Adam Kilgore (c) 2014, The Washington Post.
The unsettling expectation of implosion still clung to the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night. A reputation is hard to shake, and the show’s-in-town, biggest-name-on-marquee Cowboys had built a reputation for folding. The players with stars on their silver helmets knew it, too, even after they led the Chicago Bears by 28 points after three quarters.
“Man,” cornerback Orlando Scandrick said Thursday night to ESPNDallas.com. “I’ve been around here and I done been around some crazy, miraculous debacles.”
But these Cowboys have been different this season, and they were different Thursday night. Their 41-28 manhandling of the dismal Bears a string of four straight 8-8 seasons, years in which plumes of off-field drama faded to reveal mediocrity on Sundays. For the first time
since 2009, the Cowboys will finish with a winning record. It remains to be seen if they will make the playoffs, but they have managed to flip their identity. The perennial circus act has become a study in steady competence.
They thumped the Bears in Chicago seven days after a miserable Thanksgiving loss to the Eagles in Dallas, the kind of blowout that recently has marked the start of an annual spiral. This year, the Cowboys reversed course. They refrained from brash statements and locker room blow-ups; Tony Romo received a painkilling shot for his litany of injuries; and they rode a mauling offensive line. The Cowboys for years folded at the first sign of struggles. This year, they can take a punch.
The turnaround traces to several factors, starting with their offensive line. It is possible the Cowboys can run the ball better than any team in the NFL can do any one particular thing. The Cowboys, typically the last team to shun star power for a bland-yet-sage vision, drafted lineman in three of the past four first rounds.
Left tackle Tyron Smith is one of the best players in the NFL. Despite the lamentations of owner Jerry Jones, the Cowboys passed on Johnny Manziel and took guard Zack Martin with the 16th pick; he will join Smith in the Pro Bowl. Center Travis Frederick was lampooned as a reach with the 31st choice in 2013, but no one criticizes the pick anymore.
Their recent defenses had been soft and slow under big-name defensive coordinators Rob Ryan and Monte Kiffin. That has changed under Rod Marinelli, regarded as perhaps the best coach of defensive linemen in the NFL. They have fewer recognizable star players than in previous seasons, but Dallas’s defense plays hard and tackles well.
Thursday night, the Cowboys showed it all. They blasted Chicago with their running game in the third quarter to take a 35-7 lead. The Bears surged back, but Dallas made a crucial stop when they needed it, and they salted the game away with more DeMarco Murray and a field goal.
It’s hard to figure how the Cowboys have, in the span of one offseason, become a trustworthy team. Jones still stands on the sidelines and hovers over the franchise, always ready with a sound bite. They still play under the NFL’s largest microscope. But they also have relied on able, professional players and coaches who have allowed Romo to express his ample talent and toughness.
Even at 9-4, the Cowboys could miss the playoffs. They travel to face the Eagles (when they should be helped by 10 days of rest), play host to the Colts and finish at the Redskins, who already beat them in Dallas. Under normal seasons, the expectation of a collapse would still linger. This season, the Cowboys have proven they are no longer a disaster in waiting, that those miraculous debacles will befall some other team.