“America’s Team” had succeeded in winning the NFC East the previous week and had nothing to achieve (from a playoff seeding aspect) in their final 2018 regular season game. Unvarnished truth, however, suggested the Dallas Cowboys required an offensive performance tweak to (help) avoid one-dimensional shrinkage when entering the postseason flame.
Just because you can do a thing, of course, does not mean you will do a thing (with enough of the right resources to avoid the failure sting). Garrett’s Gang sat players (in Tyrone Crawford, Zack Martin, and Tyron Smith) who absolutely needed the day off and another player (in Ezekiel Elliott) who certainly could have used it but remained ready to knock someone’s block off.
While the Cowboys, again, had nothing (technically) for which to play, the New York Giants (who were enduring a miserable season by comparison) still had more than enough rivalry venom for America’s Team to (try to) make ‘em pay. Dallas was going for a momentum-building two in a row, but “you know how those NFC East games go.”
Dak Prescott’s pro career arc – with a handful of (frankly) surprising exceptions – had been pretty clear. If you took away one or more of his most capable Cowboys colleagues (through injury or defensive hocus pocus), Prescott’s production would reliably go dark within a vanilla offense he would then be unable to reasonably steer. The woefully-undermanned Giants were (as always) determined to display their fans’ “Beat Dallas” defiance, but New York’s well-documented “art of heart” would pale in comparison to whether or not Dak could raise his game, fill (at least some of) the expected execution gaps, and sidestep his teammate overreliance.
While “Marinelli’s Men” were expected to do their jobs in stopping a Giants offense largely made of nothing-to-lose slobs, Cowboys Nation figured Garrett might allow Dak to spend a handful of series attempting to kickstart his offensive attack before giving way to the comparatively immobile Cooper Rush (who – with half the starting o-line – surely would have been turned to mush).
Marinelli's Men would perform their customary first quarter, "test 'em out, make 'em shout" shark bite but – to sudden fan fright – the Giants (after a nice kickoff return) went from their 38-yard line to the Cowboys' six, demonstrating more than the expected energy and fight. All was not lost, however, as another Eli Manning interception was tossed. The Giants' Sterling Shepard was the deep end zone target, but the Cowboys' Chidobe Awuzie would snag it.
"Linehan's Clan" would punt on their first possession, but the Giants would give it right back with a fumble transgression. Dak and Co. would begin their next series at midfield, but another stalled offensive effort would end in a Brett Maher missed kick yield. A man who can keep his team's hopes alive from 65 must know he was not immune from being shown the door after missing from 34. The Dallas defense (with a 4-yard grunt to force another Giants punt) appeared to have successfully adjusted, but the national television audience was placing bets on how much longer it would take before the Cowboys' offensive plan became completely busted.
What happened next would leave even (a considerable portion of) of Cowboys Nation vexed. Dak and Co. would drive from their own 35 (while absorbing a deep miss to Amari Cooper and an untimely holding call by La'el Collins, who nearly became the red zone party pooper) to see the tight end position suddenly come alive. Prescott found Block, err, Blake Jarwin alone in the end zone for what would become seven, and Cowboys Nation felt like they were in heaven.
Marinelli's Men would allow ONE yard to the G-Men. Then, Dak and Co. did it again! From their own 25, Linehan's Clan and repeat opportunities appeared to happily collide. After digesting a rare offensive pass interference call on rookie receiver Michael Gallup and a sack of Dak that might have held them back, Gallup, Cole Beasley, and Jarwin helped "matriculate the ball down the field." A pass interference penalty on the Giants got Dallas closer to what fans were (once again) yearning, with the two-minute warning nearing. Then, just like a(nother) Thanos snap, Prescott connected with Jarwin for a 19-yard touchdown, and Cowboys Nation squealed! Dallas’ tight end position was once again showing its worth through an inexplicable rebirth.
Before the Cowboys (with their 14-0 lead) could exhale, Marinelli's Men interrupted the celebration with a quick fail . . . allowing the Giants' own talented-but-inconsistent tight end Evan Engram to score on a 21-yard touchdown pass that kept Manning's attack from looking completely stale.
Surely the Cowboys were just finding “strange” success against a Giants’ defense that – for most of the season – had proven a royal mess? While the score was 14-7 with Dallas seemingly in command at the half, there would be a high-powered offensive exchange and more defensive mange before either team could get the last laugh.
