With each passing week, it becomes apparent to those of us that thought we knew this organization, that the 2014 Dallas Cowboys are a new team. That means, in short, everything you think you know about Cowboys football needs to be updated. Everything that we think we knew, amazingly, is wrong.
More proof was on display yesterday, as the Cowboys found themselves in a hard-hitting street-fight against their familiar foe, the New York Giants. The game contained all of the normal trappings of a rivalry contest, where the road team rolls in determined to knock the streaking upstart off the tracks.
You could see the Giants attempt to apply the physicality to stopping the Cowboys run, and momentarily, they did offer some resistance. The Cowboys had to stay committed and exercise the self-belief of a side that knows their identity and the reality that on some occasions, the results may not manifest themselves within the first hour of the battle. They also had to play the game without their offensive line completely intact, as attrition has taken Doug Free away for several weeks. In steps veteran reserve Jermey Parnell and on the first snap of the game he rides Mathias Kiwanuka 10 yards into the secondary with ease. From there, especially on running downs, he generally looked comfortable and capable. Next man up? 78 was staying ready for his chance and the Cowboys kept their physical posture.
That is notable as we try to identify who these Cowboys really are. We are not familiar with a team that imposes its physical will on its foes with routine and purpose. The Cowboys from around these parts in recent years have never sustained this identity from week to week, so please forgive the many cynics who have been waiting (and maybe still are) for the "old Cowboys" to reemerge. Those old Cowboys had an identity, but it was of the undesirable variety. It was the identity that said that if you smack them in the face, they will flinch and duck for cover.
But, Parnell jumps in with Martin, Frederick, Leary, and Smith and the power kept coming. By the end of the day, the Giants were just another brick in the path to the playoffs. The Cowboys running game - with the talented DeMarco Murray rolling up the stats - has now shown its face in 7 out of 7, with every game comfortably over 100 yards (the low game this season was 123 yards at St Louis) and every carry comfortably averaging over 4 yards (the low game for average yards per carry has been 4.24). They started against San Francisco with 23 carries in the opener, but since that first forgettable game, they have averaged 35.3 carries per game.
Let's do the simple math - 35 carries every game that averages 165 yards per game is dominant at nearly 4.7 yards per carry. They are telling you what they plan on doing all week, the opponent decides that they must load up to stop it with all of their resources, and the team is still having great success?
Again, who are these guys?
The best beneficiary of this style of offense is open to debate. Who has their job made easier when the Cowboys grind your defense into a fine powder with this pounding attack? Is it the defense or the quarterback? You could make quite a case for the defense that needed protection as bad as any unit in football in 2013? There is no question that the defense's resurgence is a direct byproduct of this might. Only once this year has the defense been asked to take 60 snaps in a game (the NFL average is about 65) and only once have they been asked to play anywhere close to 30 minutes. They fly to the ball every week and look like a pack of wild animals pursuing anything that moves when the ball comes anywhere near them. Stay fresh and play fast. It is more than a mantra for a Rod Marinelli defense. It is a demand.
But, what about the effects on the quarterback? Can it possibly be a coincidence that this Tony Romo we are seeing is looking as sharp and efficient as he has ever looked? As anyone who reads my material is well aware, I have sounded quite a few alarms about his declining numbers on an annual basis in his years since the major collarbone injury of 2010. He had appeared skittish, cautious, and risk averse. He was in some understandable mode of self-preservation as he was being asked to carry a team in a way that was unreasonable. His yards per attempt went from being the best in the business pre-2010 to pedestrian by 2013 (7.2) as his attempts per game were going higher and higher (2012 and 2013 are the highest attempts per game of his career).
Now, in 2014, just when people like me were fearing that the back to back surgeries on his back were going to rob us of his elite days altogether, he has bounced back with a string of consistently devastating games in which he is throwing the ball less, but when he does, the results are phenomenal. His attempts per game are the lowest of any full season as starter (30.6 per game) and his yards per attempt are the highest of any season (8.4) - which means that his QB rating is also the highest of his career.
That reminds us how football is all tied together in this game of cause and effect. The running game is not about raw running numbers, but rather it remains tied to the success of the passing game from a simple strategic standpoint. If the defense must dedicate troops forward to try to slow down the mashing zone game of the offensive line with a running back that nobody wants to tackle late in the game (business decisions everywhere!), then clearly they don't have a secondary filled with ball hawks who are looking to bait Romo into a throw only to jump the route and end the drive. They only have 11, and when they deploy too many in any one direction, your job as an offense gets easier and easier.
