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What we know and what we still need to find out about the Cowboys

A mid-season review as the Dallas Cowboys enjoy their Week 9 bye week.

Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys
Yes, he is.
Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

The bye falls at the mid-season point for the Dallas Cowboys, or as close as you can get with the 17 game schedule. They have eight games in the books. Despite starting QB Dak Prescott missing five of the games, they have a 6-2 record, tied for fourth best in the entire league and third in the NFC.

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They came into season with myriad questions that we have been looking at each week. Many of those have been answered, but as with life in general, there are always more. Here are some of the more significant.

Dak is the man

This seems obvious after the way he dissected the Chicago Bears, but for six games this was certainly hotly debated. He had a bad first game before being injured. Then the team managed to win four games under Cooper Rush and hung in against the league-leading Philadelphia Eagles. There were voices calling for Rush to keep the starting job until that loss, although some of that looked suspiciously like clickbait.

With only two games played since he was cleared to return, Prescott has exposed the fallacy of him losing his starting job. The offense is an entirely different animal with him playing. And that is a beast. He led the team to six touchdowns against the Bears after working through some rust against the Detroit Lions. As long as he is behind center, Dallas is going to be a serious threat to any team they face.

Somehow the offensive line is getting it done

Ever since the team parted ways with La’el Collins and Connor Williams, the offensive line was a major concern. They did invest their first-round pick in Tyler Smith, but otherwise did nothing to bolster things. Then Tyron Smith went on injured reserve before camp ended, forcing them to sign Jason Peters for depth. Peters has had his own injury issue and is still coming along slowly, as well as being used at guard rather than tackle where he once was one of the best in the league.

Yet somehow this unit has held up. They are not stellar, but with some excellent work by the coaching staff, they have been more than adequate. Dallas has surrendered the third fewest sacks in the league. Part of that is how Rush and Prescott have gotten the ball out, but you cannot discount the work of the line. Tyler Smith has shown why the team views him as the long-term answer at left tackle, Terence Steele has proven he is a solid right tackle. Zack Martin continues to perform at All Pro levels, and between Connor McGovern and Peters, the right guard job is being handled. The unsung hero of the line is Tyler Biadasz, who consistently grades out highly at his position.

This is not a dominant unit, but they have certainly been successful. Against the Bears, they were also superb in run blocking, opening up the holes for Tony Pollard to shine.

The seat has cooled for the head coach, and the coordinators have polished their résumés

At the start of the season, Mike McCarthy was one of, or even the leading candidate to be the first coach fired this year. After the way his team weathered the Prescott injury and now seem to be one of the hottest teams in the league, that looks laughable. While there are still some quibbles about his performance, such as the continuing issues with penalties. his overall work has made it almost certain he will at least coach out his contract. The only thing that would change that is some kind of massive collapse after the bye, and there is no sign at all that could happen with this team.

Dan Quinn was already one of the hottest names to become a head coach, reportedly turning down possible jobs this year. The way his defense has performed just makes him more attractive. Meanwhile, Kellen Moore has done a lot to put himself on the radar for teams that will be looking for a new head coach after this season. He found a way to get enough out of the offense with Rush, and had one of the best offensive coaching performances of the year last Sunday.

Heck, even John Fassel may be getting some interest with how well the special teams have done. If this was a make or break year for any of the coaching staff, they are making it, in a big way.

Is the Stephen Jones way going to succeed?

Not everything is clear. One thing that still rankles many is that the EVP of the team has stubbornly refused to use a significant amount of the cap space to add any costly free agents.

However, things somehow keep working out. Last year, the team turned one of the weaker safety rooms into a strength with the low-cost signings of Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, and Damontae Kazee. The latter has since moved on, but Kearse and Hooker continue to make an impact. This year, Jones scoured the bargain bins and came up with Dante Fowler, KaVontae Turpin, Peters, and Brett Maher, all who have made important contributions to the team.

Is this a well thought out and executed strategy or very good luck? Frankly, luck has played a big part in things. But that is certainly not how Jones sees it. It was a source of frustration to see so many of the other leading playoff contenders go out and add some name talent before the trade deadline while the only move the Cowboys made was to trade for Johnathan Hankins. In his first game, he looked like another find as he made a real difference in the run defense when he was on the field. It likely will further reinforce Jones’ self-concept of being the smartest guy in the room. We keep fearing it will come back to bite the team. Hopefully, it won’t be this year.

The defense is what we hoped for - and more

This relates to Dan Quinn, but it also has a lot to do with what is looking like one of the most talented groups in the league. They are third in points per game allowed, first in sacks by a large margin, and tied for second in turnover margin. The pass rush has been ferocious, and it comes from all directions. Micah Parsons is tied for third most sacks in the league, but Dorance Armstrong, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Dante Fowler are all ranked in the top 40 league wide. We won’t get into the debate about the lack of holding calls, because even if that is a legitimate complaint, this bunch still is all over opposing quarterbacks.

The secondary is also doing a good job, which is, of course, much easier when there is so much pressure on the passer. The only concern has been a vulnerability to the run game, especially when facing mobile QBs, but as Bob Sturm of The Athletic has pointed out, NFL teams want opponents to run the ball rather than pass. It is harder to sustain drives when you cannot throw effectively, and that is usually the case when going up against Dallas.

Are the Cowboys among the league’s elite?

This is a strange year. Only twelve teams have a winning record, and in the NFC there are only four that have as many or more wins than Dallas. It seems there are more teams struggling than usual, and to the surprise of many, the NFC East is easily the most successful division in the league.

Looking forward, there are only two teams that are clearly a challenge the rest of the regular season, the Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings. The Cowboys have already beaten the New York Giants with Rush at quarterback, the Green Bay Packers are struggling, and the Tennessee Titans are having issues at quarterback. The rest all look quite beatable.

Things don’t always go as expected in the NFL, of course, as we saw when the Cleveland Browns just dominated the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football. Dallas must avoid letdowns, starting with the next game against the Packers. Aaron Rodgers has too often had the Cowboys’ number, and they have become a much more run-focused team this year.

Nonetheless, on paper this looks like a season where getting to 12 or 13 wins is very doable, and more is hardly out of the question. Dallas is heavily favored to make the playoffs even if getting to the one seed is a tall order as the Eagles continue to romp through their schedule, which also is hardly intimidating. It does look like the Cowboys are one of the handful of truly good teams, especially with Prescott back. Now they have to prove it.

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