To their credit, the Dallas Cowboys did not overreact to Sunday's game. As happy as they were to get the road victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in a game they considered a must-win, nobody in the Cowboys' locker room was spraying champagne. The Cowboys remain 4-5 and with much work still to do, regardless of how soft their remaining schedule may appear, if they're going to have a shot at this year's playoffs.
"We have to clean this one up and move forward quickly," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said more than once in his postgame news conference.
Fortunately for the Cowboys, even in victory, there's plenty to clean up. Look, for example, at the case of rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne. As brilliant as he has been at times, and as much evidence as the Cowboys have seen to justify spending both their first-round and second-round draft picks on him this past April, Sunday offered plenty of proof that he has a lot more on-the-job learning to do. Claiborne was flagged for five penalties in the game -- more than six entire NFL teams picked up Sunday -- and he was well aware after the game that his performance was not acceptable. Per Calvin Watkins:
"I think that I had a rough game out there and did not play my best," Claiborne said. "I got a lot of penalties called on me and I just have to learn from that. I just need to go back and get it fixed."
When opposing teams watch tape of the rookie, they see he's pressing receivers and not getting much deep help. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan trusts his rookie corner to make plays in the passing game, and that's the smart thing to do.
After Claiborne struggled Sunday, you begin to wonder if more teams will take advantage.
Claiborne was flagged twice for being offsides, which is as ridiculous a call as a cornerback can get. There's no excuse for lining up offsides at that position, and it's completely avoidable by simply looking at the nearest official and asking, before the ball is snapped, whether you're over the line or not. You see high school players do this.
But Claiborne's miscues speak to the issue of what this Cowboys team is -- a work in progress. Sure, they're in contention thanks to the struggles the Giants have had against the AFC North and the fact that their division might once again be won with a not-so-spectacular record. And sure, the remainder of the schedule, with its five home games and only one opponent that currently sports a winning record, looks inviting. But these Cowboys are 4-5, and there's ample reason to wonder whether they're a good enough team to take advantage of a favorable schedule the rest of the way.
Claiborne stands as the example because he's a vitally important player for the Cowboys but not a reliable one. And if you look across their lineup, on both sides of the ball, you see a lot of that. Claiborne, Dez Bryant and basically all of the offensive linemen are a few examples of players on whom the Cowboys have no choice but to rely heavily but whose performance can waver from week to week, quarter to quarter or even play to play. Some would add quarterback Tony Romo to that list. And when you throw in guys like DeMarco Murray and Miles Austin, incredibly important players on whose health the Cowboys cannot rely, the list starts to grow very long.
There is some talent on this roster, but a lot of it is underdeveloped. And a player like Claiborne, who's likely to be an excellent cornerback in the NFL before long, is still learning on the job. The Cowboys' defense is built largely around the idea of him and Brandon Carr as shutdown corners, and Sunday was just the latest reminder that they can't be certain what they're going to get with him in a given game. He may lock in and play great over the final seven games. He may look lost every week. He may have three great games and four lousy ones. There's just no way to know at this point in his career.
So as you recalibrate your expectations for the 2012 Cowboys, it's important to remind yourself that the reasons for doing so are almost exclusively external: That the Giants failed to put the division race away when they had a chance and the toughest part of the schedule has already been played. A couple of very good reasons to alter your perception of the situation in which the Cowboys find themselves, and to reasonably believe they have a chance where once you may not have.
But Sunday's victory didn't gloss over the Cowboys' faults, or give anyone any reason to feel differently about the Cowboys themselves in vacuum. They are still the same team they were a week ago -- not great, not terrible, capable of making a run if things start and continue to go well, capable of making you pull your hair out every single week. That they now find themselves in striking distance of this year's postseason doesn't mean they can make it, and it certainly doesn't mean they don't still have a lot of work to do before they are what they believe they can be long-term. The encouraging thing, if you're a Cowboys fan, is the people running the team and playing on it know this, and Sunday didn't do anything to change the way they were already operating.