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If you can run the ball and stop the run, you will win a lot of football games.
That’s what your high school coach told you. And it’s what the 1970s coaches in their tweed suits told the beat writers. It’s the handed-down wisdom from Knute Rockne to every mediocre coordinator and color commentator in the NFL.
It was true in the days of bell-bottoms, but it’s comically out of step with the modern NFL in which you win by throwing for a billion yards per game and holding the opponent to 999 million yards and an interception.
Trying to win with running and defense will get you nowhere nowadays. Unless you are the Cowboys.
The Cowboys were subjects of coaching hot seat rumors and problems-at-quarterback conversations just two weeks ago. But they have reinvented themselves as playoff contenders by going back to basics, taking the ball away from Dak Prescott and Jason Garrett’s schemes and turning the game plan over to Ezekiel Elliott and their defense.
Elliott has rushed 42 times for 273 yards and two touchdowns in the Cowboys’ last two games (both wins), adding 13 receptions for 115 yards (both team highs) and a touchdown. He’s second in the league to Todd Gurley with 953 rushing yards and 1,294 scrimmage yards for the season.
The Cowboys defense is allowing just 3.7 yards per carry and holding opponents to just 19.0 points per game. It is playing sound situational football. On Sunday, the unit held the Falcons to just one red-zone trip. And in Week 10, it stopped the Eagles on a pair of fourth-down conversions.
Winning with running and defense: Who would have thought it?
The Cowboys have wanted to win this way for years. It’s why they drafted Elliott fourth overall in 2016. It’s why they drafted a star-studded offensive line, or at least it’s why they claim to have drafted a star-studded offensive line (the last-minute front office wrestling match to select Zack Martin over Johnny Manziel is well-documented). Historical retcons aside, a strong running game resulted in a 13-3 season in 2016 and a 5-3 start last year.
But then Elliott had to serve a six-game suspension, left tackle Tyron Smith got hurt and the Cowboys were forced to rely on Prescott’s precision and Garrett’s tactical wizardry. The result was a slump that lasted from last November to the start of this one.
Something was missing from the Cowboys’ running-and-defense equation, particularly last year. Namely, defense. The Cowboys recorded just 38 sacks last season, allowing 28 touchdown passes and more than 100 rushing yards per game: not disastrous, but not good enough to win when the offense wasn’t cooking. This season, they are on pace for 45 sacks, 21 touchdown passes allowed and 95 rushing yards allowed per game.
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Recent drafts have helped. Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is having a Rookie of the Year-caliber campaign. Developmental project Jaylon Smith has actually developed, which doesn’t often happen in Dallas, where the Jones family tends to manage from whim to whim.
Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie have become one of the NFL’s best young cornerback tandems. Tank Lawrence is still dominating on the defensive line, but now he gets more help from Taco Charlton, Randy Gregory and others.
The Cowboys defense is no Legion of Boom—there are no Legions of Boom anymore—but it is young and stout, with contributors like Vander Esch and Charlton who are improving every week.
Meanwhile, Elliott has become a big-play threat, workhorse and (surprisingly) steadying influence. His decisiveness in the backfield has helped offset the loss of All-Pro center Travis Frederick. His breakaway speed and open-field hurdling generate chunk yards that the Cowboys cannot count on from their deep passing game. And his ability to be a frequent target for screens and dump-offs bolster Prescott’s confidence and his numbers, taking heat off both the quarterback and the coaching staff.
Elliott keeps the Cowboys offense ahead of the sticks, and nothing makes a quarterback look like a superstar and a coach look like a genius like lots of eight-yard gains to bring up 2nd-and-2.
The Cowboys climbed back into the playoff race by being primitive and old-fashioned. The only reason other teams aren’t doing it is that winning with running and defense isn’t all that effective.
Let’s not overreact to a pair of wins against an Eagles team whose Super Bowl hangover just reached the emergency-room IV bag stage and the Falcons, who are the abstract concept of disappointment in the shape of a football team. The Cowboys are not suddenly a match for the Saints (whom they face in two weeks) or the Rams in the NFC. They even lack the Bears‘ danger-to-themselves-and-others potential as a playoff spoiler.
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The Cowboys are building their playoff portfolio by beating would-be contenders on the skids (Eagles, Jaguars), rebuilding teams with identity crises (Giants, Lions) and regret monsters (Falcons). But that doesn’t change the fact that they are building a playoff portfolio at a time when flashier teams are starting to fall off the chase.
Every playoff hopeful in the NFL but the top contenders is locked in a vicious attrition battle right now. The Eagles faced the Cowboys with no secondary. The Falcons tried to stop Elliott with half a defense. The Panthers cannot protect Cam Newton, nor can the Vikings do that for Kirk Cousins. And the Packers can’t recapture the glory of 2010 and ’11 and look increasingly desperate for trying.
And on Thursday, the Redskins will hobble into Dallas without Alex Smith, their claim to first place in the NFC East as tenuous as a pace car’s chances of winning a NASCAR race.
The Cowboys have suffered losses of their own: Frederick, linebacker Sean Lee, a whole bunch of defensive linemen. But the running-and-defense philosophy is much more disaster-proof than most of the NFL’s trendier tactics. That’s why your high school coach loved it so much.
Feed your workhorse back. Avoid turnovers. Don’t allow many big plays. Slow the game down. Keep the score close. Wear your opponents down if they’re banged up. Punish them if they try to get too cute. If they have a habit of beating themselves, let them do it.
It’s not the best way to win—becoming the Saints, Chiefs or Rams is the best way to win—but it’s a way to outlast competitors who are crashing and burning around you.
The Cowboys close out their season with the self-destructive Eagles, Buccaneers and Giants in three of their final four games (with the pesky Colts wedged in between). Three wins in those games and one more against what’s left of the Redskins would wrap up a Cowboys NFC East title.
Then the Saints or Rams will beat them by 40 points in the playoffs. So what? The Cowboys will have done what they had little hope of doing three weeks ago, something the Eagles, Redskins, Falcons, Giants and Packers appear incapable of doing right now.
What’s more, the Cowboys will have reaffirmed their identity and created a blueprint for the future.
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Elliott, the offensive line, Lawrence, the young linebackers, Jones, Awuzie and Charlton can be a Super Bowl nucleus. Prescott is invited, too, if he sticks to his mobile game-manager role. Garrett? Eh, Jerry Jones will find a reason to stick with him, and Garrett has produced two 12-to-13-win seasons by not screwing up a good thing.
The Cowboys need to find some more tight ends and receivers, and they have some cap juggling ahead to give long-term deals to the core youngsters, but there’s a clear path to becoming more than a one-and-done playoff team.
Elliott and the defense are starting to blaze that path. Any team too injured or divided to stop them had better get out of the way.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.