By Jason Keidel
Any time Dallas has our are Thanksgiving eyes entirely on them — America’s Team on America’s holiday — some surreal things happen.
Whether it’s Clint Longley saving the day, Jason Garett flourishing in place of Troy Aikman, Leon Lett chasing that toxic ball while his team screamed at him to run the other way, or Randy Moss’s NFL baptism, there’s often a soap operatic flavor, fine football gravy poured on top of your turkey.
And you’d think with a 10-0 team playing a 3-7 team, Dallas would be hosting some forlorn franchise for a most public execution. And you’d think it was Carolina, sporting a tight end and a bunch of B-Side receivers, with three paltry wins.
But it’s the Cowboys who are playing a series of six playoff games, each victory more vital than the prior. After starting 2-0, quarterback Tony Romo snapped his clavicle, leaving the Cowboys with Brandon Wheeden and Matt Cassell, two football vagabonds who can’t find a home for a reason.
So Dallas plunged down the hole Romo left behind, losing every game until he returned this week. No NFL team has made the playoffs after starting 2-7. But once they beat Miami last weekend, the murmurs of optimism began. With Dez Bryant also back in the huddle, maybe they can ride the Romo mojo to the top of the enervated NFC East.
It won’t be easy, not with Carolina’s newfound fortitude. Coach Ron Rivera has gone from hot seat to Coach of the Year candidate, using an old-world blueprint to win games — ornery defense and rugged running. And the ascent of Cam Newton, who has quickly climbed the QB rungs to reach the NFL MVP debate.
It may be hard for some to digest his sprawling end-zone gyrations, or his epic sense of self, but you can’t argue with his production. Beyond the fact that he’s led the Panthers to the best record in the NFL (along with the Patriots), he’s posting career numbers.
With 2,661 total yards, 20 passing touchdowns and six rushing TDs, Newton seems to have fully matured into a quarterback. He’s more economic than ever, and has blossomed into the unquestioned leader of the Panthers.
Carolina may be the most overlooked 10-0 team in NFL history. Maybe that’s because they’re a relatively fledgeling franchise that has never won a Super Bowl. Maybe it’s because Rivera and Newton aren’t league mainstays, and lack a signature playoff moment. But in the zero-sum calculus of pro football, they are, by modern metrics, perfect.
None of that will breach the bold ink tomorrow, because it’s always about the Cowboys, no matter the state, record or recent history of the team. The Cowboys have a hypnotic pull on the public.
Going back to the 1970s, to Tom Landry and Roger Staubach, to Harvey Martin and Hollywood Henderson and Ed “Too Tall” Jones, and the grandiose assertion that there was a hole on top of the old Texas Stadium so God could watch His favorite team, the Cowboys were an extension of Texas excess, of outsized hats and long boots and big oil.
If you buy the credo that everything is bigger in Texas, then the Cowboys are the perfect emblem. They sell the most merchandise. They flaunt that 60-yard flatscreen hanging over the field, over 2 million pounds and 11,000 square feet of HD TV just so you can watch the game while you’re already at the game. It’s the greatest billboard of self-promotion known to man.
Say what we want about the Dallas Cowboys, they work. Just seeing that star stokes your adrenaline. They manage to lead the news no matter their wins or losses. They trump a team with 10 wins. They are the reason Thanksgiving is so synonymous with football.
You don’t have to be a Dallas Cowboys fan to be thankful for that.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.