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Dallas Cowboys surprising everyone -- including team ownership

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NFL Media's Albert Breer touches on multiple topics in his robust Inside the NFL Notebook, including (click on each link to go directly to the topic):

» What is Tom Brady's status going forward in New England?
» How NFL talent evaluators view suspended college superstar Todd Gurley.
» The latest development on the Los Angeles front? Owners eyeing potential sites.
And much more, beginning with one of the biggest surprises of the young season. ...

Don't feel bad if you didn't see the Dallas Cowboys being where they are now, rolling into mid-October at 4-1 and raring for a showdown with the defending champion Seahawks in Seattle.

The truth is, they didn't really see it playing out like this, either.

"I think that's fair to say, that it's better than we expected," said Cowboys COO and executive vice president Stephen Jones, around lunchtime Tuesday. "We thought this was a young team that would get better as the season went on -- that, as we got players like Anthony Spencer and Demarcus Lawrence back, we'd improve. We were thinking we'd hang in there early on, and play our best football in the second half of the season."

That might be the best part of this early-season vindication of the Joneses and their staff at Valley Ranch: If the blueprint plays out like it should from here, the best is very much yet to come.

Amazing, then, to think that the expectations around the Cowboys entering the 2014 campaign were about as low as they had been since the Dave Campo era.

The quarterback was coming back from back surgery. The star receiver and the team fell short of consummating a new deal before the opener. The cornerstone tight end was a year older. The defense was bad in 2013 and, after hemorrhaging DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher as part of a cap purge, lost heart-and-soul linebacker Sean Lee to a freak ACL tear in the spring, an event that had all the markings of a dam-breaking hit for a team that was seemingly already reeling.

All that raises a pretty simple question: How in the hell have the Cowboys gotten here?

"Everyone probably gave us that the offense would be a good, solid offense, that we were gonna win some games by outscoring the other guys," Jones said. "What people missed? I read it everywhere, it was gonna be the worst defense in the history of the league. That's what people missed. We felt all along we'd be improved from last year."

And if you're gonna start there -- with the defense -- Jones has proof. He'll cite the defensive line and have you look at the 46-man game day roster for the last two weeks of 2013. There were players dressed for those games who, after the team performed some offseason tweaking, weren't good enough to make the 90-man roster in the spring. Jones didn't name names, but some guys were simply allowed to walk (Jarius Wynn, Edgar Jones), some were cut (Everette Brown and Corvey Irvin in February; Frank Kearse in May).

At linebacker, improved depth has shown up (veteran Justin Durant, rookie Anthony Hitchens) in the Lee aftermath, and the calculated gamble on Rolando McClain has paid off big. "That's to Jerry and Stephen's credit," one Cowboys source said about the acquisition of McClain, a former top-10 pick of the Oakland Raiders who struggled on and off the field and already had retired twice by age 24. "That's Jerry's deal -- we'll figure out what they are for us, rather than listen to what someone else says about them."

And then, of course, there's Rod Marinelli pulling the whole thing together. The personnel department knew that it was important, through the offseason, to acquire players who fit the defensive coordinator's profile: "You can't bring in a prima donna," the Cowboys source said, "those guys won't last." Mix in a staff that's coaching the way Marinelli sees the group playing (focus on physical play, takeaways, tackling and keeping the ball in front of you), and you get the league's eighth-ranked scoring defense.

On the other side of the ball, it's considerably simpler. Dallas rebuilt its line around three first-round picks (Tyron Smith in 2011, Travis Frederick last year, Zack Martin this year) in order to, per Jones, create a strong environment for Tony Romo as he entered his mid-30s. The result has been the league's second-best running game (with DeMarco Murray easily leading all backs in rushing), which gives the Cowboys a distinctly 1990s look.

"I do see similarities," Jones said. "We can run the ball in spite of an eight-man front, and when you see that, running it against that, it's like we were in the '90s. You have a very good running back, and a really good receiver, a la (Michael) Irvin, in Dez (Bryant). Then, there's the tight ends, (Jay) Novacek and (Jason) Witten. And you've got a solid QB in Tony, who compares with Troy (Aikman), the difference being the rings, which means Tony's still got some work to do."

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So maybe the Cowboys aren't on the verge of three more rings. But as was the case back then, at the very least, this group grew an identity when no one was looking.

According to those at Valley Ranch, Marinelli is big on the "Aikman Rating" system, and his group has come to embody the qualities that push a defense up those charts. Offensively, coordinator Bill Callahan wasn't exactly thrilled in January when Scott Linehan was brought in to call plays, but what could've been an issue isn't one at all. And both guys -- along with head coach Jason Garrett -- have invested in the run game, first as a way of trying to help Romo return to form, and now as a legit strength of the team.

