FRISCO, Texas – I've found that the extent to which you enjoy the holidays is directly proportional to what's going on in your life when they show up.
For instance, the NFL club I work for is sitting at 12-2, on the cusp of a divisional title. The Cowboys have only lost to one team this entire season, so everyone in this building is in a great mood. The coaches are happy, and the players are willing to tolerate my questions.
On top of that, they don't play until the day after Christmas – which gives me a long weekend to go home for the holiday for the first time since 2012. Life is good.
Take things back a year, though, and it's a different story. The Cowboys were 4-10, people were miserable and the players hated everyone. I spent Christmas working, and then I watched movies with my dog. The next day, we flew to Buffalo to watch a 16-6 loss to the Bills in the rain.
And these are all minor problems, obviously.
But I guess my point is that for every person traveling home to spend time with family and friends, there's a flipside to the coin. Someone reading this is facing tough times right now – whether that's dealing with financial hardships or the loss of a loved one. Plenty of people won't be seeing family or friends this holiday season, for one reason or another.
However trivial it might be in the grand scheme, I hope this Cowboys season is some kind of comfort to all of you. Whatever it is you might celebrate this time of year, I hope it's happy and involves people you care about. If that's not the case, I hope 2017 brings better times.
Until then, I hope you can all agree this season has been a definite bright spot in 2016.
Anyway, on to football. Sorry for the sappy rant.
1.In 12 of the Cowboys' 14 games so far this season, they have wound up with the ball to start things off. Sometimes that's been because of the opposition deferring until halftime, but often it's a direct result of the Cowboys asking for the ball.
Every traditionalist bone in my body screams against that, but it has worked pretty well – for the most part. The Cowboys scored on their opening possession in five of their first six games. It has tapered off in the second half of the season, as they have scored on the opening possession in just one of the last six games in which they have started with the ball.
Honestly, that's only half the story, though. The Cowboys obviously want to start fast by putting the opposition in an early hole. But even if they don't, it's the opening series of the game – you have plenty of time to recover.
What I was curious about was the possession you lose by asking for the ball – the one at the start of the second half. It's common logic in football that the first possession after halftime is important for setting the tone for the rest of the game.
The results are honestly pretty encouraging. The Cowboys have started the second half on defense in 12 games, and they've surrendered a score in four of those. Washington opened the second half with a touchdown in Week 2, San Francisco started with a field goal in Week 4, Pittsburgh kicked a field goal in Week 10 and Tampa scored a touchdown last Sunday.
Seventy-five percent of the time, the Cowboys get a stop – they've forced five punts and two interceptions. Cincinnati missed a field goal to open the second half in Week 5, and Ezekiel Elliott housed a 60-yard touchdown on the very next play.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that it's totally worth the risk to start the game with the ball. The Cowboys have proven that they're good at scoring points to open the game. Even more importantly, they've proven they're good at limiting the opponent coming out of halftime.
2.I guess I'll go ahead and add my two cents to the hot take of the week – because, why not?
No, I don't care even slightly that Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey have opted out of their college's respective bowl games. No, I don't think they're bad teammates or bad people. I also don't think it'll affect their draft stock. Because for all the moral outrage from anonymous NFL executives, these guys are still insanely talented football players, and they have few red flags outside of their desire to not get hurt during a meaningless bowl game.
Christian McCaffrey appeared in 37 games for Stanford and compiled a staggering 6,987 all-purpose yards, as well as 43 total touchdowns. He was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2015, and he helped his team to Pac-12 and Rose Bowl championships.
Leonard Fournette compiled 4,356 yards from scrimmage and 41 total touchdowns in just 32 games, as his final season at LSU was hampered by injuries.
As a matter of fact, both star players have been bothered by nagging injuries. Fournette missed five games with an ankle injury that bothered him all year. McCaffrey missed a game in the middle of the season and was reportedly "banged up" for a good chunk of the campaign.
Despite that, they still grinded through the season, and they still produced – in the games that mattered.
Given all they've done for their programs, I'm not going to be the one to blame them for thinking toward the future.
3.Obviously, it would be foolish to have this conversation without paying mind to Jaylon Smith.
The reason the Cowboys' rookie linebacker is on the team at all is because of a massive knee injury – suffered while he was finishing his career in a postseason bowl game. The injury pushed him down the draft board, from being a likely top 10 pick to the No. 34 overall selection by the Cowboys. And while this front office is optimistic about Smith's future, there's no guarantee he'll ever play football again.
All of that makes Smith's opinion on the matter very pertinent, which is why his tweet from Monday night caught plenty of attention:
In the limited amount of time I've spent around him, Jaylon Smith is one of the most positive and charismatic people I've ever been around – and I respect the hell out of him for having that outlook despite his own hardships.
But in my mind, that doesn't make Fournette or McCaffrey's decision any less valid. They've got families and careers to be mindful of, and their absence from one game doesn't diminish their career long contributions.
It's OK to look out for No. 1 from time to time.
4.Dez Bryant didn't exactly appreciate the criticism of his team, or of his quarterback, during the week leading up to the Tampa Bay game.
Following the Cowboys' 26-20 win against the Buccaneers, he was sure to say as much:
I could see why some Cowboys fans would take issue with this. Fan support makes the Cowboys relevant in the first place, so I'm sure there are people who don't appreciate Dez telling them to jump off the bandwagon.
