Monday, August 23, 2010

Cowboys '09: Game 16 vs Eagles

2009 NFC East Division Champions.

How many thought this was a likely result to the regular season when the Giants were running away with the division at 5-0? Or when the Cowboys lost in Denver to drop to 2-2, and needed overtime at Arrowhead to keep from going 2-3? But, 2 1/2 months later, the Cowboys are 11-5 and have won the division.

Good for them. And, I mean that. The Wade Phillips' Cowboys have been painted with the same brush since that 2007 finale against the Giants - all sizzle, no steak. But, this 2009 crew swore they were a different animal. Through subtractions and maturation, they claimed that the leadership had shifted, and that because of that, this is not the same ol' Wade Phillips-led Cowboys.

This group was different. This group would not crumble at the moment of truth, they said. But, I was skeptical when they started slow in September. I was even more skeptical when they started December with 2 straight typical close-but-no-cigar losses. At 8-5, the playoffs were in great doubt yet again. And the Divisional crown seemed like it had floated away.

But, then something changed with this team. Some suggest it was DeMarcus Ware's injury against the Chargers. Others say it was Tashard Choice addressing the team the next day. Personally, I don't have a clue what happened, but the end result to me is watching a Cowboys team that doesn't seem to play like a team that keeps waiting for something bad to happen anymore.

Surely, you know what I am talking about. This team, for the better part of 3 seasons, looked like a team that was under such severe pressure - be it real or imagined - that they were like the kid at the recital that could play the song in practice perfectly, but when the show started he felt something warm running down his leg. Their mental block, perhaps best demonstrated by their QB, was that of a team that was afraid to fail - rather than a team that was ready to win.

Now, if they were a reflection of their QB, I would imagine that we can all understand why he was a mental wreck. Being the QB of the Dallas Cowboys is tough under any scenario. Then, the last two playoff exits from a team riding a 4,755-day drought between playoff wins were either fully blamed on him, or merely the lion's share of the blame was heaped on the undrafted QB. Then, between a high profile "private" life and a high profile spat with Terrell Owens, suddenly the kid is an absolute sports-talk lightning rod from sea to shining sea.

And the bigger the situation became, the more everything came crashing down on his head, culminating in his confusing post-game address to his public following the Eagles 44-6 thrashing of the Cowboys at the end of the 2008 campaign.

He went into hiding, and before we saw much of him again, he had shed both the high profile romance and the unwanted alpha male in his huddle. So would his 2009 be different?

The Regular season sure was. Career high in QB Rating, Yards, and most importantly, both the fewest interceptions and the fewest fumbles of any season in his career. By a huge margin. He looks composed, calm, and in control. And, he plays like it. And whether this made the team click gradually - as if they saw him trying to carry them during those first 2 losses in December - or if something else triggered this perfect December storm, I don't know. But, the team showed up in New Orleans like a new team. A team that those of us who watch this team closely didn't recognize. They were a team that was playing like they don't give a flip. They are tired of playing scared and nervous and "not to lose". They are done doing that. And what we have seen the last 3 weeks is a team that is going for it. They are playing to win. They are playing with confidence and dare I say just a bit of swagger.

Don't ask me how they got here. But, try to stay as long as you can.

The results of Sunday's dismantling of the 24-0 win against the Eagles will not be fully known until next week's rematch is played. The win seemed dominating and dangerously easy in some regards. But, much like any other details of this season, any success is attached to the stated mission of winning in the playoffs, ending the 13 season drought, and thereby detaching themselves from the '07 and '08 Cowboys teams that did not achieve. A win of the division was great, shouldn't be marginalized, and it made you feel better about last year's week 17 failure, but now what?

And that is why this edition of the "Morning After" may seem a bit more of a "state of the union" address rather than a breakdown of the win. I think most of us feel like the Cowboys-Eagles game is only at halftime, with a week between halves - and the first half score doesn't matter.

I loved the domination. I loved the determination. And yes, I even enjoyed the Cowboys leaving Romo out there and throwing for more. Sure, maybe they should have taken him out when it was 17-0. But that is playing with caution and concern. This team has tried cautious and concerned, and it hasn't work. Now, it is playing with disregard for caution, and I dare say that these last 3 weeks now have me wondering what this thing could turn into.

They have self-belief. A direct reflection of the maturity of their QB. Now, let's see if he is ready to break on through to that other side of playoff accomplishment.

How about some observations from the 2nd consecutive shutout against a divisional foe:

* 1st Drive Touchdowns are all part of this Cowboys transformation. I don't quite know why things are clicking, but you cannot underestimate the effect of taking the opening kickoff, driving 80 yards, and scoring 7. In the New Orleans and Washington games, they did not get the ball first, but in all 3 games, after each team enjoyed the ball the Cowboys had 21 points, and the opponents had 0 - with just 1 solitary 1st down. They are ready to play when the game begins. It changes everything.