Linehan's Clan would (GASP) punt to start the third quarter, seemingly putting Dallas' offensive reality back in order. While the Giants would add a field goal to get on their own roll, the "Dak Attack" would find none other than Blake "Not Just A Blocker" Jarwin for "Three! Three touchdown passes!" Fans half-expected the Count from "Sesame Street" to appear on-screen and repeat, Repeat, REPEAT!
The last Cowboys tight end to catch three touchdowns in one game was Billy Joe Dupree. While Blake Jarwin (with his 7-8 catches for 119 yards) was a mere mortal by comparison to other members of Dallas’ historically talented tight end garrison, he had Cowboys fans from around the world going tee-hee, Tee-Hee, TEE-HEE!
Nonetheless, one of these high-scoring squads was being made to look like gods by Marinelli's Men (who were showing shades what many hoped they had left in Indianapolis) again and again. After seeing Jeff Heath get stiff-armed by Saquon Barkley on consecutive plays, fans feared it was going to be one of those days. A 21-10 Dallas lead was quickly flipped into a 25-21 New York-slanted difference before Rod Smith scored from the Giants' one to slow their age-old rival's fun.
Though Dallas would retake the lead, the Giants would heavily sandwich a Cowboys' fumble (courtesy of Amari "Oaf With The Loaf" Cooper) with 10 more points of their own. Dallas had just over 2:35 remaining in the game to reach the end zone or come up lame. Just when Cowboys Nation thought Dak was all out of tricks (appearing to have stalled at the Giants' 27 with a Fleming false start suggesting Dallas would fall apart), Prescott called upon "Lump Of Cole" Beasley to deliver the fix. Dak (looking to stun from on the run) fired a 32-yard dart to a back-of-the-end-zone streaking Beasley. Cole had to successfully drag his knee to make the carefully-reviewed completion good. Just as Cowboys Nation was about to lose their collective mind, a 15-yard taunting penalty was called on reserve nose tackle Antwaun "Babe In The" Woods.
Jason Garrett had a pivotal decision. He could have Brett Maher kick the (not-so-given) extra point and go with his longstanding views of “playing not to lose” . . . or he could instruct Linehan and Prescott to go for it and potentially watch GM Jerry and Cowboys Nation blow a fuse. Garrett chose the path less traveled, and his offense did not come unglued or unraveled. It was not until Prescott found Gallup for the two-point conversion (followed by a timely turnover-on-downs forced by Marinelli's Men) that victory was firmly achieved and believed.
Short Shots And Hot Spots
Dak Prescott (intentionally or not) has let the aggressively-scoring genie out of the bottle, and Cowboys Nation would LOVE to see more of this quarterback at full throttle. YES, Yes, yes, it was against the languishing Giants that Prescott displayed his most “flexible” success. Absent the Cowboys’ complete set of starting offensive linemen and the steadying services of Zeke . . . Dak was “supposed to” freak, appear erratic, and put on a performance particularly weak.
Not only did Prescott keep his cool all game long, he repeatedly overcame Linehan’s “Choose Your Own Adventure” calls (all on his own), delivering his team’s 10th victory of the season, and looking strong. Did Prescott (in going 27-44 for 387 yards with ZERO turnovers and FOUR touchdowns) suffer moments of Dakuracy? Sure (even sustaining four more sacks (for an insane regular season total of 56), but he more than made up for it throughout the second half blur.
“The Tortured Cowboys Fan” – contrary to people who continue comparing Dak to “That Announcer Guy” strictly by the numbers – simply wants to see Prescott rise above ever-present restrictions (by his play-caller and suddenly unavailable guys) to steadily demonstrate that he, too, can occasionally improvise. Dak KNOWS he is empowered to prevent Linehan’s Clan from going through the play-call motions like performance bumblers. And just like “That Announcer Guy,” he gets to show the pro football world (for consecutive opportunities and at least one more game) that – when faced with unexpected challenges – he can make successful, non-scripted adjustments on the fly.
Cole Beasley’s dazzling touchdown catch from Prescott (who broke Linehan’s playbook latch to execute it from scratch) should remind Cowboys Nation of the 2012 home game against the Giants. Dez Bryant caught a moonshot from “That Announcer Guy” with six seconds remaining and a lead that needed regaining. Dez came down with the scoring catch but his body-supporting left hand touched down just out of the back of the end zone. Following a thorough booth review, there was nothing fans could do but moan.
