Former Dallas Cowboys Head Coach Bill Parcells used to break up each 16 game season into four quarters with a goal of winning each quarter. The idea that if you win each quarter, you'll put yourself in position to make the playoffs and have a home game.
Well, the Dallas Cowboys finished the first quarter of the season 2-2 and have another huge road test this Sunday as they travel to face Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans.
Before we get to what's coming, let's take a look back and hand out some first quarter of the season awards to your Dallas Cowboys.
The Dallas Cowboys offense has struggled for the most part, and if it weren't for the efforts of Ezekiel Elliott and the offensive line in the running game, this offense would be the worst in the league.
It's gone hot and cold at times, but the running game has been really stinking good. Ezekiel Elliott is leading the NFL in rushing while averaging 106.5 yards per game as well as 31.3 yards receiving per game.
Those numbers are above his career averages to start the season, which is very impressive given how much focus the running game gets from opposing defenses. Through three weeks of the season, the Dallas Cowboys passing game hadn't really been effective, yet the running game was still able to pick up yards on the ground through the first four weeks.
Elliott's play on Sunday vs the Detroit Lions shows just how much of an impact he can make week-to-week. He set a career high in total yards with 240 yards and caught a touchdown pass. He's the first player in the NFL in 2018 to go over 200 yards from scrimmage.
A big blow to the offense in the preseason was Travis Frederick being sidelined with Guillain-Barré Syndrome. In stepped backup Joe Looney and he's held up really well on the offensive line. Unlike the backups did in 2017.
When the Dallas Cowboys were down offensive lineman in 2017, the performances from the backup offensive lineman were awful. So, to see Looney step in without having played much in the two seasons prior, is a big relief. Much of the reason the Dallas Cowboys are running the ball so well is because Joe Looney hasn't allowed much of a drop off from All-Pro Travis Frederick.
The time-table on Frederick remains unknown and so having Looney playing as well as he has, is a huge boost for the Dallas Cowboys moving forward.
Who else would we give it to but the guy who has the biggest impact on the defensive side of the field every play; DeMarcus Lawrence.
Lawrence is leading the NFL in sacks with 5.5, is second in the NFL among EDGE players in tackles with 14, and second in the NFL in "stops," which are defined by Pro Football Focus as "tackles that constitute a "loss" for the offense."
There's a reason that Lawrence is going to get paid a lot of money this offseason. He's one of the best 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL.
The Detroit Lions came into the game on Sunday having allowed only three sacks as a team in 2018 and DeMarcus Lawrence doubled that with his one epic performance. He's the best player on the defense and has played as the best player on the defense through the first four games of the season.
The only player on defense that has been as good as DeMarcus Lawrence has been is corner back Byron Jones. Only two regular corner backs in the NFL have allowed fewer receptions than Byron Jones; San Francisco 49ers' Corner Back Richard Sherman and Washington Redskins Corner Back Fabian Moreau.
On Sunday against the Detroit Lions, he wasn't even targeted after allowing only three receptions for 10 yards week three against the Seattle Seahawks.
Respect is growing for the fourth-year player and he's been one of the best corners in the NFL in 2018. That's huge considering the clear holes throughout the rest of the secondary.
PFF's initial grade of DAL-DET says that they did not identify either of the two passes towards Byron Jones side as passes targeting him in coverage. He played 54 snaps, 34 in coverage and was not officially tested a single time. As I said last week during 1st half... he's CB1.
Rookie of the Quarter
Leighton Vander Esch
Rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch has only played 49.61% of the defensive snaps and yet is tied for 16th in the NFL in solo tackles. Pro Football Focus has credited him with nine stops on the season and he hasn't missed a tackle yet. He's leading the Dallas Cowboys in tackles through the first four games of the year.
Filling in for injured All-Pro Linebacker Sean Lee, Vander Esch was excellent and earned himself a place in Pro Football Focus' Team of the Week for week four.
After much gnashing of teeth after the draft about taking Leighton Vander Esch with the 19th overall pick, he's been everything the Dallas Cowboys could have hoped for. Yes, they could have made other picks that would have worked out well, but this guy is -- to steal some Jason Garrett speak -- going to be a good player in this league for a long time.
Leighton Vander Esch is the truth and he's not only the future at WILL linebacker, but he's the now.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
Yes, there are 16 games to go this season, but some Dallas Cowboys have already made a big impact on the 2018 NFL season.
Who would you give the above awards to through the first quarter of the season?
Randy Gregory can Make the Perimeter Pass Rush Extremely Formidable
Randy Gregory showed flashes last season of the potential he has as a pass rusher. Even though he only managed one start he did see action in 14 games. Had registered 6 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, 7 tackles for loss and 15 hits on the quarterback. That's very good production with limited opportunities. Now, this sets up the Dallas Cowboys on the edge getting to the quarterback, and here's how.
The Cowboys acquired Defensive End Robert Quinn via trade from the Dolphins back in March. He is set to start at right defensive end opposite All-Pro DeMarcus Lawrence. Gregory, who lines up on the right side as well, can potentially make said side a huge problem for offenses on 2019.
