Cowboys’ 10 steps to the playoffs

IRVING, Texas – The Cowboys have been relegated to being non-postseason participants since 2009. Here’s 10 Steps To The Playoffs that will change all of that.

10. This team’s "best player" is its offensive line. "We’re going to run the football," coach Jason Garrett pledges. "We’re going to run it early. We’re going to run it in the middle. And we’re going to run run it late."

The stated philosophy was met with skepticism given the DNA of the decision-makers, including Garrett and QB Tony Romo. But new playcaller Scott Linehan (with his own rep as a throw-first coordinator) has been steadfast about relying on this team’s "best player" – an offensive line led by a trio of first-round 23-year-olds, left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin.

The proof of their dominance is in the odd numbers: At St. Louis in Week 3, the Cowboys trailed 21-0 but came back to win 34-31 while executing 29 running plays to 23 passing plays. That’s all-but unheard of, as teams usually attempt to "hurry" their way back into games by throwing.

The proof of their dominance is also in the film room: Smith, Frederick and Martin, along with Ron Leary and Doug Free, aren’t just trying to screen opponents. They are trying to bully them, to steal their lunch money, to swipe their manhood.

9. Don’t be spooked by October. Coming into last week and dating all the way back to 2002, the Cowboys were 4-7 in the first games of October. The Cowboys haven’t started 4-1 since 2008, and regardless of the seasons, since 2010 a Jason Garrett-coached team won the second of consecutive home games just once in eight tries.

Those numbers are turning around now, and following the challenge of playing at Seattle this week, they can continue to turn. After the Seahawks game, the Cowboys play three straight games at AT&T Stadium in which they’ll likely be favored (against the Giants and Redskins to close October and then the Cardinals) and a fourth game on Nov. 9 against the lowly Jaguars in London, where the British crowd will make that feel like a homecoming.

Last year’s Cowboys, mediocre as they were, swept the four games against the Giants and Redskins. Arizona is solid but hamstrung by quarterback problems. And the Jags are the Jags.

This is the right time of the year to store up wins for winter in ways this decade’s editions of the team have rarely done.

8. Don’t Eat The Cheese. When Bill Parcells coached in Dallas, he continued the use of a motivational slogan and ploy he’d perfected elsewhere: "Don’t Eat The Cheese." It’s meant to imply that teams shouldn’t get fat on their press clippings and praise, lest they fall into the waiting trap. At Valley Ranch, Parcells would literally place mousetraps throughout the facility – in the meeting rooms, the hallways and the restrooms – to remind players of the philosophy. Parcells is gone but the concept resonates for Garrett, who has his own lifelong philosophy he uses in his own catchphrase: "Only concern yourself with things within your control."

The Cowboys don’t control the cheese. But as the praise rolls in, they can control whether or not they get fat on it.

Better, really, to follow the lead of Rolando "Reclamation" McClain, who says, "I felt (the Cowboys in training camp were) a group of guys who were hungry. I was hungry, I’d been out of the league for a while, and they were hungry so it all fit together."

Hunger for wins. Not cheese.

7: Keep It Close. And then let Dan Bailey win it.

The Cowboys kicker entered Sunday’s game against Houston with an NFC East-record 29 straight field-goal makes. The mark extended to 30 during the game … and then halted when Bailey was wide left on a 53-yard try at the end of regulation.

"I guess all good things must come to an end," Bailey told FOX Sports Southwest after the game. "But the good thing is, you can always start again."

And he did so with the game-winning FG in overtime, extending another streak: Bailey is Dallas’ all-time leader in game-winning kicks with nine.

"The guy’s pretty damn good," coach Jason Garrett said. And 31 out of the last 32 times, the guy’s been a perfect weapon to keep Dallas in the close ones.

6: Eliminate the "home-field disadvantage." AT&T Stadium is a must-see football mecca, a vacation destination, and an expensive ticket. Therefore, too often this year, 49ers fans, Saints fans and Texans have gobbled up enough tickets to erase the edge a home team is supposed to have. On Sunday, Dallas’ offense had to go to some silent counts because of the crowd noise being created by fans of the visiting team.

"We played on the road today in this football game," said QB Tony Romo. "We need to tighten up selling our tickets. … We need to do a better job as a fan base.”

It could be argued that the Cowboys need to do a better job as a football team so as not to be a perennial .500 also-ran. But … at 4-1, they seem to be doing that now.

