Sunday, December 20, 2009
Raise your hand if you understand pro football. I am obsessed with this sport. There is nothing I spend more time thinking about and reading about and studying than the NFL. But, I sure don't understand it. Except, I do understand one important element about my lack of understanding: You can never account for the unaccountable. Said another way: Last night is why it is not smart to gamble on "sure things".
The Cowboys pulled the unthinkable last night in New Orleans with their performance that surely was one of the best games of football any of them had ever played. Once in a while, with all of the chips down, they find what they were looking for, and it so happened to be with the entire football world watching (provided they had the NFL Network) on this Saturday night in December (of all months).
On one hand, you have to be very pleased for these guys who spend a lot of time answering why they are not up to the challenge of winning important games such as these. On the other hand, you wonder how this is going to feel if they lose to Washington next week. But, that can wait for 8 days. This was a thing of beauty.
The offense made all the sense in the world. And it made all the sense in the world because the offensive line held up its end of the bargin, because Jason Garrett seemed to pull the puppet strings with great precision, and because your QB was the perfect maestro of the proceedings.
Tony Romo has not been the focal point of too many of these "Morning After" columns for a few reasons, but I think this may be the perfect day to spend a moment or two on the leader of this offense. Nobody is more scrutinized nationally than Tony Romo - whether it is appropriate or not never seems to matter. He had painted a large target on his chest long ago, and has been declared dead quite a few times by the experts.
All along, he has just chipped away at the mountain before him, and I dare say his QB work this season may be his finest year yet. Nobody is willing to admit that he isn't the problem, it seems, but to play the Giants-Chargers-Saints trio in succession in December, and emerge on the other side without one single giveaway (fumble or interception), 6 TD's, and a QB Rating of 109.7 is remarkable. They have lost 2 of those 3 games, so there is still that thread of blame that can be taken back to the QB because that is how we discuss this game. But, in December, Romo has been nearly flawless with absurd pressure and scrutiny aimed at his head. Put it another way: By George, I think he's got it.
And here is the good news: It is still a secret. Romo, it would seem, can still sneak up on the league because some have spent so long claiming he is the problem that they will not concede that point until he has a trophy in his hand. And we all know that is a long trip from here. But, in a 2009 where he had to prove he wasn't the problem, I think most fair observers would realize that the Cowboys have a useful Quarterback - maybe not a perfect one, but one who is very good.
Beyond Romo, there are so many others with their fingerprints on this unlikely win. As Junior Miller said last night, this may be Wade's signature defensive win. I argued that the Green Bay win in 2007 qualifies as well, but in fairness to Craig, that Green Bay team was not the juggarnaut the Saints are, and were not held to 3 points through 3 Quarters on their home field. The defense played very well, holding the Saints to just 1 3rd Down conversion - which occured in the final minute of the game. The Saints set the industry standard on 3rd Down conversions, but on this one night, they could not move the chains on the money down.
And then there is everyone's quiet hero, DeMarcus Ware. There are a number of reasons to look at his performance last night and marvel. One, of course, is that we feared for his physical well-being on Sunday evening at Cowboys Stadium when they are unscrewing his facemask from his helmet and strapping him onto a stretcher. Late in the day yesterday, there were still many reports circulating that he would not be able to play at all. Then, for him to play as well as he did - with a sack and fumble to end the final Saints' drive of the 1st half, and then another sack and fumble to end the final Saints' drive of the game - was the stuff of legends. The Cowboys could have very well crumbled under the pressure in that 4th Quarter - but #94 would not be denied. Joined by #93, Anthony Spencer, the Cowboys pass rush finally made sense for a night. It was like Ware and Ellis used to be. A speed LB who can not be blocked for long on each flank. Was it just a 1-night mirage?
The Cowboys' best players were their best players. They stepped up an emerged with a team victory that could certainly take this team to a new level. But, because of how this league and this team works, we are all wondering if we should read too much meaning into this game. Did the QB break through? Did the coach? Did the team? It all depends on where they go next.
But, for one night, they played like they could win a Super Bowl. I just don't understand the NFL sometimes.
Other observations from the night that ended the New Orleans quest for perfection:
* I suppose I should not allow this Nick Folk elephant in the room go on any longer before we address it. Look, I am all for trying to let a guy break out of his slump before we knee jerk and go to "Kickers-R-Us" for another one, but it is time. There is too much riding on everything this team does to allow one guy to get his head screwed back on. He is a kicker. He must make kicks. To miss that 24-yard Field Goal in that situation is an absolute fireable offense. He nearly cost you the football game - which in turn would have cost many men their jobs. I am sure he is a nice guy, and I hope his career can continue somewhere else, but like a group of athletes in our lifetime, it appears his head is not allowing his foot to do its job. That footage the NFL Network presented showing his pregame warm-ups was quite revealing. And then, on cue, he missed what amounts to an extra point. The Cowboys must get a kicker before Washington. And they are darn lucky that their refusal to address this issue sooner did not cost them another game.
