How ’bout them Cowboys? America’s Team is loved, hated and tricky to figure out.

12:41 25/11/2021

It has become rare to wonder such a thing: “Are the Dallas Cowboys for real?” You ask it either with surprise (“Wait, are the Cowboys actually good again?”) or exasperation (“Will the drama and underachieving finally end?”). Depending on your rooting interests, your curiosity is intended for amusement or comfort.

As a brand that Forbes estimates to be worth $6.5 billion, the Cowboys can still profess to be America’s Team. But as a franchise that has made the playoffs just three times in the past decade and hasn’t advanced past the divisional playoff round in a quarter-century, it has been more jester than powerhouse. The Cowboys have been strangely entertaining but seldom dangerous.

Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott have a healthy lead in the NFC East. (Yffy Yossifor/Star-Telegram/AP)

As Dallas plays Thanksgiving host once again, it looks like a contender this time. The Cowboys are 7-3 and hold a 2½-game lead over Philadelphia in the lumbering NFC East. Since 2011, they have entered this holiday showcase with such a sterling record just two other times. In 2014, they were 8-3 on Turkey Day and finished 12-4. In 2016, they were 9-1 en route to a 13-3 finish. The current squad has its own identity and different personnel, but the vibe is similar. So is the pressure to make a deep playoff run.

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Is this the year? For most of Dallas’s title drought, any modest success has come with that big-picture query. The Cowboys and their fan base have spent 25 years trying to hurry up and get right. But the greatest concern shouldn’t be limited to reestablishing a sense of supremacy by winning the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl as quickly as possible. Dallas has yet to pass the prerequisite of building a perennial winner.

Since winning their most recent Super Bowl in 1996, the Cowboys have made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons only twice, with the latest instance occurring 14 years ago. Over the past decade, they have pieced together consecutive winning seasons once — a three-year period from 2016 to 2018 in which they finished 13-3, 9-7 and 10-6, making the playoffs in two of those years. Tampa Bay acquired Tom Brady and rose from poverty to royalty in a single season, but the best way to become a championship team remains to find a ladder and climb, one deft step at a time.

There is a lightning-in-a-bottle aspect to winning it all. But building a consistent, championship-caliber culture is much easier to manage and evaluate. While the Cowboys have enough top-end talent to make a title push, it’s more worthwhile to explore whether they have built something that can last for a good while, without wild fluctuations from season to season.

If you’re looking only for reasons to love, hate or disregard this Dallas team, brace for a confusing finish. The Cowboys were great during their 6-1 start. Since then, they’ve lost two of three, dealing with injuries, the unvaccinated Amari Cooper’s isolation and the NFL’s defensive adjustments to quarterback Dak Prescott and their league-leading offense. In their past two losses, Dallas has put up just 25 total points. It didn’t reach the end zone in a 19-9 loss at Kansas City.

Linebacker Micah Parsons has helped the Cowboys’ defensive resurgence. (Peter Aiken/AP)

And this midseason swoon is the best thing that could’ve happened to the Cowboys.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll recover and return to their early-autumn form. But for the Cowboys, there is truth to seek in this struggle, and it should make them a fuller team by January.

Barring a slew of injuries, they figure to get out of the NFC East with relative ease. Four of their final seven games are within the division, two of them against the Washington Football Team. Their path isn’t as easy as it looks as they battle familiar rivals along with games against Las Vegas this week, New Orleans next week and Arizona on Jan. 2. Still, it’s hard to see Dallas finishing with fewer than 10 wins. A 12-5 record would seem a good barometer; if the Cowboys achieve it, they turned a fantastic start into a very good season.

There are plenty of tests to come, but the biggest is internal. Are the Cowboys front-runners? Can they handle the challenges of the long season? It starts with Prescott, who began the year torching blitzing defenses. Now he’s seeing varied looks and more aggressive secondary play from defenses.

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The offensive line, which has been without left tackle Tyron Smith for the past three games, has been inconsistent of late. Ezekiel Elliott, who is playing through ankle and knee injuries, hasn’t rushed for more than 69 yards in the past five games. With Cooper out Thursday against the Raiders and CeeDee Lamb in concussion protocol, Prescott must rebound from his worst performance of the season without his favorite receiving options.

We’ve seen how good Prescott can be in the right situation — with a good offensive line, a quality running back and very good wideouts. We’ve seen how well his playing style matches offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s play-calling. Now, the QB and coach must persist under messy conditions. Prescott must play smarter than he did against Kansas City, when he threw two interceptions, absorbed five sacks and produced just five yards per pass attempt.

This is a chance for Dallas to show whether it has the balance of a true contender. Coach Mike McCarthy hired Dan Quinn to run the defense, and Quinn is building a better unit, making good use of two young players who look like stars: second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs and rookie linebacker Micah Parsons. The Cowboys have plenty of room for defensive improvement. They’re still more about athleticism and big plays than being stingy on every down. But they don’t give up a lot of points, capitalize on mistakes and play with an intensity. They have a defense that can win a few games for them — and turn momentum in many more — and during this period of offensive lull, now is the time to put more responsibility on the other side of the ball.

Prescott left Kansas City frustrated and telling reporters of his performance: “Never discouraged. But pissed off for sure.”

Earlier this season, he impressed by throwing for 445 yards against New England, solving the puzzle of Bill Belichick. He injured his calf on the game-winning play in overtime against the Patriots, missed a game and hasn’t been as sharp since. It has led to his latest challenge. This one isn’t about putting up eye-popping numbers, though.

The job now is to manage difficulty. It is to maintain. Nothing fancy. Another deft step.

For Prescott and the Cowboys, legitimacy comes only after steadiness.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2021/11/24/dallas-cowboys-thanksgiving-contenders/

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