By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
The Dallas Cowboys, the franchise where star power shines the brightest, where they covet and try to collect superstars, where the logo is a star and the team’s HQ is named after one — just found a different way to win.
Welcome to the temporary new normal for the most-followed team in football, suddenly thrust into an early-season thrill ride where anything can happen, everything’s on the table and hope just resurfaced. Thus, leaving everyone from owner Jerry Jones to that ever-present army of fans with both a lump in their throat and the tantalizing peace of being freed from expectation.
With Dak Prescott, the quarterback they paid $40 million annually before that sum became mundane, the Cowboys thought they knew what they were — a divisional favorite and potential NFC contender — and desperately wished for that aspiration to be true.
Without him, while awaiting his return from a throwing-hand fracture, no one has any idea what Dallas is capable of, even after a white-knuckle 20-17 victory over the reigning AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
It could go any which way from here, but what the Cowboys faithful are realizing is that there is liberty in the unknown. Dallas, which never truly feels like an underdog even when things aren’t working well, suddenly did this week, and played like a team with nothing to lose — behind a bunch of guys with everything to prove.
It is an identity reboot, for now, and it has captured the imagination of a fan base that had been rapidly readying to punt on the season. Everything is flipped from where perception had stationed it. Just count the ways.
Cooper Rush was not mocked, but the idea that Prescott’s broken thumb was deemed to have largely torpedoed the team’s chances and moved the line against the Bengals to Cowboys +7 says all you need to know about where he fit on the public confidence meter.
Yet it was Rush who led the Cowboys to an early lead, kept the ball safe, then marshaled the win with a last-minute drive into field goal range. The backup most often described as being calm, measured, dependable — as backups are supposed to be — found his fire and feist when the moment called for it.
“He’s so steady,” McCarthy said of Rush. “He never blinks. It’s actually exciting to see him get excited. You get a charge out of it.”
And what about McCarthy himself? Stoic, straightforward, sometimes risk-averse in recent years, yet transformed here into an emboldened freewheeler, going for it on fourth-and-short at the Dallas 44 in the first quarter, in what turned out to be the catalyst for a touchdown drive.
When Rush needed a friendly face and decisive hands, he went with what he knew. Not CeeDee Lamb or Dalton Schultz, who might have been the preferred choices for Prescott, but Noah Brown, most commonly seen in the lowest points of the Cowboys’ depth chart, leaping into a frontline role.
“Not a lot of people got to see Cooper or me in the past,” Brown (91 yards and a TD) said.
That’s what happens when you’re a seventh-rounder (Brown) and an undrafted free agent (Rush) who’ve spent the past five years as second-stringers.
What next? That soft sound you hear crunching its way around the sports-verse is Cowboy Nation tiptoeing on eggshells, not knowing quite what’s going on but aware that its standing is markedly better than it was last Monday.
Forget reliable predictions. There’s not much clarity and nothing’s quite as it seems, with even the timeline for Prescott’s return in flux depending on which member of the Jones family you’re listening to.
With the New York Giants on the slate next Monday night, opportunity appears to beckon, except that New York is a very un-Giants-like 2-0 to begin the campaign and seem to have shed its own typical psychological encumbrances.
Regardless, the reimagined Cowboys have something about them. Unfastened from expectation, they’re rolling the dice. Without their biggest name, they’re striding their way down the gauntlet with a relatively unheralded group that is certainly willing; that certainly believes. We’ll soon find out if they’re capable.
A white-knuckle journey beckons — at least if Sunday is anything to go by — and all we can say for now is that disaster has turned into … something else. We’ll know more in a week, which, for those who hold the team dear, is an upgrade on what was envisioned.
No one ever feels sorry for Cowboys fans. Right now, there’s no reason to.
Get more from National Football League Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more.