I stood over my laptop screen, watching the seconds tick away. The Cowboys were going to lose. A season, once full of more hope than I had ever dared to have in this team, was going to end in the first round of the playoffs. There wasn't enough time. They had shot themselves in the foot once too many times. they- wait... a QB draw? What are they doing?? Wait, it kind of worked! Quick! SPIKE IT! SPIKE IT! WHAT IS THE REF DOING?! HE CAN'T DO THA-- What? He can? He has to? HOW did Dallas not know that? Oh. My. Gosh. THAT is how it all ends?? Of course it is.
Apologies for the PTSD, but it was important for me to remind you all, as well as myself, how things ended last time. It explains so much about the perspective I am writing from in the present. The Dallas Cowboys are 9-3, and are going back to the playoffs in a little over a month, barring something utterly catastrophic happening. Depending on where you look, they are 17 point favorites in their upcoming game, which is as big a spread as I can remember seeing in my life as a fan of this team. Life is good. And all of it has been incredibly surprising.
I was wrong about this season. From the moment that 23-17 Wildcard Round score became final, to the moment the Dallas Cowboys opened the 2022 season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I forced myself to keep expectations for the year low. They weren't going to get me again. My biggest fear was keeping my naturally optimistic fandom at bay. Thankfully, the front office kept making that easy for me.
Jerry and Stephen Jones were a joke. They seemed determined to tear apart the core of their playoff team out of spite for its underperformance. It was like they were sabotaging head coach Mike McCarthy for fooling them into hiring him in the first place. Over the course of the offseason, we let a WR1a, RT, LG/C, WR4, TE2, and DE leave for free agency. The last one was publicly embarrassing, as the team was on the verge of signing him only for him to spurn them due to a language dispute. Despite this being very public, celebrity and GM Jerry Jones, as well as his son Stephen, had the arrogance to spend the remainder of the offseason acting like they never wanted him and the backups would replace him without missing a beat. The follow up to this clown show? Resigning Michael Gallup and DeMarcus Lawrence, players with injury concerns, and signing James Washington and... that's pretty much it. They expected the offense to magically still be amazing. The defense, heavily reliant on turnovers, was going to defy the odds and stay amazing with no big acquisitions. They then spent the draft seemingly content to reach for projects and players with character concerns, instead of going BPA.
I was outraged, and rightfully so! Every sports show, NFL Podcast, beat reporter, and fan I talked to had the same expectation... Dallas was on the way out. I wanted to disagree, but couldn't. Beyond the quality of starters lost with little done to replace them, Dallas now had less depth at several key positions with injury histories. Tyron Smith, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Dak Prescott were going to be asked to carry a lesser team, and an injury to any of them would mean catastrophe. A worse roster with worse depth behind it, an underwhelming draft, and a lame-duck head coach all combined to spell doom for Dallas. To add insult to injury, hated rival GM Howie Roseman treated the entire offseason like his own personal Madden game, bringing in big-name player after big-name player, making his roster one of the best, if not THE best, in the entire league. the Eagles became the consensus NFC East pick, as well as a trendy Super Bowl pick, and it was hard to argue.
My only consolation after a dismal offseason was the promise of an underwhelming schedule. four games against the Giants and Commanders, the entire AFC South, and games against the Bears and Lions looked pretty juicy. Even as down as I was, every record prediction I did still ended up with 10-11 games that looked like wins on paper. I assumed Dallas would blow a couple of games they shouldn't, so my expectation was an 8-9 to 9-8 season, assuming everyone stayed healthy.
Then Tyron Smith predictably went down. And things looked grim before the year even got started. And then week 1 happened, the offense looked abysmal, Zeke looked washed, CeeDee couldn't carry the receiving game, Schultz still looked average, there appeared to be no growth from the coaching staff, the rookies struggled, the defense couldn't get turnovers, and Dak got seriously hurt. Every negative narrative from the offseason was coming true. Every single one! The season was over. McCarthy would be fired, Dak was officially injury prone and hadn't looked good for 13 straight games even before his injury, and everything was terrible. Dallas was going to be out of playoff contention by the time Dak got back from the 6-8 week injury. We were streaking towards a top 5 pick in the 2023 NFL draft, just like 2015.
Except... none of that happened. Dead coach walking Mike McCarthy finds himself at 9-3 and in the CotY conversation. Dak got back earlier than expected to a team with a winning record thanks to admirable substitute Cooper Rush, and despite some increased aggressiveness leading to more turnovers than usual from him, he's balling. The defense didn't stay at the level it played at in 2021.. it somehow improved. Zeke is rejuvenated, Pollard might be a top 5 back, the Offensive Line has exceeded expectations, CeeDee Lamb has taken a step into a legit, consistent WR1. Parsons is a DPOY favorite, and Diggs got even better and now looks like an All-Pro. The offense and defense are legitimately both top 5 units!
