It’s Time to Take the Cowboys Seriously
We’ve all snickered at the Cowboys.
We did it to owner Jerry Jones, whose insistence on being general manager only seemed to create problems—to say nothing of his willingness to speak anytime a microphone is stuck in his face.
We did it to Jason Garrett, who defined mediocrity by leading Dallas to 8-8 seasons in each of his first three years as coach. He always seemed one step behind the opposition and playing not to lose, which just doesn’t get the job done in the NFL.
And we did it to Tony Romo, whose chronic late-game gaffes always seemed to undermine the quarterback’s prolific statistics. “Sure, Romo has thrown for 350 yards and four touchdowns,” television viewers would say to themselves, “but he’ll blow it. He always does.”
It’s not just fans and the media who anticipate the other shoe dropping on an annual basis. An NFL player in the thick of the playoff race said to me last week, “Can’t wait to see how the Cowboys screw it up this time.”
This time—well, this time just might be different.
After seeing their postseason hopes dashed in each of the past three years, the Cowboys locked up the NFC East crown on Sunday with a 42-7 demolition of Andrew Luck’s Colts, Dallas's third straight emphatic victory. The jeering is over.
Jones deserves to be the toast of the town, a role he always relishes. It’s no laughing matter to say he should be on the short list for NFL executive of the year. It was Jones’s decision (along with the rest of his front office) to rebuild the offensive line, sticking to the team’s plan by using three first-round picks since 2011, including day one starting guard Zack Martin this year, on a unit that hadn’t been bolstered by a first-day selection since 1981. In 2010 Jones saw through the rumors and drafted Dez Bryant, fostering an environment where the wideout could flourish. Jones also signed defensive tackle Henry Melton as a free agent despite the fact that he was coming off off ACL surgery; Melton has been a key cog. And the Cowboys traded for middle linebacker Rolando McClain, who was out of football last season after wearing out his welcome Oakland and Baltimore. He’s merely turned into the heart of the surprising defense.
Of course, the Cowboys’ coaches also deserve accolades. The combination of offensive coordinator/line coach Bill Callahan and passing game coordinator Scott Linehan has been nothing short of brilliant. Callahan was the play-caller a year ago (with Garrett dabbling as well), but he unselfishly (although not happily) stepped aside to allow Linehan, one of the league's best game-planners, to come aboard. It’s no wonder that Dallas’ offense is so well choreographed. With Callahan free to devote his time to a young line and running back DeMarco Murray, the Cowboys’ running game has been remarkably consistent, gaining at least 100 yards in 13 of 15 games (Dallas rushed for more than 90 in each of the other two).
The offensive line has executed the Cowboys’ zone blocking scheme at a high level—so well that starters Tyron Smith, Ronald Leary, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin and Doug Free (along with steady subs Mackenzy Bernadeau and Jermey Parnell) all deserve mention. Their play has allowed Linehan and Romo to direct an offense that takes stress off the quarterback. Not only is Romo finding himself in better down-and-distance situations, but opposing defenses also have to devote so many resources to stopping Murray that passing lanes are now more open. (Romo leads the league with a 112.2 passer rating on play-action, according to ProFootballFocus.com.)
The run-game prowess is balanced by the passing game. With Bryant and Terrence Williams, Dallas has two viable outside threats, and Cole Beasley is an emerging move-the-chains slot receiver. Tight end Jason Witten is no longer the player he once was, but he remains effective; the Cowboys, with Gavin Escobar, can also load up with two tight ends depending on their opponent.
Thanks to the Cowboys’ offense tilting their time of possession—they’re third after ranking No. 26 last season—the defense’s time on the field has gone from 30:58 in 2013 to 27:43 this year. But don’t view the unit’s success as an offshoot of mere offensive production. Coordinator Rod Marinelli breathed new and passionate life into a defense that was a disaster last season under Monte Kiffin (32nd in yards and 26th in points allowed) and looked as if it might get worse after DeMarcus Ware (release) and Jason Hatcher (free agent) departed and injuries hit starting linebackers Sean Lee and Justin Durant and cornerback Morris Claiborne. The Cowboys still don’t have the most talented defense, and there are times when they struggle, but they’ve shown they can more than survive by swarming the ball and playing relentless, physical football. Marinelli’s simplified scheme allows defenders to think less and play more instinctively.
At one point, this season looked to be on the verge of another collapse. After a 6-1 start, back-to-back home losses to Washington and Arizona signaled weakness. And then the Eagles carved Dallas up a few weeks later on Thanksgiving, a 33-10 loss at that dropped the Cowboys to 8-4. All signs pointed to another disastrous December in Big D.
But then the Cowboys went to Chicago (a 41-28 win) and to Philadelphia (a 38-27 win) and came home to play the Colts (a 42-7 win). It was the second game against the Eagles that proved these aren’t the same old Cowboys, and it showed why they’ll be tough to beat in the playoffs.
The Eagles scored 24 straight points to take 24-21 lead late in the third quarter. But Dallas answered with a 78-yard touchdown drive comprising eight plays, with large chunks gained through the air (two 22-yard passes from Romo to Bryant) and on the ground (a 22-yard run by Murray). Three plays after retaking the lead on Murray’s two-yard run up the middle, Dallas picked off an errant Mark Sanchez pass. Four plays after that, Romo connected with Bryant on a touchdown that put the Eagles—and the Cowboys' own ghosts—away.
We’ve all had our fun over the years with Jones, Garrett and Romo, and much of the snickering was merited. But it’s time to get serious: The Cowboys are no longer anything to laugh at.
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