About 28 minutes into Thursday’s annual Dallas Cowboys/Salvation Army football Jerry-palooza, it wasn’t hard to identify the day’s turkeys.
It was the team in blue, and the Cowboys were gobbling along, playing the kind of game that probably had the late Al Davis dancing in his grave.
Though 10-point favorites over visiting Oakland, the Cowboys had spotted Davis’ Raiders 21 first-half points. As Tony Romo and the gang took the field after the two-minute warning, the Cowboys’ offense had compiled exactly 53 yards and only four first downs.
“This was a big game for us,” Cowboys backup running back Lance Dunbar would admit later. “We knew that with our past record — winning one, losing one — we had to change that.
“We came out here today to show we could win two in a row.”
Yes, he said two in a row. Though the owner has been predicting another Lombardi Trophy since, oh, 1996, the Cowboys finally realize that patience can be an ally.
They couldn’t beat the Raiders and Bears and Packers, all in one week. Nor could they erase Oakland’s two-touchdown lead Thursday in one Romo-to-Dez-again-and-again drive.
A swift, 73-yard touchdown march right before halftime gave the Cowboys hope. And then a patient, persistent running game, anchored by Dunbar and DeMarco Murray, did the rest in the second half.
Cowboys 31, Raiders 24, indeed, marked the first time that Owner Jones’ team has been two games above .500 since last season.
Little steps, they have to hope, will eventually reap large results.
That’s not a knock on Dunbar, though he’s heard those “little man” remarks all of his football life.
Listed generously at 5-foot-8, Dunbar was asked Thursday whether he is often recognized in public as a guy who carries the football for the Dallas Cowboys.
“No,” said the second-year pro. “They think I’m lying.”
But Dunbar has been bravely trying to make the big steps all his life.
Chased from their New Orleans home by Hurricane Katrina, Dunbar and his family fled to a north Fort Worth motel for several weeks. The family stayed in that area, and Lance went on to star for two seasons at Haltom High.
A few colleges came calling — Oklahoma State among them — but Dunbar picked North Texas because, first, it was close to his new home and, second, “I wanted to play as a freshman.”
He went undrafted after his career with the Mean Green, but Dunbar didn’t hesitate to sign a free-agent contract with the home team.
“I’ve been fighting my whole career,” he explained Thursday, after he had rushed for 82 yards on 12 carries. “Things haven’t been given to me. I’ve always worked for it. I’m not afraid to work for it.
“I have confidence in myself. I always believed I could make this team and that I will make this team.”
Coach Jason Garrett called it “one of the better running games we’ve had all year.”
It was an understatement, of course. On a day when quarterback Tony Romo was battling a stomach virus, the running game needed to shoulder the offensive load. Besides Dunbar’s 82 yards, Murray rushed for 63.
As a result, the Cowboys ended up controlling the clock in the second half for 21 of the 30 minutes. Whatever it was that the Raiders had going in the first half soon vanished in the Dunbar-Murray show.
Admittedly, these were the Raiders, ensconced in last place in the AFC West. The Cowboys’ other victory of the week came against the 4-7 New York Giants.
But little steps have to come before the big ones.
After the humbling spanking the Cowboys received in New Orleans, this has somehow seemed to be a different, confident team these past two games.
“I wouldn’t say we’re necessarily a different team,” receiver Cole Beasley said. “I just believe we’re playing a lot better than how we actually [were] playing.”
On Thursday, though down by 21-7, Garrett’s team didn’t panic. It kept faith in the game plan. It stuck with the run.
It ended up being a big win, helped along by a big little man.
If you see Lance Dunbar on the street anytime soon, don’t mistake him. He’s a football player.