That was the thought running through my mind as I watched Dallas' 24-17 win over the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants in Wednesday night's NFL Kickoff game. Was it Tony Romo's clutch, nearly flawless performance? Nope. I've seen him play like this before (see: last year's comeback win against the San Francisco 49ers). Was it the emergence of an under-the-radar receiver? Nope. I saw that same thing happen with the Cowboys last year. (Did anyone anticipate Laurent Robinson catching 11 touchdowns in 2011?)
What was it that looked different about these Cowboys? Last night, they showed more grit, physicality and effort than I can remember seeing from them in a very long time. Inside NFL circles, they have carried the "underachiever" label for more than a few years. Last night, I saw just the opposite. I saw a collection of very talented players putting forth extraordinary effort and straining to finish every play.
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Here are five plays from Wednesday night's game that have me believing this is a different Cowboys team in 2012:
1) Jason Witten starts the game
After Witten suffered a lacerated spleen in the Cowboys' preseason opener against the Oakland Raiders, very few people expected him to be in uniform against the Giants. However, on the game's very first play, there he was, lining up as the Cowboys' tight end, something he's now done for 140 consecutive games.
Witten only caught two balls for 10 yards, but his presence sent a powerful message to his teammates. His decision to suit up and take the field set an example of just how "all-in" the Cowboys need to be in 2012.
2) Sean Lee's forced fumble
Halfway through the first quarter, the Giants advanced the ball deep inside Cowboys territory and were on the verge of scoring the first points of the game before Sean Lee made a huge play. Giants rookie running back David Wilson took a toss from Eli Manning and sprinted toward the perimeter, only to be met by Lee and stripped of the football.
The Cowboys have been solid at inside linebacker over the last decade, but Lee's taking the position to the next level with his rare combination of speed, effort and instincts. Lee had a very successful statistical campaign in 2011, despite playing the second half of the season with an injured left wrist. He is fully healthy this season and showed last night that he is capable of becoming one of the top linebackers in the NFL.
3) Tyron Smith's touchdown-saving tackle
Early in the second quarter, the Cowboys faced a third-and-8 at their own 40-yard line. Under heavy pressure, Romo misfired and threw the ball directly to Giants linebacker Michael Boley, who followed a caravan of blockers down the right sideline and appeared destined to cruise in for a touchdown.
However, just as Boley was a mere two yards from the goal line, Smith appeared out of nowhere, split two blockers and pulled Boley to the ground. It was one of the best effort plays I've seen from an offensive lineman. Once Smith saw the interception take place, the left tackle immediately chose the correct pursuit angle and sprinted more than 30 yards to save the touchdown.
This ended up costing the Giants four points after the Cowboys' defense put together a goal-line stand and forced a 22-yard field goal from Lawrence Tynes. While the tackle will go largely unnoticed in the box score, it was an excellent example of competitiveness and determination. Ask yourself this question: Do you think Flozell Adams would've made that tackle?
4) DeMarco Murray's tackle-breaking run
Midway through the third quarter, Murray had the highlight run of the evening when he broke two tackles, reversed field and sprinted down the sideline for a 48-yard gain. What should have been a tackle for loss ended up being the key play in a drive that resulted in a 33-yard field goal by Dan Bailey.
While at the University of Oklahoma, Murray had a reputation as a speed back, but he's proven to be much more than that in the NFL. He showed on Wednesday night that he has an aggressive, angry running style. He consistently finished every run by driving his legs and fighting for extra yardage. Murray has had some injuries in his past, but you wouldn't know it by the way he seeks out contact on every play. The Cowboys haven't had a runner with Murray's combination of speed and power in a very long time. Marion Barber was a powerful runner, but he had very little juice. Felix Jones has never been a physical pounder during his time in Dallas.
5) Miles Austin's overpowering catch
Midway through the fourth quarter, with the Cowboys clinging to a seven-point advantage, Romo and Miles Austin hooked up on a 34-yard touchdown pass to extend the Cowboys' lead to 24-10. The throw was excellent, but the catch was even more impressive. Austin had Giants cornerback Justin Tryon on his back with safety Antrel Rolle quickly bearing down on him from the middle of the field. Austin fearlessly attacked the ball in the air between both defenders, plucked the ball and raced toward the end zone.
This was just one example of the physicality and toughness displayed by the Dallas receiving corps. Dez Bryant and Kevin Ogletree repeatedly outmuscled press coverage and extended for the ball on slant routes. In scouting, that part of the field is referred to as the "blood area." Not all NFL wideouts are as eager as Bryant and Ogletree to extend their arms in traffic and create an inviting target for linebackers and safeties. All three of these Cowboys have good speed, but it was their strength and physicality that stood out last night.