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Considering we are in the midst of a lost season and the floundering Cowboys were scheduled to host the league’s last remaining undefeated team in the Pittsburgh Steelers, one might not have thought there would be much to look forward to in this past Sunday’s game. Vegas thought so little of the matchup that the burly bois in black and gold came into AT&T Stadium favored by 14 and a half, which stands as the worst line the Cowboys have had at home in decades. Add in the fact that Dallas was starting Garrett Gilbert, their fourth different quarterback in five games — one signed to the practice squad just three weeks ago and who brought with him a vast NFL experience consisting of exactly two career completed passes — and the nationally televised contest appeared it would have about as much competitiveness as a MMA cage match between Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson and Betty White. (The Rock would have zero chance.)

However, instead of a medieval-style public execution, the Cowboys were actually able to hang with the beloved of the Terrible Towel-twirlers. Though they would come up short of victory on a failed Hail Mary in the final seconds, falling by a score of 24-19, it just might have been the Cowboys’ cleanest game of the season. In his debut, though his statline was underwhelming (21/38 for 243, one TD and one INT), Gilbert passed the famous “eyeball test,” appearing poised in the pocket, displaying surprising mobility and an impressive arm. The former Brown looked decidedly better than Ben DiNucci from the previous week and possibly better even than Andy Dalton pre-concussion/COVID. If not for a few obligatory bad momentum-altering calls by the zebras, Gilbert just might have been able to cap off the comeback.

More encouraging than the QB performance was the execution by the Cowboys defense. Thanks to the D’s gutsy play, Dallas inexplicably maintained a lead over Pittsburgh all the way from their opening drive until nearly the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter when Eric Ebron scored the go-ahead touchdown after a Dallas defensive stand was stalled by penalty. With the youth movement on defense necessitated by poor showings from now former Cowboys players Everson Griffen, Dontari Poe, and Daryl Worley, rookies Neville Gallimore and Trevon Diggs, and the a resurgent Randy Gregory, absorbed more snaps and flashed throughout the game, pointing for a good trend heading into next year.

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Special teams coordinator John Fassel deserves some praise too for his gutsy call of a beautifully designed and executed trick punt return when Cedric Wilson, instead of running with the ball, passed it laterally to C.J. Goodwin, who returned the catch 83 yards. Goodwin deserves an Oscar for his acting abilities to fake a hamstring injury to throw off the coverage team from realizing he wasn’t blocking as he set up to receive the ball.

Obviously, the game was not without the enemies that have plagued Dallas all season: turnovers, bad penalties, injuries (add Trevon Diggs and center Tyler Biadasz to the list of casualties), and some blown assignments. Jaylon Smith continues to be a liability. Regardless, for the second week in a row, overall, the team showed fight, a virtue sorely missing for much of the first half of the year.

In a season as catastrophic as this one has been, I suppose you take your moral victories wherever you can find them, as lame as moral victories are. Could just be that the team is starting to settle. Hopefully, the progression seen over the last few games continues. But not too much. Sunday’s game was the most perfect game one could hope for as a Cowboy fan. It was entertaining, it showed development, and, most importantly, they lost. Unlike those eagerly climbing upon the clattering treads of Team Tank, I cannot bring myself to actively root for losses. However, if a loss is the result of a game, I’m just as happy with the result as the Tankers are. The Cowboys, who are in third place in their division, have moved into picking in the top three. There will be many quarterback-hungry teams looking to give a nice haul of Top 50 picks in return. If the Joneses could manage to use that draft capital more effectively on the defensive side of the ball than recent history suggests they’re capable, they might just turn this thing around next year. Here’s to a little hope.