By Jason Keidel
No team in any American sport has been more overhyped than the Dallas Cowboys. Unless you’re one of their more jaded, frothing fans — and there are millions of you — you simply can’t deny it.
They somehow kept their nickname as America’s Team despite two playoff wins since Y2K. Despite the musical chairs at head coach. Despite being the only NFL club whose owner fancies himself a GM. Despite the endless stream of mediocrity, we are singularly obsessed with the single star on that helmet.
But, for the first time in a long time, the hyperbole matches the accomplishments. We can debate for days about Dallas’ true place on the NFL’s historical totem pole. But there is no denying one matter.
The Dallas Cowboys are the best team in the National Football League.
And it’s not simply a Captain Obvious moment of wins and losses. Dallas does own the league’s best record (11-1) while riding an 11-game winning streak. But the eye, smell, ear — pick your sense — test tells us that they’re going to be an ornery team come playoff time — sans injury, of course. As we just learned from the Patriots, America’s real team over the last 15 years, back injuries aren’t limited to Tony Romo. The recent news about Rob Gronkowski, who can seemingly only be stopped by a surgeon’s knife, shows how ephemeral first place can be.
With league rules so steeply contoured toward the passing game, the Cowboys have gone retro, way more turf than surf, the only NFL club that has run the ball more than thrown it.
And why not? When you have an offensive line that could literally start in the Pro Bowl, a rookie running back who runs with self-styled fury and a rookie quarterback who is wise beyond his years, it’s hard to argue against their old-school football template.
The Cowboys have wrenched the hands of time back to the ’80s, when the NFC East lorded over the league by churning out yardage on the ground and leading the NFL in time of possession.
You’d think a team that thrives on retrograde football would be well behind the pack in points scored. But the opposite has happened in Dallas, which has scored more points (333) than any team except the Atlanta Falcons. And while their defense reminds no one of their iconic, 1970s iteration, their point differential (105) is second to none. Only the Patriots (96) come close.
While they have a modest (if not mediocre) turnover margin (+2), which is tied for 13th in the league, it’s another No. 2 that has many NFL devotees shaking their heads in wonder. Two interceptions. Which are easily the fewest picks thrown west of Foxboro.
Tom Brady is expected to throw the football with space-age precision. But a rookie quarterback is supposed to make ugly mistakes on his way through professional puberty. Dak Prescott has turned the NFL orthodoxy on its head, with stunning efficiency, accuracy and maturity.
Even more so with Prescott, a fourth-round pick who was little more than an insurance policy for Tony Romo, the franchise quarterback and presumed starter for as long as his brittle back would permit. While the plaudits have been largely reserved for high-grade players flanking the QB, we’ve largely overlooked Prescott’s stunning ascent to starting QB on the game’s best and most popular team
Sure, it helps that he plays behind a granite offensive line and has a bulldozer for a running back behind him. But it’s foolish to trivialize Prescott’s maiden campaign in pro football by saying he’s essentially hiding behind five behemoths and merely handing the ball to a machine.
If this Dallas run isn’t unprecedented, we’d love to hear when it’s happened before. When Romo’s back failed him again in the preseason, it felt like they handed more than the ball to Prescott, they handed their hopes for 2017, when Romo would presumably be ready to return.
But that ball has morphed into a torch, a fitting metaphor for the hottest team in the NFL. And while this has been a bittersweet season for Romo, who has been perhaps the most underrated QB on the most overrated team of this young century, there’s no bitter taste to America’s Team right now. The Cowboys are finally living up to their handle, and handling their business.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.