Monday, October 31, 2011

The Morning After: Eagles 34, Cowboys 7

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” ― Mike Tyson

The Dallas Cowboys had a plan on Sunday night. And then they were hit several dozen times right in the face. Mike Tyson looked like an expert NFL analyst.

According to Cowboys' defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, that plan was his and it was all wrong. In fact, according to the very popular Mr Ryan, "It's ridiculous. I never gave our guys the chance. The whole -expletive- thing is on me. If I gave them any extra motivation, then I certainly didn't back it up. I gave our guys a lousy plan. I gave our guys no chance and it is all on me."

Of course, right there he is proving why he is one of the more popular coaches in the business. Because everyone knows he is only partially correct in his assessment of what went so horribly wrong in the Cowboys 34-7 humbling in Philadelphia. He is widely loved by his troops because he fires them up when they need to be fired up, and when things go wrong, he won't turn on them. He will fall on the sword to the masses and attempt to take the blame.

Sunday was said in this very space to be a bit of a mid-term exam for the new leader of the Cowboys defense. Regardless of how tough his paper is graded, there is no way to avoid a giant "F". The Eagles made the Cowboys defense look silly - scoring on all 6 of its drives in the first 3 quarters - before they offered some level of mercy in the 4th Quarter by running the ball to kill the clock. The game demonstrated eerie similarities to the last time the Cowboys played a Sunday Night affair days after the Rangers lost in the World Series last season. On that night, the Cowboys showed almost no resolve in losing 45-7 up in Green Bay. The next day, Wade Phillips was fired and Jason Garrett given the job to run this organization.

But, there is a distinct difference from the feeling that day. In 2010, the logic was that the Cowboys were beaten that badly because they quit. In some weird processing logic, this is worse - because there did not seem to be effort issues in Philadelphia. Rather just a flat out ambush of the highest order that went from the opening bell until the game was painfully played to its completion.

And at the very heart of the Cowboys' disaster was a defense that was believing it was improved well beyond 2010 standards and with many of the same cast members had put those unacceptable efforts behind them. And they felt that way with good reason. They were showing up well in all 6 of their games and had tangled with New England and minimized damaged quite well. In 2011, the Cowboys were up in the Top 5 for fewest "explosives" allowed (plays of 20 yards or more) with only 19 in 6 games including only 1 big run.

On Sunday night, that stat was tested against the big play ability of the Eagles. And the results were quite disappointing for Rob Ryan and his defense.

The 2nd play of the game was a Jeremy Maclin slant for 24 yards. The 4th play was a huge run from LeSean McCoy for 21 yards.

On their 2nd drive, McCoy ran through a hole that the Queen Mary would have fit through for 35 yards. 14-0, Eagles. On the third drive, Jason Avant caught a 20 yard pass on a great throw from Michael Vick behind the Linebackers (remember that trend) and the Eagles were in the endzone again. Early 2nd Quarter, 21-0, Eagles.

The 4th Eagles drive was only for 3 points, but included an explosive 22-yarder to Brent Celek the Tight End (also behind the linebackers) and another easy pitch and catch with Avant for 24 yards. 24-0 at the half.

Finally, one more explosive play of 22 yards from LeSean McCoy helped the Eagles score on their 6th consecutive drive. 34-0, Eagles. 7 explosives in 1 game. And, 3 more plays of 18-19 yards. 10 different plays of 18 yards or more against a Cowboys defense that thought they had shaken their problems with this issue. They were conceding just 3 big plays a game. So, to get sliced and diced like this will not soon be forgotten.

Rob Ryan can take the blame. And given his love of the camera, it is best that he does take the fall for this. But, there are no Rob Ryan apologies that can make his linebackers cover better in space. Keith Brooking and Bradie James, in particular, are targets for Vick, but really, if Sean Lee has a weakness, it is also pass defense. There is no excuse that can help us forget the way Jason Hatcher was caved in on a running play that required a better anchor in his spot. There was an issue with game planning, as every time that Ryan dialed up a blitz, Andy Reid and Michael Vick were waiting for it and had the perfect counter in place. But, the execution of his defense was reprehensible. Tackling was very poor. Coverage appeared to be guesswork. The defensive front was not nearly effective enough.

Even DeMarcus Ware, who was credited with 4 sacks, did not have much of an impact on the outcome of the game itself. 3 of his sacks came after the game was already decided. In fact, Ware seemed to be the center piece of the Eagles game-plan. They called pass after pass to TEs who were assigned to bait Ware with pass protection blocks only to let him pass and Vick would feather a pass right over his head to a TE for an easy 10-15 yards down the center of the field. It happened over and over with both Celek and even his backup Clayton Harbour got in the act, too.

Stopping the run was just a dream in Philadelphia, too. One logical counter early for troubles in standing their ground on running downs would have been nose tackle Josh Brent assisting in the proceedings. Instead, he stood in sweat pants on the sideline as he was deactivated on game day so that the Cowboys could dress "kickoff specialist" David Buehler and carry 2 kickers on a night where they would only have 2 kickoffs. Dressing Buehler, a man with a very strong foot, but evidently cannot fill in at punter in the event Mat McBriar needs an understudy (like last night) and cannot kick field goals with any level of consistency, is like installing a $10,000 home theater in a tent. It is nice to have, but shouldn't that resource be used to get out of the tent? The Cowboys have holes that need fortification on game night way more than they need a guy who only can kickoff the football after scores.

The defensive game-plan actually seemed logical all week. Timely blitzes sprinkled in with an overall concept of stopping McCoy on the ground and keeping DeSean Jackson and Maclin from going over the top for a quick and easy strike. Make Avant and Celek beat you. Believe your "front 7" can deal with McCoy. Test Michael Vick's patience to keep checking down and eventually he will throw into double coverage so you will have a chance to get turnovers. But, then your blitzes open the flood gates and you cannot even come close to slowing down the run game. Everything went wrong.

In the end, the ambush was so thorough and decisive that the game-plan never left the garage. Touchdown, touchdown, touchdown for Philadelphia out of the gate and suddenly the Cowboys game-plan didn't matter because the offense was having no success, either. The offense didn't help as they countered the Eagles first 6 scoring drives with punt, interception, punt, punt, punt, and punt for their own. That will simply get you a failing grade across the board.

A complete and unquestioned show of strength against a formidable Eagles team that had struggled in the most ideal month to struggle - September. But as the calendar turns to November, they appear in a fine position to still walk away with the NFC East. Dallas, on the other hand, must wonder if their patterns of win-loss-win-loss will carry them right to a 8-8 record of mediocrity.

The Cowboys now begin a month of winnable match-ups before the tests begin again in December. As they prepare for Seattle next week, their confidence will be shaken badly after the hide-tanning they just received. And, even though it won't stop him from talking next time, Ryan will certainly think twice before he writes checks that his defense is not capable of cashing.

The discussions of the defense being much better in 2011 will have to be put on hold after this thrashing.

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