. And they capitalized on the errors of the opponent, especially that rotten day from their quarterback.

The only thing they didn’t have was a good day from any of the wide receivers. Cooper, Gallup, Randall Cobb, and Tavon Austin only had one catch each. (Admittedly, Austin’s touchdown catch was a thing of both beauty and lowbrow comedy as the Rams became the Keystone Korners to let him be so wide open.) Tt wasn’t because of any drop problems. Combined, they only saw eight targets. Instead of being a game where the WRs were not up to the task, it was one they simply weren’t called on to carry a big load. Gallup did have one play where he seemed to pull up when a better effort might have led to another long play, but that really had no impact.

It has created a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde situation, both for the team and their fans. Is what we just saw the real identity of the Cowboys, or a temporary aberration? Does this presage a strong showing in January, or was it just a deceptive mirage? Can fans start to believe again, or should they be strictly in a wait and see mode every game?

If you are completely honest, that last thing is the only logical course. This team has failed in such varied and spectacular fashion in previous games, it has a long ways to go from earning any level of trust. We simply cannot judge their real identity based on one impressive win. Especially when we have seven highly disappointing losses to consider.

It will take at least the results of the Eagles game to have an idea if the Rams game was informative or deceptive. However, there are definitely some things that would be very encouraging if they continue.

Let’s start with the running game. One reason the wide receivers had so little work was that Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard were ripping the Rams’ defense to shreds. They both had outstanding games, but individual performances alone were not what made it happen. Credit goes to Kellen Moore, who brought some new alignments and designs, plus a brilliant job of play-calling. Here’s one example:

When you trot out something in week 15 of the season that you haven’t shown all year, you have a pretty good chance of throwing the defense off stride. It also doesn’t hurt to have the offensive line putting up one of their best games of the year. Meanwhile, Moore also may have done his best job yet of mixing things up with his play sequencing. I’m going to quote from Bob Sturm’s weekly “Decoding Kellen” article here, to give credit to him for seeing this.

Let’s look at Dallas’ nine earliest first downs:

1. (12:48) (Shotgun) D.Prescott pass short middle to J.Witten to DAL 19 for 6 yards (T.Reeder).

2. (11:47) D.Prescott pass incomplete deep middle to A.Cooper.

3. (8:08) (Shotgun) D.Prescott right end to DAL 17 for 7 yards (C.Matthews).

4. (7:05) D.Prescott pass short left to J.Witten to DAL 23 for 2 yards (C.Littleton).

5. (5:53) (Shotgun) T.Austin left end to DAL 34 for 1 yard (C.Littleton).

6. (4:27) D.Prescott pass short left to J.Witten ran ob at LA 38 for 9 yards (N.Robey).

7. (3:14) T.Pollard right end to LA 21 for 8 yards (T.Rapp; C.Matthews).

8. (2:01) (Shotgun) D.Prescott pass incomplete short left to M.Gallup.

9. (12:58) (Shotgun) E.Elliott right tackle to DAL 40 for 15 yards (T.Rapp).

That’s right. The Cowboys did not “Feed Zeke” on a first-down run until their ninth attempt.

If you are among those who have had enough with the first down handoffs to Elliott that would get a couple of yards because the defense was waiting for him, feel free to jump up and shout “Hallelujah!” Don’t mind the stares, because this is something fully deserving of some celebration. One of the interesting/fun/irritating debates in NFL social media has been about the value of running backs and why passes are more valuable in almost every situation than handing the ball off. Well, this game is clear evidence that running the ball is still extremely valuable when used the right way. Handing it to your workhorse back on a majority of first downs is absolutely not the way. Pass or using other players to run the ball like the Cowboys did will have you going all Mandalorian, because It Is The Way.

Changing up your play-calling is a great way to throw a good defense off. Throwing out some alignments and plays that haven’t been seen is another. Do them both, and you might just rack up 263 yards and three touchdowns rushing.

It does take us back to a question that is perhaps unanswerable, at least without a level of transparency that does not exist under Jason Garrett, and that is who is really making the decisions about those things. It’s easy to say that Moore deserves all the praise, or wonder why the head coach was forcing him to not be so innovative and original. That doesn’t mean we really know one bit more than Jon Snow. All that can be said with no real risk of contradiction is that the staff got this one very right. Given that Prescott played most of the game with an injured shoulder, which would seem to account for some of the less accurate throws he made, it was refreshingly adaptive as well.

Don’t discount what the passing game still accomplished, either. That highly amusing Austin TD was the result of a delightful bit of route running. Jason Witten showed why he still has some value with his touchdown catch. And Elliott and Blake Jarwin helped pick up the slack as receivers, contributing 43 and 40 yards apiece. Oh, and don’t forget that Jarwin was the straight man for Austin’s punchline when he ran his defender right into the guy who was supposed to be covering that play.

What happened with the defense is more about a bunch of players just stepping up to the plate. Antwaun Woods had a monster game, finding Gurley like he had a homing beacon and plowing through however many blockers tried to stop him. Sean Lee had one of the best games of his career. Jourdan Lewis just keeps proving why he needs to be on the field, and Chidobe Awuzie had one of his best performances. Most importantly, after missing so many tackles the week before, everyone was taking good angles and wrapping people up. It just showed that when you stop trying to make big plays and focus on doing your job correctly, the big plays tend to come on their own.

While it was not as spectacular, the much improved performance of the special teams was at least as significant as the other phases of the team. They didn’t let Los Angeles get any cheap “hidden yardage” outside of Forbath’s two kickoffs that went out of bounds. And Forbath was, for one game at lease, very reliable on field goals. They weren’t chip shots, either.

That brings up something else that at the least deserves a bit of thought. Forbath wound up with the kicking job because the team released Brett Maher after a decidedly unreliable performance this season. It may have been overdue, but the fact he was let go might just have had a galvanizing effect on the rest of the roster. Someone was actually held accountable for his failings. That could have directly impacted how the other players went about doing their business. If so, it is an underappreciated decision.

All of these things are sustainable, if the staff and players keep their head right. We hope that this is the real identity of the Cowboys emerging: Using the run effectively, creativity across the board on offense, the defense playing hard-nosed, smart football, and cutting way down on all forms of mistakes.

Now they have to do it all again, against an Eagles team that is not in very good shape at the moment. If they do, they should cruise to the playoffs on Sunday. If not, then we will know that this was just a false hope. If the answer is positive, we can start thinking about just how things can go in January. If not, it will be time to start talking about potential new coaches again.

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