The Cowboys and Redskins did battle in Landover, Maryland last night for over 3 hours. During that time, there were 130 offensive plays run between the two teams. Loads and loads of remarkable moments involving dozens of different players. But, in the end, as the game of football often does, most everything seems to cancel each-other out and the outcome of the contest came down to two moments in time. Those catastrophic moments, assuming you were counting on a Dallas victory, will haunt Cowboys' fans for a length of time somewhere between 6 days and decades.
Let's examine each before we fill in the gaps with the other 128 snaps:
1) - :04 left in 2nd Quarter; 1st and 20 from the Dallas 36 yard-line: In a half where Jason Garrett exercised extreme caution with his play-calling so as not to expose his less-than-stellar offensive line, for some reason he threw caution to the wind on this snap that shall live in infamy. The first thing you have to know is that you are down 3 points to a team that doesn't appear capable of scoring much. The next thing you need to know is that you are 64 yards from a Touchdown with only 4 seconds to play. Without a timeout, there is simply no possibility of a pass shorter than 64 yards getting you a even a Field Goal opportunity, as a pass play of 30 yards to the edge of FG range would take all 4 seconds. Given all of these scenarios, and given the fact that the reason you are in 1st and 20 is that Alex Barron has taken the first of his 3 holding penalties on the play right before this moment, this appears to be a play with nearly zero upside. I must include the word "nearly" in that previous statement because "nearly" impossible is how I would have rated the possibility of what actually happened. But it did. In the blink of an eye, the game went from being quite manageable to ridiculous. There was no way Tony Romo could throw a "Hail Mary" because it is barely 2 seconds into the play by the time that Lorenzo Alexander sprints around Left Tackle Doug Free, flushing Romo out of the pocket and toward the line of scrimmage. Over at Right Tackle, Andre Carter is chipped by Tashard Choice to give Alex Barron a chance to stay in front of him. Brian Orakpo is working past Leonard Davis on an inside stunt with Carter and actually flies past Romo in the air as Romo stepped up for a throwing window. By this point in the play, the alarms in Romo's head are going crazy as he is officially running for his life. He knows the play is dead and he pitches the ball to Tashard Choice who has nobody within 5 yards of him. By the time Choice receives the ball, the 4 seconds are already off the clock and everyone expects Choice to be tackled and the teams to head into the locker-room for their intermission. But, then the moment that cannot happen - does. Choice decides to attempt to run over DeAngelo Hall, with Carter and Alexander on the scene for a gang tackle at the 37 yard line. Hall strips the ball from Choice, and the ball rolls right back to him at the 31. From here, Hall has a 3 yard head start on Leonard Davis to the endzone, which is a race he wins by 20 yards. Fed-Ex Field goes bananas and the Cowboys are left pondering the idiocy that they just performed. There is no reason to call the play. There is no excuse for fumbling that ball. Unacceptable on every single level, and the kind of play that gets you beat on the road most times.
2) :03 left in the 4th Quarter; 3rd and 10 from the Washington 13: It is the last chance to save this game. The Cowboys just called their final timeout to consider what their best option could be. This throw must go into the end-zone, which, of course, means that the protection scheme must provide Romo and the receivers (Miles Austin, Roy Williams, Jason Witten, and Dez Bryant) a chance to get through their routes and complete the pass. The Redskins, who have been blitzing quite constantly in this final drive, decide to drop 8 into coverage and only rush 3. Free seems to have Carter driven past the pocket. Gurode and Holland double team Vonnie Holiday and have him blocked. Leonard Davis is left with nobody in front of him when Alexander drops into coverage. And, that leaves Orakpo vs Barron yet again. Earlier in the Quarter, on the Cowboys 8th drive, Barron nullified a 12 yard pass to Witten on 3rd and 11 with his holding penalty on Orakpo. It is clear that Orakpo's move to the outside shoulder of Barron is something the Cowboys back-up tackle has no answer to. This has been obvious to those of us at home, so I would like to think that Garrett and his crew are on top of the situation. And yet, at the snap, despite having Barber lined up right behind Barron as if he is going to chip Orakpo at the snap, Barber cuts to the opposite side of Barron (his inside shoulder) and pops out on a useless pass pattern. I say "useless" because Romo is not going to pass it to Barber at the 10 yard line with time expired. Did Barber not chip when he was supposed to? Did Garrett not instruct him to do so with this protection scheme? Both seem unthinkable, but one must be true. Because even though the Redskins just rushed 3 men, Barron had no chance against Orakpo's move to the outside, and Barron puts him in a illegal clothes-line move almost immediately. After watch the replay several dozen times, I am convinced a simple chip from Barber and the Cowboys win this game. But, what I think doesn't matter. What actually happened is that Romo ran for his life and found an opening enough to hit a wide-open Roy Williams in the endzone after he ran a long crossing route on the play. For a split second it appeared to be a magical Dallas moment, until we saw the referee made the call that he had no choice but to make.
And those two plays are what put the Cowboys to the sword at the hands of their hated foes. Irony drips everywhere on this one, because the Cowboys spent the entire night trying to avoid Alex Barron costing them huge moments, only to shockingly allow him to stand on an island against a man he demonstrated he couldn't block. 130 plays, and if a running back assists a right tackle on play #130, your night goes from defeat to victory. Details, details, details...
We must remember that while it is costly, last night represents exactly 6.25% of the season. 93.75% of the season is ahead, so let's all keep our heads here. Also, many of us expect that most years you can book a 3-3 mark inside your division because nights like these happen. But, wow.
