By Greg Price
My Dallas Cowboys sit perched atop the NFC East standings in the National Football League, tied for the overall best record with the Minnesota Vikings at 5-1 — and yet I still have this slight feeling of dread.
Can you blame me?
Teams have ebbs and flows with how good they are over the years (unless you are the maddeningly consistent New England Patriots in recent years.) The Cowboys share the record for most Super Bowl appearances (8) with the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos, corresponding to the most NFC championships (8). The Cowboys won five of those Super Bowl appearances, tying them with their NFC rivals, the San Francisco 49ers, both second to Pittsburgh’s record six Super Bowl championships. The Cowboys are the only NFL team to record 20 straight winning seasons (1966–85), in which they only missed the playoffs twice (1974 and 1984), an NFL record that remains unchallenged.
Now that is the good news, including me getting to enjoy the Cowboys Super Bowl victories in 1992, 1993 and 1995. But since then, there has been a perpetual grey cloud hovering above the franchise.
Discipline and off-field problems have seemed to stick to the Cowboys since the mid-90s’, starting off with star receiver Michael Irvin being suspended by the league for five games in 1996 following a drug-related offence. Second verse, same as the first, it looked like the nightmare was continuing with what was already seen as a weak defence for 2016 made even worse when linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory were all suspended for substance abuse issues. It was the third year in a row the Cowboys have started a season with players suspended for violating league rules including low lights such as Greg Hardy (2015 domestic violence), Joseph Randle (2015 personal conduct), Orlando Scandrick (2014 PED) and Jakar Hamilton (2014 substance abuse).
From the mid-90s on, the Dallas Cowboys have looked to be a solid team on paper, only to have its personnel, either through players, upper management or coaches, make their season implode.
It’s been a laissez-faire attitude that has surfaced in so many ways be it the Cowboys perennially being one of the most penalized teams in the league where no leadership has emerged, and a management team that has focused more on football skills to the determent of ignoring one’s character on and off the field. It is not like those early 90s Cowboys didn’t have their loose cannons in Michael Irvin, Nate Newton, Charles Haley etc., it’s just they had players like Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith along with a no-nonsense coach like Jimmy Johnson to reel them in.
But there seems to be a different air about the Cowboys in 2016 as personnel decisions looked to have been firmly snatched away from Jerry Jones who was giving Al Davis a run for his money as being clueless at the draft table. Rumours abound that Jones wanted to draft head case and quarterback Johnny Manziel with the No. 16 pick of the 2014 draft despite having numerous other glaring needs and Pro Bowler Tony Romo in house, only to have his son Stephen, executive vice president in charge of player personnel overrule him and instead pick guard Zach Martin who is now part of what is arguably the NFL’s best offensive line. ‘Sexy’ picks have been replaced by moves like a center (Travis Frederick) being drafted in the first round in 2013 as the Cowboys have gone offensive in three of its last six drafts in the first round.
This year’s draft has netted solid contributions to the team’s 5-1 record with running back Ezekiel Elliott having rushed for more yards than 23 NFL teams in early October. Maliek Collins (third round) has made contributions on the defensive line on a defence that has been in dire need of playmakers. Fourth-round pick Dak Prescott, at least in the first third of the 2016 season, looks to be the steal of the 2016 draft, having outperformed all the quarterbacks selected before him including top picks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. Sixth-round pick and cornerback Anthony Brown has provided solid depth on a team that has had its share of injuries in the secondary.
A no-frills defence, that despite all the suspensions and no big names apart from linebacker Sean Lee, currently have the seventh-ranked unit in the league, giving up 17.8 points a game and have kept their usual bone-headed penalties that extend drives unnecessarily to a minimum.
An offence that looked to be in panic mode when starter Tony Romo and backup Kellen Moore went down with injury, has been saved by both Prescott and Elliott who are not only performing at a Rookie of the Year level, but MVP consideration as well. Wide receivers Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams have elevated their game after an injury to Pro Bowler Dez Bryant, getting extra time for separation from the aforementioned stellar offensive line.
And still all this, and I still have my hesitations. I can take a team losing, it is how the Cowboys that have lost ‘the wrong way’ in the last 20 years that have been so maddening for me as a Cowboys fan.
Poor drafts mixed in with country club coaches, little scrutiny of players who have had their fair share of run ins with the law and/or league, undisciplined penalties that have either killed drives offensively or extended drives defensively and finding new and inventive ways to blow games. It has been a trying time to be a Cowboys fan these last 20 years for a squad that has perennially underperformed given the talent it has had on paper.
But are the grey clouds parting? Rookies Prescott and Elliott are saying and doing all the right things. Elliott, despite keeping up a pace that could threaten Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record of 1,808 yards in 1983, is attributing his good fortune to his offensive line, keeping it modest at every turn. Prescott, being 5-1 as a starter and having a 103.9 passer rating currently spent his bye week visiting his grandma and fishing instead of taking up talk show, Vegas trip and overseas endorsement offers. The no-frills defence seems to have different players making big plays at the most opportune time for a unit that has been thankfully underexposed due to long Cowboys drives in time of possession. This is a team that so far looks like it has its head firmly on its shoulders in terms of on and off the field leadership.
Here are a few suggestions to keep the mojo running for the 2016:
Do not rush Romo – I’ve never really understood the hate for quarterback Tony Romo. He has been a guy that has consistently performed in the top half to quarter of the league, has made four Pro Bowl appearances, has a 97.1 career passer rating and has thrown for nearly 35,000 yards and 250 touchdowns despite missing considerable time recently with injury. Not bad for an undrafted quarterback out of Eastern Illinois. But chronic back injuries as of late is something to take seriously, if not only with the Cowboys short-term success, but also Romo’s long-term health well past his NFL years. A quarterback controversy may be brewing, but for now, why mess with good team chemistry and winning by trying to accelerate Romo’s return time unnecessarily? Romo adds the component of the deep pass that Prescott has not found yet in his young development, but if what is currently working with a ball-control running game and smart, effective mistake-free throws (only one interception to date) by Prescott has led to a 5-1 record, why fix what is not broken at this time? Teams are envious of the quarterback depth the Cowboys have right now.
Give Elliott a breather: While it is entertaining to watch Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott at a current record-setting pace at running back, par down his carries so that he does not hit the rookie wall later in the year. The Cowboys are filled with battle-tested and useful running backs in Alfred Morris, Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar, that are aided by a top-three offensive line, use them to protect your prized possession.
Show off-the-field leadership: If any of the defensive players who are returning from suspension continue to cause problems in the dressing room or off the field, cut them, plain and simple. The Cowboys have proven to be able to win without them, so that confidence in them that they can continue to do that has to be shown. Do not let the malcontents poison team chemistry just because their combined skills may have been rated a little higher than the starters you currently have. If the players returning from suspension can buy into the team concept fine, if not, cut them and find players that will. This includes the offensive side of the ball as well, in making bold and firm decisions with an upcoming quarterback controversy and how Pro Bowl wide receiver Dez Bryant will fit into the fold returning from injury. Bryant is an electric player that stretches the field with his skill, but if he starts to sulk that he isn’t getting the ball enough, the offensive co-ordinator and quarterback don’t need to alter successful play calling just to accommodate him. It is all about building a culture that has been absent for so many years. Why do you think teams like the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers have been able to sustain successful franchises for so long, it is because of a culture that goes past fantasy football statistics.
How ever the 2016 season pans out for my Dallas Cowboys, I’m just going to enjoy the ride while I can. Call me a guarded optimist for now — 20 years of disappointment have made me this way.