One reporter on TV Sunday night claimed that the Cowboys win in Seattle was at "arguably the toughest place to play in the NFL." I assume he said arguably because it made his paragraph flow better or he needed another word to fill out the assigned time of his piece. But, allow me to assist: There is nothing at all to argue.
The Cowboys win on Sunday in Seattle was as difficult a place to play and against as difficult an opponent as the 2014 NFL has to offer. There is no way to crank that degree-of-difficulty any higher between now and the playoffs. To beat the defending Super Bowl Champions in their "house of pain" without sneaking in there as a bad team on an "any given Sunday" ambush routine, and without a series of fluke plays to aid the victory - well, let's just say that the Cowboys were most pleased with the series of events.
What makes the game particularly pleasing, for those of us who never thought it would come to this, was the way in which it was earned. They had found success as an upstart this year by changing their identity completely. If you want to know why so many people who cover football for a living picked this team to win 5 or 6 games - and I am more than happy to admit to a 6-10 mark - look no further than the simple truism that tells us teams aren't capable of changing unless you overhaul the whole thing. At least not on this level.
You don't just go away for an off-season after years of finesse offense and then get back together the next September and suddenly maul teams up and down your schedule. For that to be possible, it generally requires a team to fire everyone and bring in a brand new administration to try to reshape what your franchise is all about. This is not merely about the Cowboys, it is true throughout the sport. And the history was clear. Nobody had less success running the football in the last 3 seasons combined than the Cowboys. Nobody.
They, attempted fewer runs than everybody in football over that span, and gained the 29th most yards with the 29th most touchdowns. The league leaders had tripled their totals and were so far off in the distance that the comparisons were pointless.
And now, this? The Cowboys suddenly have an identity of smash-mouth football where they take your fighting spirit away over the course of 3 hours of "ground and pound" and make you look dominated? You must forgive those of us who were taking a while to see if the sample size needed to grow before we believe what we are seeing. It was great to do this to Tennessee and St Louis, but there is still a pretty clear suspicion that the Seattle Seahawks will be sitting and waiting for you to try that at their house. They will surely have some answers to your difficult questions. Just wait.
And that is what makes the events of Sunday so difficult to believe. They played to their new identity almost perfectly. They ran the ball, kept their offense on the field, and took the crowd's energy away from them. They responded to body blows and countered them all day long. And maybe, most uncharacteristically of a Jason Garrett Dallas Cowboys team? They committed, for the second week in a row, errors that are normally fatal and then figured out a way to overcome them and still emerge with a victory.
If you don't mind me asking, "who are these guys?"
The Seahawks are the Super Bowl Champions who are used to the big game scene and to physically intimidating their opponents. And, by the way, they do it to everyone on their schedule, as you are well aware. Whether it is the San Francisco 49ers, the New Orleans Saints, the Green Bay Packers, or another so-called heavyweight of the conference, this Seahawks team has made a nice living following their recipe of eliminating your run offense and then ganging up to scare your passing game into submission. They don't allow you to stay balanced because if you want to run on the Legion of Boom, you will face a 3rd and 12 against that defense and their crowd and right after that your punt team will come on to the field.
Then, their defense gets the ball back at advantageous spots on the field for their well conceived and stocked offense to take over. Seattle absolutely has a scheme that favors their personnel and with the Cowboys defense, it was easy to see why they should not have much trouble picking apart their opponent in this match-up. Their scheme which plays off the power of the offensive line and the zone read option to hand the ball to Marshawn Lynch is made lethal by the counters off of that concept which include a QB who makes the right decision almost all of the time and terrifyingly fast skill position players. The second an opponent decides to over-align to stop the power, the speed is unleashed. But, if you sit on the speed too much with too many, well, then the power just marches down the field. And, the moment you think you have both covered, then Russell Wilson fires a pass downfield to a target who you gave a step and the consequences are lethal.
So, if you thought for even a moment that the Cowboys defense was prepared to eliminate all of those threats - even if Bruce Carter is unavailable - then you are one optimistic loyalist. But, for everyone else, it was a matter of just trying to compete on this afternoon and to keep your team as healthy as possible for the upcoming home stand.
Moral victories would have been allowed in this setting. It is at Seattle. A place where they have lost just 1 home game in 3 seasons.
Seattle scored just 3 points yesterday by driving the ball from their territory. Those 3 were on the opening drive of the game which would be the only drive of the game in which they would accumulate more than 39 yards. I hope you realize how insane that truth really is.
