The Dallas Cowboys are 6-1, a feat they last achieved in 2007.
The Cowboys finished that season 13-3 and won the NFC East title. They also were promptly bounced out of the playoffs by the New York Giants.
Quarterback Tony Romo is one of only five players left from that ’07 team. And as much as he would be thrilled to have the same regular-season success, he obviously wants this year’s club to separate itself with a postseason run that doesn’t end until Feb. 1, the date of Super Bowl XLIX in Phoenix.
More than a few media critics say it won’t happen, with some even predicting the Cowboys will find a way to unravel – as they have so often – and wind up equal or close to the 8-8 finishes of the last three seasons. The biggest reason that many cite? Romo won’t possibly continue to play as well as he has.
But when it comes to comparing what he’s doing this season – ranked fourth in the NFL after Week Seven with a passer rating of 104.7 – to what he did in 2007, Romo will tell you he’s playing at a higher level. The numbers bear that out. After Week Seven, he ranked first in the league with a completion percentage of 69.2, and besides passer rating, was in the top five in two other categories. Romo finished the ’07 season with a passer rating of 97.4 and a completion percentage of 64.4.
“I think we’re playing the game a little bit different,” Romo told reporters. “I think I’m a little different, a little bit better at this point, and that would be an understatement.”
How do these Cowboys compare with their dominant teams of the 1990s when they were led by Pro Football Hall of Famers Troy Aikman at quarterback, Emmitt Smith at running back, and Michael Irvin at wide receiver? Are Romo, running back DeMarco Murray and wide receiver Dez Bryant the modern day equivalent to the Triplets?
This is what owner Jerry Jones told reporters about Romo, Murray, and Bryant after the Cowboys beat the New York Giants last Sunday: “They’re making great plays at significant times for us. That certainly was what Michael, Emmitt and Troy did.”
But Bryant wouldn’t allow himself to be sucked into that sort of conversation, saying, “Got to let Mr. Jones have his fun. What we do is we try to stay grounded … I feel like that’s one of my biggest jobs going forward.”
• Jeff Fisher has long established himself as one of the NFL masters of special-teams gimmicks. Buffalo Bills fans still carry the bitter memory of “Home Run Throwback,” when Frank Wycheck threw a lateral to Kevin Dyson that became a 75-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the final seconds that gave Fisher’s Tennessee Titans a wild-card playoff victory.
Now, the Seattle Seahawks have plenty of lamenting to do after Fisher’s St. Louis Rams pulled off a pair of trick plays on special teams that, along with Benny Cunningham’s 75-yard kickoff return, helped give them a 28-26 upset win over the defending Super Bowl champions last Sunday. One was Tavon Austin faking that he was returning a punt on the right side of the field while Stedman Bailey actually made the catch on the left side and raced 90 yards for a touchdown. The other was Rams punter Johnny Hekker completing an 18-yard pass on fourth-and-3 from the St. Louis 18 with less than three minutes to play.
During his 11 seasons as coach of the Houston Oilers-Tennessee Titans, Fisher’s punters threw 16 passes. Since becoming the Rams’ coach in 2012, Fisher has had Hekker throw five times. “If the opportunity’s there, that’s how we are,” Fisher told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “That’s what we do.”
• Ryan Tannehill might refuse to acknowledge as much, at least publicly, but there’s reason to think the Miami quarterback received more than a little motivation from coach Joe Philbin’s refusal on multiple occasions to name him the starter for the Dolphins’ Week Four game against Oakland in London.
Consider the facts: through the first three weeks of the season, Tannehill was on pace to set career lows for completion percentage, yards per attempt, and passer rating. However, Tannehill, who made no secret about being upset with Philbin’s non-committal approach, had a huge game against the Raiders. He followed that up with strong performances against the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears as well. His passing numbers since Philbin left him hanging before that Oakland game: 72 percent completions, 799 yards, six touchdowns, three interceptions. In addition, Tannehill has had a couple of big runs from the Dolphins’ read-option offense.
Still, this is all he’ll say about the turnaround: “I’m just glad we’re playing good football, myself and the team. You want to improve every week, and you know I think we’ve done that.”
• Talk about keeping it real. Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians is doing his part to prevent his players from getting caught up in the fact they have one of the best records in the NFL. “We know we’re not special,” he said. “The one thing we talked about all week is you never underestimate an opponent,” and “you damn sure don’t overestimate yourself. We haven’t done anything yet except get to 5-1. There’s a lot of football left.”
It’s interesting that …
• After missing all but four games last season with a torn Achilles’ tendon, 32-year-old New England Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork hardly finds himself with a lighter workload this year. In fact, the 325-pound Wilfork is one of the busier players the Patriots have. By taking 78 percent of the snaps this season, he ranks sixth on their defense. And one of the players ranked ahead of him, linebacker Jerod Mayo, suffered a season-ending knee injury while another, defensive end Chandler Jones, is out for a month with an injured hip. In the Patriots’ victory against the Jets last week, Wilfork was on the field for 64 of 69 defensive snaps and eight special-teams snaps.
• With 18 touchdown passes and one interception, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers could very well make NFL history with the lowest interception percentage ever. He is only the second quarterback (after New England’s Tom Brady in ’07) to throw for three touchdowns with no interceptions in four straight games. By going six consecutive games without being picked off, Rodgers tied Bart Starr’s Packers record, set in 1964.
• The Pittsburgh Steelers, long known for having a ferocious front seven, are on pace to finish the season with 23 sacks, their lowest total ever. In seven games, they have only 10. That’s only two more than linebacker James Harrison had through the same number of games in 2008, when he was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. The Steelers have never had fewer than 31 sacks in a 16-game season. But sacks have been on the decline for the Steelers since they posted a minimum of 47 in 2008, 2009, and 2010. They haven’t had more than 37 in the last three seasons.
• For everything that Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt does well on the field, there’s one area where he struggles: trash talking. Watt does wave his finger during his signature “no-no” move whenever he makes one of his signature pass knockdowns at the line, but he apparently has no game when it comes to taunting the opposition. At least, that’s the word from teammate Brian Cushing, who considers himself the Texans’ best trash-talker. “J.J.’s not very good,” Cushing told the Houston Chronicle. “He tries. But he’s just … very Midwestern.”