And the best way to illustrate how it's come together? Jones goes back to Week 3 in St. Louis.

"We're down 21-0," the COO recalled. "And we didn't get away from running the ball. We just kept playing hard and chipping away. That's not normally what we'd do. We'd get in that situation, and throw every play. But not this time. We ran it, we played defense, we finally caught up, and we kneeled on it at the end. That day, you could say, 'We've got a shot.' "

In a way, that Rams game started with the team most of us thought the Cowboys would be, and ended with the team that they're now becoming. Which is why they're here now, headed to Seattle in mid-October for a game that carries playoff implications for more than one of the teams involved.

Four downs

1) San Diego Chargers rising: Maybe the best sign of how coach Mike McCoy and GM Tom Telesco have rebuilt the Chargers' roster over the last 21 months comes in how they're fighting the war of attrition. And while clearly no one is rooting for injuries, internally, the way things have held up under a glut of them has the brass as encouraged as anything it's seen through the first five weeks of the season. Center Nick Hardwick was lost for the year in Week 1. Tailback Ryan Mathews and outside linebacker Melvin Ingram suffered significant injuries in Week 2 and are still out of the lineup. Danny Woodhead went down for the season in Week 3, and Manti Te'o and Jeremiah Attaochu were also hurt in that game (a win in Buffalo) and haven't played since. McCoy was matter-of-fact about it after his M.A.S.H. unit ran roughshod over the Jets this past Sunday, saying "it's part of the game." And he's right. The best teams are the ones that can withstand what is, in most cases, inevitable. Last year, the AFC title game was played between a Denver team without Von Miller, Ryan Clady and Chris Harris, and a New England team lacking Jerod Mayo, Vince Wilfork and Rob Gronkowski. That's why what San Diego is doing shouldn't be taken lightly. Point being, between now and January, plenty of teams figure to catch up to San Diego on the injury front. But not everyone will handle it as well as the Chargers have.

2) Tom Brady's point of view: Tom Brady's future in New England has been a point of much speculation over the last 10 days or so, and it should be. If he's on the roster for the season finale against Buffalo (a sure thing ... I think), the $24 million left on his contract becomes fully guaranteed. Meanwhile, the Patriots drafted a quarterback in the second round in May (Eastern Illinois product Jimmy Garoppolo) and carry a long track record of acting without emotion in purging aging players. So where does Brady stand? The way those around him have always explained the QB, he's too competitive to ever throw his hands up in the face of a challenging situation: "You know he won't give up," said one source close to Brady. That much was obvious in his passionate, borderline vengeful performance against the Bengals last Sunday night. That said, he admittedly still doesn't know if there's enough around him this year to win at the highest level. Last week, Brady told me he'd have that figured out "by the end of season," emphasizing that this New England mix is still evolving. He also said he likes the "competitive" makeup of the group. So that's a long way of saying ... We'll see. Is Brady all-in for this year? Of course he is. It's silly to even ask about that. But there remain unanswered questions long term, and that guaranteed money on the deal could give Brady leverage to push the envelope in a number of different directions in the offseason, if he chooses to use it.

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3) Philadelphia Eagles' offense slowed down: Early concerns about Chip Kelly's attack are understandable. Philadelphia currently ranks 14th in total offense. Expected MVP candidate LeSean McCoy is averaging 2.9 yards per carry, and quarterback Nick Foles has seen his passer rating dip nearly 37 points from last year's absurd number of 119.2. One rival defensive coordinator said that part of the issue, as he sees it, is the league having an offseason to study Kelly's system: "They have limited formations and plays, they just go fast. It's still really good, but they have to execute better than you." An NFC personnel executive said it's simpler than that, chalking it up to water seeking its level with the quarterback and the depletion of the offensive line. Because of the latter element, we probably won't get a clear answer on whether Philly can approach its elite level of 2013 on offense for a little while, with guard Evan Mathis and center Jason Kelce slated to be out until at least November. But it seems like a safe bet that Kelly will get things figured out. His reputation has never been one of a stubborn coach whos stuck in his ways; his ability to adapt his offense to a less mobile quarterback on the fly last year is proof positive of that.

