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Thursday-and-Long: Don't Sleep on the Dallas Cowboys

Nov 5, 2009 – 12:00 PM
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Dan Graziano

Dan Graziano %BloggerTitle%

Don't look now, NFL playoffs, but Tony Romo and the Cowboys might just be coming for you.In case you hadn't noticed, sports these days are all about Goliath. In 2009, the Steelers, Lakers, North Carolina Tar Heels and now the Yankees have all won titles in their respective sports. Cinderella is yesterday's news. The teams that win these days are the teams that always win, and if you think that's boring, well, tough. You can kiss one of Derek Jeter's five World Series rings.

So with that in mind, we need to be really careful about overlooking the Dallas Cowboys.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. All you ever hear about the Cowboys is what's wrong with them. Terrell Owens was a pain. Roy Williams is a loudmouth, too, and isn't good enough to replace T.O. Tony Romo's too concerned with his golf game and his high-wattage love life to ever attain his potential. The new stadium is ridiculous...

But you know what else? The Cowboys are 5-2. And if they win in Philadelphia on Sunday night, they'll be 6-2 and in first place all by themselves. Their defense is playing great. Their three-headed rushing attack (you know, the one with which they were torching the Giants in Week 2 before they inexplicably decided to start throwing the ball late?) looks healthy. Romo's found something with Miles Austin, and just when you thought it was safe to hang their plaque in the underachievers' hall of fame, here the Cowboys are, clacking helmets with the top teams in the league.

I have a couple of stats that indicate that this may not be a fluke. The first is a basic one: the Cowboys score a lot more points than they give up. Dallas ranks seventh in the NFL and fourth in the NFC in point differential (points scored minus points allowed) as shown here:

1. New Orleans +119
2. Indianapolis +106
3. New England +100
4. Philadelphia +70
5. Minnesota +70
6. Baltimore +62
7. Dallas +61

My second stat doesn't have a name that I know of, and I'm open to suggestion, but this one is intended to measure the extent to which a team controls the running game on both sides of the ball. It's another simple calculation. We take the team's average yards per rush on offense and subtract the average yards per rush it allows on defense. The principle is that if you're good at running the ball but no good at stopping it, that catches up with you eventually.

Dallas posts a score of plus-1.2 in this made-up category, averaging 5.4 yards per carry (second-highest in the league behind Tennessee and the curve-wrecking Chris Johnson) while allowing only 4.2 yards per carry to its opponents. That plus-1.2 is tied for best in the league with Tennessee (and its aforementioned curve-wrecker). And while this stat doesn't appear to be a great indicator through eight weeks of this particular season (Jacksonville is right behind at plus-1.1 while the 5-3 Texans rank last with a minus-1.4, and top teams such as New Orleans and Minnesota score plus-0.1 and 0.0 respectively), it holds up over 16 games, historically, and it bodes well for the Cowboys' chances going forward.

Now all they have to do is win in Philly on Sunday night, and this will all make tons of sense.

Titans RB Chris Johnson is so fast, it's amazing anybody could snap this picture of him.Special Explanatory Note of the Week

Why is Chris Johnson a curve-wrecker? Well, he leads the NFL so far this year with 10 runs of 20 or more yards. Adrian Peterson is second in that category with eight such runs. Maurice Jones-Drew and Cedric Benson have six each, and no one else has more than five.

What's more, there have been 20 runs this year of 40 or more yards, and Johnson has five of them. Jones-Drew and Frank Gore have three each, three backs have two each and no one else has more than one.

Those kinds of numbers skew an average, and Johnson is averaging 6.92 yards per carry while leading the NFL with 824 rushing yards. That average is the highest any NFL rushing leader has posted through eight weeks since the merger, well ahead of Jamal Lewis' 5.89 average through the first eight weeks of the 2003 season. If it holds up (and even if it slips a little), Johnson would become the sixth man in NFL history (and the first since 1973) to lead the league in rushing with an average of at least 6.0 yards per carry. The others:

Beattie Feathers, 1934 Chicago Bears, 1,004 total yards, 8.4 ypc
Jim Brown, 1963 Cleveland Browns, 1,863 total yards, 6.4 ypc
Barry Sanders, 1997 Detroit Lions, 2,053 total yards, 6.1 ypc
Joe Perry, 1954 San Francisco 49ers, 1,049 total yards, 6.1 ypc
O.J. Simpson, 1973 Buffalo Bills, 2,003 total yards, 6.0 ypc

Which also makes this the very rare and difficult-to-repeat "Beattie Feathers Note of the Week."

Hat-Tip of the Week: Pittsburgh Steelers

For their handling of the Ryan Clark situation. The Pittsburgh safety said Wednesday he still hasn't decided whether he'll play Monday in Denver, where the high altitude combined with his sickle-cell trait nearly killed him and forced the surgical removal of his spleen and gall bladder after he played there two years ago. The Steelers get kudos for being up-front and not playing typical NFL-team injury games with this situation, and for making sure Clark doesn't feel any pressure to play if he doesn't feel up to it. The more you see from the Steelers and the way they operate, the more you realize why they're so (a) successful and (b) respected.

Seats Over Heat -- The five NFL head coaches most likely to be the next to lose their jobs:

1. Tom Cable, Raiders. Honestly, at this point, what could they be waiting for?
2. Eric Mangini, Browns. The only thing that could save him is that the Browns always seem to do the wrong thing.
3. Dick Jauron, Bills. Can't be but one long losing streak away.
4. Jim Zorn, Redskins. Chances he's coaching the team in 2010 are the same as the chances you are.
5. Jeff Fisher, Titans. Incredible record, incredible longevity, but if they don't finish huge, this could be the end.

Three for the Road -- Road teams in the NFL this year are a combined 52-64, for a .448 winning percentage. With that in mind, here are three road teams I think will buck the trend and win this weekend:

1. Arizona at Chicago. Bears are 3-0 at home, Cardinals are 3-0 on the road. Something's got to give. I say it's the Bears' (extremely) offensive line.
2. Dallas at Philadelphia. See above. Basically, Philly is the more exciting team, Dallas is the more solidly built. I'll take the Cowboy RBs to wear down the Eagles' D in a classic.
3. Pittsburgh at Denver. No, I'm not stubborn. I admit I was wrong about the Broncos before the season. But I'm not wrong about the AFC North, and Denver showed last week it can't play there.

(Ed. note: Last week, on twitter, I picked Vikings over Packers, Rams over Lions and Giants over Eagles. So, so far on this project we're 2-1.)

It's Just a Fantasy -- Three guys I wish I had on my fantasy team this week:

1. Aaron Rodgers vs. Tampa Bay: Sweet relief! A week without facing a real pass rush!
2. Maurice Jones-Drew vs. Kansas City: Every week, I wish for MJD. But against the Chiefs? Hide the women and children.
3. Michael Crabtree vs. Tennessee. Was he a fool for his holdout? Sure. Greedy? You betcha. But they all are, and this one also happens to be a freak of nature. The bet here is he never looks back.

Traveling Man


The game I'll be covering this week is Houston at Indianapolis. A chance for the upstart Texans to pick up a statement win (not to mention a division win) against the high-flying, undefeated Colts. Can Houston adjust without Owen Daniels? Do they have anybody in the secondary who can even slow down Reggie Wayne, let alone stop him? Good questions, and I don't know the answers (though I have a hunch on the second). But let's just say I'm not expecting a 6-3 game.
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