In a majority of road games, the Dallas Cowboys are favored because they like to travel, as they are 8-0 on the road. Last week the Cowboys knocked out the Detroit Lions, so now they have a date with the Green Bay Packers, who are 8-0 on Lambeau Field. They say that defense travels, which is something you can’t really depend on from Big D, so to speak. The other thing known to travel into the playoffs and on the road, the running game. It took a concerted effort and commitment to rebuilding the offensive line, and this season the Cowboys have reaped the benefits in every way.
Success for America’s Team is quite simple, and has trickled into a domino effect. The front office philosophy shifted towards old school football, and it put them in a great position to excel, especially at these highlighted keys:
1. Tony Romo is a proven quarterback in this league, as in, he’s a franchise guy with some Pro Bowl appearances. Probably in most of your top-7 rankings, and like any quarterback, Romo needed more help from his supporting cast to take them to the next level. He has literally shouldered the load for years, leaning on Jason Witten in the process, but the tendency to call more passing plays exposed him too much. Whenever you ask someone to do something so often, they become more susceptible to errors, hence the historic, game-killing turnovers. Romo has mobility and the instincts to scramble and pick up smart yards. Those skills are even more dangerous that he gets more time with the play-action.
2. The emergence of DeMarco Murray has been the key to everything. You can have a great passer like the Colts do in Andrew Luck, but as you’ve seen, it doesn’t necessarily equate to a strong ground game. Winning battles up front clearly separates the contenders from the pretenders, but you have to have the running back that can bring it on game days. Contract year or not, Murray focused on taking care of his body more last offseason and the Cowboys are in the playoffs. Strong O-line or not, I do not believe the Boys reach the postseason with a committee between Joe Randle and Lance Dunbar. Looking at recent seasons, the Cowboys always had this missing link that caused them to go home after week 17. Murray was on a mission this season, not only did he touch the field every week, he ran his way to the top of the league.
3. Dez Bryant, who is also in a contract year, is the present and future at wide receiver. Learning to channel his excitement and emotion, Bryant torched through secondaries this season for 16 touchdowns. After showing flashes of dominance, everything finally came together between him and Romo. It helped that Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley stepped up when the offense needed another guy to. Defenses were attacking the backfield, starting to corral Romo and Murray, which was phasing Bryant out of participation. Then Beasley was running crosses from the slot. Then Williams would beat single coverage and hang onto a deep ball. Witten was part of a strong blocking performance for the league’s leading rusher, but also kept Romo upright. It was until playoff mode that Witten got more involved through the air, which makes them a balanced offense all around.
4. Keeping the ball on the ground, moving the chains, chewing up the clock, that has been the main reason this defense turned around in such a big way. After being historically bad in 2013, they converted to a cover-2 defense into the 4-3 scheme. When the opposing offense has been on the sidelines for what feels like forever, these fresh defenders are in prime position to look better than the talent actually reveals. The offense is delivering the body blows by keeping opposing defenses on the field, waring them down, which leads to scoring points. If the defense is barely on the field but usually playing with a lead, you’re going to win a lot of games. There’s nothing really innovative or different that they didn’t do in 2013, but the fact that they are doing the job helped them win their 2nd playoff game since 1996. Oh yeah, Jason Garrett is also in the final year of his deal, I think he returns as head coach while Bryant gets a long-term extension, and Murray getting the franchise tag.
As for this Sunday against Green Bay, they have to attack the middle of their defense. The Cheese Heads play better defense at home, a place where Aaron Rodgers posted back-to-back 50+ point affairs this season. Romo has thrown for a lot of yards and won games before, just not at this magnitude, with a trip to the NFC Championship game on the line. Dallas needs their bread and butter to pull this one out, I don’t like their chances if they fall behind early on the road. Last week’s comeback was gutsy but in perspective, they played at Jerry World and the Lions are in a similar boat as the Cowboys, learning how to win.
Glancing around the league at teams that play the same style of football:
The San Diego Chargers made the playoffs in 2013. They have a franchise QB in Philip Rivers, a Hall of Fame Tight End in Antonio Gates, but it was Ryan Mathews that steered them into the playoffs. Another running back with an extended injury history, Mathews played in every game but one, unlike this past season. They sound a lot like the Cowboys, granted, the O-line has been mediocre at-best in San Diego. The defense isn’t special but we’ve even seen them have their way for stretches during the season, when they found ways to run in Mathews’ absence. Speaking of Mathews, who is now a free agent, he was inherited by this new regime. Any return will likely be discounted, however, I think he wears a different jersey next season with a new feature back in powder blue.
How about the Philadelphia Eagles? The rushing crown stays in the NFC East with Murray, if you recall, it belonged to LeSean McCoy in 2013. He didn’t get banged up or anything this season, and after the O-line persevered through injuries, the unit should return to the elite realm in 2015. Sure, Darren Sproles and Zach Ertz were probably underutilized, despite a career year from Jeremy Maclin off his knee injury. Rookies, Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff, have shown enough promise to be role players for the Eagles offense, which should allow them to free up cap space by moving on from Riley Cooper someday. The defense was better against the run, but the pass-rushers didn’t play with a lead too often, so the secondary got exposed and abused. How are they similar? The key was Nick Foles going down for the second half of the campaign. He shined and got them to the playoffs, fresh off a 4-12 season in 2012. Again, you can’t just have a good line and run game if you have big aspirations, you need your guy under center, even if he was going through growing pains.