4) Scouting report on Todd Gurley: The Georgia back is on the shelf now -- and may be for good as a collegian, with the NCAA investigating alleged violations. (Reports say the probe centers on potential financial gains from autographs.) No matter how that all plays out, his future is bright as a pro. Despite the devaluing of tailbacks -- both Jeremy Hill and Carlos Hyde were considered first-round-level talents by many but went in the second round in May -- the 230-pound Gurley is regarded as different by NFL evaluators. One NFC general manager told me Thursday night that the Bulldog star is the best prospect at the position since Adrian Peterson and is clearly better than Trent Richardson was coming out of Alabama. "He should break the first-round drought," the GM said. "He's one of the five to 10 best players in the draft." Also, if this is it for him at the college level, he'll come to the pros healthier. So what would be the drawback? Well, there is one. Averaging 8.2 yards per carry, Gurley had a great shot at taking the Heisman. And that trophy carries residual financial rewards for decades after a player wins it. So he would lose out on those.

Three checkdowns

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1) The plight of Geno Smith underscores a larger reality in the NFL: The quarterback is viewed differently. And if a player at the position is looking to be treated like guys at other positions, then he probably isn't the right guy for the most important position. You can find plenty of guards and linebackers who have had oversights like Smith's missed meeting last week. But not many quarterbacks.

2) The Tennessee Titans loved Zach Mettenberger's size, arm and pro-style experience coming out of LSU. And there's been clamoring in Nashville, with Jake Locker's injury woes, to throw the rookie on the field over Charlie Whitehurst. So why don't the Titans do it? At least part of it is to give Mettenberger a chance to learn. But it makes sense for the Titans to get an extended look at him later in the year.

3) This week is a big one in Buffalo, with the first game officially under Pegula ownership happening to be for first place against longtime nemesis New England. It'll be interesting, too, seeing how Kyle Orton plays against Josh McDaniels. One of the reasons Jay Cutler wound up in Chicago in 2009 -- and not Washington -- was because McDaniels preferred Orton over Jason Campbell as part of the deal.

Two college players to watch Saturday

1) Ole Miss CB Senquez Golson (at Texas A&M, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN): The 5-foot-9 former Red Sox draft pick is a poor man's version of Chargers rookie Jason Verrett as a prospect, and he played the hero last week with a circus interception to seal the Rebels' upset of Alabama. This week, he gets the chance to show how he can match up against much bigger receivers, with Aggie giants Ricky Seals-Jones (6-foot-5) and Josh Reynolds (6-foot-4) on the docket. "He's got good ball skills," said an AFC area scout. "He has to show he can play man-to-man to show how he projects as a nickel. And, really, this game will be good to see how handles big receivers." The Ole Miss defense is loaded with young talent, and Golson has been one of the seniors helping to shepherd those guys along.

2) UCLA MLB Eric Kendricks (vs. Oregon, 3:30 p.m. ET, FOX): The younger brother of Eagles LB Mychal Kendricks burst out of the shadow cast by teammate Myles Jack in the Bruins' season-opening win over Virginia, registering 16 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception returned for a touchdown. That shed light on an inside linebacker whom coach Jim Mora has called the "commander" of his defense. To be sure, he's a prospect, too. And when NFL types are looking at him, this week's tape will probably be the first one they pop in. "It's a good opportunity for him," said an AFC college director. "He can be an inside backer in either (a 3-4 or a 4-3), he's definitely big enough. Oregon does so much -- zone-read, play action -- that you have to be active, you gotta know what you're doing. ... This will be a chance for him to show how well-rounded he is."

Extra point

The idea of the NFL returning to Los Angeles was in the news again this week. And know this: There is jockeying going on among interested teams.

To that end, owners at the annual Fall League Meeting were presented on Wednesday with six potential sites for an L.A. stadium. Per two sources who were in the room, as well as a third source apprised of the situation, there was the AEG site in downtown Los Angeles, the Dodger Stadium site, a site at Hollywood Park with multiple parcels (St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke bought land there), a site that the NFL has been looking at for years in nearby Carson, a second Carson site on land that is currently home to a golf course and Ed Roski's site in Industry (east of the city).

Obviously, before anything moves forward, having the stadium site and financing nailed down would be essential.

After that, there are a number of teams that could find a way to get there. Both teams that left L.A. in the mid-1990s, the Raiders and Rams, have leases allowing them to leave their current cities now without penalty. The Chargers could write a check and bolt from San Diego. Ditto for the Jaguars, though they'd have to cut a much larger check and are considered a major longshot for Los Angeles.

The most important thing here, to the league, is finding a way to maximize a market that's enormous and has boundless potential but has been a challenge for pro sports. The Lakers, in the way they embody all things L.A., remain the model.

As one separate source intimately involved with the L.A. process said, "The NFL cannot screw it up this time in Los Angeles. So yes, they'd like to be in L.A., but only if the circumstances are right for success."

The owner is important, of course, but just as vital is that the team hires the right people to make it work where others failed. And, naturally, having a brand that can sell there -- like the Laker brand does -- wouldn't hurt, either.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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