The schedule brings a number of unexpected twists and turns that test a team from numerous angles. This sample size exposes weaknesses and requires a young team that believes it is good to prove it over and over -- to answer questions one week that were not asked before. Or, to confirm those answers as repeatable and sustainable.
If there is one description of the 2016 Cowboys that continues to flatter the two rookies at the helm, it seems that "repeatable and sustainable" is about the brightest compliment one could pay.
For that means there is no fluke to be found. There is no luck. There was no great fortune in finding yourself on the winning side nine times in a row. This certainly doesn't promise future success, but all indicators insist that success seems likely.
We may have to face it: The 2016 Dallas Cowboys are winning in ways that suggest they have put something together that may be good for a while. Because the way they win week after week does not suggest they are just riding a wave of fortune.
Yesterday, in a game when they appeared to wake up as the second quarter was being played (those noon starts are pretty early, you know), they took the ball away from their opponent and repeated the normal recipe for a Cowboys win.
This did not occur until the Cowboys' offense touched the ball for a fifth time. The first four drives were filled with a number of rather disappointing outcomes, each leading to a Cowboys punt. With a simmering quarterback situation that might have been inside the head of Dak Prescott -- but was definitely in the minds of all in attendance -- the quarterback's play was beyond spotty for those first several throws. He looked like a guy who had the weight of the world on his shoulders, and as is the case in this league, the Ravens were adding even more weight by repeatedly falling on him blitz after blitz.
The stadium grew antsy as the Ravens drove the ball down the field with repeated runs at the heart of the Cowboys' defense behind their celebrated guard Marshal Yanda, and with frustration growing on offense and vulnerability appearing on defense, the Cowboys had to play with a deficit on Sunday.
And, I guess, being down 7-0 with five minutes to go in the second quarter is what passes for a challenge to this juggernaut these days.
The Cowboys took the ball on their fifth drive with 9:31 to go in the half and with great field position at their own 48-yard line. Promptly, as if they felt the Ravens were being too generous, the offensive line quickly took two penalties. Travis Frederick made it first-and-20, and then Tyron Smith walked it back 10 more after a hold for first-and-30.
First-and-30 holes nearly are impossible to climb out of. The probability charts suggest you may consider just putting your punt team on the field and saving everyone some time.
But, in a way that would make Han Solo proud, the Cowboys weren't interested in odds. This is where their day started to turn.
First-and-30: Prescott scrambled for 12 when nobody was open.
Second-and-18: Prescott finds Dez Bryant on a skinny post for 12 more.
Third-and-6: The Ravens surely know that Prescott is looking for those sticks now, so he works a "go" route to Brice Butler over the top for the Cowboys' biggest play of the day -- 41 yards down to the Ravens' 7-yard line.
A few plays later, Prescott again rolls out -- this time to his right -- and fires a dart to Cole Beasley at the pylon before C.J. Mosley tests his collarbone in the Ravens' bench area. Touchdown, Cowboys, and after a brief examination, everyone offers a sigh of relief for the health of the rookie quarterback.
So much of this season has been about arguing the role of the quarterback and the credit of this offense, most of which has been distributed to Ezekiel Elliott and a terrific offensive line. This isn't about removing that credit, but this is to say that most of the vital moments in a game do not come down to your ability to run the ball. It relies on your passing game and getting the weapons on your offense in space, where they can do damage. Third-and-longs. Two-minute drills. Or, in this case, first-and-30. And you can sugarcoat it all you want, but Prescott has either looked flawless in some games or has recovered from slow starts in time to bring the team back on several occasions.
And that is why the credit must be given to the rookie quarterback's ability to pass yet another test Sunday. Baltimore tried to hit him hard. The hits were hard enough that you wondered how others might have withstood the same punishment.
By the time the day was over, the running game came along and did its job of dominating the clock and erasing any last chances the Ravens might have had. The offense scored on every single drive the rest of the day following that first-and-30 conversion. It went: touchdown, field goal, touchdown, touchdown, field goal. Record: 9-1.
No short fields were offered again. The five drives totaled 359 yards and 25 minutes for 27 points. All in the final 39 minutes of the game. And you said momentum cannot be measured.
