This is part 2 of the 18 part trip through the Cowboys 2009 season through the Morning After columns. Enjoy.
The new stadium opens like the old stadium closed - with a gut punch.
This game was a game of so many ups and downs. On one hand, the Cowboys did so much to beat themselves that they really were lucky to have a lead and a chance at the end. And on the other hand, they had so many "bad breaks" that you wondered who they angered, because if one of those bounces doesn't go the Giants' way, then the Cowboys surely get the win.
Welcome back, NFL Season. Welcome back, 200 emails when Romo has a bad night. And welcome back, Monday after a gutting defeat where knee jerk reactions are flying in every direction. We missed you all. 16 hurdles in the meat grinder, and the Cowboys get nailed in their first home game, because they took an inexcusable -4 in the turnover rating.
On Wednesdays, we demonstrate the importance of turnovers around the league . There is no other stat so important as turnovers. If you are even a "-1" in a game, you lose 3 out of every 4 games. Worse than -1, and the number grows quite a bit. By the time you get to -4, it is almost 99% loss rate. In fact, since the start of last season, 24 teams have been a -4, and 24 teams have lost. Simply put, you don't take care of the football, you don't win.
And the Cowboys did not take care of the football. Namely, Tony Romo did not take care of the football. There are days when you can get away with that, and when you run for 251 yards, I thought for a bit that this might be one of those days. But, the combination that couldn't be overcome is this: The Cowboys offense gave the ball away 3 times; The special teams gave the ball away once; and the Cowboys defense did not create a turnover. Again.
0 takeaways in 2 weeks. 0 sacks in 2 weeks. And, suddenly, what has become of the Wade Phillips defense?
Every game has a pivotal point. I thought last night had 2 clear spots where the game was won (and lost).
#1 - Dallas leads 24-20. There is less than a minute to go in the 3rd Quarter. Cowboys ball, and Marion Barber just got enough yardage to make it 1st and 10, Giants 47 yard line. On 1st and 10, the clear objective when they break the huddle is to show run and then hit Hurd over the top. Sam is a deep threat with his jets, and if they can isolate him from the snap, there is an opportunity to make some yards. Romo thinks he sees the play developing just like it did in film study and practice, and here is the chance to put the game to the sword. Problem - he doesn't see the deep safety over the top. And what looked like a good gainer when the ball left his hand ended up looking like a brain-dead read that nestled right into the waiting arms of Phillips near the goal-line. Phillips returns the pick to the Giants 27, and one play later Eli Manning connects with Mario Manningham for 49 yards and the Giants take the lead 3 plays after that, 27-24. If Romo dumps the ball off - or better yet, if Jason Garrett keeps calling runs that the Giants are not stopping, chances are the Cowboys can get points, and maybe even take a 31-20 lead and put the game away. Instead, the offense fails. And then the defense fails.
#2 - I thought the 2nd spot where this game was lost was on the final Giants drive. Twice, the Giants faced 3rd down with the game on the line. Twice, the Cowboys had a chance to discuss the play on the sideline (2:00 warning and a timeout) and get in the best possible defense. The first time, 3/6 from the Giants 29, Steve Smith beat Orlando Scandrick (again) and moved the chains as Eli had all kinds of time. Then, on 3/3 from the Cowboys 41 with :39 to play, the Cowboys blitz 6 with Ken Hamlin. They almost get there, and Jay Ratliff gets a hand on the pass. But, the ball still gets to Manningham who somehow beat Mike Jenkins to a slant. How Jenkins doesn't keep inside leverage will no doubt keep the Cowboys coaches confused today. But, he doesn't. 3 plays later, it is game over. The Cowboys needed 1 stop to win last night. I detailed 2 of them on the final drive alone. But, all night long, Eli toyed with both the Cowboys blitz and the Cowboys secondary. He completed 20 passes on 26 targets to Manningham and Smith for 284 yards and 2 TDs. No sacks. No turnovers. And in the end, no problem.
Let's be honest with ourselves. We could blame the bad breaks - Jason Witten's heal comes to mind - or we could ask the QB and OC to be mindful of the situation, the defense to mix in a stop, and the team to win a game that is there to be won. They did not pass that test, and now they have 7 days before Carolina comes calling on Monday Night Football.
Notes and Observations from a memorable and disappointing night in Arlington:
* I believe Flozell Adams is about to be fined for the 2nd time in 2 games for his tripping efforts against Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. Tripping? I usually believe that any means necessary is a decent philosophy in the NFL trenches, but after you injure one guy and are penalized for it, you have to know that the cameras are going to be trained on you. To do it again is just asking for the league office to give you a call. The most penalized player in the NFL since the start of 2007 is trying to keep his lead.
* The Cowboys demonstrated the beauty of 2 tight ends last night in a totally different way. I think people get cynical way too easy about the impact of Witten + Martellus when they don't see dominating receiving stats. The trouble with that stance in my view is that receptions do not account for mismatch issues springing teammates (like in Tampa) or the way this opens huge running lanes for the backs (like last night). On the 2nd drive of the 1Q and the 2nd drive of the 3Q, the Cowboys pounded "22" personnel, which is 2 TEs with Deon Anderson at Full Back and gashed the Giants for huge chunks of yardage. One reason why? The Giants are wondering what exotic passing ideas the Cowboys have with Witten and Bennett. Sure, the Cowboys and Garrett can get too cute, but I think we are just scratching the surface of how dominating this offense can be. Tomorrow, we will break that down more.
