By David Mullen
After a frustrating opening to the 2018 NFL season for the Dallas Cowboys, who would have thought two of the most interesting — and often abrasive — personalities in professional football would have gotten together to help immediately improve the Cowboys and make them playoff contenders?
In October, Jerry Jones and Jon Gruden, head coach and apparent self-appointed personnel director of the Oakland Raiders, made a deal paying dividends. Reports will say that Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie and Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones actually made the trade for former first round wide receiver Amari Cooper, but it is hard to imagine that it wasn’t Gruden and the elder Jones behind the scenes.
McKenzie lost control of the team when owner Mark Davis, who inherited the squad from his deceased father and NFL Hall of Famer Al, named Gruden head coach in January after a nine-year stint as the head NFL color commentator for ESPN.
The Cowboys made the play of the year against the Raiders, and it wasn’t on the football field. Gruden has decided to dismantle the team while looking ahead to a 2020 move to Las Vegas, leaving loyal Oakland fans in the lurch. After trading defensive star Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears, instantly turning them into a playoff caliber team and a current division leader, the Raiders later traded Cooper to Dallas for a 2019 first round pick.
While Jerry Jones was questioned about giving up a number one pick for Cooper, the critics were quickly silenced. Under Jones’ watch, the Cowboys broke camp woefully unmanned in the receiving corp. Cooper’s presence immediately upgraded the team and provided quarterback Dak Prescott with more offensive weapons. The Cowboys have won four games in a row and became the leaders of the NFC East. And there is no reason to believe that the momentum will not continue.
Just having Cooper on the field, often shadowed by their opponent’s best defensive back, has opened up more running room for Ezekiel Elliott who seems to embrace his added workload and has given other wide receivers more pass-catching opportunities.
The improbable 13-10 win on Nov. 29 against the powerful New Orleans Saints, which entered the game on a 10-game winning streak, proved that the Cowboys can compete with the big boys. Their defense is now feared. They held the Saints to just 176 total yards. And what seems just as incredible, it looks like the Cowboys are rallying behind robotic head coach Jason Garrett, who was credited with providing a motivational speech before the Saints game.
And give Jones and staff a gold star (to go with their blue star) for drafting linebacker Leighton Vander Esch in April. Vander Esch won the NFL Defensive rookie of the Month in November, was credited with 10 tackles against the Saints and plays with incredible energy. He has made Cowboy fans forget about the oft-injured linebacker Sean Lee, although his return may just be a game away.
The Cowboys have a swagger that was sorely missing at the season’s outset, when they opened with a lackluster offensive display in a 16-8 loss to the Carolina Panthers. Now they are the team that no one wants to play. If the season ended today, the Cowboys would host the Seattle Seahawks in the first playoff round, and then most probably would head to Los Angeles to play the Rams, a team that has already clinched its second consecutive NFC West division title.
So give the Joneses, Garrett and the Cowboys credit. They are now a playoff contender, with an opportunity to win-out the rest of the schedule. They have turned around a season that seemed lost at the beginning, with a little help from the Raiders and Jon Gruden (pictured below).