After their 3rd straight disappointing 8-8 season last year that saw their defense rank dead last in yards allowed, the Cowboys headed into the off-season surrounded by a lot of question marks. Would Tony Romo be able to come back effectively from back surgery? Could the Cowboys ever return to glory with a meddling owner? Did they miss their window of opportunity? Can their defense stop a turtle running through mud with two broken legs? Are they washed up? Will Jerry Jones throw in the towel, sell the team to Colonel Sanders, and let him rename them the Kentucky Fried Chickens?
Ok, I may have made that last one up. The point is, there were a lot of doubts and uncertainties in Big D, and much like Colonel Sanders, most people thought they were dead and gone. Making matters worse, an already putrid defense would be entering the 2014 season without their two best defenders. Sean Lee blew out his knee and DeMarcus Ware was a cap casualty and ventured off to Peyton’s Place. All signs pointed towards their rapid demise and an absolutely dreadful upcoming 2014 season.
The beginning of the 2014 season did nothing to dispel those concerns. A 28-3 halftime deficit to the 49ers in their opener had most Cowboys fans face-palming while mumbling to themselves “And so it begins.” Sure enough, halftime of their opener did in fact mark the beginning… but not of their demise, rather of their sudden resurgence. They came out of the tunnel for the second half and promptly turned a blowout into a respectable loss, and then proceeded to rattle off 4 straight wins to move to 4-1. However, with a trip to Seattle to face the mighty reigning champion Seahawks next up on the schedule, the critics still weren’t convinced. With wins against the Titans, Rams, yet-to-click Saints, and Texans, NFL pundits and armchair quarterbacks alike were all still saying “Let’s see them beat a REAL team.”
Well… that’s exactly what they did. They not only beat the defending champion Seahawks, they manhandled and dominated them in their own house, nearly doubling them in both time of possession and total yards. Offensively, they moved the ball at will all afternoon, while holding the seemingly uncontainable Russell Wilson to a mere 126 yards on the defensive side of the ball. Had it not been for Seattle’s special teams play (a first quarter blocked punt for a touchdown, and Percy Harvin’s 142 kick return yards giving them good field position throughout the day), this game would’ve looked VERY ugly on the scoreboard to Seahawk fans. After all the off season question marks, uncertainties, and doubts, the Cowboys found themselves leaving Seattle as the hottest team in the league at 5-1, a mark matched only by the Eagles and Chargers.
The Cowboys answered the bell, and the questions quickly changed from “how bad are they going to be” to “how did they turn it around so quickly?” While many are pointing to Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, and the no name defense’s improved play, or even Dez Bryant’s new found maturity, the real reason lies in a much less heralded place… the offensive line. Much like the powerhouse teams they had in the 90’s, the offensive line is doing most of the work while the money position players are getting all the credit. Arguably the best in NFL history, their offensive line in the early 90’s dominated defenses so much they made Emmitt Smith look like he could walk on water, and gave Troy Aikman enough time to survey the field, make a sandwich, wash it down with a beer, and then disperse the ball accordingly to whoever the inevitable open receiver was.
The 2014 version isn’t quite THAT good, but they’re quietly making their case to be considered among the best offensive lines in the NFL today, and they’re directly responsible for the vastly improved play of not only the Cowboys as a team, but also of individual players such as Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray, Dez Bryant, and Terrence Williams. They’re bowling over and wearing out opposing defenses, creating holes and running lanes for DeMarco Murray, and giving Romo all sorts of time to allow Dez Bryant and Terrence Williams to get open. The play calling also took a huge leap forward with Scott Linehan calling the shots instead of incompetent play caller Jason Garrett, otherwise known as Jerry’s Puppet. Linehan plays right into his team’s strengths and has remained committed to the running game. DeMarco Murray is taking full advantage and running wild. He became only the second player in NFL history (Jim Brown) to rush for 100 yards in all of his team’s first 6 games. and he’s on a pace to challenge Eric Dickerson’s all time yards in a season record. His injury history suggests he won’t be able to maintain this workload, but even in limited attempts as his backup, Joseph Randle has rushed for 7.1 yards per carry, another testament to the offensive line, but it also points to the fact that they won’t have any trouble running the football if they scale back Murray’s touches. A lot of credit also needs to be given to Rod Marinelli for taking the worst defense in football and devising schemes that has them playing with relevance again.
Cowboy fans have a lot to rejoice about, and if their upcoming schedule is any indication, more good things are to come. Starting this Sunday, they kick off 3 straight home games vs the Giants, Redskins, and Cardinals, before finishing up at Jacksonville before their bye. Those are all should-win games, so they could feasibly find themselves sitting at 9-1 heading into their bye. Even if they flub up one or two of those games, there isn’t anyone on earth that could’ve predicted at the beginning of the season that they’d be 8-2 or 7-3 headed into their bye… not even Jerry Jones. The going gets a little tougher after the break. They play at the Giants, which is tough, but after a long rest is also a very winnable game. Then they’re at home vs Philly on Thanksgiving. History says they play well on Thanksgiving, and the home team in every Thursday game this year has won across the NFL, but that will be a tough game for them on short rest. The following week they’re at Chicago in another Thursday game, which again, will be tough because nobody in the league has won an away Thursday game yet this season. However, coming off a previous Thursday game does still give them a full week to prepare. Then comes their two toughest games (on paper) of the season… at Philly, and at home vs Indy, before closing out at Washington. Even if they pull off the four straight should-win games before the bye to move to 9-1, they come out of the break with 4 straight tough games, which gives Cowboy haters some hope because if they falter during that stretch, they’ll be able to talk about how Romo always folds down the wire every year. On the flip side of that, if they win the should-win games, home field advantage throughout the playoffs may be within reach if they fare well against Philly when they play them twice in 3 weeks. The 49ers will probably have a lot to say about that, and possibly Detroit if they can make it through their Calvin-less stretch without collapsing, but just the fact that we’re even talking about the playoffs at all, no less potential home field advantage is quite remarkable considering the endless uncertainties and question marks that surrounded them entering the season.