Two months ago, which was right after Dak Prescott was injured, if you had told us that the Dallas Cowboys would win six of their next seven games and be looking like a lock for the playoffs already, the response from most would have been something between bafflement and semi-hysterical laughter. But here we are. Not only did the team have its most impressive win of the season against the Chicago Bears last week, they now have the bye to heal up and get set for the final nine games of the regular season. Most impressively they have proven that they are one of the elite teams in the league.
Or so our Tom Ryle thinks. David Howman is not so sure.
Tom: If you don’t think the Cowboys have clearly staked their position as one of the real contenders to play into February, I think you are undervaluing just what they accomplished over the past eight weeks. First, they managed to string together four consecutive wins with Cooper Rush at quarterback. It seems his .800 W-L percentage convinced a lot of people he was something besides a backup-level quarterback.
What it proved to me is that the rest of the team was so good it was able to weather the loss of Dak and still crank out some wins with a player who is not at all starter quality, no disrespect to the incredible job Rush did. Once QB1 was back on the field, he only needed a couple of quarters of play to find his groove. He absolutely went off against the Bears.
That is what I think we have to look forward to from him. We had already come to the realization that this defense is something very special. The odd controversy at quarterback is dead, but now we face one at running back, and it appears to be legit as Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard both look like starting caliber players. One of my biggest preseason concerns, the offensive line, has somewhat quietly proven to be better than expected.
The only weakness at the moment is at receiver. Dallas still is betting on being alright with Noah Brown, Jalen Tolbert, Kavontae Turpin, and eventually James Washington as the depth chart behind CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. Kellen Moore and Prescott made it work last week, with a big assist from the overperforming tight ends.
It probably sounds odd coming from a guy who has advocated healthy skepticism all year, but I am convinced this is one of the four or five best teams in the league, and certainly in the top three in the NFC. Health is, to me, the only that can slow them. If they avoid key injuries, I expect to see them playing at least through the end of January.
David: I think there is some truth to the idea that the Cowboys are one of the top teams right now, but I would counter and say that has more to do with the rest of the NFL being fairly mediocre thus far this season. After all, we just watched the undefeated Eagles struggle to put away the one-win Houston Texans on Thursday night. Even the teams that seem to be better than Dallas are not ripping inferior teams apart with regularity.
Ultimately, my skepticism on this team comes down to the old “who have they played?” argument. Now, the Cowboys don’t control their schedule and they can only beat the teams they do play, but I haven’t been overly wowed by what they’ve done so far. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy they’re sitting at 6-2, but they’ve played exactly two teams with a winning record and they’re 1-1 in those games. The combined record of the other teams they’ve played is 18-28.
I might be more willing to look past that were it not for last year’s Cowboys starting out much the same way. In fact, they also started out 6-2, but that second loss (to the Broncos) started a midseason slide that was only saved by wins over some really bad teams. But the Cowboys went 1-3 against playoff teams during that stretch, and that one win was against an Eagles team resting most of their starters. I’ll need to see the Cowboys play just as strong in the second half of this season as they started out before I break out any anointing oil.
Tom: Perhaps oddly, that whole strength of schedule argument is something I think supports my stance. Yes, you can only play the teams that are on the schedule, but this is a strange year in the NFL. There are so few clearly good teams out there, and a whole bunch of bad ones, plus a group that are really .500 caliber. The relevant point here is that this is the competition this year, and outside the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles coming up, I don’t see any teams Dallas should have much trouble handling.
Further, while they were not a very impressive offensive team for the first third of the season, winning on defense and some grit, we now have the “real” offense back, and it is pretty darn good. With what remains on the schedule, they have a clear path to the playoffs, and if they get a little unexpected help, they could even have a shot at winning the NFC East.
Most importantly, though, is that the Cowboys are playing this year’s NFL. Remember that they faced last year’s Super Bowl teams, and beat both of them with Rush. That is more on how those teams seem to have fallen off, perhaps, but you can say that about so many teams this year when you look at what they are doing. I don’t know why the league has so many teams that are underperforming. The main concern is their own conference, and only the NFC East looks at all impressive in the standings. Now that they are approaching full strength and have the bye to get even closer, I am staying with my contention that they are one of this year’s elite teams.
David: Regardless of whether or not the Cowboys have proven themselves already, none of it will matter if their season ends the way it did last year. They cannot go one and done in the playoffs, and realistically they shouldn’t even be content with winning a single playoff game. This organization has just two playoff wins in the last 13 years, and none since Mike McCarthy became head coach. Of course, it’s also been 26 years since the Cowboys last appeared in the NFC Championship game.
If the rest of the league being mediocre really is a boon for this team, like you suggest, then reaching the conference title game should be considered the bare minimum for these Cowboys. Even if they were to reach the Super Bowl, though, do we really have faith that they could beat a team like the Bills or Chiefs? I have my doubts, and will continue to have them until the Cowboys get to the playoffs and prove me wrong.
But since that is still a few months away, I’ll have to settle for enjoying the wins while they’re here.