The true test of whether something can sustain over the course of the long haul is based on what defenses do when they have prepared to stop you. Anybody can run the ambush a time or two, but when word is out that you are pretty good at what you are trying to do, the defensive brains in the league start trying to find your issues. They want to poke and prod at your weaknesses until you are a mess again. And now that we are nearly to the half-way mark, I was very interested to see what Pete Carroll and Tom Coughlin's coaching staffs would come up with to simmer things down in Dallas. They often say that coaching staffs need 3 game films to get a beat on your tendencies and strengths to come up with the blueprint to take you down if it can be easily done.
Well, since that 3rd game, the Cowboys have played 4 more times. And all of the offensive production numbers have actually gone up. More total yards - the last 4 games have been the 4 most productive yardage games of the 7 - and the time of possession keeps on rising. Why? Because, the minds of the Cowboys knew how teams were going to react to the running attack, and easily decoded how to then counter that with an air attack that Romo has made look easy. Honestly, it has all been too easy so far.
The Giants put up a fair amount of resistance and the game was very much in doubt until the defense put an end to the game. I recently started describing the defense as playing a "confrontational" style. They are challenging every play with an energy that we might not be fully familiar with around here. The unit, made up largely of castoffs and rejects, continues to use that as the chip on their shoulder that they take personally. Good. Keep getting mad when people wonder who these guys are.
They jump routes and play with a swagger in the secondary because, honestly, since Marinelli has taken over the defense has not been burned for many home runs. It is much easier to have a confrontational identity in the secondary when you can barely remember the last giant play you have given up. With each week, their confidence grows and so does their aggressiveness.
Up front, they continue to get by. When you look at the NFL Top 50 for sacks, you will find 0 Dallas Cowboys. Well, that is only technically true. Actually, you will see DeMarcus Ware has 7 sacks (2nd in the NFL), Jeremiah (don't call him Jay) Ratliff has 3.5 and Jason Hatcher has 3. But, of course, they don't live or play here anymore. Henry Melton leads the Cowboys with 1.5 and 4 of his teammates each have 1. That pace certainly is disconcerting and badly needing a solution, but again, the defense is surviving somehow.
They are getting off the field on 3rd Down - as good as Eli Manning was for the game, he wasn't moving the chains at a suitable rate - and they were going for that football. In the 2nd half, they stripped the ball 3 different times, and if the officials did not butcher the call where Terrell McClain stole the ball from Andre Williams, that would have given Dallas the ball all 3 times.
McClain had the ball at impact in that sequence, and Williams was given the massive benefit of the doubt that the whistle saved him, despite merely having the tip of his elbow on the ball as McClain somehow had both hands on it. Granted, a crazy play, but if you are going to have replay, you might want to at least consider that McClain had the ball at the moment of the whistle.
As it turned out, after Romo hooked up with his new Touchdown machine Gavin Escobar, the defense kept going after the ball and Barry Church ripped it out of Larry Donnell's hands combined with a Justin Durant recovery with 11:05 to play in the final Quarter setting up the 4th score of the day when DeMarco crashed in to make it 28-14. And then, for good measure, the Cowboys won the turnover battle when Durant pulled the ball out again with 0:35 to play and Melton fell on it.
They are 6-1. They are winning games that are now defined as "team wins". They are not asking Romo to save their bacon, but to pick his spots and share the load.
I was asked last night to compare the Cowboys offensive style to any others in football in recent memory. A dominating line, a shifty and physical RB, a receiver that catches every big ball that goes to him, a TE who is just as damaging, and an opportunistic QB that brings it altogether.
Nobody wants to say they remind us of the 1990s Dallas Cowboys offense, because there is that issue with 4 years of solid winning that is missing. Yet, stylistically, if ever there seemed to be a cover band of that crew, it sure seems like the Cowboys are actually pulling it off for now. And, to be fair, if anyone has ever been accused of obsessively trying to recreate that crew (that most of us say cannot ever be recreated) it is the man who runs the entire organization.
At 6-1, none of us know where this thing is headed. But, when DeMarco/Emmitt is carrying the mail until a big 3rd down when Troy/Romo throws a slant to Dez/Irvin and the chains are moved again, it does make you wonder a bit...
Impossible. Just stop it. This team is totally different, taking you on a totally different journey.
And where it goes, nobody knows. But, it sure seems with each passing week it will at least have a real shot at more than 16 games this season.