Love 'em or hate 'em, whether you're saying it gleefully or through gritted teeth, every NFL fan is asking only one question Sunday night: "How 'bout them Cowboys?"
The Dallas Cowboys have technically been "back" for weeks — they entered Week 10 with a 7-1 record, after all. They've also been back previously in the past two decades, making the playoffs a handful of times and starting the season off with a string of wins before suffering some embarrassing playoff losses. But it wasn't until Sunday at 7:25 p.m. ET that the Cowboys felt like the Cowboys. If you're a fan, it's the greatest feeling in the world. If you're like the rest of the world, it's aggravating, frustrating and appalling. No matter what though, when it happens, when the Cowboys are the most important team in the league for reasons that have to do with the quality of football they play, the NFL is a better place.
It was around that 7:25 p.m. timeframe when Dallas had taken the lead back, again and finally, from the Pittsburgh Steelers to pull out a thrilling 35-30 victory in the Steel City. The game, with seven lead changes including three in the final two minutes, had more twists and turns than a San Francisco driving test and was easily the NFL's game of the year. There was the Dallas go-ahead touchdown the Pittsburgh defense seemed to have allowed on purpose. There was the fake spike score from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown that gave Pittsburgh what seemed like an insurmountable lead. Then there was Ezekiel Elliott, doing it again, running 32 yards for the game-winning score as the final seconds ticked away. And through it all, there was the star on the helmet, inspiring as much loathing as love.
That Sunday's game was a nationally televised contest played on a crisp, dark autumn night practically built for football made it all the better. That it came against another NFL blueblood with established stars only made the shifting of the NFL landscape feel more seismic. The NFL isn't any fun? Nobody will be waking up Monday morning saying that. The game reminded us why we spend all day Sunday watching football and all April studying names we've never heard of to prepare for the draft. It trumped fantasy and made you want to turn off RedZone. This was the first time of the season — since Peyton Manning retired — where football felt like football again. That it was courtesy of the team that arises the most passion in any American sport made it even sweeter, even if it left a bitter taste. Dallas hasn't been consistently relevant since the mid-1990s, so it's not like the NFL needs the Cowboys to be great in order to be successful. It doesn't hurt though. Everyone needs a heel, and there's none better than Jerry Jones and his $3 billion franchise.
They inspire feelings no other team can. People loathe the Patriots, sure, but they're relatively new money — they've only been good enough to care about since 2001. You dislike Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. You don't have memories of rooting against Raymond Berry and Steve Grogan. The Seahawks inspire some dislike, too, but it's the same thing, only with less of a recent track record. The hatred isn't rooted in anything deep. People simply dislike Pete Carroll chomping his gum and running down the sideline while Richard Sherman mouths off about something or other. One day they'll fade into obscurity again and engender no feelings when they do.
But the Dallas Cowboys are generational. Your parents grew up rooting for or passionately rooting against Tom Landry and Roger Staubach (both good men damned by association). You grew up with Jimmy Johnson (then Barry Switzer, who was the most Cowboys Cowboy of them all, only didn't hand around long enough for it to matter), Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin winning three Super Bowls in four years. For people of a certain age, the Cowboys will always represent the black hats of the NFL.
So when the new triplets — Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and Dez Bryant — get out to the best start in football and look like they've been playing together for nine years instead of nine weeks, it gets the blood boiling even though you didn't know Prescott's name four months ago. When all the bandwagon Cowboys fans, who abandon the team most years but come out in droves in the few seasons they've been worth rooting for since 1995, start calling into your local sports radio station to talk about how great Elliott is and how many rings the franchise has, you silently curse even though you know it's true. When Jerry Jones comes down to the field during a victory and flashes that smile as big as the stadium he built, you roll your eyes. You can't stand any of it. The calls from the refs, the press attention, the fact that they've forced their way onto your television every week. America's Team. Ha!
Yet we watch. And we wouldn't miss it for anything.