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Cowboys are no accident

Feel free to dismiss me as just another desperate Dallas Cowboys fan again falling for America's Tease.

I talked my uncle, a high school football coach, into taking me to my first Cowboys game, at the Cotton Bowl on Nov. 5, 1961, when I was in fourth grade. Quarterback Eddie LeBaron's Cowboys lost to the St. Louis Cardinals 31-17 -- hey, Eddie Football was only 5 feet, 7 inches tall -- but I was hooked for life.

OK, feel free to believe I've again taken the bait hook, line and sinker on a team that, for the past 17 seasons, has been what my "First Take" debate partner Stephen A. Smith calls "an accident waiting to happen."

But I did manage to maintain objectivity in writing three books about America's Team -- three inside looks far too revealing for some fans. So maybe I'm not writing just with my heart when I say I believe in this Cowboys team more than any since the 1995 Super Bowl champion about which I wrote my last book.

This team is different from the many since then that have inspired predictions (and delusions) of grandeur. This team is growing a backbone. This team isn't going to fall like pretty, but dead leaves.

This team -- if it stays reasonably healthy -- will win the NFC East.

That's what I predicted on air on the Thursday this NFL season opened. My prediction so stunned and disgusted Stephen A. -- who grew up a Cowboys-hating New York Giants fan -- that he got up and walked off the set babbling about how I had lost my mind.

He had no idea that was coming because I had spent the entire preseason saying this Cowboy team had 6-10 written all over it. So why did I suddenly reverse field and book it that Dallas would go 10-6 and win the division?

It started two days earlier, during a round of golf, when a friend listened to my rant about how last year's historically bad Cowboy defense (which allowed an NFL-record 40 first downs at New Orleans) could be even worse without Sean Lee, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher. My friend's response was so simply profound that I cold-topped my next shot: "You wonder if those guys will finally get so sick and tired of hearing how historically bad they are."

The next morning, ESPN's Herman Edwards further opened my eyes during a hallway chat. Under head coach Tony Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, Herm coached Tampa Bay's defensive backs while Rod Marinelli coached the defensive line. Marinelli had just replaced Kiffin as the Cowboys' coordinator.

Herm said: "Trust me on this: Rod will get them to play hard. If they don't" Herm's famed emotions rose. "... Rod WILL get in their face."

Hmmm.

For the first time in forever, nobody was picking the Dallas Cowboys to do anything. At least, nobody I knew of. I'm pretty sure that every season since the Cowboys' last Super Bowl, at least a few analysts had them making the playoffs because they're always viewed as "one of the NFL's most talented teams." I certainly heard that before the 2013 season -- which became the Cowboys' third straight 8-8 and made it SEVENTEEN seasons with just one playoff win. Seriously, you'd have to go back to 1989 and 1990, the first two expansion-like seasons of the Jimmy Johnson/Jerry Jones Cowboys, to find a year in which nobody thought the Cowboys had a chance.

Leading up to this season, many of their own fans had given up on them. That's why, for the home opener, JerryWorld appeared to reporters to be half-filled with 49ers fans, and why during the home game against Houston, Texans fans made so much noise they forced Tony Romo to resort to a silent count.

At "HOME!"

Perfect: Zero expectations for this Cowboy team. For once, the annual fat-cat Cowboy underachievers could take on the persona of hungry, unloved overachievers.

In August, every time I said this team would have "the NFL's best offensive line," one of our ex-player analysts told me to calm down. When I reminded Stephen A. that if Romo hadn't hurt his back in the big win at Washington, the Cowboys very possibly would've beaten Philadelphia in the 2013 regular-season finale at home and would've gone 6-0 in the division, Stephen A. reminded me they went 8-8. Again.

Yet ... even with that historically bad defense, in week 7 last year the Cowboys somehow held Chip Kelly's attack to three points in Philly, winning 17-3. Hmmm. Wasn't last year's near-flawless division record a quiet little building block toward winning this year's East?

