Any talk about whether or not the Cowboys are legit is a thing of the past: After a dominant defensive performance against the previously number-one-with-a-bullet Seattle Seahawks that shut down the defending Super Bowl champs in their supposedly-impenetrable home stadium, the Cowboys no longer need to prove themselves.
Take a tour of the various lists of power rankings and see where the ‘Boys rank these days: Sports Illustrated has them as the best team in the league, while ProFootballTalk, SB Nation, and USA Today all have them at #2 (behind either the Broncos or the Chargers). ESPN puts them at #3, and the NFL’s own website, along with TV partners Fox and CBS, have them at #4, with the Chargers, Broncos, and either the Eagles or the Cardinals ahead of them, depending on the outlet. In fact, you have to go all the way to the Chicago Tribune to find a major outlet that places the Cowboys outside of the top five (where they somehow still rank behind the Seahawks, suggesting that reporter Brad Biggs might be a subscriber to the Huntsville Item).
What’s good for the Cowboys is good for the NFL, the conventional wisdom goes, and times are good for the Cowboys: Along with the San Diego Chargers, they own the league’s longest winning streak at five games.
ESPN issued a veritable mea culpa to the team this week, reassessing why the roundtable of 64 experts they assembled at the beginning of the season included only one (writer KC Joyner) who predicted that the Cowboys would make the playoffs. But as mea culpas go, this one is surprisingly backhanded: “We could make a decent argument the Cowboys’ defense hasn’t outplayed its expectation as much as everyone is giving it credit for,” explains Kevin Seifert, and ESPN scout Matt Williamson insists that “I still think the overall defensive talent here is subpar.” Seifert goes on to attribute the team’s early success to “keeping this defense off the field.”
All of that suggests that the allure of those preseason predictions is strong, and football writers hate to accept that they might have blown a call, but there’s also some truth in the margins there. “The Cowboys defense hasn’t outplayed its expectations” is a hard statement to countenance, given that the stats-obsessives at Football Outsiders rank their defense as the #16 in the league—a solid middle-of-the-pack result that no one would (or did) predict before week one. The part about “subpar talent” is also undeniably true, with players who had previously earned no grander distinction that “journeyman” or “replacement level talent” filling the bulk of the roster, but pulling off success with subpar talent is actually a better indicator of future success than doing so through the exceptional play of a few superstars: great players can get hurt, but a defense that succeeds through great coaching can rest easy on the philosophy of “next man up.”
The bigger question than, “is the defense really any good” is, “Can the offense sustain this level of performance for the next ten games,” and the answer there is harder to see. There are concerns, obviously, that an injury-prone player like Demarco Murray having a historic start to the season might not have an equally record-setting second half of the year, and the players behind Murray on the depth chart are Lance Dunbar, distinguished by his 1.9 yard-per-carry average through six games, and Joseph Randle, distinguished by an arrest for shoplifting $40 underpants from a Frisco mall.
But the success of the Cowboys on the ground, it can be argued, is as much a product of the big offensive linemen as it is the guy they’re blocking for. That’s something that the NFL itself seemed to recognize in awarding the Offensive Player of the Week award for last Sunday’s slate to left tackle Tyron Smith, the first time an offensive lineman received that honor in ten years. In other words, the Cowboys production running the ball might have as much to do with the blocking as the back, which means that you might be able to plug any old accused shoplifter in the backfield and continue to run well.
Of course, all of this is really only relevant if the team doesn’t die of Ebola, which is apparently something that this week’s opponents, the New York Giants, are concerned about:
Giants team medical personnel were briefed on the disease and then provided information to the players via email this week, with instructions to contact team medical personnel with any questions they might have.
Giants doctors are providing information about the Ebola virus to Eli Manning and other players in advance of the team’s trip to Dallas this weekend.
The NFL sent a newsletter outlining the basic facts about the Ebola virus to all team doctors and trainers for distribution to players and staff. The league said Wednesday the newsletter was written by the Duke Infection Control Outreach Network, the league’s infectious disease consultants, and sent to the league’s 32 teams on Monday.
There have been three confirmed cases of the disease in Dallas, but for the most part the Giants do not seem overly concerned.
“I’m not worried about myself or the team,” quarterback Eli Manning said. “With what we’re doing and where we’re staying, I think we’ll be fine.”
Eli is right to note that the team won’t be staying at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, where every confirmed case of Ebola contracted in Texas has originated—and it’s probably not worth including that if a player on the field did have Ebola, that would almost certainly be a high-risk environment for contracting it (and subsequently a fine excuse should the Giants struggle). Nonetheless, the fact that the Cowboys’ on-field success continues to be threatened to be overshadowed by off-field issues ranging from shoplifting arrests to the risk of Ebola might help explain why, as of this year, the Cowboys are no longer America’s Team.
These days, that distinction belongs to the Super Bowl-losing Denver Broncos, quarterbacked by Peyton Manning, according to a Harris poll conducted last month. Adding insult to injury, the Cowboys’ rivals in New York, captained by the fearless Eli Manning, have eased into the #2 spot, a fact that might make Cowboys fans feel like they have Ebola. The ‘Boys themselves, meanwhile, place at #4, behind the Green Bay Packers.
“America’s 4th Favorite Team” might not carry the same distinction, but winning probably cures all: All three of the teams that are more popular around the country than the Cowboys have been to a Super Bowl in the last four years, while the Cowboys haven’t made an appearance there since 1996. If the defense continues to be mediocre, the offensive line continues to allow for a record pace from its tailbacks, and the team continues to ascend the power rankings, knocking off the competition for “America’s Team” could be the next task for the Cowboys.
At this point, unlikely as it may have seemed two months ago, it’d be foolish to bet against them.