If there is one attribute we have seen from this offense, it seems to be that once the train gets rolling down the tracks, nobody slows it down. They may start poorly, but when they start feeling good about their offense, it continues until the stadium empties. How many weeks in a row do we talk about how they pound teams into a fine powder during the second halves of games?
But, let's get back to the "repeatable and sustainable" conversation. So much of this conversation about the team is wondering what its ceiling can be. Can this team actually win in the playoffs like this? Can it contend for a Super Bowl like this?
The simple answer is that there is only one way to find out.
The more nuanced answer starts with looking at how this team scores. Yes, there are some big plays that stick in our memory -- for instance, the great moments in Pittsburgh last week are front and center. But, the reason you must like the Cowboys' chances moving forward against any opponent is there is no reliance on the fireworks show from week to week.
It helps to get yards in chunks, but on Sunday, the Ravens had more explosive plays than the Cowboys, 4-2. They had more big plays of 20 yards or more, and I don't take that as a negative. I think it is great news that the Cowboys kill you with six or eight-yard chunks and that they do it in a way where the design and execution of the offense suggest someone is always open. The quarterback is not asked to pierce the eye of a needle with a throw. He has too many weapons and too much misdirection. The running back is not asked to break three tackles, for he has enough possibilities over the course of an afternoon to choose his favorite holes and take what he can. Some days there will be a chance to leave the defense in his dust, but others, like yesterday, Elliott will have just one run into the secondary for 14 yards. Everything else comes in battering-ram fashion.
The point is that if you are relying on 50-yard plays, you may not get those every week. But, if you are comfortable taking six yards per snap and running 5-8 minutes off the clock each time you step on to the field, then I think you have the basis for long-term success. Mix in a few big plays, for sure, but that must be your frosting. The cake is the way this team drives the ball and protects its defense.
That offense travels. That offense doesn't need perfect weather. Heck, that offense can survive an injury or two along the way. If you have 11 parts that are reasonably equal on an offense, and do not rely on a superstar doing special things, you have a force to be reckoned with.
And the Cowboys definitely have that.
Good teams have followed this recipe for years. The Seahawks do not rely on a series of huge plays and magic tricks to beat you. New England is different, but similar. These powers have been built on moving the chains and repeating the process until you succumb. Other teams do rely on one player carrying them with a tight-rope walk, but the repeatability is more difficult to achieve.
I think you should strongly prefer this -- the dominant effort that looks simple. Another 400-yard day with five consecutive scoring drives and very few SportsCenter-worthy highlight clips. This is death by 1,000 paper cuts. This is repeatable. Week after week, opponent after opponent.
Some weeks there will be drama, and some weeks you simply will get the ball with 8:16 to go and practically not let Baltimore touch the ball again. Your ground-and-pound has taken another victim.
Baltimore was a very good opponent that tried to make this a physical slugfest. The great news is that while it got the Cowboys' attention, they were able to push back and take over once they zeroed in.
It all looks so simple. And yet, if you have been following the Cowboys for a few decades, you know it is not. This is rare dominance, and when the sun shines down on you, you must soak it in and enjoy it.
That is why we follow the sport. That Cowboys-Steelers game is one of the few that will stick out when you look back at any season. To know a classic from just another Sunday, you ask yourself if you will remember this day in a decade.
Well, as far as I am concerned, I am going to go out on a limb and suggest you will remember where you were when the Cowboys, led by their rookies (again), walked into Pittsburgh, traded body-blows and haymakers for three hours, and then left with the coveted win.
This was not your typical win. This was an extraordinary back-and-forth effort that will be given the "instant classic" label and perhaps require a second viewing over watching Monday Night Football this week.
Pittsburgh threw a lot at the Cowboys and got superb efforts from many -- including their star QB Ben Roethlisberger, not to mention Le'Veon Bell and Antoino Brown who all were able to do some pretty impressive things in a home game where they needed to stop the bleeding to their season. They rallied the troops and whipped their home crowd into a frenzy. It was a late game on a November afternoon where the whole football nation would be locked in, wondering if this upstart squad from Dallas was worth all of the hype.
