IRVING, Texas – All hands saddle up. A Texas sized shootout is about to commence.
Think about it. That is exactly how these Dallas Cowboys have turned a 3-5 start to this 2012 season into an encouraging 8-6 with two games to go and a potential playoff berth emerging out of the blue.
And it’s the exact same old Texas cattle drive toughness needed this Sunday at Cowboys Stadium. It’s this suddenly surging Cowboys team, winner of three straight games this late in a season (for only the second time since they swept the final five in the 1993 Super Bowl campaign), meets head on with those 6-8 New Orleans Saints.
Everyone, that is. All 92 hands comprising the 46-man, game-day roster, along with every one of those coaches and staff personnel, from head coach Jason Garrett to defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, all the way down to little-known but hardworking Ben Bloom and Dave Borgonzi.
For this injury-riddled team, possibly growing up before our very, and for some, quite unsuspecting eyes, they have needed and will continue to need the village that has been the impetus for a second-half surge, winning five of the past six games to vault into a three-way tie for first place in the NFC East with Washington and New York.
That is why so many of you are having significant problems trying to figure out what happened between 3-5 and 8-6. Why a team that lost three of those first eight games by an eyelash suddenly has won four of these five by the equal breath of that same eyelash.
Oh, it’s been the red-hot play of Tony Romo, you say, the Cowboys quarterback completing 168-of-250 passing attempts in the past six games for 1,875 yards, 12 touchdowns and just three interceptions, factoring out to a 100.3 passer rating.
Or it’s been Dez Bryant, putting together a Pro Bowl-push of consistency in the same six games, grabbing 37 passes for 584 yards and eight of his 10 touchdowns, as many scores in 14 games as any No. 88 in Cowboys history has ever caught in a 16-game season, not even giving quarter to a fractured left index finger.
Or it’s been the return of DeMarco Murray, the lead runner who has come back to gain 213 yards and score three rushing touchdowns on 213 carries since missing six and a half straight games with torn foot ligaments.
Or the steady hand of Jason Witten, leading the team with 97 catches, just six shy of becoming the NFL’s all-time leader in single-season receptions by a tight end.
Or the emergence of play-making receiver/returner Dwayne Harris, seven catches for 79 yards these past two games, along with a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 39-yarder this past Sunday.
Or this rookie tight end James Hanna, three catches for 48 yards these past two games and a mismatch for any linebacker trying to run cross-field with him while their defensive partners are preoccupied doubling Witten.
Or cornerback Brandon Carr, two picks in the past two games, the second this past Sunday setting up Dan Bailey’s game-winning 21-yard field goal in overtime. And oh, Bailey is a candidate too, since that kick means he has made 12-of-12 field goals in this six-game stretch.
Or Anthony Spencer, whose seven sacks in the last six has spurred on a defense that seemingly loses a starter a week (seven total from the nickel defense this past Sunday) and has compensated for fellow outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware essentially playing with his right arm (injured elbow and shoulder) tied behind his back.
Or defensive coordinator Rob Ryan using spit and duct tape to piece together a defense littered with guys signed off their couches to replace the five defensive starters now on injured reserve if you count nickel back Orlando Scandrick in that total, and then also nose tackle Jay Ratliff (out for the remainder of the regular season at least) and his backup Josh Brent on NFI following the tragic accident two weeks ago.
My gosh, this team even lost its punter. They lassoed another from the Buffalo Bills.
If they just lose one more … look, they haven’t exactly slammed the door shut on the past four opponents, but with the exception of the 38-31 loss to Washington, they have come up with key stops or plays to close out the final three games, the last in overtime.
And even some insist the tragic accident killing practice squad linebacker Jerry Brown and charging Brent, the driver, with intoxication manslaughter, coupled with Brown’s mother, Stacey Jackson, expression of uncommon compassion for Brent, has galvanized this team, as if suddenly playing for a bigger cause.
Who am I to say that is a corny take, since there has been a noticeable focus and determination in these guys’ eyes ever since, along with a noticeable budding confidence that no matter what – a broken finger, lost comrade, 10-point fourth-quarter deficit, the inability to score more than 10 points in any first half this season, and injured teammates. As many as 16 guys signed to this roster since the start of the season and having to play the unknown likes of Sterling Moore, Michael Coe, Brady Poppinga, Ernie Sims, Bryan Schaefering, Charlie Peprah and Eric Frampton – they shall overcome.
“Really, it’s just we’ve gotten to a point where we’re a mentally tough football team,” Romo said during a conference call with New Orleans reporters. “In saying that, I believe when I step on the field in the fourth quarter, if we’re within 10-14 points, we’re going to find a way to win the ballgame.”
So as you see, there have been beaucoup factors and Ranch hands elevating their play in this turnaround for the Cowboys, if indeed you want to call it a turnaround, since they lost the Baltimore game by a foot or two when Bailey experienced his last field-goal miss (from 51) at the buzzer and lost the second Giants game by a fingertip (Bryant’s landing out the back of the end zone, nullifying what was initially ruled a winning touchdown in the final seconds).
And while the quarterback’s influence on a game normally is overwhelming, as you can see there have been so, so many other factors in the Cowboys’ recent success. Sunday against the Saints won’t be any different, if you factor in that the Cowboys’ banged up defense has to go up against the league’s third-ranked offense, powered by the league’s second-ranked passing offense.
You know what that means, right? Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Jimmy Graham, Mark Ingram and especially Darren Sproles, the Saints’ nickel running back who is second on the team with seven touchdowns – six of those receptions – and is as dangerous a kick returner as Dallas has faced all season long.
That also means the Cowboys better score some points, which they have been doing, an offense aided by some defensive plays and touchdowns, along with a few plays on special teams. Just look, the Cowboys have scored at least 27 points in four of the past six games and more than 30 in half of those games.
Plus, anything they can get on special teams would be dandy, whether it be a Harris kick return or a Victor Butler forced fumble recovered in enemy territory, and for sure for Bailey to continue on his six-game streak of perfection.
When you look at these Cowboys like this, you need not have been on the actual cattle drive to understand the meaning of all hands saddle up. Get ready for a shootout. Those varmints from The Bayou face The Boys in Dallas. Be at the Cowboys Corral, at high noon.
Courtesy: Mickey Spagnola; edited by Robert D Knight
Editors note: Mentioned in this article … Ben Bloom (quality control), Dave Borgonzi (volunteer assistant)