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Writer's Blocks: An Ode To October


FRISCO, Texas – If we're going to be sticklers, it's technically still September.

Big whoop, I'm choosing to ignore that. It has been raining in Dallas for three weeks, and with all that precipitation has come cooler temperatures. It might be short-lived, but it feels like fall, y'all. I couldn't be happier.

The next time I write this column, it will officially be October – and I dare you to find me a better month of the year.

I don't even like Halloween that much. It's overblown and the movie franchise is overrated.

What I do like is the the temperatures are down, and the football is getting meaningful. In October, you can step out of your house in a hoodie and go to the bar to watch do-or-die football. In the college game, conference play is heating up. Penn State is hosting Ohio State in one of their famous white out games this very weekend. The pro game is heating up, too, as we're starting to piece together what the playoff picture will look like this year.

That gets us through the weekends. But don't forget the baseball playoffs. Admittedly, I firmly believe that baseball season is about a month too long, and MLB needs to play about 30 fewer games per season. But there aren't many things better than white knuckle, postseason baseball. My favorite team, the Seattle Mariners, hasn't even made the postseason in my adult life, and I don't even care.

For the next month, there's going to be football on all weekend and all-or-nothing baseball on during the week. And we'll all be able to wear our hoodies and jackets while we watch them.

Add in the fact that it's the birth month of one Aubrey Drake Graham – October's Very Own – and it's just a pretty great time of year.

Hopefully the Cowboys' play on the field these next four weeks reflects that fact.

Here are some things that are on my mind this week:

1. Let's quit the hand-wringing over Ezekiel Elliott's carry count for a second.

I feel strange typing that, because I'm typically the guy advocating for Zeke to touch the ball as many times as possible. But coming out of that loss in Seattle, I don't know how you can argue that Zeke isn't touching the ball enough.

He might have only taken 16 carries, but Elliott came out of that game with 127 yards, and the Cowboys ran for 166 yards as a whole. Of course, Elliott could have had more carries for more yards – but at some point, the passing game has to complement the running game in some form or fashion.

At 23.5 percent, the Cowboys have the second-worst third down percentage in the league. They have also run the third-fewest plays in the league, with just 165 snaps on the year. These two stats are obviously related.

As my esteemed colleague Todd Archer pointed out on Wednesday, Zeke's rushing are still accounting for roughly 30 percent of the offense. It's just that the Cowboys are running far fewer players because they can't sustain drives.

Bottom line: Zeke's numbers will be fine, provided the Cowboys can connect on enough passing plays to help him out.

2. It's fine to be frustrated that Sean Lee is once again sidelined by injury. I can assure you, no one is more frustrated than that guy.

I draw that line at attacking the guy, though. If I had a dollar for every Twitter warrior who has said Sean Lee is made of glass this week, I'd be able to buy all of y'all a Happy Meal.

I get it, it sucks when one of your team's best players is repeatedly unable to play. But I'd stomach the criticism a little better if I didn't work in this building and see with my own eyes how much Sean Lee cares about his job. The guy is consumed by football. We all roll our eyes at Jason Garrett's oft-repeated "Right Kind of Guy" mantra from time to time, but Sean Lee genuinely does fit the description perfectly.

Again, that doesn't make it any less of a problem when he goes out injured. But empathy is possible, I promise.

3. As long as I'm talking about Lee, the Cowboys look fairly smart about at least one offseason decision right now.

Based on the way the offense looks right now, it feels 100 percent fair to criticize them for not doing more to address the wide receiver and tight end positions.

But with Lee likely to sit out of this upcoming game against Detroit – and maybe more on top of that – it's hard to kill the decision to draft Leighton Vander Esch with the 19th overall pick.

Sure, the Cowboys could have drafted Calvin Ridley or D.J. Moore. Ridley blew up for seven catches, 146 yards and three touchdowns last week during Atlanta's thrilling loss to the Saints. Moore has had a couple moments, with two catches for 54 yards and a touchdown so far this season.

Derwin James is killing it, too, as he has logged 19 tackles, two sacks, four pass breakups and an interception through three games.

Even still, the Vander Esch looks awfully smart right now. Not only are the Cowboys much better equipped to handle Lee's absence, but the rookie looks like a fast learner. Vander Esch is averaging seven tackles per game right now – and that's as a reserve. He easily saw his highest snap count last week when Lee hurt his hamstring, and he finished with a career-best 10 tackles and a tackle for loss.

4. And we can't kid ourselves, either. The 22-year-old Vander Esch is a fantastic insurance policy for Lee on the weak side, but he's also the future of the position.

Lee, at 32, is a decade older and is playing his ninth season in the league. If he can't go against the Lions, he will have missed at least one game during every season of his career.

It's too early to say what this latest hamstring injury means for the rest of Lee's career. But it makes sense why the Cowboys would want to brace for life without him.

Because he redshirted his rookie season due to injury, the NFL's CBA dictates that Jaylon Smith has only accrued one season of play. The Cowboys' highly-talented second round pick should have two more years left on his rookie deal. As a first-round pick, Vander Esch comes with a fifth-year option and could be under contract through the 2022 season.

That's a lot of talent and a lot of potential under contract for the next few seasons. It's hard not to like the long-term outlook at linebacker – for the first time in what feels like forever.

5. I touched on this last week, so I'm not going to write a ton about it right here.

But it's still crazy to me how good Jason Garrett has been at avoiding the basement during his time as a head coach. In his seven seasons in charge of the Cowboys, the team has only made the playoffs twice. So he has overseen five seasons that didn't finish in the postseason.

And yet, Garrett's teams have only slipped more than one game under .500 on two occasions in his career. The most notable situation was obviously 2015, when Tony Romo missed the vast majority of the season with a broken collar bone and the Cowboys lost seven-straight games to fall out of contention.

When Garrett has had his preferred starting quarterback for all 16 games, it has only happened once. That would be the 2011 season, when the Cowboys lost to the Falcons, 19-13, to drop to 3-5 on the year.

That was a short-lived dip, though. The Cowboys won their next two games to improve to .500, and then they traded wins and losses to an 8-8 finish.

This all makes Sunday's game very intriguing. Garrett has been one game below .500 on 11 different occasions during his career. He has only fallen two games below .500 twice – and only once when his starting quarterback was healthy.

History suggests that the Cowboys will find a way back to .500 this weekend. Otherwise, we're looking at unfamiliar territory for a Garrett-led Cowboys team.

6. Turns out, I'm real bad at picking NFL games. I'm slowly getting better, inching toward .500. But man, this hasn't been pretty.

Undaunted, I press on.

Vikings (+7) over RAMS

FALCONS (-5.5) over Bengals

Buccaneers (+3) over BEARS

PACKERS (-9.5) over Bills

Eagles (-4) over TITANS

Texans (+1) over COLTS

Dolphins (+6.5) over PATRIOTS

JAGUARS (-7.5) over Jets

Browns (+2.5) over RAIDERS

Seahawks (-3) over CARDINALS

Saints (-3.5) over GIANTS

CHARGERS (-10) over 49ers

STEELERS (-3) over Ravens

BRONCOS (+4.5) over Chiefs


THIS SEASON: 17-30-1