On December 7, 2008, The Cowboys lost a 7 point game in Pittsburgh in which their defense played as well as they possibly could. They made a key 4th Quarter stand on 4th down, and tried to give the offense all they could to get the win.
But, the offense betrayed them.
It happened again yesterday in Denver. Despite the defense giving the team a game where you can really complain about one snap - they got beat in Denver. And, again, the offense betrayed them.
Winning on the road in the NFL is never easy. It requires a firm handle on ball security, and the ability to have a QB who can take a beating and still stick a throw in a tight spot under immense pressure. And in his last 4 road tests, Tony Romo has failed 3 - by a rather healthy margin.
Romo will get the headlines for yesterday's loss in Denver, and in my estimation, much of it will be deserved. He missed too much, too often in Denver. Even in the most chaotic of situations, there will be plays to be made down the field. And when those situations appear, a QB is judged on his ability to put the ball where it has to be - no matter how badly he has been battered all game.
I think it would be fair to say that with the exception of phenomenal pass to Sam Hurd on the final drive, Romo's 2nd half was absolutely dreadful.
The offensive line was also to blame (much like those other failed tests in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia last December) as they surrendered 5 more sacks. Flozell Adams in particular was well below his standards in pass protection. The Broncos defense swarmed, as they have all season. They gradually turned the pressure up higher and higher as the game went on, and the Cowboys offense could not pass the test.
And just like December 7, 2008, the Cowboys offense betrayed them. 10 points will not win a road game against a 3-0 team, anymore than 6 would win in Philly, or 13 in Pittsburgh.
This game had 2 plays which got the Cowboys beat; one on offense, and one of defense.
The play on offense came with 10:19 to go in the 2nd Quarter, the Cowboys up 10-0, and facing a 3rd and 14 from their own 22 yard line. When you face this down and distance at this spot on the field, you should be smart enough to frustrate your fans with a simple draw play and punt. The Cowboys used to wow us in 2007 with their ability to throw caution to the wind and throw a pass up the seam on 3rd and 17, but they were playing with fire and getting away with it. Now, not so much. This time, they decide that they will go shotgun, but with 2 Tight Ends lined up tight, and 2 WRs. Tashard Choice starts next to Romo, but motions to the left sideline to reveal whether the Broncos are in zone or man. What does that mean? That means nobody is back with Romo in the shotgun to pick up a blitz.
Denver studies this all week, and like many of us have discussed, when a team goes shotgun-empty, they decided that that will mean a blindside blitz from SS, Renaldo Hill. Yes, the Cowboys know the defense against the blitz, but they will only have a split second to get the ball out. Hill times his run brilliantly, and Romo is waiting for Roy Williams to get his route 14 yards down the field so they can move the chains. At the split second Roy is reaching the 1st down marker, Hill unloads on Romo's blindside. Choice, who would have been right where Hill was blitzing, stands at the left sideline doing nothing but occupying Andre Goodman. Romo is sacked and fumbles. Denver returns it for an eventual 7 points (1 play later).
This is a sack that had nothing to do with anyone on the field. Every one of the 11 players on the field for the Cowboys is doing what their job asked on that play. But, the coaches of the Cowboys were out-smarted by the new coaches of the Denver Broncos. The game was never the same. From that point on, the Broncos realized the Cowboys don't handle the blitzes and pressure well, and the Cowboys couldn't do anything about it.
The other play is pretty obvious, right? Broncos have the ball at their own 49 yard line. There are 2:00 to go in the game, and it is 1st and 10 for the Broncos. The Cowboys, like last week, have decided to press-cover Brandon Marshall, who until this point of the game has 3 catches for 40 yards and has been awfully quiet. So, Newman presses in Marshall's face, which tells you that the Cowboys are likely in a blitz. They send 6 pass rushers with Brooking, Ware, and Spencer all trying to get there. Denver has a 6 man protection scheme for 6 rushers, so Kyle Orton has time to get the ball out to the 1-on-1 battle on the right sideline. Unlike last week, Ken Hamlin is not behind Newman protecting this route. Hamlin is in the center of the field, looking like he is more worried about Daniel Graham down the seam then he is Marshall.
So, Orton properly throws a jump ball, realizing that Marshall has 5 inches (at least) on Newman and can leap. Marshall jumps over Newman, -after a very sneaky tug of Newman's jersey to get by him- and catches the ball at the 33, then proceeds to cause a chase scene that would make the Keystone Kops proud.Newman chases Hamlin who runs into James, and by the time Marshall turns his play into the winning touchdown, the two closest Cowboys are DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff, who started the play 55 yards back downfield trying to sack Orton. A tremendous credit to their hustle, a tremendous dis-credit to the secondary's ability to tackle.
This one is going to smart for a while, as the Cowboys are 2-2, and appear to be battered in several spots, and questioning several others.
Notes and observations from a disappointing effort in Denver:
* I was asked a few times last night who disappoints me more right now: Wade, Garrett, or Tony? I could write 2,000 words on that, but the quickest answer is going to be Jason Garrett. By answering that way, it may sound like I am letting Wade and Romo off the hook. I am absolutely not, but when I look at that blitz above, and last week, and the Giants game, and the final 2 plays from the Denver game, I just wonder what he is thinking.
