We’ve now crossed over into the second half of the 2021 NFL season. Who have been the standout players for the Dallas Cowboys from Weeks 1-10? What better way to recognize them than with some fake awards.
Now that we have a 17-game season, an unanswerable debate begins on when the season is officially “halfway” over. In fact, you may have already seen some articles like this a week ago.
But to me, the early part of the season is the least representative of who teams and players really are. Remember when Carolina was 3-0 and everyone thought Dallas had really done something special by beating them? Still feel that way?
So no, I’m going to push that 9th game into the “first half” of the season. Now we have a good sense of who the Cowboys and the rest of the NFL teams are going into the cold weather months.
All that being said, let’s get to the good stuff! Like any proper awards show, we’re going to work our way up to the biggest honors.
Worst Loss – Week 9 vs Denver
You know you’re having a good year when you only have two losses to talk about after nine games. And it’s especially good when one of those losses, Week 1 at Tampa Bay, was still an impressive showing against the defending Super Bowl Champions that earned you respect even in defeat.
So yeah, obviously the low point of the season was what happened two weeks ago at the hands of the Denver Broncos. The Cowboys looked abysmally flat and dysfunctional and were down 30-0 before a few garbage-time touchdowns helped make the final score look a little better.
This was a classic “everything that could go wrong did” game. Even when the Cowboys blocked a punt, a fluke happening and obscure rule helped the Broncos keep possession. It just wasn’t Dallas’ week.
In the long run, we may look back on this game as an important moment in the 2021 season. Ugly as it was, it may have been the perfect wake-up call to the Cowboys that helps them the rest of the way. Their 43-4 blowout win over Atlanta last week is a great sign that this Denver loss will ultimately have a positive impact.
Best Win – Week 6 @ New England
You could make a case for last week’s rout of the Falcons as the best win based on the sheer level of dominance. Week 3’s stomping of the Eagles is another candidate given the rivalry and division implications. But to me, it was the overtime win on the road against the Patriots that told us the most about what the Cowboys are capable of in 2021.
Tom Brady may be gone but Bill Belichick is still running things in New England. And what we didn’t know at the time of this game was that the Patriots were about to go on a four-game winning streak. Now 6-4, winning five of their last six outside of the Dallas game, this win looks even more impressive than it did in October.
The Cowboys were in a 14-0 hole early after some defensive letdowns but never stopped fighting. By the time it was over, Dak Prescott had put up 445 yards in the best passing day any QB had ever had against a Patriots defense during Belichick’s 22 years as coach. Dallas’ offense put up the most yards that a Belichick defense, even during his coordinator days, had ever allowed.
It was a complete team win. Even with some issues on defense, Trevon Diggs’ pick-six was a critical score and Randy Gregory had two sacks and a forced fumble to help. After missing a field goal on the last possession, Greg Zuerlein stayed focused and hit a 49-yarder in the final seconds to force overtime.
Most Improved – CB Anthony Brown
While the other starting CB in Dallas is getting all the attention, veteran Anthony Brown is quietly putting together a career season. He’s already hit new highs in interceptions (3) and pass deflections (11) with still plenty of games left to go.
Some of these are volume stats that could be attributed to more playing time. But Brown’s efficiency has been documented, grading out as one of the NFL’s better corners throughout the year and even better than Trevon Diggs overall in coverage.
This is a big leap for a guy that some thought wouldn’t even make the team in 2021. After Dallas re-signed Jourdan Lewis, drafted Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright, plus were getting Maurice Canady back from the opt-out list, it felt like Brown might not have a roster spot at final cuts.
But once again, Anthony has outlasted his competition. The former sixth-round pick is now in his sixth season and making a seventh seem very likely. And where his $5 million cap hit felt exorbitant going into the year, Brown’s contract may now be a bargain at this level of play.
Best Free Agent – S Jayron Kearse
Of the new players added through 2021 free agency, none have made a bigger impact so far than Safety Jayron Kearse. Not only is he leading the team in tackles and making plays on the field, but Kearse has emerged as a veteran presence and emotional leader for this young defense.
Jayron was almost an afterthought going into training camp. We were hoping for continued growth from Donovan Wilson and excited to see what Damontae Kazee would do as the new starter. And then when Dallas signed Malik Hooker, we started to question if Kearse would even make the roster.
But as he’s done all season, Jayron just showed up and put in work. He’s exceeded expectations and carved out a key role. His one-year contract with Dallas is looking more and more likely to be extended as the season goes.
Kearse’s value has increased since the bye week when he took over signal-calling duties from Micah Parsons. We saw the impact in the very first game back in Minnesota; Parsons looked unleashed without that responsibility. That a new addition like Jayron is handling the assignment over more tenured Cowboys defenders is impressive.
