Whenever the Dallas Cowboys start resembling legitimate Super Bowl contenders, it seems, they do something to remind us they own a single playoff victory across the previous six seasons — one more than Detroit and one fewer than Jacksonville, despite enjoying quarterback stability.
This season alone the Cowboys have ranged from Super Bowl favorites to a team on the verge of blowing its massive division lead. The offense has looked unstoppable at times, having scored 35+ points in 5 games this season. But then they were down 30-0 to the Denver Broncos. Throw in the meltdown on Thanksgiving to the Las Vegas Raiders, a team that had not had a win in 50 days, and the Cowboys are as confusing as ever in 2021.
The latest reminder of the Cowboys baffling everyone arrived Sunday in the fourth quarter of a near-blowout victory against a Washington team down to its third-string quarterback. The Cowboys won, 27-20, but they blew most of a 27-8 lead in the final six minutes. Dak Prescott’s pick-six interception with his team in four-minute mode was especially jarring.
In years past the Cowboys would’ve lost to the Washington Football Team yesterday as the offense was inept for 90% of its snaps.
Dallas has forever been a team that needed its offense to carry a disproportionate amount of the load. The Cowboys ranked 24th in combined defensive and special teams EPA during the Tony Romo years. They haven’t finished higher than 12th since the 2003 team was third. That team had Quincy Carter at quarterback. This team has Prescott, which should be a very good thing.
But in 2021 the Cowboys defense, a year removed from being the worst in the league, has surged to the top of the league thanks to a rookie Micah Parsons and its elite payers in each level of the field. It has become their calling card even more so than their potentially high powered offense.
“If our offense goes out there and scores 50 points that’s great, but if they go out and score zero, we got to hold their offense to zero,” Parsons said. “That’s the expectation. Don’t matter what they do, we’ve got to be account for what we do. If we got to win a game on us, that’s what we got to do. I think we’ve all been taking that standard and approach every week and we’ve been living up to ‘we hit, we don’t take hits.’ I think we just got to keep doing it.”
For that reason this Cowboys group has a shot to be different from its predecessors.
With all due respect to emerging star Cornerback Trevon Diggs who leads the NFL in interceptions, and who held Terry McLaurin without a catch on Sunday, and new coordinator Dan Quinn, neither of them are the single motor that drives this defense.
That title belongs to the 22-year-old Parsons, who is easily the biggest reason why the Cowboys defense is among the most elite groups in all of football. His prodigious talent is, of course, a piece of the story. But everyone knew how talented he was back in April. It’s what he’s now chosen to do with that talent that’s made the difference.
The result? The race for Defensive Rookie of the Year is effectively over with four weeks left in the season. Parsons is now running a new race, with guys like T.J. Watt and Myles Garrett, for Defensive Player of the Year, an award only one rookie has ever won before.
“Yes,” Parsons answered, when I asked if he knew which rookie it was. “Lawrence Taylor.”
“L.T. was an assassin, man,” Parson said. “I love watching him. I was actually thinking about getting a hoop earring to show appreciation for him. So yeah, [winning DPOY] came to my mind. But I always stay humble, always stay grounded. I’m gonna just let it come to me. I just gotta keep doing what I’m doing and focus on what I got in front of me.”
None of this seemed imaginable coming off a season in which the Cowboys allowed a franchise record for points (473) and spent a large portion of the season giving up big plays and big yards.
Through 13 games a year ago with Mike Nolan at coordinator, the Cowboys had allowed 400 points and 48 touchdowns. They had just five interceptions and 24 sacks.
Through 13 games this season with Dan Quinn at coordinator, the Cowboys have allowed 287 points and 32 touchdowns. They have 21 interceptions and 31 sacks.
With the return of defensive tackle Neville Gallimore from injured reserve because of a hyperextended elbow, the Cowboys had their full complement of defensive players for the first time all season.
Lawrence was playing just his third game of the season after suffering a broken foot in practice after the opener. He had a one-armed sack of quarterback Taylor Heinicke to end the third quarter.
Parsons had two more sacks, giving him 12 on the season and in position to break the league’s rookie record of 14 set by Jevon Kearse in 1999. His first sack caused a fumble that defensive end Dorance Armstrong returned 37 yards for a touchdown and gave the Cowboys an 18-0 lead in the first quarter.
Only Julius Peppers (13), Reggie White (13) and Leslie O’Neal (12.5) had more sacks in their first 13 career games than Parsons since sacks became an official stat in 1982. He has recorded a sack in six straight games, tied for the third-longest streak by a rookie.
Defensive end Randy Gregory, playing for the first time in a month because of a calf injury, had the tempo-setting play with a first-quarter interception, tipping a Heinicke pass into the air before coming down with the first pick of his career. Four plays later, the Cowboys had a touchdown.
In the fourth quarter Gregory stopped what would have been an epic collapse by the Cowboys, who led 24-0 at halftime and 27-8 after three quarters, with a sack of quarterback Kyle Allen for a forced fumble that was recovered by Jayron Kearse with 2:24 to play.
The fumble recovery by Kearse, who is the nephew of the man Parsons is chasing for the rookie sack record, was the Cowboys’ 27th takeaway of the season. The last time they had that many in the first 13 games was in 1999.
The Cowboys defense has scored five touchdowns this season, which is the most in the NFL.
The defensive unit is among the best the league has to offer, and it was the first time they had been at full strength all season.
If the defensive output on Sunday was just the beginning of their dominance, there is no ceiling on what this football team can accomplish this season.