It still doesn’t feel real.
There’s that slim chance this is a dream and the world wakes up tomorrow to Brandon Weeden or Matt Cassel taking snaps under center with a star on their helmet, entering Week 17 on the verge of a 4-12 finish. The Dallas Cowboys are supposed to be closing in on back-to-back last-place finishes in the NFC East with vertebrae-less Tony Romo crawling to the huddle, trying to throw a 2-yard slant to a one-legged Dez Bryant with Darren McFadden’s corpse carrying the ball 25 times.
Instead, two rookies are the catalysts of a 13-3 football team (!) that wrapped up the NFC East and homefield advantage (!) throughout the playoffs.
How? That’s been a constant question for 16 weeks.
Almost every word to describe what Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are doing has been used — remarkable, unthinkable, stupendous, incomprehensible, etc. A rookie quarterback and running back captaining the ship that is one of America’s most polarizing sports franchises, and the only iceberg they’ve hit (twice) rests in New York. Other than that, these two rookies have planted their feet on the doorstep of history all year with the opportunity to do it in January.
The Cowboys are one playoff win away from their first NFC Championship appearance in 21 years. They’re two playoffs wins away from their first Super Bowl appearance in 21 years. Two rookies are doing this. It’s mind-boggling.
It’s also unfair to put those expectations on Dallas heading into the postseason.
The Cowboys think they can get to Super Bowl 51 in Houston. The stage is not too big for Prescott and Elliott. They’ve taken the mindset of Jason Garrett and have made it an everyday message: one game at a time, one play at a time.
But let’s think back to that late weekend in April when the Cowboys were a 4-12 team, picking early in the draft. It was only four months prior that the same offensive line that protects Prescott and makes holes for Elliott were trying to save a triad of quarterbacks who cannot throw a football upright, while paving the way for said corpse McFadden to run for over 1,000 yards.
There’s plenty of football left to be played. When the Cowboys drafted Elliott (No. 4) and Prescott (No. 135), Dallas had zero Super Bowl (let alone playoff) aspirations. Even with Romo on the path to recovery from his broken collarbone last year, Dallas wasn’t supposed to go anywhere. All of a sudden, 13 wins in 15 games later, the Cowboys are supposed to revert back to the Super Bowl-or-bust mentality they had two years ago.
That’s completely fine. It’s also unrealistic and unfair.
They’re the Dallas Cowboys. They’re “America’s Team.” They are the TMZ of the NFL, which is a blessing and a curse — more of a curse if there hasn’t been a Lombardi Trophy added to the case since 1996. The Cowboys, who haven’t even reached an NFC title game in those same 21 years, are relying on two rookies to get them to unfamiliar territory for everyone involved.
Elliott wasn’t even born when the Cowboys played in Super Bowl 30. Prescott, who grew up a Cowboys fan, was only 2 years old.
Rather than look at the Cowboys in a championship-or-bust mindset, what’s so wrong with accepting this season at base value? What’s the problem with looking at this season, no matter the outcome, and just be happy for what’s been accomplished?
Instead of looking at Prescott as Romo’s replacement or the next in line of great Dallas quarterbacks, what’s the harm in appreciating his 3,667 passing yards, 29 total touchdowns, four interceptions and being named a Pro Bowler in his rookie year? Why can’t people look at Prescott going into Green Bay and outplaying Aaron Rodgers, rather than ask if he should’ve been benched after losing to the Giants a second time in favor of Romo? What’s so wrong with him being the signal caller of a team that won 11 straight games at one point?
Why must Elliott be crowned the next Emmitt Smith already? Why can’t we acknowledge the amazing plays he’s made this year? The first hurdle he made against Chicago, the long touchdown run against Cincinnati, the screen pass in Pittsburgh, etc. Let’s celebrate the fact Elliott (1,631 rushing yards, 15 rushing touchdowns — both Cowboys rookie records) is closing in on Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record rather than billing him to break Emmitt Smith’s rushing record.
These two rookies have made this season special, and that’s all that should be acknowledged. Of course I want the Cowboys to win at least one playoff game, and even get to the Super Bowl, but not at the expense of tossing aside how great Prescott and Elliott have been and for them not getting enough credit.
And after last year, with how bad it was, even getting to the playoffs now is a major accomplishment. No matter how the playoffs end, let’s be happy this season even happened.