Sometimes I wonder - am I just different or a bit weird? (Likely, tbh.) There are many times I seem to be going against the current. This can be a general life thing, but it spills over into covering the Dallas Cowboys. The past week has been full of hand-wringing and some outright despair. Obviously what happened to Dak Prescott was terrible. It robbed him of what was potentially a record-breaking season, and the chance to bring his team back from a rough start and become even more of a hero. Things are clearly harder for the Cowboys as well, and they were dealing with more than their fair share of bad news already, both on the injury front and in some real problems with their performance. But after watching the way they won the game against the New York Giants, I felt something that not many others seem to.
I am very excited and optimistic about the rest of the year for Dallas. This could be a lot of fun.
First, Dallas is suddenly a real underdog story. The franchise QB is out for the year, and now they have to call on Andy Dalton, widely perceived as having failed after being dismissed by the Cincinnati Bengals after a string of unsuccessful years. He did have early success with that franchise, but never was able to win a playoff game, as you might have heard. Now we have to see if he can rise to the challenge and be a good enough replacement to win more games and get another shot at his first playoff win.
That is one source of optimism because Dalton may be a great case study for how much an individual player’s success is due to a dysfunctional franchise. Cincy was hardly a model operation the last four years. Could Dalton be another quarterback who thrives when given a better situation, the way Ryan Tannehill has with the Tennessee Titans? It was just a hint, but that thrilling finish on Sunday indicates that it is at least a realistic possibility. Watching how he does will be a key storyline.
This brings up the last time the Cowboys were seen as a real underdog. That was 2016, when the eventually career-ending injury to Tony Romo in preseason forced them to roll with that fourth-round quarterback they drafted mainly in hopes of upgrading the backup position. We all remember how that played out, with the stunning 13-3 season before running into the nemesis of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs. There’s a long way to go before we see if this team can make some noise to remind us of that, but if they do, this will be another season to remember.
Then there is the great strength of the team, the incredible wide receivers. Rookie CeeDee Lamb is already a head-turning player, leading the team in receiving yards five games into his career. This isn’t a case of him being the lone real talent in the group, as Amari Cooper is the steady producer who still demands attention from defenses, while Michael Gallup has become a long-range game-breaking threat. Even Cedrick Wilson brings something exciting to the table. This promises to be a bright spot for the team, no matter what else happens, and all four still should have years ahead of them. All but Cooper are still on rookie contracts, after all, and Cooper is just 26.
Meanwhile, Joe Philbin may be the most underrated coach on this staff. He has seen his offensive line lose both starting tackles for the season, and Tyron Smith and La’el Collins could have been one of the elite tandems in the NFL if they were healthy. Currently, he is having to replace them with a pair of UDFAs, second-year player Brandon Knight and rookie Terence Steele. He also is missing the planned starter at center, Joe Looney, for at least another game or two. But Looney could well return to his old role of versatile backup, because Tyler Biadasz has looked extremely good for a fourth-round rookie. He may just be the starter for years to come. Somehow, Philbin has been able to keep things functioning, and if he can coach the new faces up each week and produce steady improvement, he deserves a ton of recognition.
Even the much maligned defense offers some reason for hope. Leighton Vander Esch seems on the verge of returning from IR, and Chidobe Awuzie will at some point, which would be real help if they can stay healthy for a while. Jaylon Smith found his groove again against the Giants, and Mike Nolan may have been crucial in that with his move to the sidelines where he was seen working with Smith on the bench, as well as doing a much better job calling the defensive plays. In another week, Randy Gregory will be eligible to play at long last, and the reports on him from practice have been tantalizing, especially with the thought of him joining DeMarcus Lawrence and Aldon Smith. With the limitations and restrictions forced by the league’s pandemic response, the early defensive struggles may be something that time and practice could help resolve. If the defense can hold up its end going forward, it could get really exciting.
The entire coaching staff under Mike McCarthy is facing significant challenges, and that is another thing that will be very interesting to cover. Kellen Moore looks to be a rising star at offensive coordinator, and while Dalton will have a lot to do with how things work out for the offense, Moore will get a lot of credit (or blame) for things. Injuries have affected almost every part of the team, and that is the most crucial thing most staffs have to handle each season. This is a real test, but it will be fascinating to cover.
Then there is the most delicious and unexpected thing of this season, the collective ineptitude of the rest of the NFC East. While the Cowboys have only managed to muster two wins this year, that is as many as the Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, and Washington Football Team have put up combined. None of them have shown any signs of turning the corner so far, so not only could that offer Dallas an easy path to the postseason, we could have the great pleasure of mocking them the rest of the way. If nothing else, we can always have a laugh over the decision of how Washington chose to address renaming the team by not renaming it at all.
It is true that a lot of things have to fall into place for this to be an enjoyable season, but there are multiple possibilities for positive stories to emerge, and maybe enough of them will combine for us to see this as a successful year. I tend toward optimism anyway, and right now, I am absolutely looking forward to the rest of 2020 for the Cowboys.