Monday, September 20, 2010

The Morning After: Chicago 27, Dallas 20

As seen here:

One of the many reasons why the NFL is the most popular league in the US is that the sport is absolutely impossible to predict. The drama from week to week shows us anything is possible and that nothing is assured. We love that feeling about "Any Given Sunday" until the chickens come home to roost with our favorite team.

And after only 2 weekends of NFL action, the Dallas Cowboys appear to be in a full-fledged crisis. How did this happen so quickly? Who is to blame? And, is there any way back?

Read on.

The reasons for winning and losing every Sunday are unfairly simplified by most observers down to coaching and QB play. I say it is unfair because the game of football requires such a synchronized team effort, with so many departments doing their job properly, that to boil it down to only a few members of the team seems awfully simplistic.

But, boy, is it obvious when you have the 2nd best Quarterback on the field on the day. And Sunday, as the Bears were demoralizing the Cowboys in their own stadium in a game where most felt pretty assured that the Cowboys would eventually prevail, Jay Cutler played as substantially better than Tony Romo. And with no running game to speak of and no big plays from the defense, the Cowboys cannot weather too many occasions where their QB is not the best at his position on a given day.

Romo did not help his cause yesterday, despite what his 374 yards will tell fantasy football owners. His sharpness was not there, and I couldn't help but recall that early in 2009, Romo spent a good portion of September looking rather "off". His QB ratings last year by month, were: 85.2 in Sept, 102.8 in Oct, 93 in Nov, and 104 in Dec. Once he worked his way into form, he was an elite QB, but it took a few weeks, and the Cowboys were 2-2 before they started playing well. It is enough to make you wonder about the way this team handles training camp, doesn't it?

While there are plenty of reasons why the Cowboys lost to the Bears, if Romo matches Cutler's play, I believe Dallas wins this game. But, let's look some of the key throws of the game from a Dallas perspective:

1) - 3/10/C46 - Romo has the team driving with 1:49 left in the half, down 17-14. On 2nd down, Miles Austin had a rare drop so it is still 3rd and long. Cowboys are in S12 (Shotgun, 1RB, 2TE, 2WR), and the Bears counter with press coverage on Austin and Roy Williams out wide. This leaves Martellus Bennett and Jason Witten in routes to the middle of the field. Bennett is not open as a safety is shading him high on his vertical, so Romo makes the right read to Witten at the 1st Down marker. But, as Witten makes his break, Romo throws the ball behind him and Witten tries to reach back and make a play. This causes the ball to tip into the arms of DJ Moore for an easy interception. It was a poor throw, and despite it being a tight space to fit, Romo has made that throw accurately a thousand times. Just not yesterday.

2) - 3/8/C37 - Another nice long drive, down 20-17, comes down to this play in the 3rd Quarter, 3:30 left. Another 3rd and 8, and another look at S12 (Interesting how many times they ran S12 in crucial spots with Roy Williams in instead of Dez Bryant). Bears offer a 5 man blitz of "Fire Zone" variety, with Chris Harris the safety blitzing from Romo's left and Julius Peppers lined up over Marc Colombo, but Peppers runs with Witten into the secondary. Romo diagnoses and takes the slant up top to Williams, and the throw is behind him. This is a very tight squeeze, with a blitzer in your face, but if he makes the pass, the Cowboys get points. He doesn't make the pass, and it is punting time.

3) - 3/8/D33 - 12:53 left in game, down 20-17. Yet another 3rd and long, yet another try with S12. The reason I keep pointing this out is when the Bears see S12, they try to eliminate the two edge WRs with press coverage. They now know that the play is likely to be funneled to Jason Witten. This is partially due to the coverage, partially due to Romo and Witten have played pitch and catch on 3rd Down for years in Dallas. And partially due to the fact that nobody believes Romo will throw it to Bennett on a "money" down. Again, Lance Briggs is sitting on the 8 yard route. He knows what is coming, Witten tries to still make room, but it would have taken a perfect throw to the inside. The throw was not to the inside, and it was easily batted down by Briggs.

4) - 3/5/C26 - 7:36 left in game, still down 20-17. Witten is injured, so S12 is not an option - nor is Romo's 3rd Down target. Jason Garrett rolls with S11, and has a play design that is perfect. Trips to the left with Bennett, Williams, and Austin. Austin draws the high safety over to that side, too. This leaves Dez Bryant on the right by himself, pressed by Zack Bowman. A slant vacates the right side of the field for Tashard Choice running the wheel route down the sideline. Briggs has the assigment here, but is late getting there, and a proper lofted throw by Romo is a likely Touchdown. Briggs would likely not chase Choice down from behind. But the throw is early (may have thought a blitz was coming) and not lofted so even if Choice did catch it, he would have had to stop and may not even gain the first down. And, the Field Goal attempt that followed was missed.