Oh, sure, there were many things the Cowboys could have done better on this day in Pittsburgh. There is no doubt that the defense has to be better and that the health of their secondary was exposed when Roethlisberger threw for over 400 yards and had the team backed up against the wall as the Steelers took the lead in the final minute. It was the first time a Cowboys opponent had passed for 400 yards in the Rod Marinelli era (since 2014). In fact, it reminded us of that Monte Kiffin year in 2013 when Dallas allowed 400 yards three different times to Matthew Stafford and both Manning brothers.
The offense found itself getting a bit frustrated because it could not put much together in the first half beyond an unbelievable 83-yard screen play where Dak Prescott timed a throw to Ezekiel Elliott, who then hit the turbo and followed a convoy of the two guards and the center who were clearing out Steelers in the path. Elliott needed one last nudge from Terrance Williams at midfield and it was over. This young talent can take any play to the end zone, and this one quickly served notice to those in attendance that this was going to be a ballgame. That pulled a 12-3 game back to 12-10, and the afternoon of intrigue was underway.
This season continues to be about a player who has yet to even play a snap -- Tony Romo. He helped lay the foundation for this season and so many people in these parts regard Romo as the only hero at QB they have ever known. There is nothing like your first love, and if you are a Cowboys fan of a certain age, you may only go back to the very end of Aikman, all the retreads in between, and that glorious day when they finally put Tony into the game in 2006. Since then, you have been debating people on his behalf against Eli Manning or Donovan McNabb and were certain the Cowboys had their version that, simply lacking the appropriate supporting cast to ever go as far as he deserved.
Now, just as it appears his help has come, it also appears his time is vanishing. Football isn't about fair. It is about seizing whatever moment you have, because the future is not promised. And this makes the "Romo loyalist" uncomfortable. Instead of enjoying this remarkable surprise that has been dropped in Dallas -- the dynamic duo of a rookie RB and a rookie QB who together look to be too much for opponents to deal with in their first few months together and a promise of a new exciting era that could be awfully special -- the Romo loyalist is looking for details that make a win in Pittsburgh less impressive from a QB standpoint.
They point to missed throws. They point to Zeke as an unfair advantage. They want their guy back as soon as possible because this new guy is just on a hot streak. Surely, you aren't suggesting Romo is not better than this guy, Bob.
I really don't get it.
Dak Prescott just stood tall and dueled against Roethlisberger on his turf. You may recall he just did the same with Aaron Rodgers on his turf. The last thing this guy needs is people to make excuses for him. Prescott is busy beating blitzes and staring down linebackers to make throws to move the chains. I don't think he needs to answer about the details along the way.
This sport is amazingly difficult, and the way the Cowboys executed in the second half and down the stretch of that game to pull a win out in the most hostile of circumstances was something that Aikman, Romo, or just about any QB should be proud of. A win in Pittsburgh in the Roethlisberger era is a rare treat for a road QB, let alone a rookie QB.
And let's not undersell the degree of difficulty.
Late in the third Quarter, the Cowboys faced a third-and-1, but just when you thought Elliott had moved the chains, Ron Leary was flagged for a holding that made it a third-and-11 from midfield. They were down 18-16 at the time, and they were now well out of field goal range. So, your options are to play it safe and punt or to trust your rookie to decode the blitz and find the right place to go to try to extend the drive. In other words, this is asking a rookie QB to pass a test that franchise QBs are expected to pass.
The Steelers sent their best pressure in a layered attack. Both inside linebackers and a safety head up the middle to try to get Prescott. Then, two of the front will fade back into the shallow passing lanes, because a rookie QB will dump it short and they can get an easy interception if they step in the path. Lance Dunbar was asked to step in front of the truck that is Ryan Shazier and just push him enough to let Prescott slide over.
Here is the moment. Prescott is doing the calculations in his head. He knows they can't send a safety and have anything beyond Cover 1 behind it. That means if he spots the safety that he can throw away from it into a safe spot. He has to buy a split-second as chaos happens around him. He now knows that Dez Bryant is the best option and he lays out a pass to Bryant that flies 50 yards in the air and lands right on the stride. It couldn't have been more perfect. Touchdown.
It required pocket presence, astute reads, and the a perfect throw. There are many ways to screw that up against a big blitz on third-and-11 in a game that is on the road in a loud stadium.
Instead, it gave the Cowboys a lead. This kid is good.
