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Cowboys roundtable: What’s the key to Dallas maintaining momentum after its bye week?

After losing their opener, the Cowboys have rattled off five straight wins to start the year.

The Cowboys are among a handful of teams at 5-1 or better in the NFC and they are running away from the field in the NFC East race.

This week, in our bye week edition of the Cowboys Beat Writers Roundtable, we examine what’s been behind the Cowboys’ success thus far and some key things to watch for in the remaining 11 games...

What is the main reason for the Cowboys’ 5-1 start entering the bye?

David Moore: Funny you should ask. I wrote something along these lines that appeared on the pages of The Dallas Morning News and the digital platform earlier this week. The abbreviated version: Dak Prescott has been better than he had any right to be coming off that catastrophic injury, this defense has come together quicker than expected when you consider all of the new faces and a new defensive coordinator, Ezekiel Elliott has returned to his dominant form and Trevon Diggs has burst on the scene in a big way. You can play with the order, but I don’t think you can exclude any of those from your list on why this team has gotten off to a 5-1 start.

Calvin Watkins: So many different reasons. The main thing is the consistency on both the offense and defense. Yes, that sounds simple, but let’s be honest. The 2020 edition of the Cowboys defense gave you no confidence it could stop anyone. Now under defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, this defense can stop some people, or at least slow them down. The offense is the offense. Kellen Moore has been fantastic and Dak Prescott is an MVP candidate. So for the first time in a while, the balance of both sides of the ball is fueling this fast start.

Michael Gehlken: The Cowboys’ first game was Sept. 9, but for all intents and purposes, this season began last year when players like quarterback Dak Prescott, left tackle Tyron Smith, right tackle La’el Collins, tight end Blake Jarwin and right guard Zack Martin — among others — rehabbed together under the watch of the team’s athletic training staff. Much of what we are seeing today is a manifestation of how those injured players, and you can count running back Ezekiel Elliott among them with his nicks, attacked their rehab and offseason training to get their bodies and minds right for 2021. Prescott set the tempo to all that.

Of course, the Cowboys’ success today is because of the totality of their parts. It’s ownership — how many owners would have been as patient with defensive end Randy Gregory as Jerry Jones? It’s the front office. It’s the coaching staff. It’s the locker room. To single out one thing is a bit unfair. But since that is the assignment, for me, the success is largely tied to the structure and culture surrounding the Cowboys’ medical, athletic training and strength and conditioning staffs. Many hands are involved in that, including those of Britt Brown, associate athletic trainer and director of rehabilitation.

What is the key to the Cowboys maintaining their momentum in the final 11 games?

David Moore: Health. If the Cowboys can avoid significant injuries to any of their key players, there’s no reason to believe this roll won’t continue. Now, let’s look ahead at a few other factors. Arizona and Las Vegas are the only teams left on the Cowboys schedule heading into Week 7 with a winning record. Dallas will be the favorite in almost every game they play the rest of the way. That doesn’t mean they will win all of those games, but they should win the majority of them. If you had to pinpoint the most likely losses the rest of the way, I’d say at Kansas City on Nov. 21 and at home to Arizona on Jan. 2. New Orleans is always a tough place to play, so you can throw that Dec. 2 date on the list as well. Not to dismiss at Minnesota on Halloween night and the Raiders on Thanksgiving, but the remaining schedule sets up nicely for this team.

Calvin Watkins: Staying healthy. Mike McCarthy has done a nice job of keeping the players fresh and that should help the next 11 games. The return of Michael Gallup, Neville Gallimore, Kelvin Joseph and DeMarcus Lawrence from injuries should also provide a boost over the next few weeks. If the Cowboys lose, say Dak Prescott for two or three weeks, the confidence level in Cooper Rush and Will Grier isn’t high outside The Star. Keeping a healthy team isn’t a trade secret because the NFL is a hard, physical business, but the healthiest teams win more games.

Michael Gehlken: A secret sauce to the season so far, something that easily could have been the answer to the first question, has been a lack of selfishness. Elliott and Tony Pollard are not fighting over carry count. Wide receivers Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb aren’t spouting over targets. While not an easy ask of NFL athletes as occasional pockets of frustration are only natural, an overall player buy-in on offense and defense exists when accepting whatever role the coaches assign. Maintaining success in the months ahead will require staying neutral and continuing that selflessness, not getting caught up in individual statistics or accolades. The goals for the 2021 Cowboys run much deeper than that.

Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (90) on the bench in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas on Sunday, November 8, 2020.
Dallas Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (90) on the bench in a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas on Sunday, November 8, 2020. (Vernon Bryant / Staff Photographer)

Which of the players returning from injury or suspension will have the biggest impact?

David Moore: Let’s limit this to three. Again, feel free to put in whatever order you desire. Terence Steele had played surprisingly well in filling in for La’el Collins, but the right tackle’s return will upgrade the play of the offensive line. Cedrick Wilson has been productive during Michael Gallup’s absence, but the receiver’s return after the bye will give yet another explosive, downfield threat to this offense. DeMarcus Lawrence’s return at defensive end is further away. But being able to add a player of his status to the rotation for the stretch run will provide a huge boost to what has been an aggressive, opportunistic defense.

Calvin Watkins: DeMarcus Lawrence, but it won’t be until maybe the middle of November. Kelvin Joseph hasn’t been missed because he’s not as good as Anthony Brown and Trevon Diggs. Plus, the Cowboys are using more safeties, so he’s not going to get much PT anyway. Maurice Canady is the man Joseph must beat out for playing time at this stage of the season. Lawrence can only add to what this team is doing on the pass rush. Randy Gregory has played well, better than expected, but when Lawrence returns, imagine the pressure the Cowboys will have for the final five or six weeks of the season.

Michael Gehlken: The recovery timetable widely reported for DeMarcus Lawrence after the defensive end fractured his left foot during a Sept. 15 practice was six to eight weeks. It looks safe to scratch that: His return will take longer. Because Lawrence aligns mostly at left end, he places substantial pressure on that left foot when planting on it as one of the NFL’s best edge defenders. He really needs to be at full strength. Plus, with the Cowboys appearing poised to run away with the NFC East title, why rush him? So we could see less of Lawrence in the regular season than we do defensive tackles Neville Gallimore (elbow) and Trysten Hill (knee). None of that changes the answer. Accounting for the playoffs, Lawrence’s return should have the greatest impact. He is that good.

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Find more Cowboys coverage from The Dallas Morning News here.

In This Story

David Moore, Cowboys Insider. David is in his 4th decade of covering sports on the DFW scene. You know what that means. He's old.

dmoore@dallasnews.com @DavidMooreDMN

Calvin Watkins. This is my 10th year covering the Dallas Cowboys. This is special for me because I've never reached the 10th year in anything, other than living. So I guess that's something to be proud of.

calvin.watkins@dallasnews.com @calvinwatkins

Michael Gehlken. Michael Gehlken joined the Cowboys beat for the Dallas Morning News in August 2019. This marks his 12th season covering the NFL, previously having reported on the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders.

michael.gehlken@dallasnews.com GehlkenNFL
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