FRISCO, Texas – There on the sidewalls of the Dallas Cowboys' theater seating-like team meeting room, with big white block letters in step-stone fashion are these words:
See, when we sit down and ponder all that has taken place over the first six weeks of this 2016 season, there does not seem to be any singular answer why 4-12 from a year ago has transformed into 5-1. Why a team no more than a year ago couldn't win for losing, now can't hardly help from winning.
There must be more reason for raising so many eyebrows than dousing the franchise with the magical dust owner Jerry Jones threw down prior to the start of training camp, saying there would be no excuses, that they would not be waiting for a soul to return from injury, no matter if it would be Tony Romo or Dez Bryant or Tyron Smith. There would be no waiting with bated breath for suspensions to expire for the likes of DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory and even for the most forgotten man in history, Rolando McClain.
Just go play, Jones proclaimed to be the mantra. Figure it out. Win.
Voila! 5-1, first place in the NFC East, going from least to budding beast.
Owning the No. 3-ranked total offense.
The No. 2-ranked rushing offense.
The No. 8 scoring offense.
Ninth in average points against.
Lead the NFL in third-down conversion percentage.
Lead the league in total first downs.
Tied for the league-lead in time of possession.
Own the league's rushing leader, and by 116 yards.
After all, just as last year, the Cowboys have been without Tony Romo, this time the first six games of the season and his absence likely to at least spill into the seventh, and maybe even the eighth games, too. They have been without Dez Bryant again, this time the past three games. No Orlando Scandrick again, this time the past four games; Tyron Smith for two; Lance Dunbar for the past two.
Yet, this about-face.
Now there is no doubt the Cowboys are feeding off the youthful enthusiasm and talent brought to the equation by quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott. Both are upgrades to their respective positions from last year, hands down.
Says running backs coach Gary Brown, "Those two guys have brought so much juice."
Maybe naïve confidence, too.
But still, it's just more than that. Something you can't touch, definitely can't qualify with analytics.
But brother can you feel it.
"I think we're playing great team defense, great team offense, and playing together to win games," says Cowboys linebacker and defensive captain Sean Lee.
Meaning not one or two shining stars, but a constellation of contributors doing their jobs.
[embeddedad0]You know, I can remember back to this summer in Oxnard, talking to cornerback Brandon Carr about what even then appeared to be this budding defense. Just sensed something different. He said this:
"The star of the defense is the defense," meaning the entire group.
Maybe we can extrapolate that out to this then:
The star of the team is the team.
Of course, the one guy shining consistently brighter has been Zeke. You don't lead the league in rushing for nothing. You don't become the first NFL rookie to rush for at least 130 yards in four consecutive games without bold headlines.
But then, you don't do all that without a mighty fine offensive line, and these guys, and now with the addition of Ron Leary for the convalescing La'el Collins, are balling – or maybe it would be bowling the way they are knocking opponents down.
And Dak will be the first to attest to what's happening in front of him, and he knows, too, that without those guys and Zeke running the ball the way he has, he has no chance of putting up a 103.9 passer rating after six games, complete 68.7 percent of his passes, have a 7-to-1 touchdown/interception ratio and quarterback this team to the most victories in a single season than any other Cowboys rookie quarterback … already.
Then there is slot receiver Cole Beasley, leading the team with 33 receptions and three receiving touchdowns? Can't cover the guy on pace for a career-high 88 catches and eight scores.
How about Lucky Whitehead, popping up now and then as if one of those Texas State Fair Whack-a-Mole games. See me here, see me here, see me there, just like this past game with the 26-yard jet sweep one time and a 35-yard reception another.
Why, Jason Witten with 28 catches, averaging nearly 10 yards a catch, and Terrance Williams averaging 15.6 yards a catch. Brice Butler second with two touchdown grabs. Even Geoff Swaim making everyone forget James Hanna still is on PUP.
See what I mean? And you know what? None of these guys has been asked one time after a game if they've been targeted enough. Spread the wealth.
That's the team.
"I'm not so sure we'd be where we are this year if we hadn't gone through last year," says kicker Dan Bailey, who very poignantly pointed out after the season-opening loss that had a whole lot of folks already pulling their hair out, thinking here we go again, "We've got a lot of games to play."
Continuing, Bailey said here on Wednesday, "Going through that adversity (last year) hardened us up."
Maybe like applying a heavy layer of Tough Skin.
Same defensively, right?
Sure, Lee leads the team with 71 tackles, hitting double-digits in all but one game. But he isn't the Lone Ranger on the defense, and there must be a reason this defense has held opponents to no more than 17 points in the past four games and overall just 17.8 per game at this point, nearly a touchdown less than last year (23.4).
"I just think we're playing better team defense, the effort is higher, team defense is better, and you're seeing more guys around the ball," Lee says.
Just look around, Morris Claiborne is having a career year. You've gotten to know Terrell McClain, haven't you? There is rookie Maliek Collins, earning a starting role inside. Ball-hawking Barry Church, maybe second on the team in tackles, but first in interceptions (two), already matching his career high and one short of his previous six-season total.
Say hello to David Irving. He sure did the same last Sunday in Green Bay to everyone else. Playing in just his 17th NFL game, having been signed last season off Kansas City's practice squad as a rookie, Irving is this week's NFC Defensive Player of the Week. The 6-7 dude, a Leon Lett starter kit, had four tackles, one sack, three forced fumbles, with one of those recovered, and a pass batted at the line of scrimmage. I kid you not.
Man, I could go on and on. A sack here and a sack there from Tyrone Crawford and Benson Mayowa and Jack Crawford, one of the leaders with five quarterback pressures. Brandon Carr, over at right cornerback, turning into steady-Eddie. Byron Jones showing why he has found a home at free safety. Rookie Anthony Brown stepping into the slot for Scandrick. J.J. Wilcox earning snaps on the changeup defenses and so far having the best season of his four-year career. Anthony Hitchens and Justin Durant manning the middle.
The kicker, the punter, the holder, the deep snapper, oh my.
"We're playing tough ball," says Tyrone Crawford. "Maybe not the most talented, but tough ball. Just defensive team and offensive team this year, altogether."
There is that word again: team.
Look, not trying to be hokey here, and understand there still are 10 games to go, a whole six not exactly a true barometer. But this thing is meshing, and just maybe the binding wire is those two youngin's, Zeke and Dak.
But they get it, too.
"The energy they have, they're young guys who love to play football, who love to work hard, who fit into our culture but are guys who have that energy," Lee says, "and even as young guys, we feed off them."
Elliott is being constantly barraged with questions about Eric Dickerson's NFL rookie rushing record of 1,808 yards in 1983, which happens when you have gained 703 yards in six games, a 1,875 pace. But the 21-year-old gets it, too, basically batting the questions away with an indifferent what … ever, leaving most wondering how come.
"'Cause it's not important," Zeke says. "You guys want to write stories about the rookie rushing record, and it's about this team, honestly. It's not about a record. That's not what we're focused on. We're a team, and honestly I don't want any attention put toward that.
"It should be about this team, and it should be about these guys. It should be about our relationship. It shouldn't be about records."
So maybe that's what Zeke has been doing with his little eating pantomime after carries or touchdowns without even realizing. Maybe it's not about feeding himself.
Maybe instead he's just trying to feed the whole team.
A look at the 53 man roster for the 2016 season.