Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to do nothing. Things can be largely out of your control, and you have to wait for them to develop. There is often little assurance they will proceed favorably, but still you just have to let things progress on their own.
That has been very much the case for the Dallas Cowboys in 2021, and it still is very much so. While memory can be deceptive, it is hard to recall a season when we dealt with so many players and situations that forced us to just observe and see what would happen.
Injuries, suspension, and COVID protocols have affected the roster all year. Nowhere was that more impactful than along the defensive line. Neville Gallimore and Trysten Hill both started the season on IR or PUP. Then DeMarcus Lawrence was injured after the first game of the season. As if that wasn’t enough, Randy Gregory would miss five games, starting at the midpoint of the season.
Based on the issues the defense had last year, this would have led us to believe things would be pretty much a disaster on that side of the ball. But something funny happened. First, under Dan Quinn, the defense became a turnover machine. With Trevon Diggs the biggest factor, they lead the league in interceptions and are second in overall takeaways. That has helped carry the Cowboys to the current 9-4 record and a three-game lead in the NFC East with just four remaining to be played.
Then we found out to our great and exhilarating pleasure that Dallas had the biggest hit of the 2021 NFL Draft in Micah Parsons. The scouting staff thought he could be much more than just a traditional off-ball linebacker. Jerry Jones should put something extra in their Christmas stockings for that realization. Parsons moved up to the edge to help cover for Lawrence’s absence, and he has been magnificent. He has amassed 12 sacks, seventh in the league, while playing significantly fewer snaps rushing the passer as he also is still very important in that regular LB role. His performance has, as we now realize, elevated him from not only being a shoo-in for defensive rookie of the year to a serious DPOY candidate.
The latest in a string of signs that Micah Parsons is perhaps not of this earth. (Look at the differential between him and the next-closest guy. Outrageous.) pic.twitter.com/q8e2a0CsXs— Yaya Dubin (@JADubin5) December 13, 2021
Many times rookies are thrust into starting when they are not ready. Parsons was not just ready, he was primed for stardom, and the absence of Lawrence and, for a while, Gregory, allowed him to blaze.
A fellow rookie, Osa Odighizuwa, also made key contributions while the line had missing defensive tackles. He was not the absolute stud that Parsons is, and as the season progressed he was not quite as effective. But now that Gallimore and Hill are back, he seems to be benefiting from a more limited role.
The “wait for the missing players to return” story is one we have seen before with the Cowboys. It is not always one that works out. This year, it really has for Dallas. The win over the Washington Football Team was the second one back for Lawrence, and the first for both Gregory and Gallimore. All three recorded a sack, and Gregory doubled down with the pass he knocked into the air and intercepted. And Parsons seemed to benefit as well from having more threats to the quarterback, padding his sack total with two more, including the forced fumble that Dorance Armstrong returned for a crucial touchdown.
However, as the defense has become more healthy, the offense is dealing with more and more injuries. Tyron Smith is expected to miss at least the next game against the New York Giants, and both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard are dealing with their own injury issues. Elliott has not missed a game, but Pollard had to miss the Washington win. There is hope he will be back this week, but it remains to be seen how effective he will be even if he is deemed able to go.
Then there is the big one. Dak Prescott has not seemed right since his calf injury on the last play of the win over the New England Patriots. Coupled with the struggles running the ball and the often desultory play of the offensive line, it has made the Dallas offense a shadow of the machine that it was the first half of the season. Based on his history, Prescott should get things right at some point. The problem is just how long it will take. He probably will have to play through things until they start to click again. All we can do is wait and hope it is sooner rather than too late. The Giants game is a great opportunity for him to make strides. Unlike the win over the Football Team, there is no guarantee here.
Beyond waiting for players to get right, there is another aspect of the season and the playoffs where the Cowboys have to wait. That is the playoff seeding. If things ended today, they would be the fourth seed and have to face the Los Angeles Rams in the wildcard round. The Rams just beat the Arizona Cardinals on the road and are not exactly the matchup we want to see.
However, that Monday night contest also dropped the Cardinals to 10-3, just one game ahead of Dallas and in a three way tie with the Green Bay Packers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the best record and the number one seed. While all three of those teams have easy schedules on paper to finish the season, we have seen plenty of examples where games have not gone at all as expected. There is also news that Aaron Rodgers has aggravated his toe injury. No one wants to see a player as great as him suddenly at risk of not being able to lead his team. But it could contribute to one or two of those unexpected losses for the Packers, which would help Dallas. And the Cardinals will be coming to AT&T Stadium for the next to last game of the season. A win for the home team could be a major step in improving their playoff position. A couple of weeks ago, many felt that the fourth seed was the best case scenario for the Cowboys. Now, they just have to wait and see how things shake out. They also have to take care of their own games and not fall victim to a loss that shouldn’t happen. If they can, things may just fall their way.
It is still a big if. It is “one game at a time” for Dallas. There is a lot they cannot control. The waiting game continues. Nonetheless, as they face the final month of games, there are plenty of reasons to hope for things to get better.