Three hundred and sixty-three days ago, the Cowboys got whomped on Thanksgiving. The game was even worse than the 33-14 final score. The Cowboys were 3-7 entering their game against the Panthers, but Tony Romo had just come back from injury in a win against the Dolphins, and the Cowboys weren’t entirely out of the playoffs yet because the 2015 NFC East was utter trash. There was hope. Then the Panthers extinguished that hope about as thoroughly as they could.
After the game, the Cowboys were 3-8, and Romo had a broken collarbone again. They turned the ball over three times and managed just 210 total yards. Cam Newton didn’t have to do much because the Panthers’ defense scored as many points as the Cowboys’ offense on two pick-sixes.
It wasn’t just a bad loss in a vacuum. It effectively ended the Cowboys’ season, dooming Dallas to five more weeks of ennui, and shook the soul of a team that had improved to 12-4 the year before. It appeared that the Cowboys’ well-laid plans were no longer working.
Three hundred and sixty-three days later, the Cowboys are perhaps the best team in the NFL. The weirdest thing about their 9-1 record may be that the team doesn’t look all that different from the team that was embarrassed last Thanksgiving. The defensive leaders, offensive line, and coaching staff are all nearly untouched. Dez Bryant and Jason Witten are playing as well as they ever have through the Cowboys’ highs and lows. Rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are the most significant differences between then and now, and they’ve made an outstanding impact.
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THEN: Tony Romo and Matt Cassel went a combined 24-of-40 for 199 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) against the Panthers.
NOW: Dak Prescott — and only Dak Prescott — has thrown a total of two interceptions in 10 games, while throwing 17 touchdowns, putting him on pace for the best rookie passer rating of all time.
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Prescott has been so good, the debate storm between Team Romo and Team Dak that seemed so inevitable in the early weeks of the season never materialized. That’s wild. Think about the last time we got a good, unhampered look at Romo. In 2014, he was hitting the peak of a long career. He completed 70 percent of his passes, and threw 34 touchdowns to nine interceptions for a league best 113.2 passer rating.
That Tony Romo is one of the best passers the game of football has ever seen, and that Tony Romo has been so thoroughly upstaged by a rookie that no one — not even Romo himself — is even bothering to argue who should be the Cowboys’ starter.
Prescott isn’t playing great for a rookie. He’s a great quarterback who happens to be a rookie, and he’s particularly great because he has the acumen of a veteran. The Cowboys trust him wholly to call the offense at the line. That faith has helped spur the running game to astronomical heights. (And yeah, that running game is benefiting him — big time — but DeMarco Murray did a helluva a lot for Romo in 2014, too.)
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THEN: Darren McFadden rushed 10 times for 11 yards with a long of eight against the Panthers. That means that McFadden gained three yards on his nine other runs. He combined with Robert Turbin and Cassel to rush for 31 yards on the day, the Cowboys’ fewest rushing yards in a single game since 2012 and one their four worst performances this century.
NOW: Elliott is leading the NFL in rushing, and is arguably having the best season of any player in the league. He could break Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record — he’d need to average 118 yards per game, up from 110 — and do it in way fewer carries — Elliott is on pace for 357, and Dickerson had 390.
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The Cowboys’ running game wasn’t bad in 2015. They ranked ninth in total rushing, and did it efficiently at 4.6 yards per carry. The output was especially impressive given that they were leaning on a well-worn McFadden, who had been plagued by injuries for seven seasons before going to Dallas.
The Panthers choked off the running game on Thanksgiving, which isn’t all that surprising. They were in the midst of a six-week stretch in which they didn’t allow more than 71 yards rushing to any offense. They embarrassed a lot of teams, not just the Cowboys.
But we can be fairly certain that Zeke and company won’t have the same struggles on Thanksgiving, and not just because Washington’s defense isn’t nearly as good as that of the 2015 Panthers. The Ravens had given up a combined 69 rushing yards to the Steelers and Browns before the Cowboys put up 118 yards against what has been the league’s best run defense.
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THEN: 3-8 overall record, fourth place in the NFC East.
NOW: 10-1 overall record, first place in the NFC East, 98.5 percent chance of making the playoffs, 77.9 percent chance of earning a bye.
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Heading into last year’s Thanksgiving game, oddsmakers actually made the Cowboys favorites over the 10-0 Panthers. There was a feeling that the Cowboys were surging after one win (feel free to debate whether any other team could create that kind of sudden groundswell), and perhaps an assumption that the Panthers weren’t as good as their record (they were).
Romo was the biggest reason everyone briefly went batty for a bad team. One year later, that disastrous Thanksgiving game could be the last we ever see of Romo in a Cowboys uniform. It’s almost funny how his performance then proved that the Cowboys couldn’t possibly play him over a healthy Prescott now.
Momentum and the confidence it builds are two of the most precious, fragile things that NFL teams can try to maintain. It shouldn’t be trifled with. The Cowboys tried to bring Romo back as soon as they physically could last season. At the time, it seemed as though they couldn’t survive without him. In one disastrous game, he showed that he shouldn’t be playing right up to the point that he physically couldn’t.
The Cowboys are a better team now, and when you factor out everything else, all that remains are Dak and Zeke. Their impact isn’t just their above-replacement value over their 2015 counterparts, however. There’s team chemistry to think about, too, which like real chemistry can boil ever and incinerate everything if exactly the wrong thing is mixed in.
The Cowboys’ rookies aren’t just good players — they’re an essential part of the 2016 Cowboys’ identity. If both disappeared, the Cowboys would still be 9-1, but they wouldn’t be the team that got to 9-1 and put Dallas on pace to celebrate one of its best teams in years.
The 2015 Cowboys are pretty much the 2016 Cowboys on the face of things, but they’re fundamentally different. It’s easy to guess why that might be, but the answer is also sort of irrelevant. The Cowboys are bulling forward toward what could be a special playoff run, and they sure as hell aren’t going to change a damn thing now.