When the New Orleans Saints and Dallas Cowboys last met, New Orleans trounced Dallas in embarrassing fashion, beating the daylights out of the Cowboys last Nov. 10 by a 49-17 score. The Saints posted an NFL-record 40 first downs and a franchise-record 625 total yards in that game, and it seemed to be yet another example of a tissue-thin Dallas team getting demolished by a better team.
Fast-forward to less than a year later, and in their 38-17 Sunday night win over those Saints, the Cowboys appeared to be a new kind of team by going with a very old-school approach -- a dominant run game, an opportunistic defense and efficiency at the quarterback position that one might not expect. Something else one might not expect is that of those two teams, it's the Cowboys who are 3-1, with the Saints now falling to 1-3.
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"I think we're a different team this year than we were last year," Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo told NBC Sports' Michele Tafoya after the victory. "Not everyone knows a lot of the guys' names, but they play hard, they play aggressive, and they work their butts off every day. They're committed to this on Wednesday and Thursday like you can't believe, and it's a testament to them and their work and the staff. We're just going to keep grinding away every week."
It's working for now, for sure. Here are three things from the game that stood out:
1. Dallas' investments in its offensive line are paying off.
We know the line on Jerry Jones: He pays too much for star positions, leaving depth issues elsewhere, and that's one of the main reasons why the Cowboys haven't been able to get over the .500 hump in recent years. That's true to a degree, but if you're going to bash the Jones front office for its prior fumbles, it's just as fair to throw a few flowers their way for the re-establishment of an offensive line that's the best we've seen from this franchise since the Jimmy Johnson glory years. Dallas is the only NFL team starting three first-round picks since 2011 on its line, and all three players are setting the tone for this offense.
Left tackle Tyron Smith, selected with the ninth pick in the 2011 draft, might just be the best player at his position in the NFL. Dallas took a lot of heat for selecting Wisconsin center Travis Frederick with the 31st pick in the 2013 draft when even Frederick didn't think he was a first-rounder, but he's also played very well. And Notre Dame's Zack Martin, a left tackle in college, has been a powerhouse as the Cowboys' right guard since he was taken with the 16th pick in the 2014 draft. Romo's pass protection has been far better this season, and DeMarco Murray became the first Dallas running back to rush for over 100 yards and score a rushing touchdown in each of his first four games since Emmitt Smith in 1995. He also leads the league in rushing with 534 yards and five touchdowns.
"I see a lot of clean holes," Murray told Tafoya when asked what he sees running behind that line. "There are a lot of times I'm not getting touched to the second level. I gotta do better at making guys miss to get past the trash, but those guys are blocking well, they're the hardest-working group on the team, and I'm excited to run behind them every day."
Perhaps the most stunning example of Dallas' line excellence in this game was Tony Romo's second touchdown pass to Terrance Williams with 19 seconds left in the first half. The Saints brought an all-out blitz with eight defenders, and Romo wasn't even touched by the time he made the throw. He didn't have a Saints defender within three yards of him. Yes, the Saints' defense is a hot mess, but Dallas has something to build on with its offensive line, and as much as that seems to be a very un-Jerry thing to do, the Cowboys have absolutely done it.
2. New Orleans' offense is in big trouble.
Since he became the Saints' head coach in 2006, Sean Payton has developed an entirely justified reputation as a masterful offensive playcaller, based as much on anything as his ability to get receivers open with formation concepts. But that hasn't been happening this season, and New Orleans' loss to Dallas on Sunday night was just the latest example. More and more, Saints receivers are trailed and trapped by opposing defenders, and nearly every catch seems contested.
What's odd about this phenomenon is that Payton probably has more receiver speed at his disposal than he's ever had, with Kenny Stills, rookie Brandin Cooks and tight end Jimmy Graham on the roster. But the specific routes for Graham, the deep slot routes for Stills, the purported route concepts for Cooks -- they just aren't happening. As a result, Drew Brees, who has been making his offensive lines look better than they are for years, is having to wait more often for receiver openings, and his decision-making is regressing fairly mightily at times.
One thing the Saints don't have for the first time in the Payton/Brees era is the satellite back who takes linebackers to places they don't want to go and opens the entire passing game as a result. It was Reggie Bush from 2006 through 2010, and Darren Sproles from 2011 through 2013. But with Bush in Detroit, and Sproles lighting it up in Philly, the Saints are left with a more traditional -- and less dynamic -- passing game. New Orleans was able to open it up a bit in the fourth quarter by going with spread formations and lining running back Khiry Robinson up against Dallas' depleted linebacker corps, but it wasn't sustainable. Nor has it been all season.
3. Good Romo is very good, indeed.
Remember the Cowboys' season opener, when Romo threw three first-half interceptions against the 49ers in a 28-17 loss? That was Bad Romo, the guy who looks like he belongs nowhere near a football field. Against the Saints, Romo was Good Romo, the one who throws perfect back-shoulder fades on the run, moves in the pocket with amazing elusiveness, and can make any throw from seemingly any angle. Romo finished with 22 completions in 29 attempts for 262 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He was helped immeasurably by the aforementioned pass protection, not to mention Murray's 149 yards on 24 carries.
"I think what we're finding is ... the Saints are a phenomenal team, great coaching staff," Romo said after the game. "They've always given us trouble. I think what you find is that to try to get rid of the fact that they're the Saints, and you just go play. You find that you execute, regardless of who you're going against. And when you do that, it makes the game very tight and simple, and you just go execute."
Is this the kind of different Dallas team that can finally get over that 8-8 hump? That remains to be seen, but the team we're seeing now certainly has some interesting flash and dash to go with impressive fundamentals.