The Cowboys are the NFC Champions. We’re going to have to learn to deal with that one. To get a better grasp on the Cowboys, as we barrel towards a Week 17 matchup that means nothing for either side, I chatted up Jason Halprin of Blogging the Boys. Here’s what we talked about:
1. Dak Prescott threw 20 passes in a meaningless game two days after the Raiders lost Derek Carr for the season. How do fans feel about Jason Garrett's decision to play his best players in games with no postseason implications?
This is a very tough call with opinions all over the place. Some people want to rest guys like Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Sean Lee, Jason Witten, Dez Byrant and a few others that are key components to the Cowboys success. There is also a push by some to rest as much of the offensive line as possible. With the 46-man active day roster, you can't rest everybody so even agreement over who to rest or who to limit is problematic.
The other camp of keeping the pedal to the metal got what it wanted on Monday night, a blowout win and one of the Cowboys better games of the year. But every time Dak took a big hit, or when Tyron Smith went out with a knee injury, there was a whole lot of collective gasping going on in the Cowboys fanbase. In the end I don't know if there is one "right" way of handling this situation, but my guess is the Cowboys will be resting a lot more guys, or at least limiting their reps, this week.
2. This will be the Cowboys' first postseason run in a new era. What are reasonable expectations? Do fans think the young stars will be able to keep excelling under increased pressure?
As the season has progressed, there has been what we've termed "moving the goalposts syndrome" going on. When Dak first took over the team and excelled in preseason, there was the "yeah but he hasn't seen a real NFL defense game plan yet." The thought was that he would struggle. Then when he didn't there was always the "he hasn't seen a really good defense yet" or "he won't be able to keep his job when Tony Romo is healthy" going on. So basically what I'm alluding to is that there has been bunch of "yeah, but can he handle the next step" going on this year and every time Prescott has shown he can take the next step.
So when you ask me if he can keep excelling under the increased pressure, I just can't bet against him. Not with the way he has responded to everything that has been thrown at him this season. The guy just seems to shake off pressure and keep his cool at all times. So the expectation is that we are contenders to win it all, not that we should win it all, but that we are definitely in the mix to win it all and it wouldn't be a huge surprise if we did, and it would be disappointing if we didn't.
3. It's a bit big-question for a team focused on the postseason, but, to you, what does this year say about Jason Garrett as a coach? Is he a beneficiary of good/lucky drafting? Is he to thank for the success of the young guys?
What I think this shows more than anything is that Jason Garrett had a plan, a vision for this team, and that it is finally working out the way he envisioned. You could see it already working in 2014 when the Cowboys went 12-4 and were one Dez non-catch call away from going to the NFC Championship game. This team is really an extension of that team which was a ball control offense with a terrific offensive line complementing a dangerous passing game and an opportunistic defense. Last year was washed away when the Cowboys didn't have an adequate backup to Romo.
This year they had the adequate backup (and then some) and they look more like that 2014 team. I think that every successful NFL coach is the beneficiary of good drafting and sometimes lucky drafting, but it's no coincidence that the first player the Cowboys drafted once Garrett was the permanent head coach was Tyron Smith. The Cowboys, specifically Jason Garrett, decided what kind of team they wanted to be, built that team and now he is seeing the benefits. This is really a tribute to his steadiness and his unwavering commitment to his process.
4. We know the names who get the headlines. Who are two guys (one offense, one defense, if you please) who've gone unnoticed in propelling the Cowboys to 13 wins in 15 games?
On offense, I usually say Cole Beasley, but he's not going so unnoticed anymore. So let's go deep and say right guard Ron Leary. Why Leary? Because he lost his job to La'el Collins last year, and then wanted to be traded this offseason and the Cowboys were tempted to do it, but decided not to. Lucky Dallas, because Collins went down to injury very early in the season and Leary had to step in. He not only filled the job, but is probably playing better than Collins did and has helped the offensive line keep its status as one of the best in the league and has allowed Elliott and Prescott to get the glory. So kudos to an unsung lineman.
On defense, you could basically name the whole unit besides Sean Lee. But the Cowboys defensive line has really come on strong the last month of the season and the charge has been led by guys like David Irving, Benson Mayowa and rookie Maliek Collins. Not exactly household names but they have finally given the Cowboys a pass rush. Also, rookie corner Anthony Brown has been asked to play all over the secondary because of injuries to other players and has been fantastic.
5. Looking at what Dallas has done this season, 13 wins per season obviously isn't likely for the rest of Dak Prescott's career. How much of what the Cowboys have done well this season do you think is sustainable over the next handful of years?
It's very sustainable as long as they keep the offensive line together, and eventually replace an aging Jason Witten at tight end and Doug Free at right tackle. The rest of the unit is very young, with Dez Bryant really the elder statesmen besides Witten and Free. Now replacing Witten is obviously not really doable, but getting a decent facsimile of him may be possible. But really, on offense it's all about the offensive line and they are young besides Free, so if they can keep that unit together and get Free's replacement, then there is no reason the offense shouldn't continue to roll.
The defensive side of the ball is really where the question marks are. Can they find an elite pass rusher, will linebacker Jaylon Smith ever be healthy enough to play, what do they do about the corners where contract issues are coming up. That's the side of the ball that is really an issue and needs to be figured out if they want to continue to be contenders.
BONUS: Who wins, and what's the score?
Cowboys win a very ugly game, 17-16.