Dallas has back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 2016-2018, will win 10+ games in back-to back seasons for the first time since 1995-96, and make back-to-back playoffs for the first time since 2006-07 (the beginning of the Romo era!). How was I so wrong about this team? What did I miss? What did so many of us miss?
What I was wrong about
In hindsight, I underestimated how much young talent still remained on this team, losing sight of it while focused on every big name we lost.
I underestimated the benefit playing an easy schedule would provide, the cushion it could give a team working through injuries.
I forgot how young and talented the defense was, failing to realize guys like Trevon Diggs and Micah Parsons would only get better.
I underestimated the play of guys the coaching staff believed in. Terrance Steele, Tyler Smith, Conner McGovern, Dorance Armstrong, Dante Fowler, and Noah Brown have all stepped up to fill holes left by Cowboys of yesteryear.
I underestimated the competence of a backup quarterback who knows how to play in a system, and an OC who knows how to simplify and make things easy for him.
I underestimated the depth of this team. At various points in this season, we have played games without our QB1, RB1, LT1, RT1, LG1, WR1a, WR3, WR4, and TE1 from last season's playoff roster. Most of these subtractions overlapped in multiple games, and yet, the results have stayed positive. On defense, the injuries haven't hit as hard but we have played a game or two with missing starting safeties, linebackers, and defensive tackles. DeMarcus Lawrence and Micah Parsons have both played through injuries of varying seriousness, and we will go the rest of the way without two of our top three cornerbacks. That last part is concerning, but after every loss we've weathered on the other side of the ball, our coaching staff gets the benefit of the doubt.
Come to think of it, I just plain underestimated the coaching staff in general. Dan Quinn and Kellen Moore are both better versions of themselves from last year, and McCarthy has changed the culture and vibe of this team. They no longer feel like pretenders who get pushed around by the big boys, fold whenever injuries happen, and are unable to sustain success. They now feel like a good team, plain and simple. They don't crumble or whine when adversity strikes, they buckle down and get better. It would've been so easy for them to give up after week 1. To let the noise in and lose heart. But they didn't. It would have been easy to fall into a slump after a tough, emotionally charged loss to Green Bay, instead they put together one of the most dominant road performances in NFL history the very next week, against an 8-1 team! This team is unlike any I have rooted for in my time as a Cowboys fan, and that is a credit to Mike McCarthy.
All that being said, the team isn't perfect, and some of the offseason narratives and concerns I had have borne themselves out.
What I was right about
I don't want to beat a dead horse, but man... Amari Cooper on this team would sure look nice. It would've been doable with the salary cap, and been just one more piece for overmatched defenses to have to account for. Depth behind CeeDee Lamb is an issue that has been mitigated somewhat as Gallup has caught back up, but it could rear its ugly head at an inopportune time.
The offensive line depth has hurt, especially in the passing game. Dallas ranks below average in PFF's O-line grade, and dead last in ESPN's pass block win rate. They are much better in the run game, and the offensive scheme and smart QB have helped to mask these deficiencies, but Connor Williams has quietly been missed. Thankfully, Tyron Smith is on his way back to provide a boost here.
The surrounding NFC looks even more wide-open and for the taking than was expected going into the year. The Buccaneers, Packers, Cardinals, and Rams have all regressed big time. Seattle and Washington are scrappy but flawed and do not scare anyone. Minnesota and New York have good records but Dallas has proven to be a tier or two above them both. San Francisco, while scary, is once again dealing with the injury bug that may sink their season and at the very least lowers their ceiling. Only Philly looks like a legitimate threat at this exact moment in time. Dallas essentially stood pat going into the year despite the opportunity to feast on a weak conference being there for the taking. Their bet has paid off, but if they had acquired/retained one or two more difference makers, we would all feel even better about their ability to finally get over the hump.
That is pretty much it. Depth at corner might be added to the list, but DaRon Bland looks good, and again, the coaching staff has re-earned the benefit of the doubt it lost from me during this past January. Dallas has still gotten away with a lot of things that may be classified as good results masking a bad process, but they had confidence in their plan and it has paid off to this point. I was wrong about them, and I will admit that with pleasant surprise.
