FRISCO, Texas – Meet the Comeback Cowboys!
And not just the team, the one recovering from a season on the brink, sitting there precariously at 3-5 at the halfway point, but also meet, too, a smattering of players and even coaches who have made dramatic turnarounds this season. And, you know, might as well include owner and general manager Jerry Jones and his group making some key midseason moves.
Look, after eight games most had given the Cowboys up for dead this 2018 season, what with that discouraging 3-5 record after losing two consecutive games, the second of those badly to the Tennessee Titans, 28-14, and a home one at that.
But heading into Sunday's regular-season finale against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium, these young Cowboys came back over the next seven games to win six of them – five straight, their longest winning streak since the 11 in a row in 2016.
This, to the shocking surprise of all those ready to fire the GM, the head coach, the quarterback and most anyone else involved in running this show.
Surprise, surprise, surprise.
The Cowboys now stand at 9-6, already kings of the NFC East for the second time in three years and third time in five years, with this one last game still to play on Sunday before embarking on the NFC playoffs at AT&T Stadium, either Saturday, Jan. 5, or more probably, Sunday, Jan. 6.
This is the worst eight-game record the Cowboys have recovered from in their 59-season history to qualify for the playoffs, the previous low being 4-4 in 1999 when they qualified as a wild-card team at 8-8, and then again in 2006, turning 4-4 into a 9-7 wild-card team. But that's it, the previous lows they recovered from are one-game over .500, like 5-4 in 1996, 6-5 in 1991, 4-3 in 1973, and get this, 4-3 to win their first Super Bowl during the 1971 season and 5-4 when they advanced to their first Super Bowl in 1970.
Never, though, with a losing record at the halfway point.
Darn right, Comeback Cowboys!
But not just the team, but guys within the team turning their careers around, too, mounting to a cool baker's dozen if we include the entire team as one. Let's single out the other 12.
DT Antwaun Woods: Come on, be honest, who had ever heard of this guy at the start of training camp? I've got my hand high in the air. Not me. The first-year player, who spent the majority of his first two seasons in the league on the Tennessee practice squad after going undrafted, began camp as a fourth-team defensive tackle. A camp body, so to speak. But going into the final game of the season, Woods has started 14 of the 14 games he's played this year at the nose tackle. He's not just the run-plugger, becoming known as "The Human Log," in the middle. The defensive coordinator will tell you he also has pass-rush skills. A keeper for sure.
LB Jaylon Smith: There was a lot of skepticism over the Cowboys using a 2016 second-round draft choice on the Notre Dame linebacker who could have been a top-five draft choice had he not suffered a most serious knee injury, tearing his ACL and LCL, along with damaging his peroneal nerve, causing drop foot. Three years later, well, he is second on the team with 142 tackles, four sacks, five tackles for losses, four passes defensed, two forced fumbles and two recovered fumbles. Did you see him go 69 yards against the Buccaneers for a touchdown on that fumble recovery? Enough said.
DE Randy Gregory: Many thought Gregory was a wasted pick, a lost soul with his drug problems, which caused him to be suspended for 13 games in 2016, the entire 2017 season and then did not get reinstated until the start of training camp in 2018. But look at the second-year player now. He's second on the team with six sacks, second with 26 QB pressures, tied for first with two forced fumbles and has a fumble recovery. And he's basically working mostly as a designated pass rusher. There are those in the organization who think Gregory, who is now up to 250 pounds with improved strength, will one day be a starting right defensive end. What a reclamation success.
CB Byron Jones: The former first-round draft choice played very little cornerback his rookie season, and then when he did, the Cowboys used him in the slot covering tight ends before he became a starting safety for the past two years. Well, when the Cowboys moved him back to cornerback this spring, at the behest of new secondary coach Kris Richard, there was some doubt, especially in this corner. But Jones ignited his career playing right cornerback for the Cowboys, earning his first Pro Bowl invite and proving he is well worth the team picking up his fifth-year option. Talk about a career about-face.
