FRISCO, Texas – Sometimes I'm blown away by how little we stop to actually consider the things we ask these football players to do.
I'm writing this on a Thursday morning, roughly 80 hours after the Cowboys landed in Dallas at 4 a.m. after beating the Arizona Cardinals on Monday Night Football. As it stands right now, I'm only just now starting to feel normal again after going through that.
Tuesday featured roughly two hours of sleep, followed by a full work day trying to catch up on Week 4. I followed that up by falling asleep at about 8 p.m., sleeping for about 11 hours and throwing myself even further out of whack. After re-adjusting on Wednesday, I think I'm finally up to speed.
And the obvious point is this: all I did was write about that 28-17 win over Arizona. I didn't put my body through 30 or 40 car wrecks playing in the game, and I don't have to get myself ready to do it again on Sunday afternoon.
Playing on short rest was already a big ask for an NFL team. Doing it after a cross-country, primetime road trip ups the ante just a bit. Now, combine that with the fact that the Los Angeles Rams have been off since this time a week ago, meaning they'll have had nine days off by the time Sunday rolls around.
I'm sorry, but that's bogus. And this isn't really about competitive advantage. Ultimately, I doubt this game will be decided by that fact. Despite that, I care about football players as human beings who put their bodies in harm's way every six days for four months. This game is grueling enough without these added hiccups in the schedule – which only seem to underscore the idea that player safety isn't all that important.
But that's the NFL. These guys are paid well for their efforts, and no one's going to feel sorry for them. As I struggle to keep my eyes open heading into the weekend, though, it's something I'm thinking about.
1.The easy joke is that DeMarcus Lawrence is playing his way into a big, big contract with the way he's getting to the quarterback so far this season.
How could you argue? The guy is leading the league in sacks, tackles for loss and quarterback hurries, with 6.5, 7 and 26, respectively. He has been a one-man wrecking crew and is the primary reason why the Dallas pass rush looks as fearsome as it is in almost a decade.
But allow the cynical side of me to take over for a minute. As easy as it is to assume that D-Law is playing his way into a big-money contract, isn't it far more likely that he's playing his way into the franchise tag?
Based on his current résumé, I think that's the far more likely scenario.
The reasoning for that is easy. You don't typically see NFL teams hand out monstrous extensions for small sample sizes. If you're going to be paid like one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, front offices want to know you can sustain it.
Look back to some of the bigger contracts doled out in recent years. Chandler Jones, formerly of the New England Patriots, signed an $82.5 million contract with the Cardinals in March. When he signed it, he had 47 career sacks, having reached double digits in three of his five pro seasons.
Justin Houston had 48.5 career sacks when he re-upped with Kansas City for $101 million in 2015. When he signed that deal, he was coming off an insane 22-sack season.
Perhaps the best comparison for Lawrence is New York's Olivier Vernon, who didn't have quite as good a stat line as other premier pass rushers when Miami let him hit the open market in 2016. Vernon's $85 million deal shocked a lot of people, and he still had a better four-year résumé than Lawrence, with 29 sacks and 188 total tackles.
Let's estimate that Lawrence continues this tear and finishes the season with 16 sacks. That's a phenomenal season by any measure – and it would still put him at just 25 career sacks through his rookie deal.
2.As anyone in the Cowboys organization will tell you, the main thing that kept Lawrence from reaching that level of performance earlier was his health. He was hampered by back injuries in each of the last two seasons, opting to play through the pain last year rather than undergo season-ending surgery. He also missed the first half of his rookie season when he broke his foot in training camp.
The result is a career that has shown flashes of brilliance, but little consistency. He saved the day in his first-ever playoff game by sacking Matt Stafford and recovering the game-clinching fumble. He tore off an impressive seven sacks in the final eight games of 2015. He is obviously off to an amazing start in 2017, with multiple sacks in all three games this season.
All of that said, the bottom line is that he has recorded a sack in just 13 of 38 career games. He also served a four-game suspension in 2016, which teams will no doubt remember when contract talks crop up.
Because of that, it sounds awfully appealing to give him the franchise tag. That way, Lawrence plays under a one-year, guaranteed contract of roughly $18 million. It doesn't offer much long-term security, but it allows him to be fairly compensated while he makes his case for a long-term deal.
There's a fantastic amount of potential here, and Lawrence looks likely to cash in on it. But if I was the Cowboys, I'd be tempted to tell him "do it again."
3.There's a quote that keeps getting tossed around by Dallas media this week – "They're the Rams, dude."
The quote apparently stems back to 2008 and Adam "Pacman" Jones, who gave that incredibly dismissive scouting report on the Cowboys' upcoming opponent. Ironically, the Cowboys got blown out by that Rams team. But I still get why Jones said it, given that the Rams have been one of the most perennially forgettable franchises in the NFL for most of the last 15 years.
If you haven't been paying attention so far in September, I'm not sure that's going to be the case for much longer.
As it turns out, if you pick near the top of the draft for long enough, you're going to acquire some talent. The Rams are rolling into AT&T Stadium with a week and a half of rest and quite a talented roster. They have one of the NFL's best defenders in Aaron Donald, as well as an impressive supporting cast in Robert Quinn, Connor Barwin and Alec Ogletree.
They have one of the best young running backs in football, as Todd Gurley has combined for 381 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns in just three weeks. He's averaging five yards when he touches the ball.
Most importantly, Jared Goff is looking much more like a No. 1 pick than a hopelessly lost rookie. Among quarterbacks who have started more than one game this season, Goff has the third-best quarterback rating in the league, behind only Alex Smith and Tom Brady.