Again, I think it bears pointing out another time that this isn't about Prescott alone. It is about what the coaching staff tells us about him. There seems to be no harness where they pull back and ask him not to try this throw or this situation. This conservative coaching staff appears to no longer believe in conservatism. They have crossed the aisle into aggressiveness and going for the throat. What better example than that moment late in the fourth quarter?
Down 24-23, they are squarely in field goal range. Second-and-2 turns into third-and-8 when Shazier blows up a running play. We are also one play from the two-minute warning. The Jason Garrett I know plays it safe and asks Dan Bailey to give his team the lead, even if he knows that Roethlisberger will not fear a 2-point margin with another chance at the ball.
Instead, they allow this rookie to make a throw on third-and-8 and perhaps risk the entire game on his arm and decision. How does he repay that faith?
Steelers send pressure, Cowboys put five receivers out. Easy math. Five Pitt rushers and five Dallas receivers means that the Steelers can only be in one coverage. It also means that he won't have long to get the ball out. Single-high, man under. So, Prescott waits for Jason Witten to get to the top of his stem on that Y-Option, has Shazier pinned to the inside and heads to the sideline where Prescott puts the pass right on his hands at the sticks.
That is a big-boy throw and a great catch. It likely converted the game from a loss to a win, although so much happened after that.
Roethlisberger did drive the Steelers down, but also might have scored too soon.
One last test for the two rookies was getting the ball into Bailey's range in just 42 seconds from the Dallas 25.
It might have been more complicated had the Steelers not generously grabbed two facemasks. We will never know if Bailey was going to make a long kick, because, of course, Zeke had one more absurd run left in him. Touchdown Cowboys.
Game. Set. Match. 8-1.
I am really out of explanations or descriptions. All I know is this train continues to not only roll, but to accelerate. I also know that Cowboys fans are split right now on how they feel about who is playing and who is under a blanket on the bench.
But, given that this is my 19th year covering this team, I will confirm that special seasons are increasingly rare around here.
I recommend getting on board. This team is very good and looks like they will have a thing or two to say about who is holding the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year.
It would be a shame to waste this run with bickering about who isn't playing. Trust me, the coaches clearly believe in who is on the field right now. And if they have bought in, you might as well, too.
I must admit, the more we wish to be able to predict the future -- despite having more information at our fingertips than ever before -- we still have a very difficult time getting ahead of the news. The fact of the matter is: We still don't know what is going to happen until it happens.
And that's just politics.
Now, on to football. The Cowboys' defense was under the microscope all offseason. It was hard to look at last year's defense and see optimism for 2016 success. Then, they added very little -- in fact, the return of Orlando Scandrick seemed cancelled out by the losses of Greg Hardy and Rolando McClain. So far, the Cowboys' defense has faced 501 snaps. Seven different defenders have played at least 300 of those (60 percent) and all seven were part of last year's defense that got no sacks and no takeaways. Well below average on both.
So, yes, they have new guys contributing -- Maliek Collins, Terrell McClain, Anthony Brown, Benson Mayowa and Cedric Thornton have all played plenty, but just not over that 300-snap barrier. They are helping, but not doing all of the heavy lifting. But, of course, one sign of a very effective defensive front is the ability to show depth and come at an offense in waves. Fewer snaps may mean a higher motor when you play, which is reflected in the eyeball test.
Now, after a day in Cleveland when the defense shut down the Browns at every turn, let's take a look at some of the very interesting results at the halfway point of the season. We are exactly 50 percent of the way through the regular season, and the sinking feeling that the defense would be exposed has gone the way of many other predictions recently. The defense has been quite solid.
Sacks were something the defense had not been able to get in years. Basically, since DeMarcus Ware had his last great season in 2011 with 19.5 sacks at the age of 29, the Cowboys have been well below the league-average line. We have certainly found in many cases that if one side of the ball is elite (as the offense appears to be), then the objective for success is largely based around whether the other side can just get to "league average." Trying to get both the offense and defense to No. 1 is unreasonable in a league like this, but if one can be at the top and the other in the middle, you can be a real contender.
So, sack totals are in blue and league average is in red:
Here, in 2016 they are on pace to get to 36 sacks, where the league average has been at recently. It seems pretty interesting that they have shown an uptick in sacks in the past month. Through the first four games of the season, they had six sacks (a pace of 24). Then, in the next four games, they had 12 sacks.
