Cowboys must overcome some familiar faces

IRVING, Texas – The Dallas Cowboys have been able to stay afloat over the past month based on an incredibly easy schedule that featured home games against the Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles. Now, they prepare to face one of the hottest teams in the AFC on the road.

The Bengals came out of October with a 3-5 record and it appeared that second-year quarterback Andy Dalton had taken a major step backwards. But head coach Marvin Lewis decided to challenge his quarterback in public and he asked him to stop hanging his head after poor plays. Giants observers probably recall the same thing happening to Eli Manning in 2006. After that season, new general manger Jerry Reese actually talked to Manning about being conscious of how his body language affected his teammates.

The Bengals have responded with four consecutive wins and now have a great shot at making the playoffs. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who once had that role for the Cowboys, has transformed the Bengals into one of the best pass-rushing units in the league. In fact, they currently lead the NFL with 39 sacks, 15 of which have come during this four-game winning streak.

Cowboys fans wouldn’t know what to do if their team went on that type of run. But Lewis wasn’t exactly pleased with how his team played in Sunday’s 20-13 win over the San Diego Chargers.

“Break up the glee club because we’ve got to do better,” Lewis told reporters this week. “It wasn’t good enough [on Sunday] — in a lot of areas. Everybody is patting them on their backs about what they’re doing. Well, we haven’t done anything. We just got back to even, and now we have to move forward. These last four are what counts.”

That sounds a lot like how Jimmy Johnson would’ve handled a similar winning streak in the early ’90s. Lewis has to overcome the same type of obstacles as Garrett and his predecessors because he works for an owner who fancies himself as a personnel expert. But with that said, the Bengals have been able to amass some big-time talent on both sides of the ball. Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray told on Wednesday this is the best front four the Cowboys have faced all season. He puts them right up there with the Giants in terms of talent. And the Bengals have been more productive than the Giants when it comes to sacking the quarterback.

If Jerry Jones decides to make a coaching change after this season, he could do a lot worse than Zimmer. Bill Parcells kept Zimmer as his defensive coordinator in 2003, but it was always an awkward relationship because Parcells preferred the 3-4 scheme. The Cowboys have been compromised on defense because of injuries, but it also hurts that Rob Ryan doesn’t have a sound approach. Zimmer has the talent to get to the quarterback with only four rushers, allowing him to be more creative on the back end. And Jones has a great relationship with Zimmer, as evidenced by his decision to give him a $500,000 raise to keep him from taking the Nebraska job in 2004.

Zimmer’s name has certainly come up before in coaching searches, but he hasn’t found the right fit. He’s gained the reputation for salvaging NFL careers, and we’re seeing that this season with former Cowboys cornerbacks Terence Newman and Adam “Pacman” Jones. I was a little stunned two weeks ago to see Jones breaking up passes across the middle from his nickel position. He and Zimmer clashed at first, but the defensive coordinator lobbied for the Bengals to re-sign Jones heading into this season. With Newman, Zimmer had to help restore the confidence that he’d lost in Dallas. Zimmer told us on KESN-FM 103.3 Wednesday that he asked Newman why he was playing so far off a wide receiver in a preseason game this season. He said Newman has responded to that challenge and has surprisingly emerged as one of his most durable players.

This week, Newman has indicated that he was disappointed that he wasn’t able to talk to Jerry Jones on his way out of town. But it doesn’t sound like he has much animosity toward an organization that took him sixth overall in the 2003 draft.

“I mean a person can be bitter all they want, but it’s not going to change anything,” Newman said during a conference call. “I mean, I’m happy, playing pretty well, winning football games, so that’s my No. 1 focus. There’s no reason for me to be bitter. It’s months and months after the fact. It is what it is.”

But if the Bengals win Sunday, something tells me Newman will be singing a different tune.