* 9 times this season, Tony Romo had a QB rating of over 100. Including, 5 of his last 6 games this season. We detailed at the start of December how he has his worst numbers in the biggest month. We can no longer say that. His last 6 games, his ratings were, in order: 121.2, 112.1, 111.7, 104.0, 86.7, and 106.4. That more than qualifies as saving his best for last.

* That Touchdown run from Felix Jones demonstrates why so many Cowboys fans go crazy over him. I know that I have painted myself as a bit of a pessimist on the Felix front, based solely on the idea that I have a very hard time projecting him as a #1 RB if he cannot take the beating. But, with his workload slowly increasing, I must concede that we are making progress in that regard. Anyway, the TD was that same Power 35 play they have run to the right again and again. Kosier pulls and kicks out, the 2 TEs cave in, and we have big success running right. But, a few times this season, they will run that play, except pitch it left when the entire play is running right to see if the LBs are keying off the blockers instead of watching the ball. We saw it work to perfection, as he only had 1 or 2 guys to beat (with help from Witten) and his speed did the rest. More on that play in Football 301 on Tuesday.

* Field Position is important as usual. Let's check the Eagles starting field position for their first 9 drives: P20, P14, P19, P20, P20, P12, P20, P20, P20. Tough to score points when your shortest field is 80 yards. Full marks to Mr Buehler and Mr McBriar for their fine work once again.

* No, I do not believe for a second that the Eagles were "playing vanilla" or holding things back. Look, they had a chance at the #2 seed and a bye week. If they were making decisions based on the idea that they are about to drop to the #6 seed, then they have no business in the playoffs anyway. Now, if your point is that they called off the dogs at 17-0 and showed nothing in the 2nd half, I will buy that. But that 1st half performance was not because the Eagles were trying to hide things. They just got their butt beat.

* Mike Jenkins is a pro bowler, whether he is invited or not. I apologize for having ever doubted his Football IQ. He is a very intelligent, competitive CB who the Cowboys are lucky to have. I am quite leery of Desean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin being held down a 3rd time, but so far, whatever Wade is doing is giving the Eagles absolute fits.

* The fact that the Cowboys passed for an all-time team record 4,483 yards in 2009 should tell you once and for all that the Cowboys do not miss Terrell Owens statistically. And the fact that they are 11-5 and seem to like each-other should tell you once and for all they do not miss Terrell Owens emotionally, either.

* Slant passes to Patrick Crayton that go for 30 yards are both wonderful and suspicious with their ease. How did that keep happening?

* With the exception of the Brent Celek show and Asante Samuel guessing right once, the key players on that Eagles roster were collectively very quiet. Do not make the mistake of expecting to see that happen again on Saturday night. I expect they will get their act together and offer a far more abrasive stand when these teams meet again. But as far as this business of it being impossible to beat a team 3 times in a season, my numbers indicate that there have been 19 such instances in NFL History, and in fact, the team going for the 3-game sweep is actually 12-7. Which would suggest a win rate of 63%, and proving that it is far from impossible. Of course, the Cowboys are 0-2 in such instances. So....

* Take this for what it is worth, which isn't much, but I do not particularly care for putting on "Division Champs" shirts and hats as the game ends, and then go across and shake hands with Andy Reid, who you have to play again next week, with your hat on. It seems like A) something that doesn't require much celebration and B) it could be interpreted by Philadelphia as bulletin board material. Again, not the biggest issue in the world, but since I have accused the Cowboys of over-celebrations and getting satisfied with themselves quite easily, it did strike a small nerve last night.

* The Cowboys had 40:23 minutes of possession. They also had 474 yards of total offense. The runners combined for 32 carries for 179 yards, and a QB who threw for 311 yards. To suggest that the offense had great success is fair. Troy Aikman suggested that the Eagles will try some different things next week. I think they better.

* Four more sacks, with 2 from Anthony Spencer. No matter how much pressure you get, it still looks like you need more. Donovan McNabb always seems like he is one throw from really hurting you, and the Eagles have to feel like they left plenty of points on the field.

* Who have you given up on more? Roy Williams or Martellus Bennett? You just can't predict this stuff in training camp, can you?

So here we go. Now we can spend the next several days breaking these two teams down further. Saturday Night cannot get here soon enough. The Cowboys have come a long, long ways. But for Wade Phillips, Tony Romo, and this entire Cowboys team, a playoff win is badly needed. This can change their legacy. To feel good about Cowboys football, it must start with ending that drought of 1996. Until they do, they will be painted with the same brush that all the Cowboys have been painted with in the "post-triplets" era. But, bouncing the Eagles would demonstrate progress and change. Wade would no longer be the winningest coach who has never won a playoff game (and he likely keeps his job) and Romo would then have as many playoff wins as a guy like Drew Brees (1!).

To say it another way, 11-5 is nice. A division title is nicer. But, to feel good about the direction the Dallas Cowboys are headed, they need at least one more victory this season.

Saturday Night.

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