The Cowboys are in sole possession of first place in the NFC East. Granted, it’s not the greatest division the NFL has ever seen, but after 2020, winning feels good regardless. Even better, the Cowboys ascended to the top of the division by throttling the Philadelphia Eagles. For now, life is good.
After a 20-point Cowboys victory, headlines begin to emerge left and right. There are at least five conclusions we could draw from Dak Prescott’s near-perfect performance alone. However, we knew Dak was elite going into the game, so what did we truly learn?
The Cowboys won the draft-day trade with the Eagles
As a quick refresher, the Eagles gave up a pick to switch positions with the Cowboys in the first round of the draft to take DeVonta Smith. Two picks later, the Cowboys took Micah Parsons. It is entirely possible that Dallas would have taken Parsons at ten, and Smith would still be on the board when the Eagles were on the clock. But remember, the Eagles gave up a third-round pick to avoid this “what-if” scenario.
The three players involved in this trade squared off on Monday, and it was much prettier for the Cowboys. DeVonta Smith finished with three receptions on six targets for 28 yards, a relatively quiet game considering Smith played on 90% of snaps. This includes a snap where Smith tripped while breaking outside, leading to a Trevon Diggs pick-six.
Micah Parsons was not as silent. The rookie linebacker finished with four pressures, four tackles, a batted pass, half a sack, and a 0% missed tackle rate. Parsons was everywhere last night, imposing his will on the Eagles’ offense.
It is hard to consider Parsons a rookie anymore. According to Pro Football Focus, he is currently the 17th best defensive player and the 14th best pass-rusher in the NFL. With Demarcus Lawrence out, Micah Parsons is the most impactful defender on the Cowboys roster.
Oh, and remember that third-round pick the Eagles had to pay to move up? The Cowboys used that pick to select Chauncey Golston. If there were an award for best performance of the night that no one is discussing, it would go to Golston.
Chauncey Golston generated two quarterback pressures, three tackles and received the second-highest PFF grade among all Dallas defenders in week three.
If you need another reason to be optimistic about this team, the two players involved in the trade with the Eagles finished with a combined six quarterback pressures, seven tackles, and half a sack. Philadelphia essentially paid up for Dallas to torment Jalen Hurts.
We should wish nothing but the best for DeVonta Smith. He is a promising player with a bright future ahead of him. But in the first installment of the post-draft day trade between the division rivals, only the Dallas players made a substantial impact.
The Cowboys are a playoff team
Yes, Dallas has only played three games. But barring a disaster, this team will almost assuredly be in the playoffs come January. The Cowboys are the best team in a horrible division, and it would take a complete meltdown for them to miss out on an NFC East title.
Entering this week, the Cowboys possessed a 59% chance to make the postseason. After dismantling the team that many expect to be the second-best in the division, their playoff odds increased to 76%. With fourteen games left to play, the Cowboys are more likely to appear in the postseason than the Kansas City Chiefs.
This projection is partially due to five remaining games on the Cowboys’ schedule being against NFC East teams, a division still in shambles. By EPA metrics, the Dallas Cowboys are the sixth-best team in the NFL. The rest of the division averages an EPA ranking of 22, with the highest being the Eagles at 17. The story is similar with PFF, where the Cowboys land as the fourth-best team in the league, while the other three NFC East teams average a rank of 19.
The division is not good, but the Cowboys are playing a different game than the other NFC East teams. In fact, Dallas currently has a 40% chance to take one of the top three seeds in the NFC. This game proved the Cowboys as the class of the division, and assuming health the NFC East runs through Dallas.
The coaching staff is a mixed bag
The Cowboys’ coaching situation is simultaneously pushing this team forward and holding it back. It is both infuriating and beautiful to watch.
Kellen Moore has the offense humming. Due to Moore’s play-calling, Dallas averages 30 points per game, the most first downs in the NFL, and the fourth-best third-down conversion rate. Watching Moore exploit a defense’s weakness is like watching Picasso paint.
On the other side of the ball, there is the miracle improvement that Dan Quinn is spearheading. I am not sure if a coordinator can receive Coach of the Year, but if so, Quinn should be considered. He took a defense that allowed the fifth-most points in the NFL a year ago and turned them into the thirteenth best team by points allowed.
