FRISCO, Texas– The first half of the season has been a whirlwind, but there's not much time to take a breath.
The Cowboys are tied for the best record in football through eight games, but the NFC East has developed into one of the league's best divisions this season. Even with a 7-1 mark, the Cowboys are going to have their work cut out for them as the weather grows colder.
Before the second half begins, though, the staff of DallasCowboys.com wanted to take a brief look back at how this team got here. The expectations weren't high for a team entering the season without Tony Romo, but the Cowboys have redefined what everyone thought they were capable of.
Here are some first half highlights and awards from staff writers Nick Eatman, David Helman, Rob Phillips and Bryan Broaddus.
Nick:Personally, how can I not pick Dak Prescott rolling to his left with Jason Witten running himself wide open in front of our entire digital media team in the back of the end zone? The game-winning TD wasn't just dramatic, but further proof this team just knows how to win.
David:It wasn't the most dramatic moment of the season, but when Ezekiel Elliott burst through the line and housed a 60-yard touchdown to put Dallas up, 28-0, on Cincinnati in Week 5, I thought to myself: "Ok, this team might be pretty special." It was the moment I became a believer.
Rob:This one's easy: the entire team swarming Jason Witten after his overtime touchdown against the Eagles was truly a special moment. It captured the chemistry on this team – the balance of youthful energy from Dak, Zeke and others with the veteran leadership from a guy like Witten, a 10-time Pro Bowler who hadn't scored a touchdown until then, often sacrificing opportunities as a receiver to help block for the top-ranked running game.
Bryan:The win at Lambeau Field. I never thought I would see a Dallas team go there and win a game as long as Aaron Rodgers was the quarterback.* *
Nick:A sign of a good team is finding a way to win. They've had chances to lose, like the game vs. Philly. If the Eagles don't lose seven yards on third down, they likely kick a field goal to put the game out of reach. Things would look different in the NFC East if the Cowboys lose that one.
David:It feels like ancient history now, but remember Zeke's second fumble of the Redskins game? The Cowboys were driving to take the lead with less than seven minutes to play, and he lost the ball just outside the Washington red zone. Doug Free recovered the ball, allowing the Cowboys to go on to the go-ahead touchdown. But what if he hadn't? What if Elliott had lost the ball, helping the Cowboys to an 0-2 record in the process? Lucky bounces need to go your way in this game.
Rob:Think about it: this team is fingertips away from being 8-0. If Dak Prescott's passes connect with Cole Beasley and Dez Bryant down around the red zone, the Cowboys score two touchdowns instead of two field goals and beat the Giants by a touchdown instead of losing by a point, 20-19.
Bryan:Drafting Ezekiel Elliott over Jalen Ramsey. I promise the room was split over that decision.
Nick:Of course this answer has to be Dak-related. Nothing even comes close. I'll take an aspect about his game that has surprised me the most. How about a 12-2 ratio with TDs to interceptions. For a young player, he doesn't force the issue but still takes what is there and is starting to be even more aggressive.
David:I remember doing a radio interview before the regular season started, and I said I thought the Cowboys could win games with Dak Prescott – but not enough. I thought they'd be lucky to go 3-3 before the bye week with a rookie quarterback. Not only is Dak winning, he's doing so with a quarterback rating of 104.2.
Rob:The more I've learned about Prescott's outstanding background as a player and person, I'm no longer surprised by his success. Still, I don't think even the Cowboys or the most rabid Mississippi State fan thought he would be this polished and this effective this soon as a fourth-round pick who played in a spread offense in college.
Bryan:How well this secondary has played. As a group they've been outstanding. The move of Brandon Carr to right corner has made him a different player.
Nick:Gravity. There's a side to me that wonders if the "what goes up, must come down" theory will apply to this team. And if so, how do they handle it? This team *will *hit a rough patch at some point in the second half of the season. The only question is how they bounce back when they face some adversity.
