The 5-1 Dallas Cowboys just completed their bye week, and what better time for us to regroup and reflect on how, exactly, this all happened*.
*Shoutout to my editor, the esteemed Tim Rogers, and his bizarre refusal to accept “bye week” as proper football terminology despite it literally being in the dictionary. [Ed: a “bye” advances a team in a tournament. That’s different from being idle. In other words: simply not playing during an off week. The two winners of the divisions with the best records do not have to play in the Wildcard Round. They advance automatically to the Divisional Round. That, young man, is a bye.]
How are they here? Why are they here? And what does that mean as this impressive group steams forward to Minnesota and a Halloween night game against the Vikings?
Let’s dive in with a special bye-week [Ed: argh!] edition of the Checklist to find out what they’ve accomplished and what that means.
Confirmed that Dak is, in fact, back
Remember when we were worrying about QB1’s ankle? And then his shoulder? We’ve since moved on to his calf, and if the first third of the season has taught us anything, it’s that only a bone sticking out of his skin can derail his reign as one of the game’s elite quarterbacks.
How elite? Let Dan tell you about it — and just how good the Cowboys can be if Prescott keeps it up.
Found Zeke a sidekick
Tony Pollard was a fun offensive wrinkle in his first year before emerging as a cult hit in his second, the official “Real Ones Know” player on the Cowboys’ offense. Now, in his third year, he has become a legitimate partner in crime to Ezekiel Elliott, gobbling up a larger share of touches than any No. 2 back in Dallas since Elliott arrived, in 2016.
Make no mistake, this is still Zeke’s room; the 26-year-old has 102 carries to Pollard’s 61 and has been targeted on 20 passes compared to Pollard’s 15. Elliott is a fixture in the red zone and figures to remain as such through at least next season, not only for what he does with the ball in his hands but also blocking, sentiment, and, yes, his contract.
But Pollard dispels any notion of being a small-sample-size wonder with each passing week, averaging 6 yards per carry and nearly 8 per reception while doing stuff like this.
Ultimately, I can’t say with a straight face that I endorse the following …
Since 2019 (when Tony Pollard was drafted):
Saquon Barkley (20 games played): 290 carries, 1232 rushing yards, 8 rushing touchdowns
Tony Pollard (37 games played): 248 carries, 1256 rushing yards, 7 rushing touchdowns
— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) October 19, 2021
… but it does convey just how electric the 24-year-old can be. The balance is the reason this backfield is humming along so well and, consequently, why this offense hurts teams in so many ways.
Minted new stars
It feels like a million years since I reached out to Babe Laufenberg for our preseason Vibe Check, and what makes it feel so dated is how uncertain everything about the defense was just two months ago. Much of our conversation amounted to warranted faith in DeMarcus Lawrence, cautious optimism on Trevon Diggs and Micah Parsons, a “well, maybe?” on Randy Gregory, and a big shrug about everyone else.
Fast forward to late October. Diggs is more than a ball-hawking cornerback; he’s the early frontrunner for NFL defensive player of the year. Parsons is more than a disruptor in the front seven; he’s a position-shifting menace who is the early frontrunner for defensive rookie of the year. Gregory is quietly among the game’s scariest edge rushers and positioning himself as the player who should be top priority among the Cowboys’ impending free agents.
And there’s more: Osa Odighizuwa is this team’s best-kept secret, an interior disruptor who would be the dominant young standout on plenty of other defenses. On offense, Dalton Schultz is the long-awaited heir to Jason Witten. Further down the totem pole, receiver Cedrick Wilson and safeties Jayron Kearse and Damontae Kazee are turning in solid, occasionally spectacular work that well outstrips their salaries.
It isn’t that these players are emerging on a roster previously devoid of star power. That’s how bad teams get good. But good teams become great by heaping this group onto the likes of Prescott, Lawrence, Elliott, Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Tyron Smith, and Zack Martin. This won’t last forever — there’s only so much cap space to go around — but in the here and now, it makes Dallas deep enough to be considered a true Super Bowl contender. And, in the long run, the Cowboys’ ability to mine high-end talent from the second (Diggs and Gregory), third (Odighizuwa), and fourth (Schultz) rounds portends well for cycling in young, low-cost talent to replace the pieces they can’t afford to keep forever. That’s how great teams can stick around for a long time in the NFL.
Made it until the calvary arrived
The run game is bulldozing without La’el Collins. The passing attack is shredding without Michael Gallup. The front seven gets to the quarterback without Tank Lawrence. How many Cowboys teams would have capsized without three players that good in the lineup? The above section explains why the 2021 team hasn’t, but that shouldn’t diminish how meaningful their success is without this trio, to say nothing of extended absences from Donovan Wilson, Neville Gallimore, and Trysten Hill, or the flurry of short-term hits to players like Gregory and Keanu Neal.
Now the reinforcements are coming. Collins returns Sunday from his five-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, while Mike McCarthy indicated Gallup might begin practicing this week. It will be a little while longer without Lawrence, but Dallas has — at least for now — weathered the injury storm far beyond any reasonable expectation. That bodes well for this run to keep going in the second half.
Last week, Roberto spoke for a lot of people when he wrote the following after Dallas’ topsy-turvy win at New England
I suppose in theory, in hope, this was bound to happen. That if you watch enough Cowboys football, there would eventually be a season when things fell into place. When losses that ruined weekends and then seasons would turn into games full of adversity that are won and help build resilience. … I guess this was bound to happen. That if one watched enough Cowboys football, there would eventually come a season when they’d begin to cast out their devils. Maybe this one is finally it.
The magic of the season so far isn’t in the Cowboys’ sudden competence, the myriad quantifiable ways in which this team has proven to be better than so many others at playing football. It’s in the swelling confidence they’re inspiring in everyone watching: finally, they are staying out of their own way and playing with the sort of resilience that hasn’t been seen since … well, you remember.
This can still crumble, of course. There are 11 more regular-season games to wade through before the playoffs begin, and while it is borderline impossible to conceive of the Cowboys losing the division, I don’t have to work hard to imagine ways something could go wrong in January. Postseason football is fragile, and there’s a long way yet before we can say with real certainty that this team isn’t.
But, in the here and now, I think it’s safe to stop presuming they are — to stop expecting the worst to lurk around every corner and leap out at a moment’s notice. It still could ambush them, but there’s no good reason to expect that. Which is progress. Now it’s time to find out just how far that progression goes.