* Romo's interceptions, while all deadly, were all for different reasons. The first was trying to force the ball on 3rd and 10 into a 7-man zone coverage package. He didn't want to take a punt so he tried to thread a needle and got burned for a very costly Pick 6. Can't do that - poor decision making will get you beat. Pick #2 was the right throw (Witten was wide open), just inaccurate and he caught the horrendous bad break of the ball bouncing of Witten's heel. You have to blame him for a poor throw, but wow. That is the definition of bad luck. In fact, if Kenny Phillips is not trailing Witten by a step or two, he isn't able to make that play. Yes, his poor coverage paid off and got him an interception. And then the 3rd interception has already been discussed, but is easily the worst of them all. 1st and 10. There is no reason to make that throw. I do agree with Collinsworth in that Phillips was so excessively deep in at the snap that Romo never saw him. But that is Tony's job. He has to know where every defender is on the field. There is too much on the line at that spot in the game.
* Something tells me that Barber is out for a while with that Quad Strain. He had a TD on that play, but the sniper got him. He really looked good last night, but we do see the wisdom in having great depth at that position. Felix Jones and Tashard Choice should be able to handle things in the short term, but that won't help either.
* I have determined Roy Williams is a fine down field blocker after 2 weeks. I realize we would prefer he was a fine down field receiver, too, but I did want to make the observation that he seems great at occupying a DB on a big run.
* I wish I had a good theory on the pass rushers' inability to get Eli's jersey dirty. They hardly hit him. And it didn't matter if they blitzed. He orchestrated a very impressive offensive display that didn't have the benefit of much running success. Eli is often doubted in this space, but as he has matured his ability to make a quick read and to get the ball out before you can get to him is one thing he has in common with his brother. With 0 sacks in 2 games, the Cowboys are on pace for 0 sacks this season after leading the NFL last year with 59. That is certainly discouraging. I love what Ratliff has shown so far, and while DeMarcus has been pretty quiet I think we all see him getting chipped most snaps. Anthony Spencer is showing some good and some bad (Keep Contain!). And somewhere in the back of my head I am wondering if Greg Ellis would have made a difference.
* 105,121 saw that game last night. Those people stacked 50 deep on the party platform must be very big fans, because I cannot imagine the beating of standing in such close proximity to sweaty, drunk strangers for 5 hours. On the other hand, I believe I just sounded really old so forget I said that. As I watched the absurd spectacle of it all last night (Go-Go platform dancers? Really?), I realized that my pre-season theory of the Cowboys possibly flying under the radar this year is about the dumbest thing that I have ever said. This owner cannot even imagine flying under any radar. The Cowboys have no ability to "sneak up" on the NFL. It sounds silly to even suggest it is a possibility. The spot-light of the sport is on Dallas, and Jerry wants it that way. So, playing well in big situations is something that these Cowboys need to learn quickly. 4,649 days and counting, by the way.
* On that topic, of the 200 emails I got last night, the re-emerging theme was Tony Romo's inability to win "big games". The loss last night drops him to 4-2 against the Giants as a starter. The loss drops him to 7-2 on NBC Sunday Night games (generally considered the biggest games in the league each week). And, 28-13 as a starter overall. What is interesting to note, though, is that he only wins the games that don't matter. And he is 0-13 in the games that do matter. Look, I know you are mad at him today, but try to understand that every game is big when you lose it. They won a game last week. They lost a game yesterday. They are both worth "1". We have a ways to go before we add them all up and see if they made the playoffs. Unless you have a better idea, I think the Cowboys will start Romo next week.
* Terrence Newman was being picked on last night. And Orlando Scanrick was, too. Come to think of it, Mike Jenkins might have had the best night of the trio (despite that horrible technique on the 3rd and 3 on the final drive). The theory of Newman being an elite "shut-down" corner might be difficult to support these days. I think he is very valuable to have, mind you, but I don't think teams work their game plans around him. In fact, I know it. By the way, that was a clear pass interference in my book. Newman is not making any sort of play for the ball, while Smith is trying to make a catch and is impeded by Newman. Scandrick was disappointing to me in his starting role, as the Giants softened him up badly with some quick outs to Manningham and made Scandrick prove he could tackle at the line. We saw how well that worked out. He will compete hard, but he looked over-matched last night.
* As solid as Eli looked last night as the orchestrator of the Giants offense, I thought Antonio Pierce was even better as the Giants defensive leader. NBC had some very enlightening shots of him moving everyone around in presnap and making quick calls to counter what Romo thought he was seeing. It sure looked like he was dialed in all week in his film study of the Cowboys offense. Fascinating chess game, this football is.
* We thought the game would be won in the trenches. The Cowboys Offensive Line was in for a huge test. Then, they allowed 0 sacks and ran for 250 yards. That is encouraging at least. Unless you consider how discouraging it is to lose a game under those circumstances. Not only that, but the Cowboys run defense was pretty stout, too. This game truly was a showdown of Quarterbacks. And, Eli won big.
1-1 after 2. Not great for sure. Brush yourself off. Week 3 is coming. We will break down the offense tomorrow morning.