Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to do nothing. Things can be largely out of your control and you have to wait for them to develop. There is often little assurance that they will proceed favorably, but you still have to let things move on their own.
That was very much the case for the Dallas Cowboys in 2021, and it still is. Although memory can be deceiving, it’s hard to remember a season when we dealt with so many players and situations that required us to just watch and see what would happen.
Injuries, suspension and COVID protocols have plagued the roster all year. Nowhere has that been more impactful than along the defensive line. Both Neville Gallimore and Trysten Hill started the season on IR or PUP. Then DeMarcus Lawrence was injured after the first game of the season. As if that weren’t enough, Randy Gregory would miss five games, starting midway through the season.
Based on the problems the defense faced last year, that would have led us to believe things would be pretty much a disaster on this side of the ball. But something funny happened. First, under Dan Quinn, defense has become a cipher machine. With Trevon Diggs the most important factor, they lead the league in steals and are second in takeouts. That helped lift the Cowboys to the current 9-4 record and a three-game lead in the NFC East with just four games left.
Then we discovered to our great and exhilarating delight that Dallas had the biggest hit of the 2021 NFL Draft in Micah Parsons. The scouting staff believed he could be much more than just a traditional off-ball linebacker. Jerry Jones should put something extra in his stockings for this achievement. Parsons moved to the rim to help cover Lawrence’s absence, and he was magnificent. He amassed 12 sacks, seventh in the league, while playing far fewer shots rushing the passer as he is also still very important in this regular LB role. His performance, as we now realize, elevated him from not just being a shoo-in for Defensive Rookie of the Year to a serious DPOY contender.
The latest in a series of signs that Micah Parsons may not be from this earth. (Look at the differential between him and the closest guy. Outrageous.) pic.twitter.com/q8e2a0CsXs
— Yaya Dubin (@JADubin5) December 13, 2021
Often recruits are pushed to start when they are not ready. Parsons wasn’t just ready, he was ready for stardom, and the absence of Lawrence and, for a while, Gregory allowed him to blaze.
Another rookie, Osa Odighizuwa, also made key contributions as the line lacked defensive tackles. He wasn’t the absolute stud that Parsons is, and as the season progressed he wasn’t as effective. But now that Gallimore and Hill are back, he seems to enjoy a more limited role.
The “waiting for missing players to return” story is one we’ve seen before with the Cowboys. It’s not always the one that works. This year, that’s definitely the case for Dallas. The victory over the Washington Football Team was the second for Lawrence, and the first for Gregory and Gallimore. All three recorded a sack, and Gregory doubled with the pass he hit in the air and intercepted. And Parsons also seemed to benefit from having more threats against the quarterback, rounding out his sack tally with two more, including the forced fumble that Dorance Armstrong returned for a crucial touchdown.
However, as the defense has become healthier, the offense is dealing with more and more injuries. Tyron Smith is expected to miss at least the next game against the New York Giants, and Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard are dealing with their own injury issues. Elliott didn’t miss a game, but Pollard had to miss Washington’s win. It is hoped that he will be back this week, but it remains to be seen how effective he will be even if he is deemed fit to leave.
Then there is the big one. Dak Prescott hasn’t looked right since his calf injury in the last game of the win over the New England Patriots. Coupled with struggles with the ball and often scrappy play from the offensive line, it made Dallas’ offense a shadow of the machine it was the first half of the season. Based on his history, Prescott should get it right at some point. The problem is how long it will take. He’ll probably have to play through things until they start clicking again. All we can do is wait and hope it’s sooner than too late. The Giants game is a great opportunity for him to make progress. Unlike victory over the football team, there are no guarantees here.
Beyond waiting for players to succeed, there is another aspect of the season and the playoffs where the Cowboys have to wait. This is the playoff standings. If things ended today, they would be the fourth seed and would have to face the Los Angeles Rams in the wildcard round. The Rams just beat the Arizona Cardinals on the road and aren’t exactly the game we want to see.
However, that Monday night contest also dropped the Cardinals to 10-3, just one game ahead of Dallas and in a three-way tie with the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the best record and seed. number one. While all three of these teams have easy schedules on paper to complete the season, we’ve seen plenty of examples where games didn’t go to plan at all. There is also news that Aaron Rodgers has aggravated his toe injury. No one wants to see a player as great as him suddenly risk not being able to lead his team. But it could contribute to one or two of those unexpected losses for the Packers, which would help Dallas. And the Cardinals will come to AT&T Stadium for the penultimate game of the season. A win for the home team could be a major step in improving their playoff position. A few weeks ago, many thought the fourth seed was the best-case scenario for the Cowboys. Now they just have to wait and see how things turn out. They also need to take care of their own games and not fall victim to a loss that shouldn’t happen. If they can, things can fall in their way.
It’s still a big if. It’s “one game at a time” for Dallas. There are many things they cannot control. The waiting game continues. Nonetheless, as they face the final month of games, there are plenty of reasons to hope things will improve.