Asst. Coach Kris Richard: Well, since we mentioned Jones, next up in the comeback category is Richard, fired by Seattle as its defensive coordinator at the end of last season. The Cowboys hired him to become their passing game coordinator/secondary coach, and let's take this from defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who says of Richard, "He's the best offseason acquisition we had." No kidding, and now some in the league are whispering his name for head coach consideration, going from being fired to who knows how high.
RB Ezekiel Elliott: You know what folks were saying about him last year as he was fighting his impending suspension, then serving his six-game suspension to start the second half of the season, coinciding with the start of the 5-3 Cowboys' three-game losing streak. There was insistence he was overweight, out of shape, not committed to football, losing a step. Ha! The guy is poised to win his second rushing title in three years, leading the league with 1,434 yards with a game to go, along with leading the Cowboys with 77 receptions, totaling 567 yards. His combined yards from scrimmage (2,001) also top the league. All causing Jerry Jones to remark of Zeke, "He's had a phenomenal, impactful year." I'll say, just feed the man, and while doing so, feed those who doubted him their words.
WR Amari Cooper: I would love to know who began circulating hints Cooper didn't like football, wasn't committed to the game. Guessing it was the Raiders, who traded him to the Cowboys for their 2019 first-round draft choice. Wonder if they want a redo? Cooper had just 22 catches for 280 yards and one touchdown in six games with the Raiders to start the 2018 season. But since the two-time Pro Bowler's arrival in Dallas, Cooper has 48 catches for a team-leading 694 yards and a team-leading six touchdown receptions in eight games, the 3-4 Cowboys going 6-2 with him. Coincidence? Me thinks not.
K Brett Maher: He might be 29 years old. He might have kicked four years in the CFL. But he's a first-year player in the NFL. The Cowboys played a hunch, deciding to go with the NFL inexperienced kicker over veteran Dan Bailey, who had been the most accurate kicker in NFL history. Nice hunch, huh? Maher hit two game-winning field goals, two from 59 and 62 yards, the longest in Cowboys history, and has converted 83 percent of his field-goal attempts. Talk about coming out of nowhere to jump start an NFL career.
C Joe Looney: In his first six years in the NFL, Looney started just 13 of the 59 games he played. The jolly center/guard was known as "Jumbo Joe" the past two years with the Cowboys. Now he's known as Joe Looney, Cowboys starting center, having to take over for four-time Pro Bowler Travis Frederick, starting the first 15 games of the season. He's also become known as a good center, quite a turnaround for the 28-year-old who no longer is considered a journeyman offensive lineman in the NFL.
CB Jourdan Lewis: Was forced into starting seven games at cornerback as a rookie last year, but was beaten out in camp this summer by Anthony Brown for duty as the nickel corner. Seemed to be fading away. But then the Cowboys inserted their 2017 third-round draft choice into injured Tavon Austin's role running jet sweeps on the offense, and suddenly he became engaged again, inching his way into the dime defense. He even started one game for the injured Brown and a month ago made the game-clinching interception in the Cowboys' win over New Orleans. Yep, fading back onto the scene.
Head Coach Jason Garrett: At 3-5, all folks could talk about is Jason Garrett having worn out his welcome as head coach. But Garrett held this team together, and in doing so has the Cowboys winning the NFC East for the third time in five years, the best run for this franchise since taking the division title five straight years from 1992-96. Those same know-it-all folks now need to stand down, the Cowboys having won six of their past seven games and on their way to the playoffs.
The Joneses: At 3-5, Jerry and son Stephen were being called out, some believing it was time for a front office change. Well, the Joneses, with help from vice president of player personnel Will McClay and Garrett, made the bold move to trade for Cooper, giving away next year's first-round pick. How'd that work out? Now in the playoffs, should the bold move put them in consideration for some sort of management award? On top of that, they allowed Garrett to make that change on the offensive line, promoting assistant offensive line Marc Colombo to take over for the fired Paul Alexander, along with allowing Garrett to talk former O-Line coach Hudson Houck out of retirement to lend a helping hand, a comeback of sorts for "Hud," too.
See what I'm sayin' about these Comeback Cowboys? The team as a whole, the head coach, the front office, the players? Why, these 2018 turnarounds probably causing you to go, Say what! For real?
Yep, darn right. Quite a reversal of fortune, you must admit.