IRVING, Texas – Maybe this is fitting during the holiday season, a time to reflect, an appropriate time to wonder why.
As in, why are the Cowboys 11-4 heading into Sunday's season finale against the Washington Redskins, instead of merely the 8-7 of the past three years?
Why have the Cowboys already clinched the NFC East Division title with a game still to play, instead of heading into the final game of the year needing to win or else?
Why are the Cowboys assured of the third seed in the NFC playoffs heading to Washington D.C. Saturday afternoon, with an outside shot of moving up to the second seed and a first-round bye if Seattle loses to St. Louis and Arizona loses to San Francisco on Sunday, marking their first playoff trip in the past five years?
Why are the Cowboys being considered a team you don't want to mess with in these playoffs, instead of the team the previous three seasons opponents would want to play?
Why do the Cowboys have a chance to win twice as many games as everybody and their mother were predicting heading into training camp, heading out of training camp and after they were dropped on their heads 28-17 by the San Francisco 49ers in the season opener, in a home game at that?
Here is an overarching clue we should remember throughout this examination, even before we get into specifics, this from head coach Jason Garrett, and at the chance of sounding repetitive, he, too, deserves serious consideration for Coach of the Year, having turned this team's expectations upside down, inside out:
"It's a team, and there is nothing I believe in more or our guys believe in more, than team."
Do not let that escape our consciousness.
Now then, if we go back to training camp, my point on this 2014 team was this: The Cowboys success would depend on this offense; that the Cowboys would simply have to outscore their opponents to win games.
Well, with one game to go, the Cowboys own the eighth-ranked total offense and are the sixth-ranked scoring team, averaging 28.2 points a game, winning every game they've scored at least 26 points (10) and losing every game they've scored no more than 17 points (four) – that 11th win requiring an overtime field goal to leapfrog the 17-point line of demarcation.
Jump to the other side of the ball, and my point was this: This defense, now minus DE DeMarcus Ware, the franchise's all-time leader in sacks, and DT Jason Hatcher, last year's sack leader, simply needs to be average, not great mind you, just, darn it, better than last year's worst defense in the National Football League and worst in club history, the Cowboys managing to go only 4-4 in games they scored at least 28 points, even losing one they scored 48, the most they had scored in a regular-season game since 1980 (51. vs Seattle) with nothing to show for the effort.
Hey, when it came to the Cowboys defense this year, few saw even a half-pot of gold at the end of that rainbow wish.
Well, with one game to go, the Cowboys are ranked 16th defensively, and are giving up a much more manageable 22.3 points a game, nearly five fewer than last year, and ranking them at least 17th in the league. So, just about average. Only twice this year have the Cowboys given up at least 30 points in a game, beating St. Louis, 34-31, and losing to Philly, 33-10.
So a step in the right direction.
But still you ask,
Let's get more specific.
Exiting training camp, and after losing all four preseason games, supposedly the major precursor of a losing season, any amount of Cowboys success seemed dependent on receiving positive responses to a bushel-basket full of ifs, never a good high-wire act since batting .500 generally is more than you can ask for with all these looming questions.
Well, let's take a few swings at these ifs that would decide the Cowboys fate:
If quarterback Tony Romo could successfully return from surgery to repair that herniated disk in his back suffered Game 15 of the 2013 season? Romo is now the top-rated QB in the NFL (114.4), having thrown 32 touchdown passes to just eight interceptions, and to think three of those were in the season-opening half. He is being mentioned as a league MVP candidate.
If DeMarco Murray could stay healthy, never having played more than 14 games in any of his previous three seasons? He will play in all 16 this year, and is just 29 yards away from breaking Emmitt Smith's single-season franchise rushing record (1,773), not letting the fractured hand suffered on his final play of the Philadelphia game stop him from playing this past Sunday. He, the NFL's leading rusher by 404 yards, is in the MVP discussion.
