The Dallas Cowboys will prove they aren’t just a flash in the pan, but can ride their 9-1 start to winning the NFC and perhaps even more.
It’s crazy how fast things can change in the NFL. Last season the Dallas Cowboys couldn’t buy a win with their starting quarterback Tony Romo sidelined due to injury. After a 4-12 finish, all the talk shifted to finding a suitable backup should he go down again to injury in 2016. According to most accounts, the Boys failed in this department. They didn’t get a veteran backup and they waited until the fourth round to find a rookie to groom as they selected Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott with the 135th overall selection.
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Originally Dak was supposed to be a third-string guy who would learn while watching the big boys play. Then the changes started coming. Backup Kellen Moore went down with a broken leg and Prescott was suddenly second string to Romo.
Again the cries poured out for America’s Team to get a veteran backup and again they decided it was better not to overpay for a guy another team didn’t want. So they stuck with Prescott and he made them look smart. After a couple of preseason games the fans were excited at the prospect of Prescott being the future of the franchise. He looked calm, poised and ready to play. Thankfully though, Romo was healthy and Dak could still continue to grow in those meaningless preseason games.
Or maybe not. More change came as Romo went down with a back injury and now the fate was in the hands of the kid who grew up rooting for the Cowboys. All Prescott has done since then is change the perception on rookie quarterbacks.
Entering Week 12 and their famed Thanksgiving Day game, Dallas has a nine-game winning streak and they sit atop the NFL with a record of 9-1. They are a complete team, despite being led by two rookies in Dak (who is officially the starter even with a healthy Romo) and first-round running back Ezekiel Elliott.
These two have given the fans hope. However, there seems to still be doubt about whether this is sustainable, whether or not this winning streak is for real. Teams like the Seattle Seahawks are being considered favorites out of the NFC above Dallas.
Here are five reasons that said hope is not misplaced and that the Dallas Cowboys are the best team in the NFC and can come out on top in the postseason.
Oct 30, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) motions for a first down in the first quarter against Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Leodis McKelvin (21) at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
No. 5 Ezekiel Elliott
With the fourth-overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys select, Ezekiel Elliott, running back out of Ohio State University.
Those words will be remembered by excited Cowboys fans for years. After watching the team struggle for portions of 2015 with Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden at running back, the fans and the team wanted something more.
Randle was always just another arrest waiting to happen and was cut before the year ended. McFadden was great at picking up huge yardage, but just didn’t cross the goal line enough. Dallas simply needed a game-changer to take pressure off the quarterback and that’s why they bucked the trend of avoiding running backs high and took the explosive Elliott.
After 10 games, they have to be thrilled they decided to do so. Zeke leads the NFL in rushing by more than 100 yards. The best part about that is the player in second place, former Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray, has played one more game. Murray and his Tennessee Titans teammates have not had their bye week, whereas Dallas has.
Elliott has 1,102 yards rushing with nine touchdowns. He’s added another 22 receptions for 280 yards and a score. He has a long rush of 60-yards and a long reception of 83 yards—and the latter was a thing of beauty in Week 10:
To top it off, Elliott is also one of the better blocking running backs in the NFL. His skill in pass protection has led to many completed passes by Prescott, who was afforded more time thanks to the savvy rookie.
Nov 13, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (90) and linebacker Justin Durant (56) sack Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) during the second half of their game at Heinz Field. The Cowboys won the game, 35-30. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports
No. 4 The Defense Wakes Up Eventually
Cowboys fans know watching their defense is akin to being on a roller coaster. They usually start games out by surrendering huge chunks of yards, which of course leads to scores. These lows are often countered by extreme highs where they suddenly learn to stop a team as the game goes on.
The most recent game is an example as the Baltimore Ravens went up 7-0 and almost had a 10-7 halftime lead had it not been for a stellar drive that sent it to the half knotted up at 10. The Ravens scored just one more time the rest of the game as the defense clamped down in the final 30 minutes.
Other examples of their defense waking up include shutting out the Cleveland Browns in the second half of their Week 9 win, as well as holding the Philadelphia Eagles to just three points in the final quarter after surrendering 20 in the first 45 minutes during a Week 8 win.
They were able to score fourth quarter shutouts against the Cincinnati Bengals in a Week 5 win, the San Francisco 49ers in a Week 4 win and the Washington Redskins in a Week 2 win. Even in their only loss of the season, the defense held the New York Giants to just seven points in the second half as they had a near come-from-behind win in their opening game.
No one will ever mistake these guys for being a great unit, but defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is a genius in terms of getting maximum effort out of his players and adjusting in-game. These guys will never be beat due to lack of effort and they are good enough at situational defense to win games.
