Welcome back to Vibe Check — and, when it comes to the Cowboys, the midseason vibes truly are immaculate. At 7-2, Dallas leads Philadelphia by three and a half games in the NFC East and sits just a half game behind Arizona and the Los Angeles Rams for the best record in the conference. Per Football Outsiders DVOA, which tracks each play of every team’s NFL season and compares its success to a league-average result, the Cowboys are the third-best team in the NFL after Buffalo and Tampa Bay.
So things are going well! To give a little more, I brought back our Cowboys vibeologist, Cowboys radio color commentator Babe Laufenberg, to chat about the game that has most impressed him thus far, the one he’s keeping an eye on most in the second half, his biggest question still remaining, and much more.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. We’ll check back in with him at the end of the regular season.
A lot has happened since we spoke about this team preseason, and I think we can safely say things have gone better than anyone could have imagined. What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned about this team in the first nine games?
We knew the offense was going to be good, or at least we thought we knew. And they have been. The defense has been a pleasant surprise. I went into the season thinking if they could just be average on defense, the offense could carry them. And they’ve been better than average mainly because they’re taking the football away. The numbers themselves are relatively average, but when you take the football away, as we all know, that’s going to give you a really good chance to win.
We figured Trevon Diggs would be an important piece of the secondary. We didn’t know he’d become this. We also figured that if this defense would have some measure of success, Micah Parsons has to step up. What has surprised you more, though: Diggs becoming the best ball hawk in the NFL or Parsons being this good, this versatile, this quickly?
I think they’ve done a great job, obviously, of using Micah Parsons, and I think he’s really bought into what they’re doing defensively. If you’re the No. 12 pick in the draft, we think you’re going to be pretty good, right? Trevon, as a rookie, had no training camp, no minicamp, no OTAs, and he played pretty well last year. We thought he would take another jump up, which he has.
I think what’s really enabled this defense to be good is two things. One, Dan Quinn. You talk about buying in, I always say every coach is selling something. Doesn’t mean the one thing this coach is selling is better than the thing the other coach is selling. The whole key is to get your guys to buy in. I always go back to Casey Stengel. He said, ‘You’ve got 25 guys on your baseball team. Ten hate you, 10 like you, and five are undecided. The whole key to managing is to get the five that are undecided away from the 10 that hate you.’ And there’s a lot of truth to that. So it’s Dan Quinn getting the buy-in, and I think that’s almost by sheer force of his personality.
And then the second thing is, last year, they missed on just about every free agent, without exception. Dontari Poe. Aldon Smith. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix didn’t even make it out of training camp. Almost all of these guys you were going to plug holes with, which for the most part is what teams have to do, none of them worked out. This year, all of them have worked out, without exception. Jayron Kearse has played well. Even some guys people probably don’t notice a whole lot — Carlos Watkins has played well. Tarell Basham has played well. They’ve gotten more from those guys than even they would have expected. Keanu Neal, obviously; he’s a starter. Damontae Kazee has helped.
So we all know Micah, we all know Trevon, but it’s these guys that have plugged in — and they have had to plug in, because obviously DeMarcus Lawrence is out and Randy Gregory has missed time with COVID, now will miss time with this calf injury. Many times, you can’t plug people in and replace those guys. But I think they’ve done a great job plugging those guys in defensively to be above average players.
You just mentioned a key name there: Randy Gregory. Prior to the season, you wanted to see consistency from him. When he’s on the field, I think the answer’s been a resounding yes. The Cowboys will have a number of key players heading into free agency this offseason. How crucial is it for them to keep Gregory?
There are two things you need to do defensively, and that’s rush the passer and have guys who can cover, because the passing game is obviously the most important part of any offense, which flipped around, makes it the most important part of any defense. You can talk all you want about stopping the run, but the big plays come in the pass game, and points come off big plays.
I would think Randy would want to be here after everything the organization has done to support him and get him through a very difficult time in his life. I would think he’d want to be here, and he knows now this support system here works. You go somewhere else, and it may not be the same for you. From the Cowboys’ end, the pass rushers, as we all know, are really hard to find, and they change games. Randy, to me, has changed games this year.
Unquestionably. And it’d be one thing if he changed games with Lawrence there soaking up some attention. It’s another when he is The Guy. There is no DeMarcus Lawrence there to take the heat off, and he’s producing.
Offenses know who he is and where he is. And, you know what’s funny, too, Mike: I don’t think he’s had a bad game. I don’t think he’s had a game where he has not impacted it. Doesn’t mean they’ve won every game, but he’s impacted plays in every game. Micah’s had a couple of games in there where they were able to neutralize him — not to say he played poorly, obviously, but where he wasn’t a big factor. Randy’s brought it every game
The Cowboys have seven wins on the board, and they’ve won in just about every way. They’ve had the shootouts and the close games. Sunday was boring. Before that, there was drama with Minnesota and New England. Which of these seven wins has most impressed you?
I’ll be honest with you: the game that impressed me the most was a game they lost, and that was against Tampa. Being down there, they were celebrating their Super Bowl with their fans in the stadium where they won it. They brought all 22 starters back, so it’s not like you’re saying, ‘Well, last year’s team wasn’t this year’s team.’ This year’s team is last year’s team. And to play them down to the wire, on the road, after Dak had been out a lengthy period of time in training camp — that was the one where I said, ‘OK, if you can play with the Super Bowl champions and Tom Brady, you can play with anyone.’
We’ve talked about the first half. Let’s look ahead to the second. What is the game you have your eye on that will be their toughest test the rest of the regular season?
As we talk today, I think there’s no question the Arizona game will be huge on January 2. We’ll see where, obviously, both teams are; a lot can happen between now and then. Kyler Murray is going to get back — he’s missed a couple games, but he’ll be back by then provided he doesn’t have some other type of injury. But I think there are going to be a lot of ramifications in the NFC from that game. I personally don’t need them to beat Arizona to know this team is for real. They’re for real. There’s a handful of those teams that can win it all, and the Cowboys are one of them. No question.
I think it’s hard to argue against that. Barring some colossal meltdown, they’re going to the playoffs. They will likely win the NFC East. What is the biggest question you need to see them answer in these next eight games before playoffs begin?
I think just stay healthy. Somebody will ask me, ‘Hey, do you think the Cowboys will beat Arizona?’ I always say, ‘Tell me who’s playing.’ It’s just the truth. Who are both teams going to have available for that game? That game would get a lot easier if Kyler Murray isn’t playing.
And, as long as we’re talking about seemingly minor injuries that should be fine but could linger, well, if Tyron Smith doesn’t come back the way they need him to, the offensive equation changes in a huge way.
They’re going to get three defensive starters back at some point in Randy Gregory, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Neville Gallimore. But we don’t know who they’re going to lose, and we know it’s a game of attrition. We know guys will get hurt. The key is, can you sustain injuries at whatever position that is?