5. Hold on for the defensive cavalry. Linebacker Bruce Carter (groin) missed the Houston game and running mate Rolando McClain (hamstring/groin) left early. Their health is critical to where Dallas has been and where it is going, but the first line of defense is where the cavalry might really be coming. End Anthony Spencer is playing his way back into form after a year of rehab following microfracture knee surgery. Tackle Henry Melton is doing the same after missing all of last season. Those two players have Pro Bowls on their resumes. Tackle Josh Brent is eligible to play in Week 10. Rookie end DeMarcus Lawrence (foot) should be healthy for the second half of the season.

On paper, that’s an entire starting defensive line — Spencer, Melton, Brent and Lawrence — that could play together in the final month-and-a-half of the regular season … a whole new group of "Rushmen" to add to coordinator Rod Marinelli’s waves of fresh talent.

4: A star QB as a supplementary player. For so many years, the Cowboys have asked Tony Romo to be an ungodly combination of Staubach, Aikman, Brady and Steve Young. Owner Jerry Jones has foolishly compared Romo to Peyton Manning in terms of intellectual devotion to the cause. And they’ve asked him to be Houdini, too. Even coming off two straight offseasons of back surgeries, Romo at 34 retains some of his magic, and he has two late-game-winning drives in Dallas’ first five games. But Romo himself says of this offense, "In my time in the NFL this is as complete a unit as I’ve been a part of." That completeness frees the QB to sometimes simply be a "bus driver," to minimize the demands on Romo and to therefore minimize the mistakes that he is rightly or wrongly infamous for. "I think that’s a compliment to your football team," says Romo’s pal, tight end Jason Witten, "when your star quarterback can be a secondary option."

3. "Stack Good Days On Top Of Good Days." This is another Garrett philosophical nugget that, when followed, keeps players, coaches and staff focused on their immediate task. It’s born of Jason and his brothers being raised by a coach, retired Cowboys scout Jim Garrett, who preached this sort of rosy/corny mindset. But it’s also born of Garrett growing up at Valley Ranch as a player and being surrounded by the distractions that came with being part of the ’90’s Super Bowl Cowboys. Those teams were all three rings of a "circus atmosphere," but even today — with controversial owner Jerry Jones, contract issues with Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray and even the coach himself, and the 24-second news cycle that knows anything Cowboys is headline news — the mindset applies.

Don’t worry about contracts. Don’t concern yourself with what the media says. Don’t even pay too much attention to the owner’s hyperbolic approach to football.

Just "Stack Good Days On Top Of Good Days."

2. Follow the new leaders. When a team doesn’t win — or goes 8-8 for three straight seasons — outsiders question its leadership. That’s foolishly insulting to a man like longtime leadership fixture Jason Witten, but this much is true: The Cowboys now supplement Witten (and others) with a new generation of leaders. DeMarco Murray (who now stands with Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson as the only players in NFL history to start their first five games of a season with 100 yards rushing in each) leads with an unflappability that matches his NFL-best production. Dez Bryant and Orlando Scandrick lead with passion. Dan Bailey and linebacker Justin Durant seem like unlikely team captains, but their teammates selected them.

And Rolando McClain, the speak-softly-big-stick middle linebacker?

"Some of us are rah-rah guys," end Jeremy Mincey says. "But Rolando … he leads with his pads."

1.Beat the Eagles. Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly gets oodles of credit for "reinventing football" but the truth is, these two teams have been neck-and-neck in both his seasons with the Eagles. "Reinventing football"? In Week 4 of this season, the aged Romo had more rushing yards than Eagles superback LeSean McCoy. Last year, the "worst-in-history" Cowboys defense had stats that were essentially mirrored by Philly and the Eagles’ vaunted offense scored 27.6 points per game to Dallas’ 27.4.

The Cowboys split their two games with Philly last year, the difference-maker coming in Week 17, Dallas’ third straight season-ending "NFC East Championship Game." Final score, Eagles 24, Dallas (led by Kyle Orton in the stead of the injured Romo) 22.

Two points away.

Dallas plays host to the Eagles on Thanksgiving and then travels to Philly for the rematch two weeks later. Make up those missing two points from a year ago, and the Cowboys — non-postseason participants since 2009 — complete their 10 Steps To The Playoffs.