The second-year quarterback is completing 70.4 percent of his passes, and he's thrown just one interception through three weeks. It's too soon to say that this is going to continue, but he is clearly playing at a higher level than last year.
If you're dismissing this Rams team, you're doing so at your own peril. This ain't the "Pacman" Rams.
4.Why aren't we talking more about Chris Jones?
You wouldn't know it based on hype, but the Cowboys' recently-extended punter has been one of the most valuable players of this young season.
Here's your proof, in a nutshell: through three games, Jones has punted 16 times. Of those 16 punts, 10 have been downed inside the opponent's 20-yard line. His average is 43.7 yards, and his net average is 40.9 – so opponents are returning his kicks an average of roughly three yards per attempt.
I wanted to break it down further, though, just to give you an idea of what exactly this means for the team as a whole. In the season opener, Jones punted four times. On those four occasions, the Giants started the ensuing drive on their own 6-yard line, their own 9-yard line, their own 10-yard line and once again on their own 10-yard line.
That's a lot of long fields for an offense that has struggled throughout the season.
The same thing happened in Phoenix on Monday night. Jones punted seven times in total. Five of those seven kicks were downed either on the 20-yard line or inside it – forcing the Cardinals to start drives on their own 20, their own 10, their own 7, their own 4 and their own 13.
That directly helped the offense on three of its four scoring drives. The Cardinals went three-and-out from their own 10-yard line, their own 7-yard line and their own 4-yard line. That set up Dallas scoring drives that started on the Arizona 33, the Arizona 46 and at midfield.
That's 21 points that Chris Jones had a big part in, as all three scoring drives were set up by fantastic field position. Don't underestimate the value of your punter.
5.Earlier, I praised the Rams' roster. But just for the record, I can't say enough how much I hate their uniforms.
To be fair, I have a feeling they're going to look awesome at some point in the future. The franchise is heading for a full rebranding in a few years when their new stadium opens. But for the time being, it's just a mish mash of weird stuff.
The team changed its famous horn helmet decals from gold to white last year, hearkening back to the old days of the Los Angeles Rams when guys like Deacon Jones played there. They changed the coloring of their pants, too, switching over to the blue and white color scheme.
The problem lies with their jerseys, which are still blue and white with accents of gold – leftovers from their time in St. Louis. NFL rules stipulate that a team can't just flip its jersey colors overnight, due to the production process and other factors.
So essentially, you've got a team playing with one element of its old look and two elements of its new look – which it will have in the future but can't quite commit to right now. The result is an ugly combination of uniform elements that don't match at all. I honestly wish they'd have just stayed with the old look until they could make a full transition.
Either that or just wear last week's color rush uniforms all season. Even with all that bright yellow, I still thought it looked better than their normal uniforms.
7.Jourdan Lewis wasn't even listed on Wednesday's injury report after he left Monday night's game with hamstring tightness.
That gave me two noteworthy reactions. The first is an obvious sigh of relief that the Cowboys' promising young corner is not too badly injured and should hopefully be available on Sunday afternoon.
Immediately after that reaction, I realized that it says a lot about Lewis that I'm relieved he can play. This kid didn't play a snap during training camp, and he missed the season opener. But already, after two weeks, I look at him as an integral part of this Dallas secondary who needs all the playing time he can get.
It's stupidly early in Lewis' career, but I feel an absurd amount of confidence that this dude's arrow is trending upward.
8.If you can't tell by now, I love the stories about the underdog guys who do whatever they need to do to get by. As I've said many times, Keith Smith is one of my favorite stories on this team because of the way he's bounced on and off the roster – getting cut, getting re-signed, changing positions and just generally doing whatever he needs to do to be a part of this roster.
It shouldn't surprise me by this point, but Smith is doing that again as the Cowboys try to find their way through some linebacker issues. Sean Lee is fighting through a hamstring injury. It's totally possible he'll be ready to go by Sunday afternoon, but he's not available to practice. Anthony Hitchens is working his way back to practice after roughly a month on the sideline, but it's not likely he's ready to play this week.
That puts the Cowboys in a bit of a number crunch at linebacker, especially since the San Francisco 49ers just signed Mark Nzeocha off the practice squad. So what's the solution? Naturally, you ask Smith – who played linebacker during his first two years with the team – to take some snaps in practice.
Smith was all-conference at San Diego State, and he was plenty serviceable when the Cowboys called on him at times in 2014 and 2015. He can help them get through two days of practice with a linebacker shortage.
And who knows? If Lee can't go on Sunday, maybe he gets himself some game reps. At this point, I figure the Cowboys feel comfortable asking Smith to just about anything – and I'm more than confident he'll be quick to do whatever is asked.
9.Sunday is a special day for all of us that cover the Cowboys, because it's probably going to be the last Sunday we get off work before sundown until the end of football season.
They say the Cowboys are "America's Team," and it's no joke. This team is a ratings magnet, as evidenced by the fact that they're scheduled to play at either 3 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. 14 out of 16 times this season.
This weekend's game against the Rams is one of just two noon kickoffs. The other one is Week 17 at Philadelphia – which very well may be flexed to primetime, depending on how the season plays out.
This is obviously a first-world problem. I'm incredibly fortunate to have this job, and I adore every second of doing it. But it'll still be nice to walk out of AT&T Stadium at 7 p.m. on Sunday, rather than 2:30 a.m.
You've got to enjoy the little victories in life.
10.It's a hard topic to write about eloquently, but I thought we did a really nice job of discussing the Cowboys' pre-game demonstration and the nature of the NFL's league-wide protests during our Tuesday edition of "Cowboys Break." If you didn't hear it, I hope you’ll give it a listen.