Having said all of that, I love his willingness to put on for his guys – specifically Dak Prescott. First of all, we know these guys hear the outside noise, regardless of whether they admit it or not. I respect Dez's willingness to say as much, even though it's counter to most football players' clichéd viewpoints.
On top of that, Bryant let the entire world know exactly how he feels about Prescott, who has guided the Cowboys to a 12-2 record. There's no misinterpreting how the best receiver on this team feels about his quarterback, and he's willing to go to bat for the guy. Maybe some people don't appreciate it, but I loved seeing it.
5.I honestly get annoyed at people who complain about award snubs. There are so many honors that can go around, and someone deserving is always going to get left out. That's why awards are only given to the precious few.
I'll make an exception in the case of Sean Lee, though.
I hate to criticize Luke Kuechly, given that he's missed the last month of the season with serious concussion issues. I'm not trying to make light of what was a serious-looking and scary injury.
But the fact of the matter is that Kuechly hasn't played a game since Nov. 17. With two weeks remaining in the season, he's credited with 102 tackles, two sacks and an interception.
Now pivot over to Lee, who has been playing like a man on fire for the last month, during what has been inarguably the best season of his seven-year career. Through 14 games, he has 140 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and a fumble recovery.
It's not only that Lee has been the best player on the Dallas defense, he's also been available. This is the healthiest season of his career, as he has yet to miss a game – eliminating the most prevalent criticism against him.
At the end of the day, it's not worth getting that upset about. The Cowboys would prefer if Lee is unavailable for the Pro Bowl, because he's getting ready for Super Bowl LI. And if the Cowboys don't get that far, he'll undoubtedly make the game as an alternate.
He still deserved the honor of being selected, though.
6.It's funny how much can change in a week.
This time a week ago, Ezekiel Elliott was sitting at 1,392 yards and looked like a longshot to break Eric Dickerson's rookie rushing record. He would've needed to average 138 yards per game over the last three weeks, despite having not gone for more than 107 in the month before that.
Fast forward to right now, and it looks a lot more doable after Elliott's 159-yard performance on Sunday night. Now he sits just 258 yards away from the record with two games to play. He's obviously still got his work cut out for him, but it feels much more manageable than it did just five days ago.
7.It would be so fascinating to see what Jason Garrett does if the Cowboys clinch the NFC East this week and Elliott moves within striking distance of the record.
Let's say the Cowboys beat the Lions on Monday night, and let's say Zeke runs for 133 yards. In that hypothetical scenario, he'd only need 125 yards against Philadelphia to set a new rushing record.
In a situation like that, I say you absolutely go for it. If the Cowboys win the NFC East, they're going to have a week off regardless. You don't want this team taking a full two weeks off before its first playoff game. You want your guys focused and playing for something.
Cementing Zeke's rookie legacy is a worthy goal, and it'd give the Cowboys something to play for. I'd say go for it.
8.If I hear one more time that Dak Prescott only throws check downs, I'll probably scream.
I'd like to take this opportunity to direct you to a tweet from Bob Sturm, who writes for the Dallas Morning News and does radio in Dallas for 1310 AM The Ticket:
So Dak attempted 36 passes in the win against Tampa. Of those 36 attempts, an absurd 32 were complete. And yes, the majority of those came close to the line of scrimmage. But facing a solid defense, Prescott completed two passes of 10 yards, another two passes of 14 yards, a 16-yarder and a 21-yarder. Only two of his four incompletions came more than 10 yards downfield.
All season long, Dak has shown a willingness to throw downfield when the coverage allows. Think of his deep slants to Dez Bryant against Washington, Chicago, Baltimore and now Tampa Bay. How about his fade routes to Terrance Williams and Brice Butler, against San Francisco and Green Bay?
It's true. They don't come often. But why do you want a rookie quarterback constantly testing secondaries when he also possesses a dominant ground game, a dynamic slot receiver and a consistent tight end? There's a difference between smart and cautious. Did you know Dak is actually fourth in the NFL in yards per attempt? That's more than Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck and Derek Carr.
The Cowboys have one of the most dynamic and efficient offenses in the league. Grumbling about how often Dak Prescott does or does not air the ball out is just dumb.
9.Here's a thought for the holidays: eggnog is utterly delicious. I don't understand people who don't like it, and I'll literally never get tired of drinking it. I hate that it's only socially acceptable to drink two months out of the year.
If you don't like eggnog, just know that I neither trust your judgment nor value your opinion.
10.Who's even keeping track of these dumb picks anymore? Sometimes I'm right, and a lot of times I'm wrong. I would like to take this opportunity to point out that I'm 12-2 picking Cowboys games this year, and I 100 percent correctly picked the score of the Dallas-Tampa game. I am a petty man.
New York Giants over PHILADELPHIA
BUFFALO over Miami
NEW ENGLAND over New York Jets
Tennessee over JACKSONVILLE
GREEN BAY over Minnesota
CLEVELAND over San Diego
Washington over CHICAGO
CAROLINA over Atlanta
OAKLAND over Indianapolis
NEW ORLEANS over Tampa Bay
SEATTLE over Arizona
LOS ANGELES over San Francisco
HOUSTON over Cincinnati
PITTSBURGH over Baltimore
KANSAS CITY over Denver