Let's just take a typical season from Quinn which is between 8-9 sacks. If Gregory can give at minimum what he did last season, that's around 15 sacks just between the two of them alone. Now, as we all know, Lawrence can be penciled in for double-digit sacks routinely at this point. So given this information that's a potential 25-30 sacks just from these three players. This is without including guys such as Taco Charlton, Dorance Armstrong, Kerry Hyder, and rookies Joe Jackson and Jalen Jelks (assuming they make the final roster).
Why is Gregory's potential impact so important? For me, it's simply where he lines up at defensive end, on the right side. Most quarterbacks are right-handed, which means when they drop back to pass they face left side defensive ends, with their backs to defensive ends coming off the right side. If you can consistently pressure a quarterback from his blindside the opportunities for sacks and fumbles increase. Regardless of how skilled a quarterback is you can't avoid what you can't see.
Of course, this all depends on what the NFL does regarding the reinstatement of Gregory. He was suspended indefinitely in February for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, a situation he is all too familiar with. My guess is Gregory and the Cowboys will ask for a conditional reinstatement like he was given by the NFL in 2018. What this would do is allow Gregory to participate in meetings and condition work until he's a full participant. He is set to apply for that reinstatement within the next few days.
The only thing Randy Gregory can do now is play the waiting game. The league is currently considering the possibility of softening their stance on marijuana use. If they are serious about it I can see Gregory getting reinstated even if it's on a conditional basis. If this is granted the Cowboys will be getting big-time pressure off the edge with Lawrence, Quinn, and Gregory in 2019.
CB Jourdan Lewis Getting Ready For Bounce-Back 2019 Season
For a third round pick, cornerback Jourdan Lewis sure did come to Dallas with his fair share of hype.
In fact, much of Cowboys Nation was more excited about Lewis joining the Cowboys than they were about either of the team's first two selections in that same draft, Taco Charlton and Chidobe Awuzie. But while Awuzie has soared to starting cornerback levels with Dallas during his first two seasons, Jourdan Lewis has been forced to take a back seat.
After a promising rookie season, Jourdan Lewis didn't get much playing time at cornerback in 2018. Anthony Brown took over as the starting slot corner, while Byron Jones and Awuzie manned the outside. This left Lewis as the odd man out, despite what many consider to be impressive cover skills.
Lewis is not allowing this down season to eat away at him too much, though. While speaking with the media last week at SportsCon in Dallas, Lewis gave his thoughts on how his year spent behind the other young Cowboys corners is only fueling him for the future.
"As a competitor it's always tough, especially as a rookie and you're playing all of the time. It's definitely when you take a step back it humbles you. Sometimes you gotta understand that you have to wait your turn and work on your craft. Understand that you always have to stay a professional no matter your situation. And that's what I learned last year."
Considered undersized by the standards typically used by Cowboys secondary coach Kris Richard, some have argued that Lewis was never given a fair shot to earn playing time once Richard took over in 2018. Whether or not this is true can't ever be said for sure, and the level of play Anthony Brown exhibited from the slot in 2018 didn't leave much room for substitutions either.
Still, Jourdan Lewis says he appreciates that time he spent on the bench, and he hopes that it will only drive him towards bigger and better things down the road.
"I appreciate the time that I sat last year honestly...Because it made me a better player, maybe a better person honestly."
The Cowboys cornerback situation didn't get any less crowded this offseason. Not only is Dallas bringing back all three of the aforementioned starters from a year ago, but they also drafted Miami's Michael Jackson in the fifth round of the 2019 draft.
That cornerback room is full of talent. Not only does this create a luxury for the Cowboys at one of the league's most important positions, but it also breeds immense competition between the corners come training camp.
Which, if you didn't know, begins on July 26th.
Jason Witten Is A Future Hall Of Famer, But Is He Now Underrated? Some NFL Execs Say So
It's hard to imagine how a 37 year old tight end who was more recently in the broadcast booth than on the football field could possibly be "underrated," but that's what some NFL Execs seem to believe.
Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman conducted a survey of executives around the league, asking them who they believed the most underrated player in the NFL was entering the 2019 season. While Steelers running back James Conner was the most common player named, Cowboys tight end Jason Witten was also reportedly brought up.
I have to admit, this is shocking.
As mentioned, Witten is well past his prime and saw decline in his play over the last few seasons he played with the Cowboys. His retirement made sense, and his un-retirement was a surprise to most. But I suppose now that seemingly no one nationally expects Witten to do much of anything in 2019, he can be thought of as underrated.
This sentiment echoes statements which former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo made earlier last week. Romo claimed that his favorite target would pick right back up where he left off in Dallas, and would be back to the Witten of old in no-time.
"The reality of it is as long as, if you know the game the way he does, there are certain positions—he plays one of them at tight end—he's always going to have the nuance to get open." - Tony Romo
I'm still very much in "wait and see" mode with this entire Jason Witten situation. It's hard to wrap your head around a player we all thought was old and slow when he was 35 coming back after a year in retirement to be a productive NFL pass catcher.
While Witten's numbers have declined across the board, his touchdown production actually improved in 2017. If, at the very least, Jason Witten can become a secondary red zone option for the Cowboys offense, then his addition would have been well worth it offensively.
Jason Witten will wear a gold jacket in Canton Ohio one day, but will his 2019 contributions give the voters any extra reason to support his candidacy?
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