Further thoughts and observations from the exciting day at Lucas Oil Stadium:
* The breakout performance of Sean Lee happened yesterday, and it has been a long time coming. You may or may not recall the Cowboys war room pictures of draft day 2010 which I so enjoyed finding back in April. They told us that Sean Lee was one of the Top 15 players on the Cowboys board back on draft day. Then, you may recall their draft day trade with the Eagles to sneak up from #59 to #55 to get him, because they feared that the 3-4 teams on deck (Green Bay #56, Baltimore #57) were about to grab the LB from Penn State. Many suggested to me that they were considering him strongly if in fact Dez Bryant was taken before the Cowboys traded up to get Bryant at #25. So, when they got Bryant and Lee, the narrative coming out of Valley Ranch is that they had to pay, but were able to capture 2 of their Top 15 on the board by getting Bryant and Lee. From there, Lee had some training camp injuries (like Dez) and miss most of the meaningful opportunities that August provides and it was tough for him to find his sea legs. Then came the famous public declaration from Wade Phillips (a guy who hardly every declared anything of substance publicly) that Sean Lee was not ideal to replace Bobby Carpenter as the 3rd Down LB allowing some to draw conclusions that Lee might not be what they thought he was. After poking around, I was told that this was Wade trying to protect his pick from 2009 (Jason Williams, LB) who he swore could be that nickel LB and obviously wasn't accomplishing anything. But, Lee yesterday showed what he is all about. He was dishing out huge hits and covering large swaths of turf in shutting things down over the middle when he got his snaps. The similarities with Keith Brooking seem to end after we point out they both have a "5" on their jersey. His range is good as it looked at Penn State, and my faith in the pick has been restored. Now, I should point out that Bobby Carpenter also had a breakout game in his rookie year (At Seattle), but I suspect that Lee is going to be a pillar of this franchise for years to come. He is the read deal.
* Even on a bad day, you have to marvel at Peyton Manning and the clinic that he and Reggie Wayne put on the Cowboys and for the most part Mike Jenkins. 20 passes for 14 receptions and 200 yards were from Manning to Wayne including a 40 yard Touchdown early in the 2nd Half that was a marvelous thing to watch. At the snap, Manning holds the safety to the middle of the field and even gets Jenkins to fall for a pump fake to the inside for just a split second. Then, with that half step margin, he puts a throw on the goal-line from 40 yards away that Jenkins actually recovers enough to get a piece of, before Wayne secures the ball. That is how impossible playing corner is in this league against some of the best. Jenkins was fooled, but he still managed to get fingers on the throw and it still wasn't enough. Tough to blame Jenkins on that.
* I think the Cowboys need to play more Victor Butler in games like these. Against the Saints and Colts, DeMarcus Ware had some very impressive plays where he treated the Colts Left Tackle, Curtis Johnson, like a rag doll. But, it sure seems like late fatigue is an issue with him and Anthony Spencer in the 4th Quarter when you simply must get to the QB. This, after the Cowboys had the ball from 14:56 on the clock until 2:34 was left in the game. In real time, that was 32 minutes of rest! But, just like the Saints game, on that drive, the Cowboys can get no pass rush whatsoever. I need Ware at his best at closing time. For Spencer, I don't know what to think. He has some plays that are off the charts - especially against the run - but I must have more than 1 sack a month from Spencer. That is not going to cut it for anyone who wants to see the Cowboys do well. he has to step that up.
* Jon Kitna has been very, very good during the Jason Garrett coaching era. I think the item that makes us all react is his fiery demeanor, but he is also making some very key throws at very key moments. His TD hook up with Witten was vital, and he seems to have a knack of what to do on 3rd and long. I wonder what Tony Romo would be like if he had the body language of Kitna, but since that isn't going to happen, I will just understand that they are two different guys. I am interested in the logic of some emailers who are trying to sell me on the idea of Kitna being better than Romo. Perhaps, if you feel that way, you might take this opportunity to visit his bio and check that 46-69 career record as a starter in this league and the fact that he is 38 years old. I think Kitna is a perfect backup, and at this rate I want to invite him back for 2011. But he is what he is, and just because he has played very well doesn't mean you should take Romo to the curb. Romo can be replaced, but not by a guy who has had this many chances to be a starter in the league and has put up a career record that would require a 23 game winning streak just to get back to .500. The knee jerk reactions are off the charts sometimes around here.
* Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis both got sacks yesterday on the bull rush. In addition, Freeney gave Doug Free fits and required a couple holding penalties, too. Freeney and Mathis are world class edge rushers in the NFL so there is no shame in losing on occasion, but you can see why many think that the Cowboys greatest weakness on the offense right now is the offensive line. I would be fine with the offseason being dedicated to at least 2 new starters on that unit.
* Alan Ball and Gerald Sensabaugh looked like different players yesterday. Congrats to both of them for making plays of great substance that made a difference. Sensabaugh also knocked Orlando Scandrick out of the game with a tackle attempt on Blair White in the 2nd Quarter. Ball showed some of that range that we have heard about but rarely seen on some plays yesterday. I need to see far more in the final month to back off my claim that this team might need to replace both safeties.
* Different standards for different guys are a fact of life. In the NFL, your track record is the determining factor on whether you get a mulligan. So, when an emailer asks me why nobody jumps on Miles Austin for not knowing where the ball is like people would jump on Roy Williams, I say, track record. Also, when nobody is mad that Jon Kitna overthows Austin in the end zone on that same drive even though Tony Romo would be ripped hard for missing that throw, we must cite that the level of expectation is just different for your backup QB. If Kitna was made the starter and missed that throw, then I would imagine he would not be forgiven. Contracts, resumes, and expectation levels are all parts of the prism through which we view these games.
* So, how do you almost lose a game in which you win the turnover battle by 4? Well, you miss a field goal, get a punt blocked that is returned for a touchdown, and surrender 21 points in a quarter where the opponent had the ball for just 2:13. Of course, that is deceiving, but what an amazing game. Would have been even more disastrous if Bryan McCann's fumble at the end of the 4th Quarter would have been recovered by the home team. No wonder Joe DeCamillis always looks like he has indigestion.
* Speaking of Time of Possession, the Cowboys had the ball by quarters as follows: 11:25, 4:44, 6:13, 12:47, and 4:51 in OT to out TOP the Colts, 40:00 to 27:05. The best defense against Manning is keep the ball and the Cowboys did a pretty fine job of that. And yet, Manning and the Colts still threw the ball for 365 yards. It would not be fun to play the Colts on a good day if that is the definition of a bad day for that offense.
* The Dez Bryant injury certainly hurts, but we have seen enough from him as a rookie to know what we can count on in 2011. I just wonder if the Cowboys will continue to have him return kicks. I always want my best players returning kicks, but this is the admitted down side. Are you willing to risk him to high impact collisions and perhaps lose him for the season on 1 return? That is the decision these teams must make. It is very easy to say what I would do here on the blog, but my decisions don't actually matter. Their decisions matter a great deal, and they will have to decide whether they can continue to risk his health moving forward. If I were to guess, they do not bring Roy Williams back, elevate Dez to a full time starter, and find someone new to return kicks except for rare occasions like they did with Deion Sanders a decade ago.
Here comes Michael Vick and the Eagles next week, and NBC will have their first look at Dallas since the Green Bay debacle. Let's hope Al and Chris have something better to look at this time as the Cowboys try to spoil the Eagles resurgence.