David:I know they've been outstanding so far, but the secondary still worries me – especially with Morris Claiborne and Barry Church sitting out right now. The Cowboys have played great team defense, and they've made the right plays at the right times. But I think they're still susceptible to good quarterback play. Kirk Cousins hit them for 363 yards, and Aaron Rodgers missed several gimme throws in Green Bay. There are quarterbacks in this league – Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson and Matt Stafford come to mind – who can take advantage of these guys.
Rob:Will injuries catch up to the defense? They got through DeMarcus Lawrence's four-game suspension to start the year and Orlando Scandrick's four-game absence with a hamstring injury. Now Mo Claiborne and Barry Church -- whose fourth-quarter interception in Week 2 against the Redskins might be the play of the year to date – are out for a while. The secondary stepped up without them last Sunday, but better opposing quarterbacks are on the upcoming schedule, starting with Ben Roethlisberger.
Bryan:Punt returns. Not sure this team can overcome a mistake by Lucky Whitehead in this area. I wish they were more stable in this area.
Nick:Without a doubt, it's Ezekiel Elliott. Sure, we're all shocked about what's happening at quarterback. But as long as Zeke is running the ball, I feel confident this team can still win. To me, that's a true definition of the word "Valuable."
David:No disrespect intended toward Zeke, but I'm going with Dak. It's a cliché, but it's true – the quarterback touches the ball on every single play. Dak has proven to defenses that they have to respect the pass, and he has also proven he can spread the ball around in a way that last year's quarterbacks were incapable of doing. Ezekiel Elliott is the engine of this offense, but Dak is the driver who keeps it all running in the right direction.
Rob:Elliott. The Cowboys lead the NFL in rushing and time of possession and they're second in offensive efficiency, scoring touchdowns 49.4 percent of the time. For the first time in team history they've produced 400-plus yards in six straight games. So many players can take credit for this offensive renaissance, but Zeke has been the engine. The Cowboys are setting the tone with the running game in the first quarter and wearing down defenses by the fourth quarter. In my opinion, he should be a legitimate NFL MVP candidate halfway through the season.
Bryan:Dak Prescott. Has come from nowhere to lead this team into playoff contention and be a factor in them.
Nick:Let's roll with the guy that has no picks, no sacks and no tackles for loss. But I truly wonder how the defense would look without Byron Jones back in coverage. This team has a cornerback playing free safety and I think he's the reason they haven't given up many big plays.
David:He's not playing to start the second half of the season, but Morris Claiborne was lights out through the first half. He helped the defense shut down guys like Odell Beckham Jr., A.J. Green and Jordy Nelson. He swatted away deep ball after deep ball, and he made three fantastic plays to preserve a win in San Francisco. The defense got past the Browns without him, but I have a feeling the secondary might take some lumps while they wait for his return.
Rob:Terrell McClain didn't get many headlines in the offseason as part of this defensive line rotation. But he's back healthy after missing 14 games last year, and he's arguably been the defense's most consistent player. His production has allowed the Cowboys to move Tyrone Crawford outside and add some depth and extra stability to the defensive end spots.
Bryan:Barry Church. He has been the glue holding this defense together, with 45 tackles, three passes defensed and a forced fumble. That doesn't even include two game-changing interceptions, one in Washington and one in Green Bay. They could afford to play without him against Cleveland, but let's see the remaining games.* *
QB Situation Looks Like:
Nick:This situation was complicated earlier, but I don't think it's a big deal now. With Romo practicing in full, the coaching staff is getting the opportunity to see these guys next to each other. They've made all the right moves so far this year in terms of personnel, so I bet they'll do it again. If I had to guess, the Cowboys won't make a change in the middle of a winning streak.
David:If it's possible, I'm even more confused now than I was a month ago. Romo is healthy now, but he doesn't need to start while the Cowboys are winning. So are they going to wait for Dak Prescott to mess up? Or worse yet -- are they going to wait for the team to lose, even if Prescott continues to play well? It's starting to look messy. And honestly, after watching the rookie win seven of his first eight games, I'm tempted to wonder: why mess with a good thing?
