FRISCO, Texas – Keep getting asked about what's my biggest takeaway from the first two games of the season, the biggest surprise.
Come on, that was one of the Cowboys' biggest deficiencies in the first half of the 2020 season, a season in which opponents scored 473 points, yielding the most single-season points in franchise history. Not even Jerry Jones could buy a takeaway.
Well, the 1-1 Cowboys have feasted on takeaways in two games. They have six of them. Six, now, and of all things after last year's struggles, those six lead the league, one more than Houston and New England.
Come on, who would have thunk that?
Why, the Cowboys didn't record their sixth takeaway last year until Game 8. In two games this season, the Cowboys have recorded four interceptions and two fumble recoveries, and with only two giveaways their plus-4 in turnover differential also leads the NFL, a one turnover margin over Houston and New England.
Oh, and how about this? Four interceptions in the first two games, two of those belonging to Trevon Diggs, on a 17-pick pace if he continues to grab one a game. Look out "Cubby." At this rate, your single-season franchise record of 11 that has stood for the past 40 seasons just might be in jeopardy. Even got a chuckle out of Everson Walls on that one.
But again, do you realize that last year the Cowboys didn't register their fourth pick until Game 11? Now, they did finish with 10, and that modest number matched their most in the past six seasons. Picks around this place have had more to do with ice instead of interceptions.
But maybe the worm is turning. The Cowboys finished 2020 with at least one takeaway in the final seven games, totaling 16, finishing a remarkable plus-10 during that stretch. That means in the last nine games, the Cowboys have totaled 22 takeaways and are a plus-14.
And those takeaways have gone a long way toward keeping the Cowboys in the Tampa Bay game and evening their record at 1-1 with the victory over a good Chargers team on the road.
A serious booster shot in the arm.
A-Plusses: We have nearly all heard by now that Cowboys guard Zack Martin was the highest graded-out player in the league on Sunday by one service. And Martin, back from missing the opener on Reserve/COVID-19, was at his road-grader best. Plus, a huge help to his young tackle Terence Steele next to him, starting in the place of the suspended La'el Collins, and to second-year center Tyler Biadasz on the other side. But when Jones was asked about Martin's play, he concurred, but then added the highest graded player by his coaching staff was safety Jayron Kearse. No arguments here, the fifth-year safety not only starting in what Dan Quinn is calling his "big nickel," but here is his stat line against the Chargers: six tackles (second on the team now with 15), one tackle for a loss, one QB hit, one pass defensed and should have had an interception had he not been called for a questionable interference.
Revolving Door: And boy is that COVID-19 reserve list spinning. One week it's Martin. The next it's Randy Gregory. And now this week, Keanu Neal. Guess we had better get used to this. But good thing the Cowboys have depth at linebacker to survive Neal's absence. We saw some of that against the Chargers when Micah Parsons was moved from linebacker to defensive end for his 39 snaps. Compensating for his absence were the likes of Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. All they did was combine for 16 tackles, a Vander Esch sack, along with his two tackles for loss and a QB hit. Although Neal does have a chance of getting back in time since this is a Monday night game, if not, well, the Cowboys have options, including moving Parsons back to linebacker now that Gregory is coming off the COVID reserve list, but also dishing out more snaps to Vander Esch in his spot on the nickel, maybe even next to Parsons.
Overreaction Ollies: Knew it was coming, once Tony Pollard rushed for 109 yards on 13 carries against the Chargers. Screams for him to be the lead back. Come on, let's settle. Did you see how Ezekiel Elliott was ramming the ball in there between the tackles? Did you watch his nifty, 5-yard touchdown run, knifing and powering up the middle? There is nothing wrong with a one-two punch, especially when the running styles are so radically different. Just like a pitcher, you don't get to the majors on power alone. Got to develop a slider, too.
Man Of Steele: Geesh, what if the Cowboys have developed a backup swing tackle in Terence Steele, his play starting in place of Collins against the Chargers a huge improvement over most anything he did in 14 starts as an undrafted rookie with no offseason or preseason last year. While the Cowboys might have started Ty Nsekhe had he not suffered that bout of head exhaustion last Thursday based on this being his eighth season in the NFL, truth be told, Steele had a better training camp and preseason than the veteran. Sure, the Cowboys gave him some help, a tight end here and running back there. But more than a couple of times the most improved player on this team held his own against the likes of Joey Bosa.
Fall Shots: Since the seasons, they are a-changing, only right the Cowboys season is heading right into the NFC East schedule, meeting the Eagles on Monday and then the Giants two games later. And we know the importance of these division games, the Cowboys beating the Eagles in five of the past seven meetings, including splits over the past two seasons … And when it comes to the Giants, the Cowboys' seven-game winning streak was broken by New York in the final game of the 2020 season, winning 23-19 … Did you see Cowboys deep snapper Jake McQuaide sprint into the end zone after Greg Zuerlein's 56-yard game winner on Sunday to retrieve the football? Well, in the locker room after the game, as we know, head coach Mike McCarthy presented Zuerlein with a game ball, and he received the actual ball he kicked for the winner … Can't seem to keep that defensive line straight. First starter Neville Gallimore with the dislocated elbow, then DeMarcus Lawrence with the fractured fifth metatarsal, then Gregory with COVID and now both Dorance Armstrong and Carlos Watkins with sprained ankles. Be a shame to lose their experience, especially that of Armstrong since he's been playing so well. We await Thursday's first official injury report.
And let's turn to special teams coach John Fassel for the final word, when asked about if Parsons, who seems to play anywhere on the field, has lobbied him for specials teams duty. Not such a funny notion since Penn State head coach James Franklin, talking about Parsons attributes around the draft, claims had Parsons played during the 2020 season he was considering using the former high school running back on kickoff returns.
"He thinks he can do everything," said Fassel, giggling. "He really wants to return kickoffs. He wants to be the backup punter. Probably wants to play quarterback. He is just a really fun kid. I wouldn't put anything past him. (If) we put him back to return a kickoff he'd probably do a pretty damn good job."
My proposal is to line him up as the personal protector on the punt team and snap him the ball. Saw him in a simulated tackling drill during a minicamp practice, his duty was to act as the ball carrier. He nearly broke two ankles with the move he put on the two guys charged with corralling him, going right by both guys.