Friday, March 1, 2024 Mar 1, 2024
44° F Dallas, TX

The Cowboys’ Unusual Suspects Demolished Indianapolis

Dallas didn't need its superstars to deliver a dominant win.
By |
Malik Hooker set the tone on a night of big plays from unsung players. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys shellacked the Indianapolis Colts 54-19 to improve to 9-3. Here’s what got accomplished in Dallas’ highest-scoring game of the season:

Dominated with depth

Malik Hooker was going to be a superstar, once upon a time. A unanimous All-American at Ohio State, Hooker arrived in the NFL in 2017 as a player projected to become one of its best ball-hawking safeties: fast, clever, and aware of all the angles.

Then came the injuries. A torn ACL and MCL as a rookie. A torn Achilles in 2020. Nicks and scrapes in between that kept him from ever playing a full NFL season. The future All-Pro became a reclamation project, a solid player whose body may have closed the door on him ever becoming spectacular.

But on Sunday night, for one glorious game, Hooker became everything the opposing Indianapolis Colts presumed he’d be when they drafted him 15th overall. First came this:

Later, in the second half, came this:

Per the NBC broadcast, Hooker’s night ended with him being the second player ever to compile an interception and a fumble return against his former team in the Super Bowl era. He’s the first Cowboy since Dennis Thurman in 1983 to intercept a pass and return a fumble for a touchdown. As the man himself said, “I just wanted to come out here and prove that I’m still the player I was drafted to be, and I feel like I showed that tonight.”

Hooker wasn’t the story, though. He was but one piece of it. Dallas, the domain of stars, was carried to victory by a host of names below lead billing. Yes, Dak Prescott threw for three touchdowns while Tony Pollard glided in for two more. CeeDee Lamb heaped more dirt on the narrative that he isn’t an alpha receiver. But Lamb wasn’t the receiver with the biggest moments; Michael Gallup was, thanks to his first two-touchdown game since 2020.

Trevon Diggs’ only notable play against the Colts was getting cooked for a touchdown by Indianapolis’ fourth receiver, Ashton Dulin. Meanwhile, fifth-round rookie DaRon Bland made a key pass breakup on a potential game-tying two-point conversion in the third quarter, before scoring a pair of key interceptions in the fourth.

Micah Parsons wasn’t the Cowboys edge rusher with the biggest highlights. Nor was Tank Lawrence. Or even Dorance Armstrong. No, it was second-round pick Sam Williams who stole the show with a tackle for a loss and a fourth-quarter fumble recovery.

That scoop-and-score from Hooker? The fumble was caused by Damone Clark, who was taken nine spots after Bland this year. (If you’re keeping score at home, that’s three 2022 rookies who helped disrupt this game. Dan Morse will write about Dallas’ latest excellent draft class tomorrow.)

Anthony Barr, back from an injury, had a sack and a tackle for a loss. Jonathan Hankins, the enormous trade deadline booby prize, did exactly what Dallas hoped for as a difference-maker stuffing the run. Even undrafted rookie Malik Davis had a moment when he scored the game’s final touchdown on a 23-yard scamper.

The Colts are a rather bad team; Dallas didn’t need this heavy of a barrage to send them packing. They could have settled for 14 fourth-quarter points instead of 33, the second-most in NFL history. They would have coasted without doubling the most points Indianapolis had allowed in a game all season.

But they dominated. And impressive as it all was, the flourish was less important than who delivered it. Any successful team can have its stars run roughshod over an inferior opponent. It takes another gear for the role players to set the tone. Find the right understudies, and you never have to worry about the show going on.  

Gave the people what they wanted

A curious thing happened when the Cowboys broke the huddle on the game’s opening drive: Tony Pollard, not Ezekiel Elliott, was lined up at running back to start the first series.

And the second series.

And the third.

It took until nearly the midway point of the first quarter for Elliott to step onto the field, which is decidedly not the pecking order we’re used to around these parts. When Dallas got in the red zone, Pollard, not Elliott, was the one who racked up the short-yardage touchdowns prior to the game getting out of hand.

Considering this came on the back of two consecutive games in which Pollard out-touched Elliott, it’s hard not to take this as a signal of some sort of hierarchy change.

Ready for the caveats? Elliott is only three games removed from a two-game spell on the sidelines with a knee injury, so perhaps this workload redistribution is only temporary. Either way, this is still very much a platoon: Elliott touched the ball 20 times to Pollard’s 15 against Indianapolis.

However! Elliott’s last five touches came in garbage time, after Pollard had been removed from the game. And it’s hard to argue against this split working well for all parties involved. Pollard, one of the NFL’s most explosive backfield playmakers, continues to make big moments as his workload climbs. Elliott, perhaps fresher with a reduced one, had his best rushing game since Week 5 of the 2021 season in the Thanksgiving win, then followed it up with another efficient performance on Sunday. And the Cowboys keep winning.

After two years of beseeching by the media and the fan base, Dallas has begun to use its best running back like its best running back. No, I cannot believe I just typed that, either.

Reappropriated the kettle

Back to Zeke for a moment. Elliott invented the Salvation Army kettle celebration, so it’s only right that he took his stomping grounds back from the tight ends after their righteous Whac-a-Mole celebration from Thanksgiving:

What say you? Whac-a-Mole or Zeke-in-the-box?

I prefer the former, but reasonable minds can disagree on two S-tier performances. Just as long as we’re all on the same page about the NFL being out of its gourd to fine players for having fun.

Got their roll on

This sort of thing is probably triggering if you’re an Oregon Ducks fan. For the rest of us, it’s always fun to see one of these plays circle around every now and again:

That sound you hear is your high school football coach screaming himself hoarse about always playing to the whistle.

Heard a Freudian slip?

Do I believe Jason Garrett intended to say “coached for him for years?” Absolutely.

Did I audibly cackle anyway? Absolutely.

Got a timeline on Tyron

Back in August, Jerry Jones was about the only man in North Texas projecting optimism after Tyron Smith suffered an avulsion fracture in his knee during training camp. “We’ll have him back for the playoffs,” the Cowboys owner assured his fanbase and for as presumptuous as it seemed to be about the oft-injured 31-year-old’s recovery—to say nothing of guaranteeing playoff football, given how bleak the state of Cowboys football appeared at the time—Jerry was correct. Extremely correct, it turns out:

Dallas has two more gimme games on the docket before the Christmas Eve rematch with Philadelphia, so there’s no reason to rush here. But Tyler Smith rotating in at left guard for a second consecutive week is proof that the Cowboys are expecting Tyron Smith to reintegrate sooner than later. And presuming the line’s elder statesman returns at full strength, this unit will have plenty of time to become its best self prior to the playoffs.


Mike Piellucci

Mike Piellucci

View Profile
Mike Piellucci is D Magazine's sports editor. He is a former staffer at The Athletic and VICE, and his freelance…

Related Articles

Dallas 500

Meet the Dallas 500: Bill Hancock, College Football Playoff

The executive director of the now 12-team College Football Playoff discusses his belief that college athletes are students first, that one time a Final Four game was delayed because they couldn't get to the basketballs, and more.

Mike Zimmer’s Return to Dallas Is No Cowboys Nostalgia Act

Yes, he's worked here before. And yes, he's pushing 70 years old. But there's reason to believe the once and again defensive coordinator's schemes remain on the cutting edge.

This Sunday, Spot These North Texans in the Super Bowl LVIII Broadcast

The Cowboys aren't in the Super Bowl, but Sunday's game will still have some North Texas flavor.