If first-round draft choice Zack Martin was the real deal. Just like new technology, Martin's been a Day 1 plug-and-play at right guard, becoming the first Cowboys rookie to earn Pro Bowl honors since kicker Nick Folk in 2007 and first rookie offensive lineman ever. Most will tell you he's completed that offensive line, the main reason they are running the ball so well.
If defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford could successfully return from last summer's season-ending torn Achilles, especially considering the departures of Ware and Hatcher? Crawford will make his 15th start of the season Sunday, and since being moved to defensive tackle has been the team's most consistent defensive lineman, third on the team with three sacks, second with 28 pressures and second among defensive linemen with 32 tackles.
If Rolando McClain could successfully return after not having played in an NFL game since Thanksgiving, 2012, the question's complexity compounded by the loss of starting middle linebacker and potential Pro Bowler Sean Lee the very first OTA of the off-season? McClain will start his 13th game on Sunday, leading the team with 108 tackles, also with nine tackles for losses and has become the physical presence this team has yearned for.
If the Cowboys could survive the first four games cornerback Orlando Scandrick was suspended for use of performance enhancing drugs in the off-season, the need compounded by corner Morris Claiborne already fighting through injury? Well, Scandrick's suspension was reduced to two games, and he has become the team's best corner, getting matched up with the opponent's top receiver over the past month of the season.
If defensive tackle Henry Melton could successfully return from his torn ACL in last season's third game with Chicago? While Melton's play seemingly has leveled off this past month, he still is tied for the team lead with five sacks, fourth with 17 pressures and has been making subtle contributions as a rotation player.
If Anthony Spencer could even play this season following his microfracture knee surgery limiting him to just one game last year? After missing the first three games of the season, a minor absence since seemingly most players never recover from the microfracture procedure to play football again, Spencer will appear in his 13th game on Sunday, and while his numbers aren't huge by his standards, finishing with a career-high 11 sacks in 2012, he continues to impose his will on opposing offenses and has been greatly affecting quarterbacks this month of December.
If* second-round draft choice DeMarcus Lawrence could return from his fractured fifth metatarsal during training camp, having been placed on IR-return. Lawrence has returned, and will be playing in his seventh game. The rookie continues to show promise in the Cowboys' eight-man defensive line rotation.
And if Josh Brent could make any sort of contribution this 2014 season after last playing in December of 2012, prior to the automobile crash killing teammate Jerry Brown and having to serve time in prison and a 45-day stay in a rehab center, charged with intoxication manslaughter in the accident. There is a good chance Brent will be making his second game-day appearance Sunday, adding some bulk to the Cowboys front.
Oh, and then there were these: How well could Garrett, Romo and new play-caller Scott Linehan co-exist? How would offensive coordinator/ offensive line coach Bill Callahan react to having his play-calling duties taken away and not allowed to leave for another job? How would Rod Marinelli do handling the defensive coordinator's job with former D-coordinator Monte Kiffin still on the premises?
Well, you'd have to say the Cowboys knocked those right out of the park, along with Garrett's ability to perform the head-coaching duties many have been questioning.
And all the rest of those ifs? 'Bout batting an improbable 1.000.
Uncanny to say the least.
So when constantly asked what's been the difference between this team and the past three 8-8 teams, you would be remiss putting your finger on just one factor. To me, there are *a lot *of reasons, sort of like being challenged to name just one key ingredient in jambalaya.
"I really believe if you have the right kind of people, and you go to work each and every day to be your best, good things are going to happen," Garrett says. "I really believe that's been the case with our team. We've had some young guys step up into some of those voids, we've had some guys from other teams who have kind of had a fresh start here and they have taken full advantage of it.
"And I think our coaches have done a great job of building the team, helping the individual players get better but also building the units and building the overall team."
As if on cue, after Garrett had been talking about the team during his post-press conference walk-off in the atrium of The Ranch Friday morning, here comes defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli walking by, and inscribed on the back of his blue T-shirt, stacked one upon the other was "The Team, The Team, The Team."
Not as corny as it all might sound.