Like it or not, the Dallas Cowboys are serious contenders

College Contributor Network

The Dallas Cowboys have been the butt of every NFL joke for years now. Dallas has only one playoff win since 1996 and has not won the NFC East or been to the playoffs since the 2009 season. Like Christmas, the Cowboys' annual collapse at the end of the season has become a December tradition for many to enjoy. Furthermore, there may not be a more criticized quarterback (Tony Romo), head coach (Jason Garrett), or team owner (Jerry Jones) in the entire league than these three gentlemen.

However, "America's Team" has surprised us all by getting off to an incredible 5-1 start to the 2014 season. As much as it pains a Philadelphia Eagles fan like myself to say this, it's time to accept the truth: the Dallas Cowboys are for real this season.

Coming into the 2014 campaign, the bar for success was set low due to Romo's offseason back surgery and the Cowboys' lackluster defense. After the Cowboys were thrashed at home to open the season against the San Francisco 49ers, in which Romo threw three interceptions, it looked as if this would in fact be a very long season in Dallas.

Since that opening weekend loss, the Cowboys have rattled off five straight wins to currently sit tied atop the NFC East at 5-1 with the aforementioned Eagles. The Cowboys caught the attention of the league after their 38-17 destruction of the New Orleans Saints at home in Week 4, followed up by an impressive win this past weekend on the road against the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. The Cowboys' 30-23 win over Seattle this past Sunday was only the Seahawks' second loss at home in the last three seasons.

The Cowboys' other three wins have come against the Tennessee Titans, a come-from-behind road win against the St. Louis Rams, and an overtime win at home over the Houston Texans.

So, why have the Cowboys all of sudden become one of the best teams in the league?

First and foremost, the Cowboys' running game has been outstanding thanks to DeMarco Murray. If the season were to end today, it would be hard to argue against Murray for MVP. Murray has rushed for over 100 yards in each of the Cowboys' six games, becoming only the second running back in NFL history to start off a season in that fashion. The other running back to accomplish this was Hall of Famer Jim Brown, who was a pretty darn good tailback for the Cleveland Browns.

Murray leads all NFL running backs in total rushing yards, touchdowns, rushing yards per game, rushing attempts, and first downs. Needless to say, Murray has been the best running back in the NFL so far this season and could be the projected No. 1 overall pick in many fantasy football drafts come next year.

The problem with the Cowboys on offense over the last several years has been the inability to effectively run the football and, therefore, depend way too much on Romo to make big plays. With Murray running the ball like Emmitt Smith 2.0, opposing defenses have had to adjust in order to stop the run. As a result, the passing game has opened up for Romo to get off to one of his best seasons yet.

The formula is simple: Less is more for Tony Romo. Because his pass attempts are at the lowest they have ever been in his entire NFL career, Romo has become a much more efficient quarterback. Evidence is found in his ranking second in the league in completion percentage (68.6) and fourth in passer rating (100.5). Believe it or not, both numbers are career-bests. Heck, it doesn't hurt either when guys like veteran tight end Jason Witten and star wide receiver Dez Bryant are the ones catching your passes.

Due to the improved play of both Murray and Romo, the Cowboys rank third in total offense in the NFL. While guys like Murray, Romo, Witten, and Bryant get most of the recognition on offense, much of the reason for their success has to do with the Cowboys' improved offensive line.

While the offense is quick to get most of the credit for Dallas' early season success, the defense deserves its fair share of applause as well. New defensive coordinator Rob Marinelli has brought a defense which was considered to be the worst in the NFL last season to the middle of the pack so far this year. Yes, the Cowboys' defense is far from being great and still has ample room for improvement, but it has shown a lot of development that very few people expected.

The Cowboys have a rather favorable schedule over the next month or so. Dallas is home for its next three games, including back-to-back divisional clashes with the struggling New York Giants and Washington Redskins. After their two divisional rivals come to "Jerry World", the Cowboys will play host to the NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals in what should be a fantastic game.

If both Murray and Romo can stay healthy and continue to produce at a high level for the Cowboys' balanced offensive attack, as well as a week-by-week improvement on the defensive side of the ball, do not be surprised to see this team playing football in January. The Dallas Cowboys are a contender whether we like it or not.

Pat Ralph is a junior at Villanova University. He has a passion for Philadelphia sports, especially the Phillies and Eagles. Follow him on Twitter @Pat_Ralph
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