IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys head to Philadelphia this week with first place in the NFC East on the line, but I really wonder how good the Cowboys really are.
What’s funny is how people say the division is awful and the Cowboys should run away with it. I wonder why. It’s not as though the Cowboys’ roster is filled with so much more talent than the rest of the division.
If the Cowboys don’t win the NFC East, the storyline is set for those who want to believe they underachieved again; not that they might be just as poor as the division's other three teams.
Anyway, let’s get to wondering in this week’s Five Wonders:
• I wonder if I got a little carried away with the defensive redemption angle from Sunday’s win against the Washington Redskins. When measured against the performances against the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos, it was better. A lot better. But the defense still allowed 433 yards, gave up 216 rushing yards, including 77 on nine carries from Robert Griffin III. Their work on Alfred Morris was OK until the 45-yard touchdown run. But with Eagles running back LeSean McCoy coming up Sunday and games against Reggie Bush, Adrian Peterson and Matt Forte, as well as rematches with McCoy and the Morris-Griffin tandem, the run defense will have to improve. McCoy leads the NFL with 630 yards rushing and runs like he is part of a video game.
• I wonder if those all wondering if the Cowboys should have picked Sharrif Floyd in the first round understand that it likely would have meant they would not have Terrance Williams on the roster. This isn’t to excuse the Cowboys for not looking to the defensive line in the draft, but two players like Travis Frederick and Williams is a lot better than one player like Floyd. That’s my gripe with the team on the first-round moves they made for Tyron Smith and Morris Claiborne in 2011 and ’12. Smith is playing much better this year and appears to have taken to the left tackle spot, but the Cowboys passed on a chance to pick up two picks from Jacksonville in a trade. They traded up to get Claiborne with the sixth pick in 2012, giving up their second rounder to do so. Frederick has played better than most thought he would and Williams has developed quickly. Since his fumble vs. San Diego he has turned it on and earned Tony Romo’s trust.
• It’s way too early to even think about the Pro Bowl, but while some of the normal names on the roster will get kicked around for the all-star game, like Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware and Dez Bryant, I wonder if Dwayne Harris works his way into the mix. The Cowboys have not sent a non-kicking/punting special teamer to the Pro Bowl since Jim Schwantz in 1996. Harris is proving to be a dynamic punt returner. It’s more than just his 86-yarder for a touchdown against the Redskins. He gets positive yards almost every time and his decision-making has improved. Although fielding a punt at his 5 might be a little dubious, but it speaks to his confidence level. In his last 16 games, he has 10 punt returns of at least 20 yards. He is averaging a ridiculous 23.6 yards per punt return and 34.7 yards per kick return. The sample size is small, but Harris is making a name for himself.
• I wonder if people forget there is a salary cap in the NFL. When the Cowboys cut Will Allen last week I was inundated with those asking if the team is setting up a trade for Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd, who is playing this year on the franchise tag. With roughly $2 million of cap space, the Cowboys are not in position to make a splash trade without a long-term commitment that they just can’t afford to make with other players inching toward free agency. They would have a hard time adding a substantial veteran free agent as well because of the cap. There are ways to move some money around, like re-working Doug Free’s deal, for instance, but they would be setting themselves up for a tighter cap in 2014 and possibly beyond. The best the Cowboys can hope for is internal improvement along the defensive line as they better understand what Rod Marinelli wants.
• I wonder how it is possible Dez Bryant has as many games averaging less than 10 yards per catch as he does averaging at least 13.5 yards per catch. Against the Redskins, Bryant caught five passes for 36 yards. In the opener against the Giants, he averaged 5.5 yards per catch. Against the St. Louis Rams he averaged 9.5 yards per catch. It’s proof that if teams want to take a receiver away, they can do it. It might also be proof the Cowboys are not always willing to take shots down the field, even to Bryant, who can outmuscle just about any defensive back in the game. The Cowboys have done a better job moving Bryant around this year, but they have to get the ball to him in space more.