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The importance of the Cowboys’ rise

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's November 14 Pain Issue. Subscribe today!

For all of the magic of baseball — the Blue Jays soaring from a September crash all the way to the ALCS, the rags-to-riches-to-rags fate of the Giants, and, of course, the Indians and Cubs — the biggest winner of October was an 82-year-old man solidly out of the public eye: former commissioner Bud Selig.

Selig spent his career trying to make baseball more like football, by idolizing first former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle's ability to persuade warring owners to unite under the league flag and later the NFL's methodical destruction of the dynasties that made it famous. Big Money was still present in the postseason this year with the Dodgers, Cubs and Red Sox all qualifying, but the past three World Series have featured the no-money Royals twice and the Indians. Through tireless engineering, the dynasty concept is on life support-just ask the Yankees, whose slight glimmer of life in the second half of this season couldn't overcome their recent futility. All in the name of parity.

The money people who demanded socialism in sports through franchise tags, luxury taxes and salary caps have also rendered signature properties pedestrian. The 24-time champion Montreal Canadiens haven't even appeared in the Stanley Cup finals since 1993. The Boston Celtics are just another team. People laugh at the San Francisco 49ers.

Illustration by Mark Smith

All of which is why the impressive start of the Dallas Cowboys is the most unlikely underdog story of the season. For years, the Cowboys have been a punchline, falling somewhere between reality TV and the nighttime soap opera that once bore the city's name. Yet the NFL is a better product when the Cowboys are a good, thriving and-for much of the country-villainous presence. The metrics bear it out, in ratings and in online popularity.

The last Cowboys resurgence, which began in the late 1980s, was good and villainous: Jerry Jones forced out Tex Schramm after, more ruthlessly, firing the great Tom Landry. The overhaul was so Texas-big ego, big talk, big money, big expectations and big results: three Super Bowl wins and an epic rivalry with the 49ers, each team stealing headlines, championships and players from the other.

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This edition of the Cowboys is actually, yes, endearing, and the elements of a dangerous team are emerging. Rookie Dak Prescott makes headlines through the scandalous act of reading defenses correctly and avoiding the Category 4 storm that sits so heavy on the Doppler radar: the return of Tony Romo. The offensive line again plays with pride and snarl. Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott is a Texas cover band, his style an ode to Earl Campbell here, a nod to Emmitt Smith there and, when there's daylight in the secondary, a dash of Tony Dorsett. The barometer for the first half of this refreshing season has been wins and losses, not taking the over on Dez Bryant sideline tantrums. Dallas is looking like a team.

A Cowboys return is the best thing for a league that is devoid of much franchise star power and that seems oddly happy about it. The NFL is more concerned about curbing the power of individual teams to ensure profits (what moves merchandise faster than sudden contention for a division championship?) than benefiting from the success of a signature team. The result is a leaguewide mediocrity. In 2014, the Panthers won the NFC South with a losing record. The malaise is real.

The Cowboys wake up the public. Dallas last played in the Super Bowl in 1995 and hasn't reached the NFC title game since. From 1991 to 1996, the Cowboys won 10 or more games each season. In the 20 years since, they own just five 10-win seasons, but they still maintain the highest all-time winning percentage among active NFL franchises.

The Seligs and Rozelles of the world cynically sought the mediocrity of parity-, following the notion that big-city teams would always steamroll the smaller ones. So now everyone gets a trophy, even though the dynasties built their leagues and their bank accounts.

The game lives in the imagination, and instead of watching the fungible Jaguars and Texans, football has always been at its best when beating the signatures meant something, which once meant beating Dallas in the NFC East. Prescott, Elliott & Co. have taken the first steps on a mission of making Cowboys games worth circling again, of restoring the team to the dynasty its own league doesn't want. Now the trick is to play deep into January.

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