Surely, the return of DeMarcus Lawrence should not be overlooked. I have been rather underwhelmed by his first four game -- and his sack total still is the same as Dan Bailey's -- but given how this defense works in concert with stunts, games and rushes that require several players working together, it would be wrong to assume he has not had any impact.
Regardless, the team has 18 sacks, which is impressive and puts them right at league average. And, no player has more than the 3.5 of Tyrone Crawford, so you could argue that they have no elite pass rusher, or you could argue that they are well balanced with what you would hope -- 11 different players who have been in on a sack.
Now, on to takeaways -- where, as a reminder, no team in NFL history had fewer takeaways than the Cowboys did last season. They had 11, and the league average was 23.3. This year, through eight games, they sit at 10 for a pace of 20. This is hardly great and it still doesn't get them to league average, but the blue line is much closer to the red line:
Now, again, I think it is important to remember "game effects" when comparing 2014-2016. The more you play with the lead, the more an opponent is passing and the more that allows for sacks and interceptions. In 2014 and 2016, the defense almost always has played with a lead and in 2015 it did not at all.
So, it will be interesting to see if this holds up, but the 2016 upticks in both categories is very encouraging and somewhat predictable with the situations they have been put in.
Here are the numbers from Cleveland -- and they are pretty incredible:
So, where should we start? Ten points! ... 222 yards??? This is the lowest of the season and the lowest since that ridiculous game in Miami last year.
Then, add only one explosive play allowed (that trick formation on the second play of the game) and 4 sacks? Then, chase it home with just 1 third down conversion.
Can they play the Browns every week? Sadly, no. It will get tougher this week in Pittsburgh.
CODY KESSLER THROW CHART
Young, right-handed quarterbacks don't always throw well to their blind side, do they?
He also was sacked four times -- let's take a look:
First one -- five-man pressure, where two linebackers blitz and a defensive end, Mayowa (No. 93) drops into coverage. You can see the objective is simple. The defensive end on the right of your screen is trying to take the right tackle wide. The defensive tackle wants to occupy the left guard and tackle. That leaves the Browns' center and right guard to deal with three Cowboys. This should leave a free blitzer and that is exactly what happens -- the running back tries to clean up No. 57, Damien Wilson. Wilson shows great athleticism by bouncing back up and getting to the quarterback at the same time as No. 59, Anthony Hitchens, on the inside. Score one for the scheme and those young, fast linebackers showing some splash.
This is just great from No. 96, Maliek Collins. He is a really nice player and we knew that when they drafted him in the third round. He is a 3-technique who has a fine combination of strength and quickness, making it very difficult to stay in front of him for too long. If you want to enjoy more from the 2016 draft, just focus on this guy and what he brings to the table. Simply the best draft in forever. Just a dominant display.
Here is a coverage sack. Kessler is looking, looking and finally tries to leave the pocket. Justin Durant is waiting for him to try to get out and meets him for a sack, but this is about a quarterback not seeing anything downfield. Again, there is plenty of deception on which players the Cowboys are rushing, leaving players not blocking anyone, and again, we credit the scheme work by Marinelli and his crew. Also, very active movement from the pass rushers.
And here is the fourth and final sack. Five-man protection against a five-man pass rush. You can see the Cowboys are starting to bring pressure a bit more often and this time, he has Scandrick off the right side and a pirate stunt underneath, with Collins coming around his other defensive tackle and end to lose his man for a free run at the quarterback. Again, look how well Collins runs. They have really hit on something great there.
SPLASH PLAYS - WEEK 8
And here are the standings for total splash plays:
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
The beat goes on. This from the Cowboys' post-game notes:
For the eighth straight game, the Dallas defense did not allow a 100-yard rusher or a 100-yard receiver against the opposing offense. It is the only team in the NFL to not allow a 100-yard rusher or 100-yard receiver in a single game. It is also the longest such streak since the team had nine-straight games in the 2009 season (9/28/09-11/26/09).
So, no 100-yard rusher and no 100-yard receiver. And no opponent has reached 24 points.
And you thought this defense was going to stink this year, right? We all sort of did.