Best Rookie – LB Micah Parsons
Sure, your first-round pick should be your best rookie every year. But we know painfully well how often that doesn’t happen. Thankfully, Parsons has been as good as advertised and probably even better than you thought!
Already the heavy favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, Micah has hit the ground running, sacking, and tackling as a key part of the Cowboys defense. His 58 tackles are only two short of Jayron Kearse for the team lead and he is the current sacks leader with six.
Stats aside, Parsons has fully embraced the spotlight and leadership role you’d expect from a player with his draft pedigree. He’s already found a voice and earned the respect of his peers. You see the way his energy impacts the entire defense.
It’s not like he’s the only outstanding rookie, either. Defensive Tackle Osa Odighizuwa was arguably outplaying Parsons earlier in the year and has been one of the better interior defenders in all of football this season.
But especially since the bye, Micah Parsons has exploded as a playmaker and consistent threat to opponents’ play calls. His rare speed can shut down plays that would normally go for bigger gains, and his versatility as a pass rusher is an invaluable tool for Dan Quinn.
Best Special Teamer – CB C.J. Goodwin
Still on the roster for one reason, C.J. Goodwin continues to justify his roster spot as one of the best specialists in football. His impact is subtle but consistent, making him arguably the team’s most underrated player as well.
Greg Zuerlein has had accuracy issues and we haven’t seen much from the return game so far in 2021. Bryan Anger has been very good on punts, one of the top performer so far in football, but he’s not called on very often thanks to the Cowboys top-ranked offense.
One reason Anger’s stats look so good, especially his net yardage, is thanks to the work of guys like Goodwin in punt coverage. Whenever you see an opposing punt returner stopped in his tracks or forced into a fair catch, it’s almost always C.J. that you see making the tackle or putting the pressure on. Even when he doesn’t get the stop, Goodwin is often the one corralling the returner into the arms of a teammate.
Goodwin leads the Cowboys in ST tackles but does so much more beyond that one stat. And before the year is done, I promise we’ll see some crafty John Fassel play that gets C.J. even more attention as the weapon that he is.
Best Defensive Player – CB Trevon Diggs
When you’re on a record-breaking pace for interceptions in a season, you’re probably a top defender on your team and across the league. That’s certainly the case for Trevon Diggs, whose eight INTs already in 2021 have him closing in on the Cowboys’ single-season record (11) and more than halfway to the NFL’s record (14) as well.
Diggs hasn’t been perfect, as many analysts are anxious to point out, but his gaudy pick numbers can’t be ignored. Much like sacks for defensive ends, this is the measuring stick that the average onlooker points to and that makes a cornerback famous.
You could make a compelling case for Parsons or Randy Gregory as Dallas’ best defender so far this year but neither has had the game-changing impact of Trevon. And it’s no coincidence that Anthony Brown’s improvement, which we recognized earlier, comes with Diggs’ increasing notoriety on the other side of the field.
The Cowboys have had plenty of corners through the years who were solid. They recently had one who was exceptional in Byron Jones but whose lack of picks hurt him in terms of perception and fanfare.
Trevon Diggs still has work to do in his game to reach “shutdown” status as a corner. But there’s no denying that he’s been the best playmaker and made the biggest positive impact of any Cowboys defender in 2021.
Best Offensive Player – QB Dak Prescott
Could you hand this award to Guard Zack Martin and be right? Maybe, but even Zack would tell you that nobody carries a heavier burden than the starting quarterback. And in this comeback season from his major 2020 injury and with the pressure of his huge contract, Dak Prescott has been everything you could ask for from a franchise QB.
Currently the top-rated passer in the NFL, Prescott’s efficiency hasn’t come at the expense of production. He’s top-five in both yards (292.6 per game) and touchdowns (20) and has thrown the fewest picks (5) of any QB with at least 18 TDs or more so far this season.
While he’s not running as much as in past seasons, Dak’s still able to make plays with his feet. He’s had two running touchdowns taken off the board by bad officiating, but even without those he’s done enough on the ground to restore confidence after his leg injury.
Best of all with Dak is what you see in the little things. His composure under pressure is at an all-time high and he’s been Brady-like in his handling of late-game situations. His leadership, highlighted this year during Hard Knocks and in the “Sounds from the Sideline” series from DallasCowboys.com, is a key ingredient to Dallas’ success.
Sure, Cooper Rush won a game as QB1 this year. But what we said consistently throughout that Vikings game, and especially early, was that it wouldn’t have even been close if Prescott had played. It probably would’ve looked very similar to the Falcons game.
Dak makes this team a contender. He makes this offense elite; overcoming obstacles and providing a cushion for the still-developing defense to succeed. He’s the MVP in Dallas and a clear candidate for that same honor on a league-wide level in 2021.