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The Cowboys Are Emerging as True Contenders

It was a bumpy start for Dallas, but Dak Prescott, Micah Parsons, and the rest of this team have the talent to be trouble the rest of this season and into the playoffs

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Do you remember the Cowboys’ Week 1 game against the Buccaneers? It feels like a lifetime ago. Dallas lost that game 19-3, and a nightmare outing for Dak Prescott—14-of-29, 134 yards, a pick, and two sacks—ended in the worst possible way: a thumb fracture to his throwing hand that would sideline him for at least four weeks.

The Dak injury was the cherry on top of a long, frustrating downward spiral for Dallas optimism. It started when Amari Cooper was traded for peanuts to the Cleveland Browns and continued when the Cowboys announced the signing of Randy Gregory, only to have Gregory spurn Dallas for the Denver Broncos. Franchise left tackle Tyron Smith suffered an avulsion fracture in his knee just before the season began, forcing rookie left tackle Tyler Smith into a Week 1 starting role. Michael Gallup, recovering from a torn ACL suffered near the end of the 2021 season, wasn’t available to start the year; Prescott, guard Connor McGovern, and safety Jayron Kearse were all hurt during the Bucs game. Tough decisions and tough breaks, one after another.

All these injuries made the Cowboys tricky to figure out—trickier still once they started winning games. With Cooper Rush at quarterback, the banged-up Cowboys went 4-1, winning low-scoring games on the back of Dan Quinn’s defense. Through six weeks, they were 4-2. So were the Vikings and Giants. It was a weird time, when records seemed like they were lying to us, and the Cowboys were lumped somewhere in that confusing pile.

But now, with another six weeks in the books, it’s clear that there’s nothing tricky about these 2022 Cowboys. This is the time of year when contenders define themselves, and the Cowboys are legit contenders. Just ask the Minnesota Vikings, everyone’s favorite litmus test for team goodness, who suffered a 40-3 drubbing at the hand of the Cowboys this past Sunday. Thirty-seven-point blowouts against quality opponents aren’t accidents; Dallas didn’t stumble into that win. They dominated, and in doing so, announced their arrival to contendership.

Dallas is a contender first and foremost on the back of the same group that got them through their Rush-era: the defensive line. Dallas leads the league in pressure rate this season, following one of the most dominant defensive line performances of the season: Dallas pressured Kirk Cousins on over 60 percent of his dropbacks, the single highest mark of a game in Kirk Cousins’s career.

Everyone knows the first reason that the Cowboys are getting so much pressure: Micah Parsons. The second-year off-ball linebacker turned pass-rush maven is a huge favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year, and rightfully so: He’s third in the league in sacks, despite rushing the passer on just 82 percent of opposing team’s passing plays.

While everyone may know that Parsons is a star pass-rusher, I’m not sure the nature of his skill is still appreciated. I don’t think there is a more physically gifted pass rusher in the league than Parsons. I don’t think there is a more physically gifted defensive player in the league than Parsons, save for perhaps Aaron Donald, and I think there’s a case to be made on either side.

Parsons is a bemusing mover. On many of the plays on which Parsons ends up with a pressure or a tackle, he should have ended up on his butt or stuck on a block. Look at the size of the space through which Parsons slithers here, as he retains his momentum by bouncing off the center, and then high-steps over his outstretched leg to explode into Cousins.

Or watch this rep, as Parsons hooks backup left tackle Blake Brandel with his right arm, then drags his foot and whips Brandel by, to drastically decelerate and flatten to Cousins.

There is an intuitive athleticism here that cannot be taught. The best smaller speed rushers—Brian Burns, Danielle Hunter—don’t move like this. Even Von Miller, who moves in inexplicable ways, doesn’t have this particular blend of length, explosiveness, deceleration, change of direction, and strength. Parsons isn’t just a star—he’s the decade-defining sort of star, up against whom every other player at his position will be measured for the foreseeable future.

But the Cowboys don’t just have Parsons. They have DeMarcus Lawrence, long a top-10 pass rusher who’s still playing at prime levels as a 30-year-old veteran. And they have Dante Fowler Jr., on pace for his best season since an 11.5 sack performance with the Los Angeles Rams in 2019. And they have Dorance Armstrong, a rotational defensive end who already has seven sacks on the season. And they have Osa Odighizuwa, a top-15 pass rusher by pressure rate from the defensive tackle position. And they have Sam Williams, a second-round rookie with the second-best pressure rate among all first-year defenders.