Rob:Jerry Jones is exactly right about playing this thing by ear. What else can the Cowboys do? It's the most ideal situation for the short term and long term: a rookie quarterback maximizing his on-the-job training while a franchise veteran quarterback gets healthy. I said this during the bye week: there's no need to make this an emotional debate and take anything away from either player. The biggest factor for me is, how long does it take Tony Romo to be Tony Romo again? He has played two full starts since last September and only got a handful of preseason reps this year before getting hurt. I don't know that anyone can answer the question about rust unless he's back on the field taking game reps.
Bryan:Romo starts at some point, and that could be next week against the Ravens. When Romo starts to take reps with first offense -- start the clock.
Need More From:
Nick:I answer this with much respect, and understanding that he was injured. But the Cowboys need more from Dez Bryant. I would imagine he would say the same thing. Even though he missed three games, he's only averaging about three catches a game. They will need his playmaking ability when the games get a little tighter.
David:This pass rush isn't an elite unit, but they have shown sparks of playmaking ability. Next in line to show us something is DeMarcus Lawrence. He's been around the quarterback consistently so far this season, but he has yet to record a sack in four games. Also keep in mind: he has only played four games because he was suspended for the first month of the season. The defense can take a big step forward if he steps up in the second half.[embeddedad0]
Rob:Rod Marinelli will probably say he always wants more takeaways. The Cowboys are tied for 14th in the league with 10, nearly matching last year's league-low 11 from last season. They're on pace for 20. It's an improvement, but I'd imagine that by the end of the season they'd like to be closer to the 31 they tallied in 2014.
Bryan:DeMarcus Lawrence. Not easy rushing off the right side but he's a better player than what he has shown.
Don't Forget About:
Nick:The Cowboys are keeping Darren McFadden around for a reason. He's probably really close to being healthy and there were likely a few teams interested in a trade. But for one reason or another – and there could be multiple reasons here – the Cowboys are hanging onto him. In case or an injury or anything, McFadden would be a great veteran, with fresh legs, to fill in.
David:This might be as easy a time as the Cowboys have had getting ready for Thanksgiving in quite a while. Last year, they played Carolina on short rest after returning from a road game in Miami. In 2014, they played a night game in New York before flying home to prepare for a hot Eagles team. This year, on the Sunday before the holiday, they get a noon game against Baltimore – at home. That's roughly 12 hours the team saves by not having to travel or play deep into the night. It might not seem like a lot, but every little bit helps when you're playing on just four days' rest.
Rob:I'm not sure Doug Free is getting enough credit for how well he's playing. He's the veteran guy on the offensive line and he's not one of the three All-Pros, but when you think about how well the Cowboys have protected Prescott and how athletic they've been in space on some of these Zeke runs, Free has been a big contributor.
Bryan:Dez Bryant. He hasn't been his normal Dez self, but that could flip soon.
Nick:Obviously, the Cowboys couldn't have imagined a 7-1 start. To think, they were a couple of completions away from perhaps beating the Giants and being 8-0. But let's not forget they've only defeated one team with a current winning record and that's the Redskins (4-3-1). The competition will get tougher here in the next four games. But to think that this team can go 4-4 and still finish 11-5 just goes to show what a great spot they're in. Personally, I think they finish 12-4 and win the division.
David:It's not a coincidence that the three most dramatic games of the season have all been division games, since it's tough to play against teams that know you well. The Cowboys still have three more NFC East games to go, and two of them on the road – which is downright unsettling. Still, this team is built to win in November and December, and these guys haven't flinched yet. I'm confident there's going to be some more losses, but a 12-4 record and a first round bye certainly look attainable from where this team is sitting.
Rob:The Cowboys have a decent cushion in the NFC East right now, but with one game left against all three division rivals, you sort of get the feeling this race could last deep into December. These next two games will test this team's mettle. The Steelers and Ravens are a combined 8-8, but those AFC North teams – these two in particular – are known for getting after the quarterback and playing a physical brand of football.
Bryan:They need to win some difficult road games in the division but have set themselves up nicely to finish this off. I like their chances to do that.