FRISCO, Texas – Here we go again, the Cowboys' resiliency being tested.
They weren't very resilient last season after losing Tony Romo for 12 of 16 games. They also were without Dez Bryant for seven games, and he really wasn't fully healthy for all of the nine he did play. Maybe one, maybe two.
They lost Lance Dunbar for the season after three and a half games. They lost their leading rusher, Joe Randle, after six games for the rest of the season (and to think he still ended up leading the team with four rushing touchdowns). They lost Terrell McClain after two games.
Heck, they lost Orlando Scandrick before the season even began.
And we still wonder why they went from a 12-4 team in 2014 to a 4-12 squad this past season.
And I'll be a sonofagun, this deterioration of a roster is happening again. Again!
They lost three potential starters to suspension before the season even began: Rolando McClain (10 games), DeMarcus Lawrence (four games) and Randy Gregory (initially four games and now we finally find out officially an additional 10).
Then Romo again before the season even started. He'll miss his fourth game on Sunday in San Francisco, and in all probability will miss at least the next two as his compression fracture of the L1 vertebrae heals. Maybe we see him after the bye.
And while there seemed to be some sympathy out there for the poor, beat-up Chicago Bears this past Sunday, missing seemingly umpteen guys, let's put together a list of the Cowboys players missing by time that 31-17 victory was in the books at AT&T Stadium:
And as it turns out, now Bryant, who is questionable at best for this Sunday's game against the 1-2 Niners. Who knows if he'll need two to three weeks to get right, maybe more, maybe less, as he begins convalescing from the lateral tibial hairline fracture of the right knee he suffered just two plays into the game against the Bears.
Let's see, if we're being realistic, that list of MIA's then includes either projected or current starters at quarterback, middle linebacker, both defensive ends, left tackle, left guard, cornerback, the presumptive backup quarterback who might have started, a potential starter at left defensive end, a backup tight end, a backup running back and possibly now one of your starting wide receivers, and not just any starting wide receiver, but the one who just so happens to stir this Cowboys offensive cocktail.
Tell me it ain't so, Joe.
Yet somehow these Cowboys will arrive at Levi Stadium for a 3:25 p.m. (CDT) kickoff owning a 2-1 record, looking for their first three-game winning streak since winning the final four of the 2014 season. Somehow they are one possession away in that opener from a 3-0 record. Somehow they own the NFL's eighth-ranked offense and are ranked 11th in points against.[embeddedad0]
Somehow, instead of those shadows of doubt creeping in as they did a year ago, there is actually sunny-side optimism shining on the practice fields out here at The Star, despite the recent disheartening news about Dez going down, too.
Just feels different, doesn't it?
Maybe it's the infusion of youthful enthusiasm, the likes of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott and Maliek Collins and Byron Jones and Geoff Swaim, Rod and Keith Smith and Chaz Green and Anthony Brown and Lucky Whitehead and the reemergence of Morris Claiborne.
Maybe it's the theme concocted by owner Jerry Jones in the offseason, insisting no matter what this year, this franchise would not be sitting around waiting for the return of injured players; that the Cowboys should just plow ahead.
Or as Jones said following the victory over the Bears while short-handed, "It's supposed to work like that if you've done well with your personnel."
Or maybe we should turn to 14th-year veteran Jason Witten, who has seen about everything you could possibly see over all those years for why there still seemed to be a bounce in everyone's step all week, even if they must face the reality that Dez postponed facing as long as he could earlier in the week.
"Just got to keep moving forward," the captain said. "Teams have adversity, and you have to have the ability to keep moving with guys filling in while guys get healthy."
Not sure why that didn't dawn on them last year, but for some reason, after just three games this season, this all seems so different, no?
"Dak deserves a lot of credit for that," Witten said.
Man, he sure does. Zeke, too. They have brought some juice to this locker room, and not just in terms of talent. Remember, they weren't here last year. Maybe they are naïve. Maybe they don't know any better. You know those millennials. They think the world just revolves around them.
