Friday, September 29, 2023 Sep 29, 2023
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The Cowboys Probably Won the NFC East Yesterday. Try Not to Be Too Bummed About It.

The win over Washington nearly went off the rails. But that shouldn't overshadow the bigger victories.
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The Cowboys won. You should be happy about that. But it feels like you aren’t.  

If I had to play an amateur Dallas Cowboys fan psychologist, I’d say you aren’t happy because you don’t recognize a team whose best chances of winning have unexpectedly become one that relies on its defense. This is what happens when the team’s superstar isn’t a quarterback or running back, but a defensive player—Micah Parsons—who can play no fewer than five positions. This is what winning with the defense feels like, and you’re not sure how to process it. Because, really, you aren’t unhappy either. Or, at least, you shouldn’t be.

You shouldn’t be breaking your television like that Washington fan did after the Cowboys sealed the game by forcing a fumble. At least that anger comes because of a loss. Washington fans had chanted, “WE WANT DALLAS!” for a week. They were certain they’d win, and then they lost. Your unhappiness comes from wishing Dak Prescott and the offense played better. But your team still won despite Dak playing what was likely the worst game of his career; the defense got that win.

The defense played as good as Dak and the offense played bad. That’s good. Or, depending on your perspective, that’s bad. Good that out of the 27 points the Cowboys scored, 13 of them came immediately after a turnover or because of it. Good that the defense is finally healthy. Bad that, almost in inverse proportion to how good the defense has become, the offense has declined.

This offense was the one part of this team you assumed would always work. It has now gone from being the best in the league to bad. But be fair. Remember there’s a reason for this. The top two running backs—Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard—are hurt just like the top two wide receivers were a few weeks ago, when this offense started to slide. And maybe Dak’s hurt, too. The line of demarcation for when he began to struggle is after he hurt his calf. Or maybe he’s fine. Even if it makes you feel like it’s all coming apart, it’s normal for players to struggle.

Luckily for you and the Cowboys, their chances of playing deep into the playoffs are better with a good defense and a struggling offense than if the reverse were true. You know what having a very good offense and a struggling defense looks like. It’s Antonio Ramiro Romo needing to play perfectly since just a single mistake turns deadly when the defense is getting torched. This is what the opposite of that looks like. It’s Dak and offense struggling but still winning on the road, in December, against what’s likely the team’s biggest historic rival who had won four games in a row and, besides the Cowboys, had the most realistic chance of winning the division. Even if the second half made you feel bad, beating Washington will always be a good win. And if they beat them again in two weeks, even if it’s uglier than this one, that’ll be another good win, too.

According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Cowboys now have a 99.9 percent chance of making the playoffs. They also have a 97.4 percent chance of winning the NFC East. So, barring a monumental collapse where they lose their final four games and, at the same time, one of seven teams—including their divisional rivals, Philadelphia and Washington—win their last four games, the Cowboys will play post-season football. This, combined with just having won consecutive games, both on the road, both because of the defense with even lineman scoring touchdowns, is the perfect place to be in about halfway through December.

And still you aren’t happy. Maybe you aren’t old enough to remember when this team—lacking the sort of defense it now seems to have—collapsed in December and justified all our collective unhappiness.  

It’s too soon to feel unhappy. There aren’t enough hours of sun in the day for you to squander the light that comes from winning a game because you’re focusing only on the ways the Cowboys could have lost. There’s no need, right now, to ignore all that’s going great on one side of the ball because you can only see all that’s going bad on the other. No reason to miss what might be a historic season from Parsons—perhaps on his way to being the Defensive Player of the Year, a first for a Cowboys player since Harvey Martin won that distinction in 1977—just because Dak is no longer playing like an MVP candidate. Unless the Cowboys win the Super Bowl, you’ll have your reasons to feel unhappy. That moment just shouldn’t be now.

There’s still time. The Cowboys have a month to get as healthy as any team can get during this part of the season. Four games for Kellen Moore to remind you what made him a top head coaching candidate. A month to figure out and, hopefully, fix whatever’s wrong with Dak and the offense. They don’t need to play like they did during the first third of the season. But, by the time they get to the playoffs, the offense must play better than they did Sunday. Or, at least, don’t cost the team points—like Dak’s pick six—at the exact moment when the offense should be putting games out of reach.

That horrible pass is probably the reason you aren’t happy. It’s fine, right now. You should be encouraged that the plan to rebuild the defense worked. Games like these are the very reason for that rebuilding. For when the offense isn’t perfect, and you still need to win.

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