So, here we are. Running down the home stretch in the middle of the most surprisingly fun Cowboys season since 2014. What should the adjusted expectations be for the remainder of the ride? That depends largely on how the playoff seeding will shake out. It is looking increasingly likely that Dallas will be the #5 seed. Even if the beat the Eagles on Christmas Eve, which is more likely than not in my opinion but could still go either way, Dallas would need help to win the division. Philadelphia would have to be upset, and Dallas would have to avoid being upset. Certainly possible, but not overly likely. As the likely #5 seed, Dallas is all but certain to play Tampa Bay, unless the NFC west teams struggle down the stretch and TB goes on a run. Assuming that doesn't happen, Tampa Bay will be the #4 seed. The Eagles, Vikings and Seahawks/49ers (probably Seattle now that San Francisco has to play Brock Purdy) would make up the top three seeds. the loser of the Seahawks/49ers would battle with the Giants and Commanders for the 6th and 7th seeds.
The most likely Playoff matchups, in my mind, are Dallas @ Tampa, San Francisco @ Seattle, and Washington @ Minnesota. First things first, there would be no excuse for Dallas not to take care of business against an 8-10 win Bucs team. It is a bit daunting to face Brady in the playoffs, but the defense held him to 19 points in week 1 despite being on the field the entire game. Dallas has gotten healthier, more experienced, and all around better since week 1. Brady or no, they are the superior team and should absolutely win that game. If they do not, it will be a tremendous disappointment. The first ever playoff game against Tom Brady feels like a great time for Dallas to get its first ever win against him. After that, the most likely matchup is Dallas @ Philly. It is possible the 6th or 7th seeds get an upset, but if the bracket falls the way I laid it out above, I like Minnesota and Seattle's chances. Dallas would be the lowest remaining seed, and we would see the conference's two best teams battle it out for a trip to the championship game.
Philadelphia is good. Very good. Their home field is incredibly hostile. It would be the first playoff matchup between the two teams in Philadelphia since the 1980 NFC Championship Game. But I would take this. It would be a coin flip game, and could go either way. If Dallas loses a hard fought divisional game on a late score, we would of course all be sad, but I'm not sure if it could be classified as a let down. If they get blown out, or only lose due to the significant number of bullets they put in their feet like last year, then yes, we can say it would be a disappointment. Obviously if we win, it is a good result. And if Dallas ends up playing the Vikings/49ers/Seahawks in the Divisional Round, it would indeed be a massive disappointment if their NFC Championship Game drought continued. The only NFC team who can go toe to toe with this team should be Philadelphia, unless Brock Purdy turns into a Kurt Warner type player. Any loss before the Super Bowl, outside of a classic game in Philadelphia that we come out on the short end of, would straight up be underperformance at this point. Dallas has played to an extremely high standard so far. It is now up to them to continue that trend and live up to said standard.
But What About?
Can anything get in the way of these expectations? Of course. Injuries to key players would be severely damaging. In order of importance, I'd say if Dallas lost Dak Prescott, Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs, CeeDee Lamb, or DeMarcus Lawrence, things would be rather dire. Yes we survived one bout without Dak, but the defense carried so much of that load and the bottom line is, you will need to score points at some point in the playoffs, especially against Philly, and that isn't happening without QB1. Obviously, penalties can still rear their ugly head. If Dallas plays an extremely undisciplined game in the playoffs, bad things will happen. Their run defense has been better of late, but it is possible they might run into a team that treats them the way the 2018 Rams did. Pass protection is an issue, although one they seem able to scheme around, and pass defense might become an exploitable area in spite of the pass rush and Trevon Diggs. And obviously, they very likely will have to vanquish the GOAT in round 1. As the poor Saints saw on Monday, you can't leave even an ounce of life in his team at any point, or he will find a way to bring his team back. To kill him, you have to poor it on from start to finish, and never let up.
The team has flaws and obstacles that stand in the way of greatness, but no team in the league is perfect right now, and no weakness seems to be glaring enough to disqualify Dallas from being looked at as a legitimate title threat.
Do you know how scary that is? Going from feeling like Dallas will never get over the hump to the point that I am writing about their incompetence in September, to now seeing them as a clear top 2 team in the conference in December? To once again allow myself to hope, to dream, to... believe? I'm scared. Heck, I'm terrified. Because I know the numbers say that no matter how good my team is, there are 4-5 other teams just as good, and only one of them will end up on top.
To finish off this jumbled mess of a fan post, I will say that against all the odds, going into the season and especially after week 1, this team is a bona fide Super Bowl contender. It would be shocking if someone else other than them or Philadelphia wins the NFC. They have the opportunity. They have the talent.
Bring it on. The odds say Dallas will come up short. I choose to believe, ridiculously, that Dallas can finally defy the odds. And I know I will almost definitely end up staring dejectedly at the TV screen from my couch, wondering what could have been, telling myself I will never get sucked in again yet knowing deep down that that is what I said last time, the time before that, and so on.
I don't know if this is finally the year. But I do know it can be. And that is an exhilarating, terrifying feeling. That is fandom.
And I wouldn't trade it for the world.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Go Cowboys.