Taking the NFL by Storm: The Cowboys Saga

What comes to mind when you think of the Dallas Cowboys? For me, it’s “chokes in the playoffs.” Over the past 10 seasons, The Cowboys have played in six playoff games, winning twice, and both of those wins came from wild card games prior to losing in the next round of the playoffs. Tony Romo, the Cowboys starting quarterback for the past 10 seasons, is objectively one of the best quarterbacks currently playing, if not in history. His passer rating, a measure of one’s efficiency and quality as a passer, is the fourth highest in NFL history higher than NFL Hall of Fame locks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. Somehow, however, he’s never been able to break that last barrier of getting a Super Bowl win. Perhaps that’s why he’s gotten so much criticism over the years, being called overrated and unable to perform in high pressure situations. In the words of sports commentator Stephen A. Smith, “If you want to mention overrated, then throw him out there.”
         This season may not be helping his reputation, but it’s sure looking good for Dallas.  Dallas is standing atop the NFL with an 8-1 record just over halfway through the season, all without Romo as quarterback. Romo fractured a vertebra during the preseason, and he only last week returned to the team, albeit in a backup role. In the minds of many Dallas fans, that may well be a blessing. Rookie phenoms Dak Prescott, a quarterback drafted in the fourth round from Mississippi State, and Ezekiel Elliott, a running back drafted in the first round from Ohio State, have led the team to the top of the standings. Prescott began the season by throwing 176 pass attempts without an interception, the most pass attempts without an interception to begin a career. He now has the fourth highest quarterback rating in the NFL. Elliott leads the NFL in rushing yards, averaging over 100 yards a game, and he is making a legitimate argument to win both Rookie of the Year, which he will almost certainly win, and Most Valuable Player. The Cowboys are the best team in the NFL right now. So who’s on their heels?
           ESPN rankings of the best teams in the NFL currently put the Seattle Seahawks as the second best team in the league, with the New England Patriots just behind them. I  would disagree with that order, but perhaps I’m just a biased fan of the Patriots. It comes down to the fact that the Patriots lost a home game this weekend to the Seahawks. By that measure, the Seahawks are a better team than the Patriots, but I don’t think that one game paints the full picture for either team. The Patriots started the season with their star quarterback, Tom Brady, suspended for his alleged role in Deflategate, a scandal involving alleged football deflations by Patriots staff. Jimmy Garoppolo, Brady’s primary backup, took over for the first game and a half, and he stood out. However, he injured his shoulder in that game’s second half, and the quarterback role fell to rookie Jacoby Brissett, a third round draft pick from North Carolina State. Even without Brady, the Patriots managed to reach a 3-1 record in part because of their stellar scoring defense. For the four weeks after Brady returned, the Patriots torched the NFL, putting up huge point margins. This whole season, they’ve shown a very balanced team with a good passing game, a good running game a rarity for them, and a decent defense. The Seahawks road to last Sunday’s matchup was not quite as easy as the Patriots’s. The Seahawks have been known as having one of the best rushing offenses in the NFL with highly mobile quarterback Russell Wilson and, previously, running back Marshawn Lynch. This year, Seattle is third-to-last in the NFL in rushing yards per game, in part because of knee and ankle injuries to Wilson near the beginning of the season. Maybe they’ve shown just how tough they are in coming back from a mediocre start to the season, losing to the Los Angeles Rams, a team in the bottom half of the NFL. The Seahawks and the Patriots both have relatively easy schedules remaining, except perhaps for a Dec. 18th matchup between the Patriots and the Denver Broncos, which is always a tough and entertaining matchup. As things stand at the moment, however, it will be the Patriots and Cowboys that finish first in their respective conferences and will hold the one seed going to the playoffs.
           We’ve talked about the best, so we should leave some room to talk about the worst. The Cleveland Browns are 0-10, their worst start to a season in franchise history. I believe the Browns have used six quarterbacks this season, although it could be more. It’s hard to keep track of all of them. They started off the season with Robert Griffin III, the former Heisman Award winner, awarded to the best player in college football. He didn’t last a full game before injuring himself. The merry-go-round spun and landed on Josh McCown. He suffered an injury in his first start. On came Cody Kessler, who actually lasted for a couple of weeks before going down with a shoulder injury. Then, it was Charlie Whitehurst, but he injured himself in the same game as Kessler. Kevin Hogan, a rookie quarterback out of Stanford, came off the practice squad to quarterback for the team for a few weeks until Kessler was healthy enough to start. They’ve even had Terrelle Pryor, a wide receiver, serve as a quarterback a couple times. At least they’ll have their choice of quarterback in this year’s draft, having practically locked in the first pick in the draft already.
           The Carolina Panthers played in the Super Bowl last year. This year, they’re one of the worst teams in the NFL. They’re 3-6 and last in the NFC South. Their pass defense is atrocious after having let one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, Josh Norman, leave after last season. The turnaround is honestly remarkable. This is a team that had a shot at winning the Super Bowl, and they’re now playing like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a perennial non-contender. Actually worse than Tampa. They’re almost certainly not making the playoffs this season, and they’ll be looking at a pretty high draft pick. They better do something good with it.
           The NFL season is more than halfway through, but there are a lot of teams still battling for a playoff spot. Key matchups this Sunday include a game between the Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles and another between the Dallas Cowboys and the Baltimore Ravens. It should be a great start to the second half of the season.

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