If I had to look in the mirror before the start of this Dallas Cowboys season and say, “The Cowboys will be 3-1 after four games,” I couldn’t have done it with a straight face. The Cowboys are now tied for first place in the NFC East with the Philadelphia Eagles, and we must now take a step back and determine if we were wrong about these Cowboys in 2014.
The 3-1 start is the Cowboys’ first 3-1 start since 2008. I doubt anyone thought that would happen after the Cowboys lost to San Francisco to start the season. Sure, the Cowboys ran the ball well, but quarterback Tony Romo threw three interceptions and looked exactly like a guy nine months removed from back surgery should look.
The win over Tennessee was encouraging. The defense dominated the Titans, and the running game didn’t look like fool’s gold after it produced well against the 49ers. The Cowboys then showed guts in beating St. Louis, falling behind by 21 points and rallying to win a game they probably would have lost a year or two ago.
The Cowboys now demand attention for their outstanding play instead of being an outstanding train wreck.
But drilling the Saints 38-17 on Sunday night, a year after the Saints just destroyed the Cowboys in the Superdome in a game that was also on national television? The Cowboys now demand attention for their outstanding play instead of being an outstanding train wreck.
The Cowboys haven’t just bought into the run game after four contests. They’re fully vested. DeMarco Murray leads the NFL in rushing. The offensive line is shoving defenses around. New offensive play-caller Scott Linehan has completely flipped the script and the Cowboys are, finally, balanced.
Romo finally looks like himself. The Cowboys should just stick to the Wednesday core strengthening sessions because they seem to be accelerating Romo’s return to form. His deep ball still isn’t quite back, but he can now elude the rush and throw across his body the way he could last year. Wide receiver Dez Bryant is now ignoring the double teams, keeping his mouth shut and just making plays.
This defense, the one just about everyone thought would simply fall apart like a dollar store pinata, hasn’t. The players don’t impress you individually. But collectively the past three weeks they’ve gotten the job done. The key the past three weeks has been turnovers. The Cowboys have forced seven turnovers in those three games. All three have been wins.
No moment was more crucial on Sunday than midway through the fourth quarter when Cowboys fans started feeling uneasy, with the Saints down 14 and taking over at their own 40-yard line. But the defense stepped up. Sterling Moore broke up a pass. The Cowboys forced Saints quarterback Drew Brees to check down into a pass that had no chance of converting a first down. Then Dallas sniffed out a fake punt with just nine Cowboys on the field.
Last year the Cowboys defense likely would have imploded. That’s what I keep coming back to as I evaluate these Cowboys after four games. The situations that might have destroyed this team a year ago — a lack of commitment to running the football, choking on big leads, falling just short of big comebacks — aren’t happening right now. Maybe they’re just getting lucky.
But maybe they’re not. Perhaps, finally, this team has figured something out. If nothing else, through four games, they’ve bestowed upon their fans an optimism that, frankly, no one could have anticipated this time last month. Since 1990 teams that have started 3-1 reach the postseason 63 percent of the time.
Are the Cowboys a playoff team? Not yet. Have they improved their chances? Definitely. Have they become a team that you don’t have to cover your eyes to watch?