Ezekiel Elliott – with 1,434 yards – won his second NFL rushing title in three seasons . . . while being able to skip the final regular season game for completely restful reasons. All hail the two-time rushing king (who remains eager heading into the postseason to continue to do his all-purpose his thing).
Will They Or Won’t They?
Here it is, folks. Here is what that “backs against the wall” theme invokes. One of the moments Cowboys Nation hoped would arrive has finally come, and they are certainly ready to beat the playoff drum. “America’s Team” has regained entry into “The Tournament,” and the limit could be the sky (or the firmament).
Winning the NFC East division crown was nice (especially after starting the regular season 3-5 and concluding 10-6), but the Dallas Cowboys – historically – always have their eyes the ultimate prize (the one for which the timeliest teams are willing to pay the biggest price).
The Dallas Cowboys host the Seattle Seahawks at AT&T Stadium on “NFL Playoff Wildcard Weekend,” and what better team against whom the Cowboys should have to successfully find their way around the postseason bend.
Some will want to view this contest as a continuation of the opportunity lost in 2014, when “it should have been the Cowboys and not the Packers” who were Seattle’s visiting attackers. Four years later, almost everything about these two teams is different, even to the most stubborn debater.
For those (fans and prognosticators) in the here and the now, there was a 2018 early-season game. The hosting Seahawks limped into the contest at 0-2 wondering what the heck to do. Dallas arrived at 1-1 with offensive inconsistencies that were no fun. While Seattle handily won the game, the Cowboys repeatedly misfired way out of frame. They suffered from ED (Executional Dysfunction). Seahawks’ safety Earl Thomas (currently on injured reserve with a broken leg) feasted upon those mistakes (of the team to which he very much wanted to be traded) with absolutely zero compunction.
The Seahawks have been transformed from a pass-heavy team to following a run-first theme. Seattle quarterback “DangeRuss” Russell Wilson, however, remains a quarterback who can rope-a-dope defenses with mobility and throw-any-pass ability. While your defensive spy can give it a try, it is rare that even the best defenses can completely stop this guy.
Will Marinelli’s Men be able to “maintain (reasonable) contain,” allowing “Kris’ Kids” enough of a chance with Seattle’s receivers (in Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett) to smother and restrain? Or will Wilson eventually find his targets and connect with them like magnets?
Will Marinelli’s Men also show enough respect to little-used Seattle tight end Ed Dickson (to prevent being caught off guard, as was the case for teams ignoring his predecessor, Luke Willson)?
Will Jaylon "Smooth" Smith, Leighton "The Wolf Hunter" Vander Esch, Sean "The General" Lee, and the rest of the “Hot Boyz” be able to keep Seattle running back Chris Carson AND Russell Wilson from continuing their soul-crushing style of rushing?
While the Cowboys (over the past three years) have been a run-first team, they, too, have indulged the team-changing theme. Coaches have come and gone and the arrival of one particular player has helped Linehan’s Clan realize a new dawn. After admitting their receiver-by-committee solution to having a true number one was kaput and done, they traded for Amari Cooper who (until the last few weeks) has been quite the production trooper. Though Dak Prescott has been inconsistent, he has shown passing and running improvement. He has increasingly combined his stable of improved receivers with his will to win and has helped turn Dallas into true believers.
Will Garrett and Linehan do all they can to encourage (the new) Prescott (who played against the Giants) to drive the offense “Every Which Way But Loose,” or will Seattle’s defense (especially veteran dagger, linebacker Bobby Wagner) scare them back into their early season mantra of “play to outlast (and risk being outclassed)?” Will Dak continue bringing more receiver AND tight end action into the game day fold while warding off Seattle safety Bradley McDougald?
Will Marc Colombo have his health-hampered WALL (Wanton Aggressors Living Large) ready to protect Dak from an avoidable fall (with Seattle defensive ends Frank Clark and Jarran Reed giving chase all over the place)? Will the WALL be able to drive block with attitude for Ezekiel, granting him the additional latitude towards results so positively unreal?
Will America's Team (continue to) overcome their offensive coaching . . . or upon the Cowboys' success will Garrett and Linehan keep encroaching?
Will the winner be in Russ we trus(t) . . . or will it be Dak whom we back?
We shall see. We always do.
You can chat with or follow Eric on twitter @emscharf