There's been a formula to this team's success, one which Jason Garrett envisioned that first offseason after being named head coach in 2010. It's been tweaked here and there, never more so than when Dak Prescott took over for Tony Romo, but even with a zone-read run here and there, it's still about controlling the clock, winning the battle of the lines, not taking any reckless chances.
Of course, if that sounds familiar, that was the same philosophy of Jimmy Johnson and Norv Turner when Garrett was collecting Super Bowl rings and taking notes as a backup quarterback in the 1990s.
The first two weeks of this season, for whatever reason, the Cowboys drifted from that formula. Last year, the most passes Dak attempted over a two-game stretch combined were 75, which coincidentally was Weeks 1 and 2. Over the team's 11-game winning streak, the most passes Dak attempted over a two-game stretch were 68. For the season, he averaged roughly 30 per game when his early departure in the finale at Philadelphia is factored in.
After two games this year, Dak had launched 89 passes and was sacked three times, meaning a 33 percent increase in drop backs. That's just not how this offense is structured. It's not a chuck it around, up-and-down-the-field, air-it-out scheme.
Sure, Dak can throw the ball. He had a trio of passes against Arizona that, frankly, he couldn't have made a year ago. His arm strength has improved so much. He throws running to his right as well as anyone in the league. The pass to Noah Brown was traveling with more zip than a Bartolo Colon fastball.
Now, Sunday night's game wasn't ideal in terms of judging whether the Cowboys have returned to that 50-50 balance of running and passing the ball. That's because they went three-and-out their first two possessions and ended up running just 45 offensive plays, 30 fewer than Arizona. Of those, Dallas ran the ball 25 times and Dak dropped back to pass on non-designed runs 20 times. That's at least in the ballpark of 50-50.
The first two games, Dallas rushed 45 times and dropped back to pass on 92 snaps.
Also, I don't want to hear about how the Cowboys were trailing the Broncos all of Week 2 and had no choice but to throw. That first half was a lot more competitive than many acknowledged. It wasn't a blowout until the third quarter. Trailing 14-7 with 6 minutes remaining in the second quarter, the Cowboys threw on every down before punting.
There was another lesson in the Arizona win that goes back to the Denver game. Just because Ezekiel Elliott isn't finding holes and grinding out yardage, don't go away from the game plan, from the formula. Zeke was going nowhere early on, minus-2 yards his first four carries and then, boom, 30 yards. After that, not much and then 8, 3 and 20 yards before the spectacular Dez Bryant/Travis Frederick touchdown catch.
Zeke finished with 80 yards on 22 carries, but those were hard yards. He must have taken 100 hits, and that's not an exaggeration. And they killed a lot of clock. That's the formula. His long bursts also opened up some routes downfield with eight-man boxes up front. There's Brice Butler and Terrance Williams in single coverage.
For me, this was one of Dak's most impressive performances. Not quite there with the Green Bay playoff loss, but Arizona's defense wasn't giving up much. Dak gave up himself on that first score, the touchdown flip we'll be seeing often the next decade or so, and then made the big-time throws needed, usually on the move. He needs to throw the ball more than 18 times, but again, that was more the lack of snaps.
One more quick Dak note: I like him running a little bit more. Thought they were going in that direction and think it's fantastic. And I know he's big and strong and smarter than a Greek philosopher. I just wish he could kind of, sort of, pretty please, start sliding a yard or so earlier. Steve Young isn't coming off the bench if he goes down.
Otherwise, dance with the one who brung you. The formula works. The Cowboys are 30-8 in their last 38 regular-season games started by Romo or Dak. That's nearly an 80 percent clip. That doesn't happen in the NFL. Roger Staubach has the second-highest winning percentage for any starting quarterback of the modern era, minimum 100 starts, and he won 73.3 percent.
Some of the thoughts that run through an oversized, bald head:
- I spoke with DeMarcus Lawrence last November for about 30 minutes. I never finished writing the story because he re-injured his back the following week and missed the rest of the regular season. It was honestly one of my favorite interviews of the last few years, he was so honest and engaging. I'm hoping to talk with him again this week or next and finally write that story. What he's doing is astounding. He's also had two sacks taken away on penalties that had nothing to do with him taking down the quarterback. "Tank" already has more sacks in three games than the Cowboys team leader had in 2014 and 2016. Like for the entire season. Incredible.
- Just when this rookie class was starting to feel like a redshirt season, cornerback Jourdan Lewis was superb against the Cardinals. Really thought he played much better than even his impressive numbers indicated. Also a really solid route and catch by Noah Brown, and finally we see just how explosive Ryan Switzer can be on returns. He moves left to right like he's being electrocuted. Fun to watch. This class looks to be just fine.
- The five pre-snap false starts/offsides are very unlike a Garrett-coached team. Sure that will be among the first topics he addresses with the team.
- Mentioned this on Twitter during the game: The offensive line just isn't playing like the best unit in the NFL, which they have so often been classified as the last few years. And usually deservedly so. There are almost no holes for Zeke and Dak escaped pressure on many occasions, taking four hits. Tyron Smith allowed the lone sack. Maybe just need time to mesh with the two new starters. Maybe Ronald Leary was a lot better than anyone realized. Maybe this is all forgotten in a few weeks when they are manhandling defensive fronts. Not sure.
- Really looked like the Cowboys missed blocking three or four punts by a few inches. And Kavon Frazier is fun to watch on special teams. Reminds me a little of Kenny Gant, minus the shark antics.
- Brice Butler is one of my favorite guys on the team. Think there can be more big plays like he made Sunday night. He's one of those wideouts who tends to make the spectacular catch and struggles with an easy one. Hoping this is kind of his breakout game.
- Reason for some optimism. Cowboys should be a 10-point favorite against the Rams this week, then another home game against Green Bay and the bye week. Team is pretty healthy, and David Irving, who looked on the same level during training camp as Lawrence, returns after Sunday.
Follow Jeff Sullivan on Twitter, @SullyBaldHead, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.