It is one of the more famous phrases during the Dallas Cowboys 25 year “rebuilding” process. At his first press conference in 2003 new head coach Bill Parcells uttered the cold hard truth, “you are what you are.”
The team had just completed back to back-to-back, 5-11 seasons. So in truth, it was pretty easy to tell what they were: They were a bad football team. These days it is not so easy to tell. Over the course of the past three years the Cowboys were 27-21. During that span they finished second in the NFC East twice, and once they won the division. But this does not feel like a championship caliber team.
So a month into the season we wonder, what are these Cowboys? Last year they had the NFL’s No. 1 total offense and the No. 2 passing offense. Then in the off season they used their first-round pick to make the offense even better when they drafted a difference making wide receiver, CeeDee Lamb. All of this is to say they clearly have enough offense to win. And yet last year they finished 8-8 and did not make the playoffs.
There is so much to like about this offense. Led by Dak Prescott, it can move the ball prolifically. It can score quickly and it is very well balanced. It boasts Zeke Elliott, the best running back in the NFL (in my opinion). The receiving corps is as deep as any in the league, and the line is still good enough to open holes for Zeke and keep Dak off his back. There is enough talent left for this offense to pick up where it left off last year. That is if Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore will read Zeke’s belly. Boldly tattooed across his midsection are the words “feed me.”
If the Cowboys are willing to buck the offensive trend in the NFL and “feed” Zeke the ball, they will have a much better chance at repeating as the best total offense in the league. When you have a running back as good, and as hungry, as Zeke, you should let the run set up the pass. It worked for the ‘90s Cowboys. The offense did suffer a loss in week one of the season when tight end Blake Jarwin was lost for the year with a torn ACL. But his successor, Dalton Schultz, promptly led the team in receptions in the Cowboys’ improbable 40-39 win over Atlanta in his first start of the season.
So the problem must be with the defense, right? Well, it too suffered a significant loss in week one when linebacker Leighton Vander Esch broke his collarbone (he is expected to miss about half of the season). When Sean Lee started the season on injured reserve, unfortunately, no one was surprised. He is a great player and leader when he is healthy. He is just not healthy often enough. The linebacking corps did get a nice addition in the off-season when the Cowboys took a chance on Aldon Smith. His demon-plagued past behind him, Smith has been a pleasant surprise. The secondary has a mix of experience and youth with the addition of Trevon Diggs from Alabama. The defensive line is good, not great.
This side of the ball may be all about coaching. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is a good man and a career coach. He has been on four college coaching staffs and 13 NFL teams. He also served as head coach of the 49ers from 2005-08. All but one of his jobs have been on the defensive side of the football.
The good news about the Cowboys and the league is that so many games are close. As such, most of the Cowboys games this year will be very exciting and fun to watch (see the aforementioned Atlanta game, during which Dallas rallied from a 20-point deficit to secure the victory).
The bad news is that the Cowboys have not been great in those close games. Last year they had seven one-possession games, that is games decided by 8 points or less. Their record in those seven was 1-6.
It has been 17 years since Parcells reminded us that “you are what you are.” But he turned it around in one year. After those three straight 5-11 seasons the 2003 Cowboys went 10-6 and qualified for the playoffs. Here’s hoping that this coaching change yields similar results.