All I could think of during that impressive rally and destruction late in the Cowboys' game vs. San Francisco in front of the Niners' own crowd (sort of) is that I don't believe I recognize these guys.
Sure, some of the players are the same as we have seen. Some of them, at least. But, this was a group wearing Cowboys uniforms that seemed to be mostly brand new.
First, you have the brand-new QB who still looks like he is not really worried about too much. He was far from perfect on this day, but the more you watch him, the more you actually enjoy seeing him tackle new challenges. On this day, it was the challenge of being out there on the road without some of those luxuries that he normally enjoys -- like Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith -- and, then a nice big deficit to overcome early in the game. His accuracy was off and he was dealing with some significant threats from the San Francisco front seven. Running might not be easy for a while. He would have to keep his composure and not get impatient.
But, it feels like we already know that Dak Prescott will do that. He is not ever going to get too anxious and impatient. He waits and then pounces. He puts the ball in there and asks you to make a play. Prescott in some ways was more impressive than we have seen him. He exhibited "dude" qualities yesterday in the face of adversity. And he never acted like any of it was any big deal.
Then, there was this rookie runner from Ohio State. Ezekiel Elliott is really a player to get excited about in a game like this. The 49ers were determined to not let him get loose and it showed early. They were stacking the box and trying to limit his rushes. But, as the day went along, you see why this guy is going to be such an issue for the NFL behind these guys up front. Some plays, he makes something out of nothing because he runs so darn hard. Other times, you could drive a truck through some of the holes he enjoys. Still other times, it is both. He is proving his quality while they are proving theirs, and before long, it is over. If you didn't rub your eyes and think you were watching young Emmitt Smith at Candlestick Park behind Nate Newton and Mark Tuinei yesterday, then we might not have watched the same game. That was an awesome show of strength as the game went along. Once Navorro Bowman was hurt, it was over. The Cowboys' biggest runs of the day all came after Bowman left in the middle of the third quarter and from there fatigue and his absence conspired to end any chance the 49ers had against the repeated battering ram of those zone plays and the push up front.
How about having a few wide receivers trying to keep the passing game going without Dez Bryant available? It wasn't all great, but the back shoulder fade touchdown to Terrance Williams and another rollout bullet to Brice Butler for a TD were something to get fired up about. In fact, I realize Butler will be properly criticized this week for his taunting flag that killed a drive, but overall, I really liked what I saw for the player who has been given some chances since being acquired from the Raiders last September with a sixth-round pick for a fifth. He is a very large man who competes for balls in tight spaces. This makes him ideal to fill in for Dez on those same routes -- slants, digs, and fades -- with strength and conviction. He is 26, and has some rough edges to smooth over, but I think that is a very useful player to have on the roster and I want to continue to see more. In fact, as we saw last year once time in New Orleans, he is a real deep threat and the Cowboys still have yet to really show us they are willing to test how far Dak can throw the deep ball on a play-action opportunity. They must be saving that for Cincinnati or Green Bay.
That Brice Butler trade I just mentioned? Let's not forget what that sixth-round pick turned into; the pick was the corner from Purdue, Anthony Brown. I would normally hope that you aren't trying to ask a sixth-round rookie to handle 50 snaps out of the slot where he is being repeatedly attacked by the opponent's game plan, but next man up. The Cowboys needed him to compete and battle his tail off and I thought he did fine, too.
That is why this thing is becoming awfully unrecognizable. It is a franchise that used to have such small contributions from the rank and file players that we used to think that Tony Romo, Jason Witten, and DeMarcus Ware were the only players allowed to do the heavy lifting for years at a time.
Now, they play a road game without Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, and Orlando Scandrick and they bully the game with relative ease in the second half. They get contributions from all corners of the team and the coaching staff starts giving more and more belief to what they can do -- so they aren't afraid to allow Dak to throw the ball as opposed to running into a wall with a conservative and careful call.
I am not saying that Dak to Cole Beasley late was Troy hitting Alvin Harper in 1992, but many of you asked me if I was reminded of the similarities. It at least cracked a smile.
You have rookies everywhere. DT Maliek Collins is a third-round pick who shows up and makes plays and is darn near a full-time player already, too. That would be four players from a rookie class who are doing heavy lifting, with reserves being called into action and doing fine. Jaylon Smith and Charles Tapper could knock this draft class into the historically great class if they do anything, but if you really have a QB and a RB of this quality from the same draft class, we might need to stop second guessing what they could've and should've done on draft day. It appears they did quite well.
And maybe the best theme of the young rookie class is the frequent pleas from Elliott to the sideline. Feed me. It might not always be charming if not done in the right situations, but it seems like a really unexpected theme for the Cowboys' rookie performers. Two guys who were asked to do plenty for their college programs and carry so much of the mail that it seems the Cowboys situation here in the early going is not too big for them. Prescott and Elliott are both ready for whatever you want to ask of them and it is amazing to behold. Dak may not be as demonstrative with his hand gestures, but you can tell they both want to continue to be fed more.
That may not fit well into the time frames and the relationships that were built before their arrival, but pro football is not about that. Pro football is about finding capable bodies to do tough jobs and that usually falls to those who are able to answer the bell week after week.
In other words, it sure feels like we are finding ourselves on the doorstep of a new era being ushered in. These young guys look capable and ready to step in.
Did you know that there are 29 new players on this roster since the start of 2015? 29! That means that over half your squad doesn't remember being on the sideline in that playoff game in Green Bay.
I say that because life comes at you fast in the NFL. You might remember Jimmy Johnson coaching your favorite team, but many of these guys weren't born yet. Ezekiel Elliott was born in July of 1995, which means that when Tony Romo took the starting QB job here in Dallas, he was 11 years old. He was a few months short of his 8thbirthday when Jason Witten was drafted and Romo was signed. Dak Prescott was a high school kid when Jason Garrett was hired to be the head coach in 2010.
But, if I am not mistaken, the future looks like it is creeping up on us now. These kids can play. It might come with some level of pain to admit that time waits for nobody, but the mirror verifies this daily.
For now, we shall call it a good problem to have. The Cowboys are 3-1, largely because they have prepared themselves to win with players who are young and just getting started.
For you the fan, this might be the best news you have heard in years.