After losing their first game of the season at home, the Dallas Cowboys rattled of a string of consecutive wins to catapult themselves near the top of the standings and into national discussion — a description that can be used for both the 2014 and 2016 Dallas Cowboys.
For those that remember, the Cowboys ended up posting a 12-4 record in 2014, tied for best in the league. After losing its season opener against San Francisco, Dallas won their next six games. Demarco Murray set an NFL record with 8 consecutive games of 100 or more rushing yards to start a season. Their quarterback was as efficient as ever, and the defense made plays when needed.
We’re five games into the 2016 season, and literally the exact same storyline is playing out.
The only real difference is who’s playing quarterback and running back. One position has a clear starter, the other, a brewing quarterback controversy, made possible by the incredible play from Dak Prescott.
By now, we all know about the 23-year-old rookie from Mississippi State. Prescott has set an NFL record with the most pass attempts by a rookie to start a career without an interception with 156. The 2014 starter, Tony Romo, has been one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL by any metric, and was a legitimate MVP candidate in 2014.
So who starts at quarterback once Romo is healthy from his compression fracture in his vertebrae? Reports are out that his MRI came back clean today, and he is on pace to return Week 8 following the Cowboys bye.
Do the Cowboys stay with the red-hot Prescott, or do they go back to the veteran who has been a top ten QB in his career in Dallas? After the Cowboys sheer dominating 28-14 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, the hot takes will only get hotter begging the question, Dak or Romo?
The answer: It doesn’t matter who plays quarterback for the Cowboys.
It’s more than evident that this team can win with Dak. We have seen enough to know this isn’t a fluke or gimmick. His incredible poise in the pocket for a rookie is unparalleled. He can beat you with his legs as well, as evident by the zone read runs introduced to the Dallas playbook and his three rushing touchdowns just five games into the season (one which just happening to come on a zone read).
Then you have Romo, who in 2014 completed 70% of his passes, with 3,705 yards passing and 34 touchdowns to just nine interceptions, all while leading the team to a 12-4 mark.
Again, it doesn’t matter.
Put either quarterback behind center and this team will win ball games. I’ve seen enough to know they have the DNA for it. Coming off an injury riddled 2015 campaign that saw them go 4-12, the excuses were plenty.
They didn’t have Romo. They didn’t have Dez. They didn’t have a running back. They didn’t have a good enough defense.
Well, they haven’t had Romo all season. They haven’t had Dez the last two games. They’ve been without Orlando Scandrick, their number one cornerback who missed all of last year with a torn ACL, and most of this year with a hamstring injury. No more Greg Hardy. No Randy Gregory. No Rolando McClain. All three starters gone from last year, yet this team is winning games they didn’t win last year.
The reason is incredibly simple. Be physical, control the line of scrimmage, and control the time of possession of the game. On defense, keep the play in front of you and rally to make the tackle. Force your opponent to make long, sustained drives against you to score points. Capitalize on mistakes and force turnovers.
This style of football lends itself incredibly well to winning games.
For one, when you’re eating up all those yards on the ground, your 3rd down distance to go is drastically shortened and you have the entire playbook at your disposal. There’s a reason why Dallas leads the league in 3rd down conversion percentage at 50%. It also makes throwing a ball a heck of a lot easier when you have defenses preparing to stop the run. There’s a reason why Dak Prescott, even as a rookie, is completing 69% of his passes, and is the league’s 2nd highest rated passer over the last four weeks at 114.7.
The real story here is Ezekiel Elliot and the Dallas offensive line, who is billed as the top unit in the league. Elliot leads the league in rushing with 546, (next closest is 2014 Dallas running back Demarco Murray) has seen his average yards per carry increase in every game this season, and has rushed for 412 yards in his last three games alone, which is more than all but five running backs have rushed for though the entire season. After struggling a bit in his first game developing chemistry with the line, Zeke and the Cowboys have found their stride and won’t be looking back.
Barring injury, it’s almost assured he will lead the league in rushing, and might even be a threat to break the rookie rushing record of 1,808 yards set by Eric Dickerson in 1983. A true complete back, Zeke is able to run with power and truck over defenders to pick up a 3rd and 2, while also able to hit the home run and break away from 60 yards for a score as he showed Sunday against Cincinnati.
When you combine the ability of Zeke with the versatility of the Dallas offensive line, you have a real matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. They have the strength to run man. They have the lateral mobility to run zone and get out on the edge. They have the ability to pull a lineman and get him out in front against a linebacker or safety. And they’re equally apt at pass protection, as Dak Prescott has only been sacked 7 times, second fewest in the league.
It’s no surprise they’re second in the league in time of possession, controlling the ball for almost 34 minutes per game on average. This helps aid a defense that was ridiculed in 2015 with no offensive support and tied an NFL record for fewest forced turnovers in a season with 11. So far this year they have already forced five through five games. They are middle of the road in sacks with 10, and 8th in scoring defense, making clutch plays when needed to win ball games. After moving defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford to defensive end, and with the return of DeMarcus Lawrence from suspension, the defensive line might have found a solid enough rotation from the much-maligned defensive line.
With the impending return of Dez Bryant and Orlando Scandrick from injuries, the Cowboys will only be getting stronger before their week 7 bye, regardless of whether or not Romo plays the following week as reported.
Prescott is getting the love right now, as he should. While the coaching staff is doing a great job putting him in positions to make plays, he’s the one making them. A rookie record 156 pass attempts without an interception is nothing to sneeze at, as well as 69% completion percentage, and 2nd highest QB rating in the last four weeks. But this team isn’t 4-1 strictly on quarterback play. Prescott is also 29th in the league in attempts per game and 23rd in yards per game, numbers that Romo can absolutely meet and surpass once healthy.
Using the formula and majority of their talent from 2014, the Dallas Cowboys are for real this season, and it doesn’t matter who their quarterback is. A problem that 31 other teams wish they had.