ARLINGTON, Tex. — All the continuous drama swirling around Ezekiel Elliott has overshadowed something that is pretty noteworthy in its own right: The Dallas Cowboys really have gotten their act together. They’re currently riding a three-game winning streak. They just beat a Kansas City Chiefs team that is good enough to win the AFC. As much as people are wondering about the status of Elliott’s suspension, his potential loss doesn’t look to be as fatal a blow as it once seemed.
The Cowboys’ 28-17 win on Sunday revealed a couple important facts. The first is that this team is now far from the one that was languishing at 2-3 earlier this year (and somehow suffered a 42-17 butt-whipping at the hands of the suddenly hapless Denver Broncos). The second is that Dallas has started to develop more balance. They still have plenty of offense but their defense is improving with each passing week.
What this means is that the Philadelphia Eagles should be paying close attention, as should the New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks and any other team with legitimate postseason hopes. Dallas is very much in this race, with Sunday’s effort providing further proof of how far they’ve come this past month. When asked how it feels to be 5-3, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott said, “It’s huge, especially after a couple of those close losses that put us at 2-3. To stay focused, to stay within ourselves and what we want to do and believe in ourselves as a team … We’ve flipped the script and put ourselves in this position.”
In fairness to the Cowboys, they haven’t had to pull off a major overhaul to improve their fortunes. As Prescott mentioned, they lost by five points to the Los Angeles Rams and then they endured yet another nightmarish rally by Aaron Rodgers in a 35-31 defeat to the Green Bay Packers. Those losses felt more traumatic because they happened at home. If Dallas had managed to win just one of those games, the endless discussions about their struggles wouldn’t be so intense.
The reality is that the talk about this team’s hopes have centered around Elliott’s battles with the league for far too long. Yes, he is a game-changer, one who certainly made a huge difference in Sunday’s victory (when he logged 27 carries for 93 yards and a touchdown). What the Cowboys also are proving is that there are other elements to this team that can be quite beneficial. After all, Elliott wasn’t the only reason behind their win over Kansas City.
Prescott was his typically efficient self, as he completed 21 of 33 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns. A defense that struggled in those losses to the Rams and Packers contained a Chiefs offense that was averaging 29.5 points a game. The Cowboys also unleashed wide receiver Terrance Williams on the Kansas City secondary. He finished the contest with nine receptions for 141 yards, including some key catches that came after star wide receiver Dez Bryant left the game with a sprained ankle.
This is what contenders do — they find multiple ways to beat their opponents. The Cowboys controlled this game early, leading by a score of 14-3 shortly before halftime. They also rebounded after the Chiefs pulled off an amazing last-second play to close the half — wide receiver Tyreek Hill took a short pass and eluded several defenders before scoring on a 56-yard touchdown — and took a 17-14 lead in the third quarter. Instead of wilting at the finish, which had been a problem for this team earlier in the year, the Cowboys closed. “We came in here and nobody blinked,” said Williams. “We all just stood into the fire and took it. We said we were going to come out and finish the game because normally, when we have leads like that, it’s hard to keep them. Today we just did a great job of grinding.”
Something else that is becoming more apparent is that this Dallas team has found a way to deal with all the uncertainty swirling around their star running back. Elliott has been facing a six-game suspension related to accusations of domestic violence since the start of this season. He’s been fighting the punishment in court for weeks, with some judges saying the suspension must be honored while others have granted him the ability to keep playing. In fact, Elliott started this past week with news that his suspension would start immediately and then ended it with news on Friday that he could play in this game.
Some teams would be flustered by so much uncertainty. The Cowboys have accepted that it’s simply the hand they’ve been dealt this season, that they’re better off focusing on what they have to do to be successful. As head coach Jason Garrett said, “I think our team has done a really good job of just focusing on the things we can control. That’s been our attitude all along and we preach it every day as coaches. Zeke has done a good job of that. There are some things he can’t control in this situation but what he can control is his preparation — how he practices and how he plays.”
“It was a little rushed — I’m not going to lie,” said Elliott, who has rushed for 876 yards and eight touchdowns this season. “I had no idea when I came in on Friday that I was going to have the chance to come in. I really didn’t know I was playing this weekend. So I came in Friday and practiced and spent all day Friday watching a lot of film. Saturday I was just trying to catch up to the team and catch up for what I lost.”
The Cowboys still have to face some difficult choices with Elliott. Regardless of how much success he’s had in avoiding his punishment thus far, the harsh reality is that he’s going to lose games at some point. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady staged a similar fight with the league over his role in Deflate-gate, only to wind up serving a four-game suspension at the start of last season. The saving grace for him was that his year ended with a win over Atlanta in the Super Bowl.
Dallas may not like what is happening to Elliott but they’ll have to weigh the costs of losing him sooner than later. This team currently is playing well enough to win at least three of the games he’d have to miss. The question is whether they’re comfortable doing that now or if they want to risk not having him for a potential playoff game. At this stage, the latter choice seems like too big a gamble to accept.
Yes, Elliott is an indisputable star. He’s also one of the team’s emotional leaders, a guy who can energize a room simply by walking into it. However, these Cowboys are still a young team learning some valuable things about themselves. The biggest lesson so far is that there’s more to their current success than just having their best player on the field.