Consider the final 2 plays of the game yesterday: 2 plays from the 3 yard line. No timeouts are left. So, you must throw into the endzone. Roy Williams and Marion Barber are not in the game, because neither is healthy enough to continue. So, as Offensive Coordinator, I must consider my options. The Cowboys are going to use "S11", so I have Witten next to Colombo, Choice on Romo's right side, Austin wide left, Crayton slot left, and Hurd split right. Denver is going to match-up man-to-man on the receivers, and blitz one more than you can protect. The Cowboys then make the incredible decision to keep Witten in to protect. If you read me regularly, you know there is nothing that makes me crazier that Jason Garrett does than to keep Witten in on a crucial play. We have gone on and on about how he is your #1 target, and he is your money receiver. But, like the final play of the NY Giants playoff game,Garrett leaves Witten in protection on 3rd and 4th down here. This is inexcusable, especially considering that Roy and MB3 are not in the game. What this means is with the game on the line, you have Romo trying to find 2 undrafted WRs (Austin and Hurd) and a 7th round WR (Crayton), who have made fewer big catches in all of their careers combined than Witten makes every few weeks. If you need an extra Tight End to pass protect, then get Martellus out there, and take out a WR for Witten in the slot. This should not be this complicated.
Then, Romo, who also deserves plenty of blame, decides to try to isolate Hurd against Champ Bailey for 2 consecutive slants in the endzone. Why he never looks to Miles Austin who is A) open, and B) working against Andre Goodman is beyond me. The throws weren't bad, but Bailey recoverd nicely. Since a slant is basically a physical battle to win the football, the question would be, "How many battles has Hurd in his career won that gave Romo such belief in him in that situation?" This isn't Owens or Irvin out there. It is Sam Hurd!
* Marion Barber left the game right before the Champ Bailey interception early in the 3rd, and by my eye only returned for the 2nd to last drive and another play here and there. Todd Archer indicated that Jerry Jones said there was no injury issue to report. You may have to explain that to me if you can. Barber is a significantly better option than Choice, and I must only assume that Jerry is either covering a health issue up, or doesn't know about it.
* Elvis Dumervil was awesome again. I have no idea why 5'11 is a big deal when it comes to rushing the passer. Since he now has 34 sacks in 35 starts, I think we show that as proof. He was not drafted higher because he is short, but since leverage is such a big deal in line play (Low man wins), it would seem that bigger guys might have an issue with him. Flozell might never want to see him again.
* If you want this week's version of Bobby Carpenter's tackling clinic, it is at 11:44 of the 4th Quarter against Daniel Graham.
* Keith Brooking's stop on the 4th down play and his comments after the game suggest that he gets it. Overall, I think the defense is rounding into form, and despite some weaknesses, should generally be good enough to get it done against most opponents. Marcus Spears and Anthony Spencer played about as well as I can remember them playing. But, Spencer continues to "almost" make big plays. He almost had 2 sacks, and he almost made an interception on the Buckhalter TD that would have likely put the game away early. Almost is nice, but it doesn't really help.
* Miles Austin was disappointing on several plays last night. The interception appeared to be an obvious route mistake, and on a 3rd down early in the 4th Quarter, he continued to run a route deep rather than recognize the blitz and give Romo a target by adjusting his route. Often times, WRs feel under-utilized and fail to realize that they sometimes get ignored because they cannot be counted on to know where they need to be. I think Austin was guilty of that yesterday. He can really be a weapon, but to be a consistent threat, he will need to get in sync more.
* So, Brian Dawkins couldn't have helped the Cowboys secondary? I will never understand why they didn't back a Brinks truck up to his house when the Eagles said they were moving on.
* I found it interesting to see that the Cowboys moved DeMarcus Ware away from Ryan Clady for much of the afternoon. A good idea by Wade to force a double team to give his defense a chance. Then, the inside blitzes worked, too. Honestly, I think Wade, the DC, has been really good again this season. My only complaint is with Wade, the HC. The Head Coach needs to be able to whip his OC and QB into shape, rather than let them "figure it out" on their own. There is no doubt in my mind that Garrett and Romo are green enough that they need someone to oversee their decisions. Garrett has never been a coordinator before. And right now, the Cowboys power structure is just not set up for that. Which may make the rest of this entire column pointless. Until the power structure is set up to succeed, the rest of this may just be an exercise in futility.
* Penalties were killers again yesterday. The holding call on Martellus Bennett was particularly painful. Choice had the ball into Broncos territory, and with a 10-7 lead they had a chance to perhaps kill the game. I don't think he did hold, but since it was called, it doesn't matter what I think. 2 plays later, on 3rd and 13, Roy Williams nearly gets killed on a high throw, and we may not see him again for a month with what I assume must be broken ribs.
* Are the Broncos pretty good? I think so. I think they can roll with the Chargers pretty well (Hmm, the Chargers who are also getting out-coached consistently, and have the other candidate to succeed Parcells coaching them) as this season goes on. If Mike Nolan can keep that defense believing in pressure, they have a chance.
As for our heroes, we always say that games like that teach us plenty about the team. Well, we learned again that hostile environments do not serve the Cowboys well. They used to enjoy them, but clearly in the last 16 games, they have forgotten how to do it (2-6 in the last 8). We said in this game that if the QB can outplay his counterpart, the Cowboys should win. And they should have won.
At 2-2, we must all remember there is plenty of football left to play. 12 games to prove the critics wrong. But, sadly, those who saw 7-9 all summer are getting plenty of ammunition from the early returns.
Kansas City is next. Prepare for about 20 days of gloom and doom in Cowboys land before the Falcons roll into Arlington after the bye.
If I am a player or coach, I might not worry about what people say, and just focus on doing something about it - before it is too late.