The point should be clear by now: Dallas has six defensive linemen with a pressure rate over 10 percent—only the Cardinals have as many. This makes Dallas a menace to handle on clear passing downs. On third and 7-plus, when the Cowboys can tee off their pass rush with no concern for run defense, Dallas allows the third-lowest conversion percentage—not just because they can generate pressure, but because they can generate pressure with four and drop seven defenders into coverage.

Dallas’s pass rush is the backbone of their defense, but the pass coverage more than handles its side of the bargain. After living in man coverage last season and relying on the turnover generation offered by Trevon Diggs, the Cowboys are now a league-average team in man coverage rate. Cornerback depth has been tested following the season-ending injury of Jourdan Lewis, but depth at safety has allowed the Cowboys to play big nickel looks, run fake blitz packages, and protect their non-Parsons linebackers from being attacked in coverage.

The Cowboys’ defense got it through some tough times. It gave the team a cushion in the NFC and particularly in the NFC East, where the Giants and Commanders are still pushing for wild-card placement. The Cowboys won games, even when they were a confusing team. And that gave the offense time to right the ship.

Dallas’s offense has undergone a slow process of growth over the course of the season. They began without Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper—two of Prescott’s top targets from last season. Another top Prescott target, Dalton Schultz, missed games midseason with his own injury, as Gallup was slowly integrated back into the roster. Just as the passing weapons felt steadied, franchise running back Ezekiel Elliot missed time, forcing the Cowboys to experiment with Tony Pollard as their lead back.

These are all big story lines—but no story line is bigger than the play of Tyler Smith. A glaring weakness to start the season as a rookie left tackle left without much help, little has been said of Smith in the last several weeks. That’s good news for an offensive tackle. When an offensive tackle isn’t getting discussed, that means he isn’t getting noticed. He isn’t giving up pressures. He’s doing his job.

Always considered the future at left tackle after Tyron Smith, Tyler Smith was slated to play left guard this season, and will likely move back to guard when Tyron Smith, who is expected to return in December, is healthy. The Cowboys spent some time late in the blowout against the Vikings with Smith at guard and Jason Peters at tackle, just to get Smith some live game reps on the interior. But it’s been Smith’s time at left tackle that has accelerated his learning curve such that he now is a plus starter at left tackle, giving the Cowboys time and freedom to onboard Tyron Smith on whatever schedule his body allows. Dallas’s offensive line may not be the elite unit it was in the beginning of Prescott’s career, but it is above-average.

This maximizes the value of Prescott, a decisive pocket passer who excels when working the space of the pocket and getting through his progressions. Watch Prescott scan the field on this Pollard catch-and-run touchdown, and how easily Smith escorts Danielle Hunter beyond the top of the pocket.

The emergence of Pollard is another happy accident of an injury-riddled start to the season for Dallas. Long considered the more talented and dynamic back in Dallas’s running back room, Pollard took his opportunity in the Zeke-less weeks by the horns, with a 14-carry, 131-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Chicago Bears. Pollard now had five consecutive weeks with at least 10 carries, which matches his career-best streak; he’s on pace for career-best numbers as both a runner and a receiver. And the Cowboys running game, currently fifth in the league, is about more than just the talent of their backs—during the weeks when Schultz was out with injury, rookie tight ends Peyton Hendershot and Jake Ferguson both carved out roles on the offense that now remain stable. On plays with at least two tight ends on the field, Dallas is second only to the Chiefs in EPA per play

Contenders are defined by quality quarterbacks—the Cowboys have one of those in Prescott. They’re defined by mismatch weapons on offense—the Cowboys have those in Pollard and CeeDee Lamb. They’re defined by versatility—the ability to win in multiple ways—which the Cowboys have shown, in offensive and defensive games, in running and passing. And they’re defined by units and players who can take over football games—the Cowboys have that, in Parsons and their defensive line.

Dallas’s road has been bumpy—it still is. The team’s overtime loss to the Packers was 10 short days ago, and cannot be erased from memory. But over the course of a long and hard season, Dallas has gotten a little bit better, week after week. They’ve had their depth tested and rise to the occasion, week after week. Among the early-season surprises, they’ve already beaten the Vikings, and on Thanksgiving Day, have the opportunity to establish their foothold in the NFC East with a win over the Giants. The Cowboys are legit contenders, as they proved against the Vikings, and will prove through the rest of the season and into the playoffs.