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You Will Remember This Bye Week

October 24 2015

If you look closely, you can see what is about to happen.

Okay, so there’s a little false bravado there. Of course we can never know the future and to act like you know a team will win the Super Bowl is the height of delusional homerism. But still. Before the season started I wrote an aggressively long blog post This Time is Different. In it, I talked about 20 years of memories about the Cowboys and then a bit about why this 2015 team had a chance at something special.

After 3 straight losses and a 2-3 record, that notion of special-ness might seem laughable. It’s not. One of the key things I mentioned is the importance of injuries. A team can have all the talent or potential in the world, but if you have the wrong injuries, a season can go down the drain. Scandrick, the secondary’s best player and the defense’s heart gets hurt before the season starts. Randy Gregory looks great in his first game, gets hurt. Our most game-breaking player, Dez, gets hurt that week, too. Romo. Hurt. Lance Dunbar looks like he might be the second coming of Darren Sproles: done.

But here we are. 0-3 looks bad, but let’s look at those three losses. Even without Dez or Romo and therefore without a legitimate deep threat, defenses stacking the box, and no run game, the Boys were up 14-0 and 21-7 on Atlanta. The team only cratered in the second half when the offense sputtered and the defense was constantly on the field. The New Orleans game had the same dynamic for almost the entire 60 minutes, but the Cowboys still got overtime out of it. Against the Patriots, 30-6 looks ugly, but this was a 3-3 game at one point in the second quarter and the defense was getting pressure on Brady that nobody else has, in spite of six three-and-outs to start the game for the offense and constant terrible field position.

In that post I talked about how excited I was about the defense. Sean Lee returning and playing alongside McClain and Hitchens. The pass rush potential of Lawrence, Hardy, and Gregory. Byron Jones. Was I wrong? At times this defense has looked elite, and that’s without the other half of the team supporting it. If the Cowboys had this defense last year, they would have won the Super Bowl. Hardy is an ungodly monster. Lawrence hasn’t quite taken the world by storm, but he’s had a number of plays. Jones held the best athlete in the league to under 70 yards last week. As a rookie. Oh, and Mo Claiborne, whom I was hopeful about has actually rounded into form. He’s playing like a high-level draft pick. What if he continues to play like this and the Cowboys lock him up to a team-friendly deal part of the way into the season?

Enough with that conjecture; the pressing issue is that no matter how well this team plays, if the offense doesn’t figure something out before Romo gets back, the season is over. That’s why this bye week was so exciting. For years it has felt like this team dragged its feet on making important decisions. Hanging onto Bledsoe for so long when Romo was waiting in the wings. Continuing to trot Brad Johnson and Brooks Bollinger out there when it was obvious neither of them had what it took. But this time? This time the organization when Romo went down decided that Weeden might work but they needed a backup plan. They went out and got Cassel for cheap and that might end up saving the season. More importantly, they actually made the change.

Similarly, the Cowboys realized that the duo of Randle and McFadden had potential, but they needed a wild card. They went out and go the athletic high-ceiling Christine Michael for cheap, as well. McFadden hasn’t showed a lot, but Randle is an enigma. He’s had some spectacular plays like that 1-handed catch and run against the Giants and the 40-yard TD against Atlanta after breaking a few tackles. He’s also had a number of nice cutbacks that go for smaller gains. But he’s very boom or bust and you don’t know whether to trust him, if the dive over the pile in New Orleans was any indication. Down four points in the NFC championship game and needing a crucial 3rd and 2, do you trust Randle?

Here’s what I think might happen tomorrow, and I’ll develop that into a more and more fantastical picture of what could happen for the season. This Cowboys teams goes into New York extremely confident. They know they are 2-3 but they’ve seen the same flashes we have. That’s why Mincey isn’t mincing words when he talks about how this team feels, why Hardy keeps talking trash, and why Romo told Brady that they’d see them in February. This team believes it is good. Maybe the entire team is Bill Simmon’s Irrational Confidence Guy. Sometimes that confidence can make you play bigger than you are. Or maybe they really are that big. All that matters is that the team has the right mindset going forward (in contrast to the Giants who are coming off a real drumming and has the same blurry picture of the Cowboys as us).

Don’t be shocked if this team comes out tomorrow and the defense has a dominant performance. Don’t be surprised if this offense moves the ball for the first time in a month. The Giants aren’t very good. For that matter, neither are the Eagles or the Redskins. The next four games, which looked killer at the beginning of the season are @New York, Seattle, Philly, @Tampa Bay. Does that scare you? It shouldn’t. All of those games are winnable.

This is the perfect storm for the Cowboys. Yeah, they had some tough injuries to start the season, but their division isn’t very good. Nobody isn’t running away with this. Had we not lost our two top offensive players, this team could very easily by 5-1 or 6-0 right now (but yes, injuries are a part of the game, and yes, they could have very easily lost the Giants game). When you look outside the East, does anyone in the conference really scare you? We played with Atlanta, one of the better teams. Carolina is difficult to get a read on. Seattle is down. Arizona and Green Bay look like the class of the conference, but they aren’t dynastic-level teams. In the AFC New England is the top or right at it, and the Cowboys played them tough for a half with a broken arm.

Why not have some fun with this? Let’s say the Cowboys go into New York and win tomorrow. If they do and the season does turn around, you know that the trip to Groun Zero will be talked about for a long time. That’s not to be cynical or cold about it, it’s just that is the very calculated move aimed at focusing players that great coaches sometimes do (Mavs fans, don’t look, but Pat Riley’s “15 Strong” bowl in 2006 comes to mind). The addition of Gregory makes for one of the better pass rushes in the league. Cassel, a fan of the team as a kid, comes in and gives us just enough to win a few of the next four games. He becomes Garrett 2.0 (the savior backup QB). Butler and Michael add a new dynamic to the offense. Michael and his likable personality is the perfect fit for running back of the Dallas Cowboys. Collins goes from Draft Day heartache to starting on the best line in the league. Somewhere in the next month Dez returns. Finally, Romo comes back just before Thanksgiving and this team takes off into the playoffs. A home game in the divisional round and trips to Green Bay and Arizona (in no particular order) culminates in…

Well, we won’t go there. A Boy can dream, though, can’t he?

Part of living in the moment includes being aware of and considering all of the possibilites, both good and bad. End of Bye Week Eve seems like as good a place as any to dream.