3 & Out

3 & Out: Meet The Cowboys' Most Underrated Player

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FRISCO, Texas – Back with three quick topics during the most welcome bye week of all-time:

  • Building blocks
  • Special contributor
  • What's next?

I Know…
the Steelers game wasn't a signature win for Mike McCarthy, but it was still a program builder.

Every new coach eventually gets that first significant victory, a tangible sign of progress for a new staff establishing new schemes and philosophies.

Bill Parcells got his in Week 2 of the 2003 season when rookie kickoff returner Zuriel Smith made a heads-up special teams play – the exact scenario Parcells preached over and over again in training camp – and the Cowboys beat the Giants in overtime. Jason Garrett, now the Giants' offensive coordinator, got his in 2010, one month into his interim head coach stint, when the Cowboys beat Peyton Manning and the Colts on the road in overtime.

The Cowboys have two wins this season, but neither came the McCarthy way. Above almost anything else, he demands ball security. The Cowboys pulled off improbable second-half comebacks against the Falcons and Giants but had a minus turnover ratio in both games.

In last Sunday's loss to the Steelers, the defense played easily its best game. The special teams arguably did, too. And the offense under quarterback Garrett Gilbert functioned at a level not seen since Dak Prescott got hurt against the Giants on Oct. 11.

The Cowboys need this bye week. They need a chance to collect themselves physically and emotionally after a three-month stretch with more twists and turns than Six Flags. They don't play again until Nov. 22 at Minnesota. Maybe that's too much time to carry over momentum.

But some confidence should be building as McCarthy continues building his program.

I Think…
C.J. Goodwin has played as well as anyone on the team this season.

It probably goes largely unnoticed to casual fans, since the fifth-year veteran cornerback has not played a single defensive snap this season. That's OK. His role is special teams ace for coordinator John "Bones" Fassel, and he does it quite well.

Goodwin has played 76% of the special teams snaps, most on the team. He has seven tackles on kickoff and punt coverage, most on the team. He's made a combo of solid and spectacular plays for a group that has battled inconsistency but played its best game against Pittsburgh.

In the fourth quarter last Sunday, he sped past sideline coverage to bust up a Steelers punt return at the 21-yard line as Dallas clung to a one-point lead.

In the second quarter he showed off his acting chops, appearing to feign a hamstring pull so he could stealthily drift into position to catch punt returner Cedrick Wilson's "Music City Miracle-style" pass across the field. The punt went deeper than expected, though.

"He realized he had about 40 more yards to run, so his hamstring miraculously healed and he had to sprint behind the ball so Ced could make the lateral," Fassel said with a laugh. "That was kind of part of the fun this week, trying to think of all the modes of deception you could use for plays like that."

The result: an 83-yard return by Goodwin down the left sideline, aided by key blocks from Dorance Armstrong and Justin March, setting up a Greg Zuerlein field goal for a 13-0 lead.

And don't forget the single biggest heads-up play of the season in the Week 2 comeback win over Atlanta: Goodwin recovering Zuerlein's slow-rolling, sideways onside kick while three Falcons players stood and watched.

"What he's meant to our team, first of all just as a player on the field has been undeniable," Fassel said. "He's fast, he's tough, he's so versatile. … He means a lot to our team and a ton to our special teams."

I Have No Idea…
what to expect the rest of this season.

Truly, I don't.

Does anyone, really?

Seven games left. Only one team with a winning record (6-2 Baltimore). Opponents' combined record: 22-34-2.

Is the NFC East title actually still within reach? Ask most people outside the building before the Steelers game, and the answer would probably go something like this. Technically? Sure. Realistically? No. Not with the injuries they have at key positions and the problems they've had executing on offense, defense and special teams. Some games it's been a struggle for two out of three. Some games it's been a trifecta of issues.

The fist fight against Pittsburgh was the first complete team performance all season. Maybe that's a sign of things to come.

But the wins won't resurface unless they get the turnovers under control. For all the good vibes from last Sunday, the Cowboys lost that one the same way they lost the previous six. Two turnovers led to six Steelers points. The Steelers won by five.

Through nine games, the Cowboys have (by far) the league's worst turnover margin at minus-13. With a league-high 20 turnovers, they're on pace for 35, the most by a Cowboys team since 2004 (37).

Fix that, and this might be a more competitive finish than anyone thought a month ago.

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