Three Seasons Later, the Cowboys Are Finally Living Up to Their Potential

Published in DMagazine.com


The Dallas Cowboys have now won four games in a row. The last time they’ve had a streak this long was 2018, a season they began by struggling to a 3-5 record in the first half of the season. Dallas then traded a first-round draft pick to the Oakland Raiders for Amari Cooper, a two-time Pro Bowler who’d lost some of his luster, and soon after that, both the wide receiver and his new team looked revived. That season, led by Cooper, Dak Prescott, and Ezekiel Elliott—the newest version of The Triplets—the Cowboys won five games in a row and eight of their last 10.

Headed into the 2019 season, there was reason for excitement. And in the first three games—all wins—the offense looked among the best in the league. Then, in what would symbolize their up-and-down season, they lost three in a row. In typical Cowboys fashion this side of the Super Bowls, they were perfectly mediocre. They finished what became Jason Garrett’s final season with as many wins as they had losses. Mike McCarthy got hired, and then it all fell apart.

We know what happened last season. It’s too fresh in the mind to forget. The injuries to the offensive line. The injury to Dak, who broke his ankle and got carted off with tears in his eyes and, so far as his contract with the team was concerned, an uncertain future. It was the year of Andy Dalton, Ben DiNucci, and Garrett Gilbert; players who aren’t even on the roster anymore. It felt like everything that could go wrong, did. The season was so disastrous it was fitting that it happened right when it felt the world was ending during the pandemic. It made you doubt how good this team was even when its components were all healthy.

The Cowboys are now 4-1. They’re tied for the second-best record in the league, having lost only to the defending Super Bowl champions in a game they could, and maybe should, have won. They’ve done this with key players out of the lineup, including DeMarcus Lawrence, La’el Collins, and Michael Gallup. Besides beating a very good Chargers team on the road, perhaps the most important part of their record is that they’re blowing out teams that aren’t good. Even better, those wins—against divisional rivals Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants—were tight games at halftime. That means the team is making the correct mid-game adjustments. That they aren’t playing down to the level of their inferior opponents. That they, at last, have defensive players who can keep the game close as the offense finds its way.

That’s been the surprise few would have imagined three years ago. Yes, the offense always had the potential to be among the league’s best. It’s become even better since then by adding CeeDee Lamb and Tony Pollard. They aren’t just one of the league’s best; they are doing things that are historically good. But to think three years ago, when the 2018 defense forced nine interceptions in the entire season, that this version would have 10 in just five games—well, no one could have predicted that. Or at least no one could have predicted that any more than they could have known the team would have struck gold with Trevon Diggs and Micah Parsons. Turnovers aren’t the type of things you can count on. Perhaps they’ll eventually stop coming, or at the very minimum, decrease. It feels unrealistic to expect the Cowboys’ defense to force at least two per game, which is what they’ve done thus far into the season. But what doesn’t feel unrealistic is for this offense to continue being as good as it’s been. And it isn’t illogical to think they can only get better once Collins returns from suspension and Gallup from injury.

The last time the Cowboys won four consecutive games was 2018. Before that, the last time they won so many games in a row was in 2016, when the team transitioned from the Antonio Ramiro Romo era to what it is now.

Between then and now, one of the great fears among Cowboys fans was that the careers of Dak, Zeke, and Cooper would be wasted. The way it feels like there will always be something missing in the Cowboys careers of Romo, Jason Witten, and DeMarcus Ware. That Cowboys fans had to find some sort of contentment with the latter winning a Super Bowl as a Denver Bronco says all you need to know about the Romo era. Even when the offense was potentially great, it would mean nothing but season-ending disappointment so long as the defense was getting picked apart.

Five games into the 2021 season, the Cowboys offense that demonstrated, three years ago, how good this team could be at last has reached its potential. They have what’s likely the best receiving corps in football, but because they might also have the best running back tandem, they aren’t over-reliant on the pass. And, even better, compared to the last time this team won so many consecutive games, they have an accompanying defense that can swing momentum. A defense that doesn’t require that Dak and the offense play near perfect.

As of now, the Cowboys have an 85 percent chance of making the playoffs. It would be their first trip to the postseason since three years ago, when they beat the Seattle Seahawks before losing on the road to the eventual conference champs, the Los Angeles Rams. Back then, we envisioned how well this team could play. Today, after ups and downs and a disastrous season, they’re finally as good as we all could have hoped.

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