On Monday night, even John Fassel seemed to fix the mistakes on special teams. Outside of a Zuerlein kick, which you can’t pin on Fassel, the special teams played a perfect game.
It’s hard to give all of that credit to the coordinators and not believe that Mike McCarthy has at least some impact on the outcome. Surely the head coach is responsible for some of the turnaround, right? The narrative was set, Mike McCarthy outcoached first-year head coach Nick Sirianni. Then McCarthy tore apart that narrative by managing the clock in a baffling fashion.
The decision not to call a timeout on third and fourth down at the end of the first half cost the Cowboys a 6% dip in their expected winning percentage. Luckily Dallas won the game, but it was not because McCarthy decided to play it safe.
There are not many stats that measure coaching, and thus it is difficult to reinforce this argument with analytics. But it seems like the Cowboys have the most imbalanced coaching staff in history. You have geniuses on their respective side of the ball with Kellen Moore and Dan Quinn, but they are led by a coach that doesn’t seem to know how to manage the clock.
Currently, McCarthy’s Cowboys are leading the division and seem to be in a prime position to return to the postseason. Again, it is hard not to give the leader of this team some credit for the recent success. But it is a confusing situation. Hate him or love him; Mike McCarthy needs to learn how to work a clock before it results in disaster.
The defense is… good
Don’t confuse elite with good. The Cowboys surrender passing yards at a high rate, but this is an improved version of the bend-don’t-break defensive philosophy the Cowboys ran under Rod Marinelli. The result is a legitimately good defense.
Coming into this week, Jalen Hurts was the second-ranked quarterback, according to PFF. Monday night, the Cowboys’ defense held Hurts to seven meaningful points. While the Eagles finished with 21 points, one touchdown came from a fumble recovery in the endzone, and another occurred when the game was all but over.
Last season, the Cowboys’ defense ranked 28th by PFF and 21st by EPA per play allowed. Enter Dan Quinn and Micah Parsons. By EPA per play allowed, the Dallas defense is the eighth-best, with their secondary coming in as the seventh-best. If you do not trust EPA, PFF has the Cowboys as the eleventh-ranked defense, sixth best in coverage.
After admirable performances against Justin Herbert and Tom Brady, there was speculation that the defense might be average. But what we have seen so far is nothing short of a miracle.
Statistics the Cowboys defense fell below average during 2020, where they now rank in the top half of the NFL through three weeks include:
- Points allowed per game
- First downs allowed
- Rushing yards allowed per game
- Opponent red zone touchdown percentage
By every metric, the Cowboys boast a good defense. To reiterate, this defense is not elite and cannot be counted on to carry the team. However, a good defense is an outstanding improvement from last year. Who would’ve guessed that focusing on this side of the ball during the offseason might actually result in defensive success?
The offensive line deserves more credit
There has been much news around the two-headed backfield the Cowboys use, as both Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott have looked solid this year. But there is rarely any credit given to the guys who are making that tandem work.
The Cowboys average an impressive 4.6 yards per carry on the ground, the seventh-best in the NFL. The reason for this success is due to the front five of the offensive line. By PFF grading, the Cowboys are the best run-blocking team in the NFL by a wide margin.
Equally impressive is the offensive line’s protection in the passing game. Tyron Smith, Zach Martin, and Connor Williams have allowed a combined four pressures and one sack on the year. Remember, Micah Parsons had four pressures in week three alone.
These three linemen have played nearly perfect football through three games. While Connor Williams did struggle with penalties against the Eagles, at least two of those calls were questionable at best. We are still far from returning to the offensive line of 2014, but it has been a drastic improvement compared to last year. With La’el Collins set to return in three weeks, this could be a top-five offensive line in the league assuming health.
While Tyler Biadsz has struggled through the beginning of the year, allowing eleven pressures on the quarterback, he is still young. There needs to be improvement at the center position, but for now, Cowboys fans should feel secure in the protection upfront.
Whether or not you believe in the legitimacy of the Cowboys’ start to the season, we can all agree it feels good to be back on top again. Beating a division rival is one thing, but routing the Philadelphia Eagles in primetime football is a whole different type of bliss.
It is still early, but at least there are reasons to be optimistic. Looking at the schedule before the season started, most would have thought that a 2-1 record was the best-case scenario through three weeks. Well, here we are Cowboys fans; let’s enjoy another victorious week.