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Lessons learned (and relearned) from the surprising Cowboys win over Vikings

Smile and wave, boys. Smile and wave.

Dallas Cowboys v Minnesota Vikings
Yeah, he good.
Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

There are wins. And there are defining wins. The against-the-odds Dallas Cowboys 20-16 victory over the Minnesota Vikings may just fall into that latter category. Much of the football world, including a large segment of their own fan base, gave Dallas no chance to pull that out. But with a stunning debut, strong performances across the roster, excellent coaching, and a near-takeover of U.S. Bank Stadium by Cowboys Nation, they not only got an unexpected win, but are truly in the thick of the race for the number one seed in the NFC. As always, there are things to take from the game, and here are some of the most significant.

We so underestimated Cooper Rush

There was something in the air on Halloween, because Rush was joined by Trevor Siemian and former Cowboy Mike White in triumphing as an unheralded backup quarterbacks on Sunday. But the reality is that we found out exactly why the coaching staff was willing to roll into the season with a backup quarterback who had thrown exactly three passes, and completed one, in regular season action, and that way back in 2017. Rush was not always making plays, but he certainly made some major ones, including the two touchdown passes. His 325 yards were impressive. Although Mike Zimmer did not load up the box to stifle the run the way he claimed he would beforehand, it still seemed evident that the Minnesota game plan was to keep Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard under control and dare Rush to beat them up top.

Oopsies. With some really big pass plays, including a 73-yard touchdown to Cedrick Wilson, one amazingly good play with Wilson throwing the ball, and 100+ yard days from both Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, Rush and the passing game embarrassed Zimmer’s defense. Dallas averaged an outstanding 7.8 yards per pass play. This may turn out to be the highlight game of Rush’s entire career, but what a highlight! Now the Cowboys have exactly what you want in a backup quarterback, a player who can come in and get a win or two while the starter is out briefly. We all hope Dak Prescott is back soon. But the urgency is dialed way down with the knowledge of what Rush can do.

This also speaks to the value of having a backup who is familiar with the offense and his teammates. In hindsight, the handwringing over not going outside the organization to find a “quality” backup looks a bit silly.

The depth is real

Rush is exhibit one, but so is the fact that the Cowboys played most of the game with two tackles that were supposed to be backups and players like DeMarcus Lawrence and Michael Gallup still out. With those two notable absences, Randy Gregory and Wilson really stepped up. Gregory had Dallas’ only sack, three quarterback hits, was near Kirk Cousins on a lot of other passing plays, and a forced fumble that the Vikings managed to get back on. His impact continues to be bigger than his stats make it appear. And Wilson’s contributions have already been mentioned, but it should be added that he caught all three of the passes targeted at him.

A lack of depth led to the debacle of 2020. Things are the opposite as the Cowboys now have a six-game winning streak with a couple of games that look very manageable coming up.

Go ahead and engrave the Defensive Rookie of the Year trophy

Micah Parsons was a monster. He had eleven total tackles in the game, four of them for a loss, and a hit on Cousins. Dalvin Cook had some big runs, but Parsons was key in not letting him really hurt the Cowboys and in holding the Vikings to only one touchdown and three field goals. There were plenty of voices (mine included) thinking that it was wrong to draft a linebacker in the first round. That turned out to be wrong as Parsons continues to be an absolute game wrecker.

If he makes any kind of leap in his second year, DROY may just be the start of his accolades.

Coaching matters, and we need to recognize what Dallas has

Mike Zimmer may be a low bar, but there is no question that Mike McCarthy just coached Zimm’s pants off. One argument made in McCarthy’s favor all season is that the head coach’s main contribution comes in the days between games. The maddening to us uncertainty over Dak Prescott’s availability turned out to be an evil genius level masterstroke.

That was just the beginning. Kellen Moore had Rush fully prepared for the game, and showed full trust in him to make plays in a way that just would not have happened with the previous regime in Dallas. Dan Quinn’s defense held the Vikings to just one third down conversion out of 13 opportunities, a staggering 7.7% rate. And even in his frequently criticized game management, McCarthy shone in comparison to “two timeouts in a row” Zimmer, and “run the clock down in the first half” Zimmer. Kudos all around to the staff.

Sometimes, it just takes one play to show how important a player is

In a game where everyone thought the running game was going to be key for the Cowboys, Ezekiel Elliott was held very much in check. But this play as a receiver on the game-winning drive was just incredible.

This was supposed to be a play to get a little closer for a game-tying field goal. Elliott was having none of that, as he blew through and past FOUR defenders to set up the winning touchdown from Rush to Cooper. It was one of the biggest plays in a game full of them. There are times when the biggest stars have to step up, and Elliott did exactly that.

This is a different Cowboys team

It is moving from opinion to observable fact. After so many seasons of conservative plays to try and not lose, this team is going for the kill shot time after time. More importantly, they are getting it done and closing things out. Once, we would have felt a close loss in this situation inevitable, and feared being dominated. Now, even with the backup QB on the field facing a very good defense, we had hope that was realized with what may be a signature win and a true statement game. This team finds ways to overcome obstacles like some penalties that even the broadcasters were calling out and make crucial plays like this.

Yes, that was an incredibly lucky bounce, but it took Cooper’s concentration and skill to make that juggling catch and keep the crucial drive moving. That is something you have to have to go along with more normal good plays.

Something big may be happening right before our eyes. Now the Cowboys have to keep focused and take things one game at a time. This year, we can actually have some faith that they can do just that.