4 big moments in the game. 4 big throws on 3rd Down from Tony Romo. And 4 drives stall at crucial junctures with a total of 0 points to show for it.

Anyone who reads me knows I think the Cowboys have a very good QB. And anyone who watches football knows every QB misses throws. But, on this day, it was which throws Tony missed that hurt this team. On 3rd Down, he was 5-10, 78 yards, an interception, and a dreadful 36.6 QB Rating.

Meanwhile, Jay Cutler is making throws at all the right moments and not coming close to turning the ball over. Despite a million other smaller reasons, to me, that is the biggest issue in a 27-20 home defeat to the Bears.

Here are some other random observations from the difficult day at Cowboys Stadium:

* From the Bears perspective, there are very few times a team gifts you a TD like the Cowboys did late in the 1Q on the Greg Olsen catch and run from 39 yards out. I have read plenty about how Alan Ball wasn't in the right place here, but I don't understand how anyone can make that claim. Trying to make an educated guess, this looks like Mike Martz out-schemed Wade Phillips on this one. The Bears spent the first 2 drives with Cutler under absolute siege, so to counter, Martz starts to order quick passes in the areas where the blitz is vacating. On this play, the Bears have "11" personnel, but the 1 RB, Chester Taylor is in the slot right. So, Devin Hester and Taylor matched up on the right with Terrence Newman and Ball. To the top, it is Johnny Knox and Earl Bennett with Mike Jenkins and Gerald Sensabaugh. 4 on 4 all the way. So, with Greg Olsen off Right Tackle, I am sure the Cowboys assume that he is helping that poor OL against the Cowboys rush. The Cowboys dial up a LB blitz, and it appears here that their "Olsen assumption" went horribly wrong. Olsen slipped out, caught the ball with nobody near him at the 34, and avoids Ball inside the 10 for a TD. People watch on TV and blame Ball, but there is no way he is supposed to cover Chester Taylor AND Greg Olsen. Somebody busted, and it is either Wade or one of his Linebackers or both.

* To further tip your cap to Martz and Cutler, although this one is hardly rocket science, the fade to Matt Forte when Michael Hamlin was inserted to deal with him was about as simple a TD as there can possibly be. From what I have seen when he has been given an opportunity, Hamlin seems a long ways away from being a reasonable option on the defense.

* I don't think it is unreasonable to wonder why the Cowboys are a) running the ball so rarely and b) running the ball so poorly. In the first two games, the Cowboys have had the ball on 1st and 10 66 different times. According to my notes, I see the ration as 46 pass/20 run. On 1st and 10, this is a shocking ratio for a team that has been so successful at running the ball. Even if you blame 24/10 in Washington on the OL, then how do we explain 22/10 with all 5 OL healthy? Now, it should be noted that of those 10 1st Down carries on Sunday, they averaged 1.7 yards a carry. So, Jason Garrett may wonder how many times he is supposed to set up 2nd and 9 with another 1 yard run. If you are trying something and it isn't working, then you sometimes move on. And, add to that the fact that there were more than a few OL penalties, and now we understand why the Cowboys were in 3rd and long too much again. In 2009, the Cowboys were 51% run on 1st Down. So, this 30% run ratio so far on 1st Down is very odd and perhaps tells us what they think of their "dominant OL".

* We properly pointed out Friday that Lance Briggs is an elite NFL LB. If I am a Bears fan, I am wondering why Tommie Harris still looks pretty easy to block, but with Peppers, Urlacher, and Briggs, I don't think it is crazy to think the Bears defense will keep them in plenty of games. And if that Cutler shows up every Sunday, they can move right into contention.

* The easiest way to determine the outcome of the game is to know the turnover margin. The Cowboys were a "-3" on Sunday, and to help you attach meaning to that, since the start of 2009, teams that finish a game "-3" or worse are 1-56 in the NFL. This is regardless of where you played the game, who you played, who was injured, and what plays were called. If you are -3, you lose.

* I expect that for the next week, Romo and Garrett will again be under the gun for not getting the job done. But, for this team to go anywhere, the defense needs to be held responsible. It is one thing to blow a coverage on a play or two. Those situations hurt, but that is football. But, when this "elite" defense consistently presents the offense with horrible field position, it makes the team look dysfunctional. No good team in this league has to travel further to score. That has nothing to do with play-calling or QB play except that it makes them do more work than their competition. Yesterday, the Bears were given a 64 yard field on average while the Cowboys had a 77 yard field. Starting Drive positions for Dallas yesterday: D25, D20, D27, D20, D20, D34, D13, D20, D31, D26 and D21. That is absurd. If this defense is as good as we say it is, they should do more than they do. They have to make a play once in a while.