I plunged. Eli Manning and Robert Griffin III had struggled through preseason games, and I was sure the Eagles would ultimately miss DeSean Jackson's deep speed, so I predicted the Dallas Cowboys would go 10-6 and win the division "by default."

That was as insanely bold as I could go.

I felt merely insane as I watched DeMarco Murray fumble on his first carry of the season and the 49ers' Chris Culliver return it 35 yards for the 7-0 touchdown -- and watched Romo throw one ... two ... three interceptions in the first half, which the 49ers led 28-3.

But then something quietly amazing happened. These Cowboys didn't throw in the towel. They won the second half 14-0. Of course, Stephen A. belly-laughed when I brought that up the next day.

But it happened again, two Sundays later at St. Louis. Murray fumble, Romo pick-six: Rams, 21-0. Final score: Dallas, 34-31.

Last year, Dallas would've lost that game. Last year's Cowboys would've lost to Houston after blowing a 17-7 fourth-quarter lead and finding themselves in overtime. Dallas 20, Houston 17.

This year's Cowboys keep facing down past demons. On a Sunday night last season in New Orleans, they suffered what I called "the biggest humiliation I can ever remember as a Cowboy fan" -- Saints, 49-17. On a Sunday night this season, they led the Saints 24-0 at half on the way to 38-17 retribution. Backbone. Then, at Seattle last Sunday, they basically recreated past nightmares up there -- blocked punt for a TD, fumbled punt, fumbled snap -- and bounced right back to bully the bullies in their backyard 30-23.

I sure didn't see that coming.

Cowboy glitz has turned back into Cowboy guts. The primary architect of the new resolve: Marinelli, a far better coordinator than he was a head coach in Detroit. Same for play-caller Scott Linehan, who failed as a head coach in St. Louis. Bill Callahan had his moments as a head coach, but he just might be the NFL's best offensive line coach. Head coach Jason Garrett? Shaky play-caller but not a bad buffer between the team and frustrated coach Jerry Jones.

Finally, the clownish confusion of coaching roles has fallen into place.

Newly minted Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks has been texting me about Marinelli's impact. Brooks got to know Marinelli when Brooks was an All-Pro linebacker in Tampa. Brooks told me: "Rod is a great teacher as well as motivator. He's creating a trust level through knowledge of and belief in that system -- in trusting the same little bitty details that date all the way back to coach Dungy's days in Pittsburgh under Chuck Noll. Once again Rod has an undersized defense that is flying to the ball with speed and intensity. His favorite expression is: 'Effort doesn't take talent.'

"But just like with the great Steelers teams and our Super Bowl team, this undersized defense needs a running game to help keep it off the field so it doesn't get worn down. That's happening in Dallas."

Yep, Romo's offense leads the NFL in third-down conversions. Something also is different about Romo this season. Maybe he faced his NFL mortality for the first time. At 34, as he underwent his second back surgery, he had to suffer through owner/general manager Jones' painfully public fascination with Johnny Manziel -- and the regret Jones expressed over not drafting Manziel, sometimes within earshot of Romo.

Maybe Romo is finally worried enough about losing his job that he's no longer treating it with shrugging carelessness.

So far this season, Romo's gunslinging gambles have been more calculated, less dangerous. On third-and-8 in overtime against Houston, his spin-away heave was high and far enough that only power leaper Dez Bryant had a shot at coming down with it. And his third-and-20 escape at Seattle -- the NFL's play of the year so far -- was thrown where only Terrance Williams could snag it and toe-tap it in bounds.

Romo, finally matching his talent and toughness with ... maturity?

This team WILL last ... if Murray does. This man sets the backbone tone. Yet, while Cowboy great Emmitt Smith was the greatest I ever saw at avoiding injurious contact, Murray keeps attacking as if his offense and defense need his every punishing yard.

Maybe underrated backup Joseph Randle will stay out of trouble long enough to give Murray just enough rest. Maybe the injury gods will smile on him. Maybe this season is just meant to be for the "historically bad defense" and the "accident waiting to happen" that has been Romo.

And maybe I'm being set up for the biggest letdown of my Cowboy-loving life.