How the Dallas Cowboys became the Favorites Of the NFC East

November 12th, 2017, a day that will live in Dallas Cowboys infamy. At 5-3, the Cowboys traveled to Atlanta with hopes of winning their fourth consecutive game and staying in playoff contention. Instead, they suffered the most embarrassing loss of Jason Garrett’s tenure as head coach.

Already without All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith, Dallas was also burdened by not having star running back Ezekiel Elliott, who was missing his first of six games due to suspension. To make matters worse, defensive captain Sean Lee, left in the first quarter with a hamstring injury. The Cowboys went on the lose 27-7 and the game was headlined by Smith’s backup Chaz Green, who gave up five sacks to Atlanta’s defensive end Adrian Clayborn. The loss marked the first of a three-game losing skid that saw the Cowboys playoff hopes burst due to the worst offensive stretch in team history. The repercussions from the Falcons loss were felt throughout the entire organization, but by none one more so than quarterback, Dak Prescott.

Prescott was sacked eight times that day and was not the same afterward; his mechanics were off the remainder of the season. He started to rush throws in anticipation of pressure in the pocket that really wasn’t there and as a result, his accuracy, decision making, and even his confidence regressed. The 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year walked into the Mercedes-Benz Stadium seemingly never to return.

Dallas faced a similar situation almost exactly a year later. On November 18th, 2018, the 4-5 Cowboys returned to Atlanta in need of a win to stay alive in the race for the NFC East. Coaches and players were questioned the entire week leading up to the game about last year’s debacle and it was clear from the various responses given that the game was still haunting this franchise. Facing the make-or-break point of their season, Dallas pulled off the upset win and extinguished some demons in the process.

After sitting on his couch helpless a year ago, Elliott dominated the Falcons with 201 yards from scrimmage and was the team’s leading receiver. Tyron Smith left the game late with a minor stinger injury, but he too was a difference maker by not giving up a single sack, hit, or quarterback hurry. Quite a difference from the six sacks allowed from the left tackle position last year. Sean Lee once again had to sit out with a hamstring injury, but his absence was hardly noticed with a rookie linebacker Leighton Vander-Esch, continuing to play phenomenal in his place. The Cowboys were once 3-5 on the year and ranked near the bottom of the league in offensive passing numbers but have now won back-to-back road games and have suddenly emerged as the favorites to win the NFC East.

The Eagles dropped to 4-6 after a 48 to 7 thrashing delivered by the Saints. With virtually their entire secondary injured, making the playoffs appears to be a long shot for the defending champions. The current division-leading Washington Redskins just lost starting quarterback Alex Smith for the season in Sunday’s loss to the Texans after gruesomely breaking his leg on the 33rd anniversary of Redskins great Joe Theismann, famously breaking his leg. Washington’s strategy of holding opponents to under 20 points a game, while doing just enough on offense to eke out ugly wins, was already an unsustainable game plan in today’s high scoring league, but it now looks increasingly difficult to maintain with career back up Colt McCoy, at the helm. That just leaves the Cowboys, who three weeks ago were facing questions about Garrett’s status as head coach.

Despite the storm that erupted around the league when the trade was announced, a lot of Dallas’ turnaround can be traced back to adding wide receiver Amari Cooper. His stats haven’t been eye-popping, but his presence has completely changed how defenses scheme against the Cowboys. Even when the ball isn’t thrown to him, there’s enough tape of Cooper consistently getting open for him to be considered a legitimate threat that defenses have to game plan for. As a result, the Cowboys have been able to run Elliott more effectively with some of the attention taken off him and receivers Cole Beasley, Michael Gallup, and Allen Hurns have all received more favorable matchups.

Another key piece to the offense’s improvement has been the play of the offensive line in the past two games. When o-line coach Paul Alexander was fired and replaced by Marc Columbo, the move was met with skepticism when Prescott was sacked five times in Columbo’s first game and the offense was nonexistent in a 28-14 loss to the Tennessee Titans. Since then, Prescott has only been sacked six times and the line has done a much better job creating lanes for Elliott. Columbo deserves credit, as does fifth-year guard Xavier Su’a-Filo, who replaced struggling rookie Connor Williams as the team’s starting left guard and has looked good so far. Without Travis Fredrick, this certainly isn’t the dominating unit it was two years ago. But for the first time this season, Dallas’ line has finally started to take over games.

The one consistency with this team all year has been their defense. DeMarcus Lawrence is the quite possibly the best player on the Cowboys roster, but the emergence of Leighton Vander-Esch has been the difference maker for Dallas’ defense in their two-game winning streak. In his last two games, Vander-Esch has 21 total tackles, two interceptions, and four pass deflections. Ironically, his interception against Atlanta was the result of rookie receiver Calvin Ridley, the player many felt Dallas should have drafted over Vander-Esch, failing to bring in a pass from Matt Ryan and tipping the ball in the air. Vander-Esch’s best play came midway in the fourth quarter when he deflected a pass intended for tight end Austin Hooper in the end zone on 3rd and 2. Preventing the touchdown proved to be a massive play in the narrow win and showed his versatility as a linebacker. He’s tackling machine who can cover, diagnose plays, and occasionally rush the passer. Vander-Esch has entered the Defensive Rookie of the Year discussion and has finally transcended the Cowboys defense into a unit that’s not overly dependent on Sean Lee staying healthy.

Dallas is now the frontrunner in the division but it’s far from a lock. This is still an extremely flawed football team in large part, due to Garrett’s shortcomings as a game manager and offensive coordinator and Scott Linehan’s play calling. Even though the Cowboys have opened as nine-point favorites versus the Redskins on Thanksgiving, it’ll be a close game that Washington could certainly pull out. A loss would put Dallas in a rough position chasing the Redskins with a two-game lead and the head-to-head tiebreaker. Still, the Cowboys have been fortunate to stay relatively healthy and hit their stride in a terrible division where their two top competitors have seemingly begun to collapse.

Per the usual, Dallas will do just enough at the end of the season to save Garrett’s job. Either narrowing missing the playoffs by a game or losing in the Wild Card will convince Jerry and Stephen Jones to run this team back. Except, they won’t have a first-round pick in this year’s draft, a good chunk of their available cap space will go to Lawrence, and their offseason will likely be judged on how successful they are at luring 29-year-old safety, Earl Thomas, who has now been placed on injured reserve in two of the past three seasons. We’ll go through the same storylines where we criticize the head coach after each game and for the third year in a row, still be unable to properly evaluate their young quarterback because of a poor offensive infrastructure. The owner will accept mediocrity because they’ll play enough meaningful games in December that gives them the label of contenders without legitimately having a chance at winning the Super Bowl. But hey, at least they’re not the New York Giants.

Header Image: USA Today

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