They also, of course, tried to hand the game to Seattle via special teams. The special teams of the Cowboys have generally been a positive unit under 2nd year coach Rich Bisaccia, but he will have plenty of extra homework for his guys this week as they surrendered a punt block for a touchdown in the 1st Quarter followed by a 3rd Quarter muffed punt by Dwayne Harris that set up the Seahawks to take over the game when they badly needed a lifeline.
The blocked punt looked like the start of a very long day as Doug Baldwin snuck to the left flank and nobody accounted for him off the edge. He had such a great run at punter Chris Jones that he almost blocked the punt with his stomach. From there, Mike Morgan scooped it up and ran it in for a Touchdown to make it 10-0 Seattle, in a moment made all the worse since Tony Romo looked like he was injured on the play before by Bobby Wagner. This meant that Romo would have no time to catch his breath before he had to go right back onto the field and faced a double-digit deficit.
What happened next shaped the day - and who knows right now if it will shape the entire season? Down 10-0, they simply cranked up their running game and marched down the field with contributions from seldom-used pieces Lance Dunbar, Joseph Randle, and Gavin Escobar. They showed might, determination, and power as they took a bonkers stadium and an amped up opponent and quieted everything down despite having a QB who looked like he might be more seriously hurt than he showed. It was a response that seemed to send a clear message that they weren't going to go quietly into the night. The Cowboys were here for a serious battle and that drive sent the message loud and clear.
From there, the methodical nature of this Cowboys victory is difficult to properly appreciate, except to say it is more of the same that we have seen in 2014. More, difficult to conceive football that has most of us who were in Oxnard at this past training camp trying to check our notes to see what we missed.
Is it the new coordinators that have made it all work? Is Scott Linehan this much of a football genius that he is able to see the solutions to problems that have existed for years and years? Is Rod Marinelli taking 11 ordinary defenders and deploying them in a way that allows them to overcome any talent deficiencies?
And where do we credit Jason Garrett in all of this? I think it is fair to say that as a head coach, Garrett should be credited for how his team responds on Sundays to adversity that arrives. And, for that, he has found a way to get his team to shake their identity through 6 weeks of being the team that would always find a way to lose. Whether it is the Houston game last week, or this now famous win in Seattle, the team seems to shake off a horrific moment and still keep working. And there were plenty to choose from yesterday.
The blocked punt. The Harris fumble. The Travis Frederick-Romo shotgun debacle that Seattle recovered. Even the opportunity Kyle Wilber had for a Pick-6 on that ensuing drive were all moments where we could have been pointing to this morning about the Cowboys not being mature enough to win a game like this. They gave away 17 points and lost the turnover battle in Seattle to a team that routs teams that make mistakes.
And they still won.
When you go back and view this game carefully a 2nd time (why wouldn't you do that?) you will see that the Cowboys passed nearly every test you could ever ask of them in a Week 6 clash with the defending champion. Can you run the ball physically? 37 runs for 162 yards (4.4 per carry). Can you keep your defense off the field? Dallas 70 plays, Seattle 48. Can you control the clock? Dallas 37:39, Seattle 22:21. Can you win 3rd Downs? Dallas converted 10 3rd Downs, Seattle 5. Can you win in the Red Zone? Dallas 3 TDs in 4 trips. Seattle, 1 in 3.
And that is what strikes me this morning as I sift through the details. There is almost no direction you can view this game from and not come away impressed by this upstart squad. They went into Seattle and demonstrated on the largest of stages that they are the real deal and a team to take seriously this year. The narratives are going to be written by whoever wishes to write them, but this team is not winning because they are getting less from their QB. Tony Romo is putting some of his best performances out there in this last month. He is transforming before our very eyes (at an age where QBs seldom transform) into an efficient, yet lethal, play-maker. That 3rd and 20 play to Terrance Williams is just another fantastic, jaw-dropping play from the QB in as many weeks.
And maybe that is why this season is starting to feel different than so many before it. This finally looks like a team around Romo. Ironic, I am sure, that it was proven yesterday on the same field where he was given his reputation by the national press back in 2006 for being a "choke artist". Also, ironic, I am sure, that it was the same field where Seattle and Dallas crossed paths in 2012 as Seattle was emerging as an NFC power while Dallas was still running in place.
Where do they go from here? Well, the script is still being written and I am sure it will have many twists and turns. But, it now appears clear that the Cowboys ceiling is much higher than first thought by many (including me). They are capable of beating any team on their schedule in any setting.
They proved that much yesterday.