Nov 6, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Cole Beasley (11) against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Cowboys won 35-10. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
No. 3 The Offensive Skill Players are Great
Rookie running back Zeke Elliott is a true MVP candidate. Wide receiver Dez Bryant is a household name as is tight end Jason Witten. Yet, those aren’t the only weapons this team has. If a defense focuses too much on any of those guys, quarterback Dak Prescott can deliver it to deep threats like receivers Terrance Williams or Brice Butler.
This happened twice in the past game. One play set up the first Dallas touchdown of the day as Butler got deep for a 41-yard gain. Later in the game Williams beat his guy and the defender got called for a pass interference as he had no other way of defending the deep ball thrown to T-Will.
However, none of the guys mentioned yet even leads the team in receptions. That honor belongs to their slot receiver Cole Beasley who has hauled in 53 receptions for 591 yards and five scores. He’s become a favorite target for Prescott and excels over the middle of the field on third-downs.
Players like running back Lance Dunbar and receiver Lucky Whitehead are also available to help change the pace of games. Dunbar is a great receiver out of the backfield and has 70 yards on just seven receptions in limited playing time.
Whitehead excels in motion and on jet sweeps. The second-year player has 65 yards on six rushes and 40 yards on two receptions. Simply put, this offense is stacked. And when you think you have one weapon shut down, they simply go to the next.
Sep 11, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys guard Zack Martin (70) and center Travis Frederick (72) and offensive guard La’el Collins (71) and tackle Tyron Smith (77) line up during the game against the New York Giants at AT&T Stadium. New York won 20-19. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
No. 2 The Offensive Line is Dominant
The Dallas Cowboys shifted their philosophy in 2011 when they selected USC tackle Tyron Smith with the ninth-overall selection. The big tackle was brought in to change their culture on offense.
They had become a finesse group that tried to win on talent alone. They would pay big money to players like receivers Roy Williams and Terrell Owens, yet ignore the offensive line. With that strategy constantly blowing up in their face, they decided it was time to feature a tough offensive line, like they had in the glory days of the 90s.
Smith is their cornerstone at left tackle and one of three first-round picks in the group. In 2013 they selected center Travis Frederick and again went with a lineman in Round 1 the following year taking right guard Zack Martin.
Those three guys are all arguably in the discussion for the best at their position and they have helped pave the way for three-straight 1,000 yard rushers in DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden and now Ezekiel Elliott.
Their unit is rounded out by a first-round talent in La’El Collins at left guard and the veteran of the group Doug Free at the right tackle spot. Collins, who fell out of the draft due to being questioned in a murder investigation (though he was never a suspect), has spent most of this season injured.
His replacement, Ron Leary has perhaps been even better than Collins was this season. Another undrafted kid, Leary brings amazing toughness to the running game and has kept these guys going without missing a beat after Collins went down. As the season wears on, this group will continue to take their toll on opposing defenses.
Nov 20, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) leaves the field after the game against the Baltimore Ravens at AT&T Stadium. Dallas won 27-17. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
No. 1 Trust in Dak
Every now and then football analysts say something really strange. The most recent Cowboys game was broadcast on CBS and Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts had the call. It was late in the second half with the Ravens leading 10-7 and time winding down.
The announcers began to discuss that the way Dallas handled the situation would show how much trust they had in Prescott. If they believed he could deliver for them, they would try and force the ball down field for a score. However, f they were hesitant to trust him, they would play it safe and go to the half.
This was such a short-sighted comment. The Cowboys have already showed their trust in Dak regardless of any play call. They showed that trust when they kept their franchise leader in passing yards and touchdowns on the bench in favor of him. You don’t bench 34,154 yards passing and 247 touchdowns if your faith is shaky. You don’t bench a guy making more than $20 million if you don’t believe his replacement can’t handle running your offense.
The Dallas Cowboys believed in Tony Romo even when no one else in the world did. They felt with all their heart that he was a top five quarterback in the entire NFL—and still decided Prescott was the better player for them. Such faith isn’t just felt by the coaches. It’s felt by the fans, teammates and even by Prescott himself.
Never has a rookie seemed so comfortable leading a team. He has the belief in himself to change plays at the line of scrimmage and the coaches have the faith in him to open up the entire playbook. That along with their amazing running back, great skill players, situationally sound defense and dominant offensive line makes the Dallas Cowboys 100 percent legitimate. Whether it’s the Seahawks, Giants, Atlanta Falcons, or anyone else in the NFC, America’s team is the best of the conference.
And they certainly can ride that to winning the NFC in the postseason—and a Super Bowl win as well.