Dallas Cowboys fans have a big problem, but it’s not Dak-vs.-Romo. It’s optimism. It was during Week 3 that you started to hear people murmur, “It’s like the ’90s!” After Sunday night’s win over the Eagles, it’ll be a lot worse. That’s because it may actually be the ’90s.
For those of us old enough to remember, Dallas’s game-winning drive in overtime tonight had a first-term Clinton era feel. There was Terrance Williams Alvin Harper–ing into the air to grab a high throw. There was Ezekiel Elliott doing his best Emmitt Smith impression, wearing down the Eagles defense and seeming to put a safety on his back at the end of every long run. Jason Witten was Jay Novacek. And Dak Prescott running backward for 9 yards and then twisting left out of the pocket on the final, climactic throw of the game? It’s like the time that Troy Aikman scrambled — wait, Aikman never scrambled like that.
Here’s the good news: There was just enough junky play to keep the Cowboys — and their fans — level. Prescott’s first truly terrible moment as a pro came on Dallas’s fifth possession. Two downs before, Prescott had run 16 yards to the Eagles’ 7-yard line. Then he threw an interception to linebacker Jordan Hicks. It was also a strange play call: On two drives inside the 10, Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan called one running play for Elliott and four passes. The Cowboys special teams were also terrible. I counted at least five penalties on special teams plays (one was waved off during a commercial).
The Cowboys’ vaunted offensive line turns out to have the same weakness it did in 2014, when the team won 12 games. If you bring the house on a blitz, you confuse the line and force the quarterback to make quick reads. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz did that Sunday and stopped two potential game-winning drives in the fourth quarter. Only after Prescott remembered that Cole Beasley existed did the Cowboys adjust.
But the Cowboys — and Jason Garrett in particular — also seemed to discover something they’d lacked for years: balls. Down 10 in the third quarter, they called a fake punt at their own 27, got 30 yards, and turned the drive into a stay-in-the-game field goal.
And on their first and only possession of overtime, they found themselves with a fourth-and-1 at the Philadelphia 28. Elliott had just been stuffed. A Dan Bailey field goal puts you ahead and gives your defense a chance to win the game. Garrett went for it anyway, and Prescott easily got the first on a sneak. Five plays later, the game was over.
In the euphoria of beating the Eagles, you can engage in a certain amount of nostalgia shaping. Jimmy Johnson didn’t always go for it on fourth down, and Barry Switzer often did. But Garrett’s signature as a coach is that he has no signature: He exists as a human mash-up of the tics of great coaches. Tonight, at least he picked one of Jimmy’s.
Nationally, the Romo-vs.-Dak quandary is thought of as a pure test of quality. Do you really believe Romo’s Cowboys wouldn’t be 6–1 right now? That’s not how Cowboys fans think. The knock against Romo isn’t that he’s bad. It’s that since that fateful play in Seattle it seems like there is a cap on how great Romo can be. Is this analytically sound? No. Fair? No. But right now, it feels like a Romo-led team would be headed to brave moral victory in the second round of the playoffs, and like a Prescott-led team could do anything. (Jerry Jones announced Sunday night that Prescott will start next week against Cleveland.)
The safe thing to say would be: Look, the Cowboys have a nice, youngish backfield. But they’re probably overworking their tailback, and their rookie quarterback still hasn’t had his first terrible game. Then you look at the NFC standings and see that the Panthers and Cardinals stink, the Seahawks aren’t great, and the Cowboys have already beaten the Packers. This is why stepping into the time machine is so tempting. I feel like I should unfurl my Dallas Morning News sports page, possibly with a cup of coffee from that new chain called Starbucks, and start counting the rings.