* While on that topic, we should also point out that they way they started the game had us convinced that they were going to need a stretcher for the remains of Jay Cutler. They ended the game with 1 sack - just like last week. 1! And that 1 sack was with a blatant face-mask that was not called on Anthony Spencer. There are 2 teams in this league that already have 10 sacks each. But, once the Olsen TD happened, the Cowboys pass rush was effectively neutered. That cannot happen.

* Positives? Doug Free looked capable for the 2nd straight week (although he is part of that OL that cannot run the ball); Marcus Spears was called upon to allow the Cowboys a "23" package despite Deon Anderson and John Phillips being lost to injury. I look forward to the PA pass to Spears for a TD that is coming. Dez Bryant sure looks like the real deal - which makes you wonder why he only had 2 targets yesterday.

* 2 players you absolutely cannot lose to injury appear to have issues. Stay tuned for developments on Jason Witten and Mike Jenkins. Those losses would be very difficult to overcome.

* I know I have talked about this before, but the handling of the Cowboys kicking situation is beyond insane to me. For this organization to spend all of 2009 with Buehler kicking at practice and yet ignore him in December of '09 when they needed a kicker spoke volumes. They would rather call Shaun Suisham, who had missed crucial FGs at Cowboys Stadium just a few weeks prior, than use a guy they see every day when Nick Folk imploded. Then, after the season, they tell us Buehler is the chosen one and that they have all the faith in the world in him - so much so that he is largely unchallenged all off-season and training camp. So, what changed? You didn't believe in him in December, but you cannot question him in August? I am bewildered about that thought process, but not bewildered at all that he is starting the season shaky. Kicking in the NFL requires nerves of steel, and despite his kickoff prowess, he has admitted that he never kicked a FG in a game-deciding scenario at USC or the NFL until last week. It was a silly an unnecessary gamble for the Cowboys to take and it appears to be biting them in the rear end. But, in perfect Cowboys fashion, all of the quotes tell us they are determined to ride it out rather than admit they perhaps lost their gamble. All that does is further risk games they can no longer afford to lose. To say that I sometimes don't agree with this team in personnel matters would be a wild understatement.

The vultures are circling this week. 0-2 is not good, but it is not the end of the world. It appears the NFC East is not going to take 12 wins to win. We will soon see what kind of character the Cowboys have. We will see what their leadership is, and whether they actually have any. Does this team have a power structure that works for anyone besides the owner?

They have a very difficult game in 6 days. If they lose it, people will be calling for change. Trouble is, there is no time for change right now. This is the team that they have, and they will need to sort through this on their own or see everything they have worked for turn to garbage.

Today will be a day of Cowboys' soul searching.

Tomorrow: We break down another disappointing offensive effort with "Decoding Garrett"


Josh said...

If you fire the coach, who heads the defense?

Romo has no incentive to improve rapidly. There is nobody nipping at his heels for his job.

Garrett has no incentive to change the playcalling. His boss did nothing in the offseason to improve his OL, so he has to play with the hand he is dealt. Unfortunately that means his QB hears footsteps now when there aren't any.

The whole effing thing is broken. You have all the parts to build this incredible bulldozer, but no nuts or bolts to bind them together. It's just a heap of high-priced junk rusting away in our front yard.

rncantu said...

The majority of your posts focus primarily on offense. I really feel like the defense lost this game. I know Romo missed some passes but the secondary gave up some plays.

Jenkins had his worst game in over a year. There were blown coverages all over the field. One of those turnovers was Romo's fault but the others weren't. While the offense was at fault in week one, i think the problems on defense and special teams were bigger factors in this loss. The Bears had 38 yards rushing but it helps when you do get those turnovers. This defense doesn't get turnovers and i think that's a bigger problem than people think.

You can't go a minimum of 40 yards just to get in field goal range when you get the ball. This team has to go 75 yards for a touchdown every time it gets the ball.

The defense is solid but you have to take risks. They play soft zones with average inside linebackers and that formula doesn't cause turnovers. Their line is great but they aren't taught or they don't execute in the turnover department.

vee gee said...

Bob - Great column, let me guess that the 1-56 on the -3 turnovers was the Cowboy game in Buffalo MNF where Nick Folk kicked the two 50 yard FG's in a row? just a guess....

I thought the same thing about them not having any competition for Buehler. When Folk was here, they always had competition and talked about it making him (Folk) a better kicker.