* Mr Austin, your contract is ready. What a stud. 1100 Yards and counting. Was Terrell better than this? And, evidently, the Cowboys' offense also took note as we did Friday that the deep ball is but a faded memory. Brilliant double move off play action on the first drive of the game resulted in a 49-yard bomb to signal the attack. A thing of beauty.
* Does anyone know why the Cowboys would call timeout after Patrick Crayton's big 25-yard catch at the end of the 1st Quarter? I was thoroughly confused as the Saints were given time to review every replay possible during that timeout and decide if they should use a review on that 3rd and 8. Luckily, it held up, but I found that most curious. Let's not act like last night was not without brain freezes, as that decision, the 12-men in the huddle, the play where Barber forgot he was supposed to get the ball, the Flozell facemask, and a few others that we would all be pointing to if the Cowboys did not close the deal. But, they did, so they are but details in a notebook.
* Speaking of the review impacting the game, I was interested in what effect the review of the Spencer hit on Brees with :18 to go in the game had on the next play. If you recall, the Cowboys were rushing Brees on that final drive for 11 consecutive plays. Since they were in the no-huddle, you could make the case that the longer the drive goes on, the more depleted the energy becomes for the pass rushers. But, when they were reviewing the question of whether Brees' arm was going forward, DeMarcus and friends are catching their breath on the sideline. On the very next play, Ware beats Jermon Bushrod round the corner again and seals the game. It might have all happened the exact same way without the break, but my theory is that it helped Ware.
* I would never question the offensive genius of Sean Payton, but David Thomas gets 10 targets? He wasn't bad, but I think I have to adjust my gameplan when I find out my starter (Jeremy Shockey) can't play. The goal was obviously to isolate the Cowboys LBs in space (Carpenter, Brooking, James) and he was willing to work his back-up TE all night to do so. If I am the Cowboys, I am comfortable with Thomas trying to beat me.
* Every week, Garrett rolls out a new wrinkle. I really enjoy trying to predict what it might be, but this week, it was the mutiple looks with Kevin Ogletree. His 2catches were helpful, but I really think they were trying to spring him for a deep TD early in the 3rd Quarter and Romo just didn't have enough time to hit him so he checked down to Austin (who dropped the pass). Even Sam Hurd made a rare appearance late.
* We had to like the way the ball was run in New Orleans, too. They really set the tone and were physical throughout. Marion ran over Darren Sharper in short yardage, showing us that he is not the guy we saw at the goal-line against the Chargers. Felix showed bursts as well in certain situations and always looks like he is about to break one. I thought Bigg Davis played one of his better games of the recent stretch.
* Flozell looks very old. I think Left Tackle better be looked at very closely this offseason. And no, I don't think Leonard Davis is the answer, nor Doug Free.
* If there has been one guy who has certainly showed his quality as this season has gone along, it would be Mike Jenkins. But, if there have been 2 guys, we should add Anthony Spencer. I needed him to bust out, and while it might have taken him until nearly Thanksgiving, I now see his ability each week. He is not just "some guy" opposite DeMarcus. He looks to be very imposing, and difficult to deal with. That sequence where he had a sack disallowed by a Scandrick penalty, only to get one on the very next play was lovely. Of course, sacks are easier to get when you are not blocked.
* 2 potential plays of the game happened on 3rd downs in the 4th Quarter for the offense: #1, 3/4 at the 46, Romo puts one right on Roy Williams in stride which would keep the drive alive - but he drops it. #2, 3/7 at the 23, Romo again finds Austin in the face of a blitz and Austin sprints for 32 more and seemed to seal the game (thanks, Folk). But, overall, the telling stat for the Cowboys offense seems to be 3rd Downs. In Philly and in New Orleans, Romo and the offense made those plays. Against the Giants and Chargers, not so much. Must make the plays in the money scenarios.
* Today,my friend, Doug, notes, the Cowboys world must cheer for the Steelers, 49ers, and Redskins? Strange bedfellows for sure.
So, tell me, was this the aberration? Or is this the start of a 3 game winning streak heading into the playoffs with a division crown on their head and a home playoff game on tap? I wish I had an idea one way or the other. The good news is this thing is still now very much alive. The bad news is that the 2008 Cowboys won their 14th game against a top NFC foe, only to hit the wall in a ball of flames in games #15 and #16.
Is 2009 different? Only the final 2 weeks will tell us.