Monday, September 26, 2016

The Morning After - Beating Down The Bears

The Dallas Cowboys have accomplished something that has proven to be next to impossible for the organization in the Tony Romo era.  They have won consecutive games without him. 
This is not because they have not been afforded the opportunity.  They actually have had this chance on many, many occasions.  Romo's fatal flaw has been his ability to stay fit, and while there are actually people that argue that this is some sort of "media creation", the fact is that Romo has not been able to make every start since 2012 and just four times in his ten full seasons at the helm. 
That is why you would think that the organization would have taken this "QB2" role about as seriously as anyone during that stretch.  They needed help in 2008 (3 games), 2010 (11 games), 2013 (one, but arguably the one that mattered most), 2014 (2 games), 2015 (parts of 14 different games), and now the first 6 weeks or so in 2016. 
They have had plenty of convincing pieces of evidence that they may wish to invest more heavily in this insurance policy, but to be fair to the team, there are more than a few organizations that can't even find a starting QB.  It clearly is a position in sports where the demand far outweighs the supply.  Instead of purchasing insurance, they hoped that Romo could just stay healthy.
All of the gnashing of teeth on this topic has continued through August of 2016.  In fact, on the day Kellen Moore was injured (August 2, 2016), I offered these - now foolish-looking - thoughts about the young man who has become the Cowboys new hopeI want Dak Prescott to accomplish great things here.  But, based on his college tape and even a few practices in Oxnard, I think it is safe to say we are talking a few years - not a few weeks - before he is prepared to play meaningful snaps around here.  He has tons of interesting components to his game, but the adjustments to NFL speeds and sizes will be a hurdle for him, and his accuracy will need to be improved.  We knew that.  That is why he lasted so long in the draft.  He was not picked for 2016.
I believed that then and I even went on to suggest Jameill Showers had some interesting upside that the team may now want to consider. 
Regardless, 54 days seems like a lifetime.  Not only are the Cowboys winning with Dak Prescott as their quarterback, you can pretty easily make the argument that they are winning because of him. 
And that is a rare accomplishment.  Despite the fact Romo has given them well over 30 chances to play without him, this is only the second time during that stretch that they posted back-to-back wins.  The first time came in the first two games that Jason Garrett was the head coach of the Cowboys -- back in 2010 when they won his debut at Giants Stadium with Jon Kitna (in a game remembered for SMU's Bryan McCann returning an interception 101 yards), and then rolled the Detroit Lions the next week back at home (in a game remembered for SMU's Bryan McCann returning a punt 97 yards for a touchdown).  Oh, you don't remember our guy, McCann?  Well, it is true.  All of it.
Now, back to this 2016 version, which is out of the gate at a very acceptable 2-1.  You might suggest they haven't played the heavyweights on their schedule, but I will remind you that this year's schedule is not going to resemble 2015.  There is no visit scheduled from both Super Bowl teams from the previous year (New England and Seattle) and even one from the upcoming version (Carolina).  Instead, if the Cowboys simply beat the teams that come in here without just a whole lot going for them, they will be in the middle of this battle all year. 
The bigger question is how far a rookie QB and RB tandem can take them.  It may just be a few more weeks, but there are already quotes out there from the owner and general manager that are starting to suggest that they don't have to "rush Romo back", which is quite clearly something that contributed to his second collarbone injury in 2015.
The amazing thing about this Prescott era is the way the team gets ahead.  They score early and often and this is now a run that seems to describe every time Prescott has taken the field for the Cowboys -- all the way back to preseason.  But, let's just focus on the games that count for now.  In Week 1 against the Giants, the Cowboys scored on their first four possessions, and five of the first six.  The problem that day was that too many were Dan Bailey kicks and only one touchdown.
Then at Washington in Week 2, it was four of the first five.  Two touchdowns and two field goals, but the team gets to 20 points very early in the third quarter, on their way to 27. 
But against a Chicago team that we can pencil in for a top 10 pick in next April's draft, the Cowboys took the ball four times in the first half, all inside their own 28 yard line, and drove right down the field four times.  They put up 24 points in that first half, with 274 yards of total offense, and put the game pretty much to bed right there with a 24-3 intermission lead.  The yardage was split evenly between running and passing and Prescott had rolled up a 105 QB rating while Ezekiel Elliott was handed the ball 13 times at about 6 yards a carry.    They owned the ball for 22 of the 30 minutes and had completely dominated the game in every respect. 
In other words, when everyone squinted about what Tony Romo and Elliott could accomplish on draft night, they couldn't have dreamed much better results than what these first three games have yielded with a rookie, backup QB.    
Now, there is plenty more to consider about last night.  Not the least of which was this team starting to deal with some health considerations (beyond Romo).  They had to play last night without Tyron Smith, which is something I would prefer to avoid moving forward.  Smith has been banged up this season, but last night was listed as an illness rather than the back/neck issues he has been dealing with.  Regardless, that is potentially big. Then, the moment on the second play of the game where it sure looked like Dez Bryant really hurt his knee again should be watched.  He finished the game, but he needs to be in top form to have his top explosiveness.  La'el Collins left the game, as well, which reminded people why Ron Leary is a wonderful insurance policy.  After a few years of offensive line health, they need to expect to deal with some level of "normal" issues up front, and they are prepared to do so.  Chaz Green gives me no confidence after his brutal preseason, but they survived last night with just a few moments to clean up around an otherwise serviceable performance at first glance.
Defensively, it was the third consecutive week of getting a takeaway.  This sounds like a rather small deal until you remember we are talking about a Dallas defense that tied an all-time NFL record last year for fewest takeaways with 11.  In fact, now that they got the ball twice last night from the Bears, that gives them four takeaways in three games.  Not on pace to shatter records, but at least on pace to get close to the NFL average (22.5).     
Last night, they caused a few fumbles and came up with them and in the first two weeks it was interceptions.   We know the limitations of this defense, but, if they can just go get the ball a few times, they will survive most weeks.  Four takeaways don't impress you?  Well, in 2015, they got their fourth takeaway on November 1.  It is awfully difficult to blame the backup QBs for what your defense was unable to do, so this improvement needs to be maintained moving forward.  Cosmetically, the Bears put up plenty of garbage time yardage, but when the game was in doubt, they never got anything going to cause too much consternation. 
The Cowboys are moving the ball, controlling the clock, and winning the turnover battle. Plus-2 this year through three games is progress from a team that a ridiculously bad minus-22 last season.  If you can't move the ball, at least take care of it.  This year, they are doing both.
Like we said in training camp, the September schedule was pretty easy, comparatively speaking.  They had to find 2 or 3 wins in September to have a chance, and now they can get to 3-1 with a win in San Francisco.  Nobody in the league is going to spend an hour praising Dallas for its start as other teams are more impressive.  That team in Philadelphia also has a rookie QB (who they paid handsomely for) who appears to be the real deal and their paths will cross in a month or so. 
Sunday night was exactly what it needed to be.  A convincing win that showed even without Romo, this team is plenty talented and dangerous to a certain opponent.  Take your gains and get your hurt a chance to recover before the next battle in a week. 
This first stretch has certainly offered the argument that the 2016 draft has a chance to be something historic around here.  We expected Elliott to be great.  But, Prescott's start?  As I demonstrated above, this exceeds my wildest expectations.  I imagine most of you are in that same boat.
Keep it going, kid.  

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