ARLINGTON, Texas – Last week was a "moral victory." Seven days later, it was a fistfight.
Sometimes, it goes like that in the NFL. Your quarterback throws for 500 yards and five touchdowns and has a 140.0 rating one week, but loses. He comes back with a 72.9 rating with 170 yards and one touchdown and a pick, but he's a winner.
The Cowboys get outgained 433-213 in total offense. They get outrushed 216-48. Their star receiver gets held to five catches for 36 yards.
And on top of that, they lose their starting tailback and their best defensive player for nearly three quarters.
Add it all up … and the Cowboys handle a division team they couldn't beat last year, and come away with a convincing 31-16 win over the Redskins here at AT&T Stadium.
I'll never subscribe to the "ugly win" tag so let's not go there. But it wasn't exactly a pretty game. There were superb moments – like Dwayne Harris returning a punt 86 yards for a touchdown and then 90 yards on a kickoff to set up another score. Or maybe Kyle Wilber's sack, strip and scoop to set up the game-clinching touchdown run by Joseph Randle. In a matter of seconds, both of the backups to injured starters DeMarcus Ware and DeMarco Murray helped seal the deal.
Yeah, it's just your night, even though it didn't always look that way.
But then again, that's what good teams are supposed to do. (And let's hold off on calling this a good team just yet. Right now, they're average with an average record.) But to be a good team, you've got to simply find a way.
Scratch, claw, punch, scrap, elbow, head-butt … whatever it takes. The Cowboys did that Sunday night against the Redskins, a team that was gasping for air in the NFC East race and looking to get right into the thick of things. Oh, there's still time for them and even time for the 0-6 Giants to get in the mix, too.
Yeah, it's early in the big picture. But for the Cowboys to get two big division wins already, including one against the Redskins in a game like this where the "next-man-up" philosophy was on display, it's more about a "morale victory" than anything else.
This is the type of game that helps the confidence of a team. Playing well offensively and losing only goes so far. To me, finding a way to win a game like this on national TV when you need your punt returner to win the game, or your backup tailback to grind out the clock or a pass-rush consisting of journeymen and camp-bodies is exactly the type of thing that builds character in a team.
By watching this team over the last few years, we know better than anyone that it's not always going to be perfect. It's not always going to be good. It's not always going to be average. In this game, there were times when the Cowboys weren't any of those three.
Yet, they won it. They found a way and they won it.
Do the Cowboys win this game last year? Obviously it's hard to tell, but they weren't very good when DeMarco Murray was out – 3-4 to be exact. And they've played games down the stretch without a healthy DeMarcus Ware, but he was always out there. And they've never played a second half since 2007 without both Ware and Anthony Spencer.
So this was a test the Cowboys weren't prepared for. Or were they?
Wilber quoted a phrase that special teams coach Rich Bisaccia stresses daily.
"Coach says it best: Stay ready so you don't have to get ready," Wilber said. "And Coach Kiffin always tells us, 'no one is second string, third string. Everyone is starters on this defense.'"
And for the most part, that's been the case, and it might have to be even more in the upcoming weeks, depending on Ware's injury. Wilber might be starting some, as we've seen from Ernie Sims and George Selvie and Nick Hayden and Orlando Scandrick and J.J. Wilcox. There might be more changes to come.
No matter how long they've been here or what we thought of them in the offseason, the Cowboys can't be picky when it comes to counting on players, especially on defense. Drake Nevis and Caesar Rayford? Yep, that means, you.
And I've been really impressed with those guys, particularly Nevis. Here's a former third-round pick who was an All-American at LSU, and he's been given really his third chance. Sure, he's got some limitations to his game, but he's a big-body who hustles. I've seen him down the field a few times this year making plays.
Unlike my LSU colleagues Bryan Broaddus, Rowan Kavner and David Helman, who tell me everything I've ever needed to know about that school, I really didn't know Drake Nevis from Drake University. [embedded_ad]
Now, he's a key rotational player on this defense. And who knows what's going to happen with Jay Ratliff, but it sounds like we're going to be hearing more from Nevis than Ratliff.
With an MCL sprain for Murray, we might be seeing more from Randle and Phillip Tanner, too.
Next man up. It's the way the NFL is these days.
So you can have your moral victories all you want. But a win over the Redskins like this not only counts as a W in the standings, but it'll be more of a confidence boost than any close loss will ever provide.