Dez might have been sort of stewing around the locker room Thursday, yet their smiles were ear to ear as if in their own world. No moping around. No woe-is-me attitude. That's contagious. Especially when they are fast becoming your statistical offensive leaders.
OK, the Cowboys might not have Dez. Well, at least for this Sunday, neither do the 49ers. And check out this difference, too: The Niners quarterback, Blaine Gabbert, ranks 30th in passer rating, 31st in completion percentage and 32nd in yards passing per attempt. Prescott, a mere rookie, well, he ranks 12th in quarterback rating, 10th in completion percentage and 11th in yards per attempt.
Here are two other startling stats the Cowboys have posted with a rookie QB: They lead the league in third-down conversions, 52.5 percent. Detroit is the only other team converting more than 50 percent (51.3) on third down. And the Cowboys are doing so because of Dak's uncanny (for a rookie) third-down passer rating of 112.1, along with a 90.0 rating in the fourth quarter.
By comparison, last year the Cowboys finished with a 34.6 third-down conversion percentage.
Then there is the red zone offense, too: The Cowboys, after a woeful opener, currently are tied for seventh in red zone touchdown percentage, scoring at a 66.7 rate. They are one of 11 teams to have scored 100 percent of the time once entering the red zone.
And, oh, there is this, too: The Cowboys already have rushed for seven touchdowns, on pace for 37 over 16 games. The club record is 29, thanks to Emmitt Smith setting the single-season franchise record, and at the time NFL record, with 25. Consider they only rushed for eight last year.
But let's remember, if thinking back to 2015, Dak's had Dez for these first three games, unlike last year's backups. He's had the threat Dunbar brings when out there in multiple-receiver sets, averaging 14 yards per catch and scoring his first NFL touchdown against the Bears. He's had the NFL's second-leading rusher after three games, Zeke going for 274 yards, and on pace for a 1,400-yard season. And he darn well knows where Cole Beasley is (20 catches, 213 yards), especially when it's time to move the chains, the shifty slot receiver on pace for a 100-catch, 1,000-yard season so far.
Now, though, the offensive complexion could change. There's a real possibility of no Dez, and no one really knows for sure how long he could be out – if he is at all since he's being listed as questionable for Sunday's game after not practicing all week. Now you might say, oh, big deal, Dez only has 11 catches for 150 yards and one touchdown so far. That he only caught one pass in the opener.
Yeah, well, and guaran-darn-tee you, even if Dez is out there on one leg, they still have to cover him. And that draws coverage away from the other guys. That draws attention away from the line of scrimmage.
Of course, with Dez 50-50 for Sunday's game, and teams sensing what Elliott is, that extra guy is not going to be worried about Terrance Williams or Brice Butler busting them up on one play until they give them something to worry about. Now Zeke likely draws their undivided attention.
So will Dak, meaning, and for sure starting with Jim O'Neil's 49ers defense, using maybe that extra guy to go after him.
That's why you might see the Cowboys in as much spread offense as they've been, giving Prescott a better chance to see where the blitzes are coming from. You might see Zeke and Dunbar out in the slots, posing the possibility of throwing it to them, or motioning them back to present the possibility of running it with them, too.
No time to crawl back into an offensive clamshell. Shuck those suckers away. Sound the bugle, and keep charging full-steam ahead. Romo or no Romo. Dez or no Dez. Tyron or no Tyron.
And as long as all those other guys keep doing their jobs, and mainly the guys on the outside, Williams and Butler, then just carry on.
Who knows for now, but darn it, this just feels better, right?
No Tony. Maybe no Dez. But no long faces. Despair does not seem to be hanging around The Star like heavy humidity. Call me crazy, but see where I must have company, since the guys who make a living at these types of things have the Cowboys a plus-3 to win this one. And they don't play no games.
So maybe this resiliency is real this time around, and were about to further find out. But you know what? In Dak and Zeke they trust.
Ah, kids these days.