More Random Observations:
* As we said on Friday's Game Plan, the Cowboys are notorious for having extremely poor starting field position. They ranked 30th in the NFL in 2009 for the place where Romo and the offense get to start each drive, which averaged out to their own 27 yard line. Only Oakland and Tennessee were set up in a worse position. This is a product of special teams not being very special and the defense never taking the ball away from the opponent. Well, 10 drives on Sunday night, and the average starting field position of those 10 drives? That's right, their own 27 yard line.
* I certainly am no medical expert. But, I do watch an awful lot of football. And by my count, that is the 3rd time since last September that DeMarcus Ware has been very slow to get up from an apparent neck injury. Now, we can obviously debate the severity of each of these occasions (Tampa Bay, San Diego, and Washington), but we cannot debate that it is the same guy and the same very serious part of the body for a football player. We also cannot debate that he is without question the Cowboys best defensive player of this entire era, and that is why I hope that this disturbing trend stops very quickly. I certainly would not pretend to offer Ware advice about his tackling technique, but last night his head was down and he was not looking at what he was hitting. Scary stuff.
* Dez Bryant's debut would have to be called impressive. He was not perfect by any stretch (as a ball sailed right past his eyeballs on one particular moment where he evidently didn't realize he was the "hot" read) but I never would have expected that he would have 12 balls thrown in his direction. Those quick screens were not fooling anyone, but they did get him involved early, and I don't think it would be a stretch to already assume that the Cowboys are ready to give him the job as #2 man behind Austin. Roy Williams will have his chances this year, but on a big-picture basis, it appears that they have big plans for #88.
* If I am Wade Phillips, I need much more pressure from my defense. Ware did get 1 sack, but beyond that, the Redskins were not overwhelmed at all with the blitzes and pressure schemes of the Cowboys defense. Anthony Spencer was kept quiet most of the night by Jammal Brown, and overall, the Linebackers blitzing through the "A" gaps gave the Redskins interior very little concern. Additionally, As the game went on, Clinton Portis started finding more success and the Redskins were able to accomplish just enough to look dangerous at various moments. That 4th Quarter drive that ended in the long Gano FG consumed tons of valuable seconds that the Cowboys could not afford to lose. While it is difficult placing too much blame on the defense after they held the Redskins to 6 points, I don't want to let them off the hook. They can play much better than that.
* Very odd officiating in that final Redskins drive where they flagged Chris Cooley for illegal motion that nullified a long Portis run because they said he was leaning to the line of scrimmage at the snap. On the very next snap, he did it again - perhaps even more blatantly, and they let it go. And Portis broke off an even longer run.
* Someone may have to explain NBC's Night Vision idea. That was about as pointless a technological advance as I can recall.
* I can't believe that NBC didn't think that they should remind the marginal NFL fan about why Andre Gurode and Albert Haynesworth have such a history. October 1, 2006 was the notable day where they became forever linked when Haynesworth stomped Gurode in one of the more bizarre losses of composure that I can recall. In case your memory doesn't serve you well, Here is the Youtube link for your review. I thought the battle last night was pretty salty while it lasted, but I would also imagine that last night may very well be his last night in Washington. It is guys like him who give all professional athletes a bad name. Very few have that level of sorriness and take a gigantic stack of money but don't feel like that allows anyone to coach them how they see fit. I hope he knows the ramifications of his actions - that while he may get his money - he will never have the respect of most people in the league. Quite a shame for a tremendous athlete.
* On Tuesday, we attempt to deconstruct the play-calling of Jason Garrett, but I know most people don't want to wait. I anticipated a game plan where they would ask Romo to get the ball out quickly. So, when that happens, I would be foolish to seem surprised. But, he is taking a beating today for not calling that game right. Actually, I think he did what had to be done. You will not ground and pound with success with that line you had last night. He did what had to be done. But 3 major errors are why he does need to be critiqued. I wrote at great length at the start of this review what 2 of them are: 1) the play idea at the end of the half. 2) the premise of not giving Barron help on the most important play of the game. and now 3) not nearly enough Felix Jones. I don't think you can have a weapon that dangerous and have huge portions of the game where he is not heard from. The Cowboys have a lot of toys in their toy box on offense. But, they have to know their priorities. Felix Jones must be a priority in his 3rd season. 10 touches is about 5 touches too light for me.
* I don't believe this will be the only time this season that we ponder how good the Cowboys are at kicker. The handling of this entire David Buehler situation is curious. If he was so good, why didn't you give him the job in December when Nick Folk hit the skids? But, if you had concerns about him in December, why did you not have concerns about him in July when you decided that he was your unchallenged kicker? What could he have possibly done between January and July to prove he could make a big time kick in a regular season road game? By the way, a 34-yard FG in the 2nd Quarter of week 1 is hardly a big time kick. And he missed that. Look for this to be a theme for a while here.
* Alan Ball was not a factor in game 1. That is very good, but most teams will have far more aerial plans than Washington.
* Miles Austin is worth every penny. I know we all want things to complain about, but paying an elite receiver fair money is not worth your complaints. He gives opponents fits. Too strong for most corners, too fast for most safeties. He is a fine investment. Don't let bad contracts for Joey Galloway and Roy Williams ruin good contracts for guys who are worth it.
This one will sting a bit. Of your eight road games, this one might be ranked the easiest challenge, and yet it goes in the loss column. Hopefully, help is on the way for the offense with health returning for Marc Colombo and Kyle Kosier. Either way, noon Sunday brings in the very fortunate Chicago Bears for another very important contest.
93.75% to go.