Cowboys are Contenders Again

IRVING, TX -- Just before the start of Sunday's Texans-at-Cowboys meeting at suddenly-venerable Texas Stadium, I tuned into a Sirius Radio report on the game-day conditions. The rain, I was informed, meant "they're going to have to close as much of this roof as they can.''

Wrong, WeatherDork. The Texas Stadium roof is wide-open -- as, predictably, is the race in the NFC East.

If the following comes across as a screed on Cowboys history aimed as bridge-jumping fans and media members who declared last week's loss in Philly to be worthy of Dallas being given its last rites, so be it. The naysayers (led by the local newspaper) ought to open their pieholes only to swallow voluminous servings of crow.

A week ago, it was written that the Cowboys, at 2-2, were no longer contenders.

"This past week was my top four or five of the toughest weeks that we've ever had," said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, obviously having let himself get as caught up in the ebb and flow of this early season as the most foolishly overzealous fan (or media member).

Now, because of their 34-6 demolition of Houston, the Cowboys are 3-2. And the Eagles came back to the pack with a loss in New Orleans. So has last week's "toughness'' been bandaged? Can Dallas be allowed back in the race again? Please?

Some of the evidence presented to you in the paper last week included the contention that contenders "don't allow seven sacks in a game,'' "don't have a quarterback who throws three of the ugliest interceptions in recorded history,'' "don't turn a five-time Pro Bowl receiver into a role player,'' "don't commit five turnovers,'' "don't have an offensive line that remains consistently inconsistent'' and "don't have a quarterback controversy every other week.''

That's a lot to swallow right now --especially because you're likely still choking down what happened to your team in Philly. But let's chew on it, bite by "contenders-never-make-mistakes'' bite.

In 1992, there was a team named "the Dallas Cowboys'' who played another team named "the Philadelphia Eagles.'' Like coincidences served up warm? It was Week 4 of that season, too. Want more? The Eagles won, 31-7. They did so while compiling an unsavory number of sacks of somebody named Troy Aikman, who threw a couple of interceptions that were, indeed, "ugly.'' Pro Bowl receiver Michael Irvin did nothing in the game. A "role player,'' you might say. That offensive line never looked poorer. And while only football-watchers with loose screws thought it, there were indeed Aikman doubters.

That 1992 Cowboys team was what the paper would, I assume, call a "contender.'' It won the Super Bowl.

Let's update things for the younger crowd. Last year, in yet another October game, the Cowboys traveled to Seattle. Though the Seahawks won, 13-10, they did so while throwing a couple of "ugly'' interceptions -- just like Drew Bledsoe last week, Matt Hasselbeck threw his pair in the red zone -- and committing a turnover in the punting game and goofed by giving the ball to perennial Pro Bowler (and eventually NFL MVP Shaun Alexander) just 21 times for just 61 yards.

That 2005 Seahawks team was what the paper would, I assume, call a "contender.'' It won the NFC Championship Game and went to the Super Bowl. Excluding only two clubs in modern NFL history ('72 Miami, '85 Bears) I can go on ad infinitum with examples of good teams losing games. Contending teams losing games. Eventual champions losing ramp-up games.

The '02 Cowboys, the '05 Seahawks, and every other good team in history lost -- BUT THEN quickly recovered. ... just as Dallas did on Sunday. The paper demanded that "a contender wins the games it's supposed to win, even if they're not aesthetically pleasing, and figures out a way to win a game or two it has no business winning.'' But in the next breath, it states definitively that the Cowboys "are not going to play in Super Bowl XLI, which means they're not a contender.'' Let's wrestle with that awfully tight definition of a "contender.'' You're only a "contender'' if you play in the Super Bowl? Meaning, as of today, because naturally only two teams will get to oppose each other in Miami, that there are only. ... TWO contenders in the NFL?

And one more quick math lesson: If a "contender'' is defined only as "a Super Bowl qualifier,'' AND a "contender wins the games it's supposed to win''. ... why aren't those only two "contenders'' ALWAYS undefeated when they finally meet? Because it's apparently so easy to determine after four games who is in and who is out: Would the paper care to reveal the identity of those two obvious contenders, those two "clear'' champions? That way, going into this past weekend, all the non-contenders -- not just Dallas, but also the Redskins (who were 2-3), the Giants (2-2), the Eagles (4-1), the Falcons (4-1), the Saints (3-1), the Panthers (3-2), the Rams (4-1), the Seahawks (3-1), the 49ers (2-3), the Bears (5-0), the Vikings (3-2), the Patriots (4-1), the Jets (2-3), the Bills (2-3), the Ravens (4-1), the Bengals (3-1), the Colts (5-0), the Jaguars (3-2), the Broncos (3-1), the Chargers (3-1) and the Chiefs (2-2) -- can up and quit right now, thus saving themselves lots of money on tape and eyeblack and jockstraps and stuff.

Seriously, that's 22 teams with records that placed them within a win of .500. And hell, you can END UP at .500 and still make the playoffs! Oh, and not included in that group: the defending champ Steelers (1-3) and preseason darlings the Dolphins (1-4) and the Cardinals (1-4). Assume they haven't yet made golf plans for the next 12 or so weekends and that makes 25 teams who still entered the weekend thinking they're in it -- 25 of 32.

Gang, that's pretty much everybody. And this is pretty much October.

Again, what a "contender'' truly does is rebound from losses. Angrily. And they take it out on the poor SOBs who represent the next challenge. That played out in a textbook manner on Sunday, with the Cowboys relying on "3'' as the magic number: They got three TD catches from Terrell Owens (which should shut up his critics, if not himself), they forced three turnovers on back-to-back-to-back Texans possessions, they unleashed Julius Jones for his third straight 100-yard game and they permitted the lowly Texans nothing but a pair of three-point boots. When the paper said, "This much is clear: The Cowboys aren't contenders,'' the only revelation about clarity is this:

The paper itself possesses none.

The Texas Stadium roof is open. The NFC East race is open. And at this still-early stage, the minds of the Cowboys critics ought to stay open, too.

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