At Fox Sports Southwest
Very few fan bases in the NFL have the audacity to be outraged on the night that their team played on the road as a huge underdog and nearly pulled off the upset. To play a team that is expected to be in the Super Bowl by many experts at their place and have them on the ropes for most of the afternoon is usually the cause for some level of encouragement this early in the season. After all, cross-conference games in mid-October in the NFL have very little permanent effects. They are a chance to measure yourself in a hostile stadium and find out how your franchise can deal with the best in the business on their terms.
Of course, in Dallas, that isn't how things work.
Here, the sniff of a victory comes with the demand for one. If this team came close to showing the NFL that they can handle any situation, then it better leave with the "W" or it will only serve the populace with yet another piece of evidence that their QB or coach or both are not worthy of the uniform. Those of us who cover the team year after year know that the only thing that satisfies the angry loyalists is victory. There is no middle ground. Either the Cowboys win or they are all bums.
And that is where we will have to agree to disagree. There are 31 potential opponents for the Cowboys when the schedule is released, and 62 scenarios in which to play them (31 home, 31 away). Most NFL experts would likely agree that the most difficult of those 62 scenarios is At New England and when the schedule was released, anyone that felt that the Cowboys would win this contest was being extremely optimistic.
Yet, Dallas showed that they have the ability to play with New England and have a chance to win in the end. Once the dust settles, I would think that important accomplishment will reveal to those that follow this team that the Cowboys are still positioned to accomplish many of its goals in 2011.
On the other hand, working that hard on a Sunday afternoon and leaving with only the encouragement that better days are ahead is seldom enough to satisfy the masses. The Cowboys, for the 5th time in 2011, were in a great position to win the game and for the 3rd time saw a 4th Quarter lead turned to defeat. That is tough to stomach for anyone who pulls for the Cowboys.
And at the heart of the disappointment is yet another offensive head-scratcher. Such an occasion shows that all roads again lead back again to everyone's favorite past-time of battering Tony Romo and Jason Garrett at the water cooler.
Following another spectacular defensive play from Sean Lee in a 13-13 game with 9:00 to play, the Cowboys drove the ball down the field and appeared to be poised to grab the game by the scruff of the neck. But, as the trend has recently revealed, many of the Cowboys deficiencies (offensive line, offensive line, offensive line) come to the surface in the red zone and show their ugly head. Not only do we know that, but the Cowboys know it, too - which is why they don't even try half of what they would like to try and their opponents know it - which is why they don't respect the threat of the Cowboys running the ball. They know Jason Garrett is not crazy enough to waste a down.
So, the obvious conclusion for many would be: "If the offense cannot run the ball because of the OL, then why not pass the ball?" And that is where we can only speculate, because we know what happens when they run the ball (20 carries for 52 yards on runs from running formations for 2.6 yards per carry), but when they pass the ball, the statistics are quite favorable. What isn't always revealed about those statistics is your QB's faith in the offensive line to pass protect, and your coach's faith in his QB to make the right reads when the chips are down. What is causing the team to get ultra conservative in the red zone and ultra conservative in the 4-minute drill will not be revealed publicly, so we are left only to speculate and draw our own conclusions.
1st and Goal from the 10 with 6:25 to play, the Cowboys call a TE Screen to Martellus Bennett. This is an attempt to make the Patriots pay for over-pursuit and too much attention to Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten. The play pushes the Cowboys to the 5-yard line, and sets up 2nd and Goal. It also lost Bill Nagy, the Cowboys' left guard who had been thrown around all day like a rag doll by Vince Wilfork and friends, to a broken leg. That meant Kevin Kowalksi - he of 19 NFL plays - would take over in that position to Romo's immediate left that has been a disaster all afternoon. Romo knows this and Garrett knows this. They have to be mindful of a potential stick of dynamite under their noses that is ready to explode.
2nd and Goal from the 5. Here is the play that seems to be somewhat overlooked as everyone focuses on the ensuing 3rd Down. On this play, Dez Bryant is in man coverage on the left flank and it seems to scream to both sides that the fade that Bryant generally wins is the call. But, in the pre-snap, a 2nd DB looks like he is going to offer help on the fade pattern, and Romo decides to dump the ball off to Tashard Choice underneath rather than risk the lead and throw into potential double coverage.
This is the decision that sports-talk radio and newspaper columns make look really easy. It is 2nd down. It is 13-13. You are on the road and you have a chance at a real big win. You are about to leave with the lead as long as you don't screw it up. If he makes the wrong decision here and throws a pick, he gets roasted. So, he does what he has been asked to do - check down in risky situations. The right decision that he will see today in the film room is that there was no double coverage (just the look that there might be) and the fade to Bryant was his throw. Instead, the ball falls incomplete at the feet of Choice, and it is now 3rd and goal from the 5.
Now, on 3rd and goal from the 5, the Cowboys shift to the idea of not taking points off the board. Is it conservative? Of course, it is. It is with a enemy stadium pulsating, a rookie seeing his first real action in a crucial spot in front of one of the more elite defensive tackles in football, and a QB who is noticeably cognizant of his ribs, his recent history, and the importance of not screwing this up. Jason Garrett calls the notorious shovel pass to Choice, hoping to catch the Patriots aggressive defense in some manner of over-pursuit. As crazy as it sounds, it almost worked as every Patriot in front of the play is accounted for. But, the backside leaked as Brandon Spikes destroyed the play from behind and the Cowboys settled for their go-ahead Field Goal.
A golden opportunity at 7 points is somewhat conceded for the safe result of taking a 3-point road lead with 5 minutes to play.
From there, the defense forces another 3 and out, and a Patriots punt with 3:36 to go. The Cowboys are now a 4-minute drill from icing this game away.
When running the 4-minute drill, the object of the game is to nurse home a lead. This is practiced league-wide as a situation where you have a lead and the ball. If you can run about 8-10 plays, the game is over - even if the opponent has timeouts. You simply want to run the clock and shorten the game. No points are needed, so obviously, you really want to be careful here. The obvious issues with this is that your opponent is playing the percentages and they are selling out to stop the run since that is what everyone does.
Those who sit home and play Madden will tell you it is a perfect time to break out the passing attack, but about 32 of 32 NFL coaches would have done the exact same thing that Garrett did here. Run, Run, Run. Of course, 32 teams are not running the ball as poorly as the Cowboys. In fact, almost nobody is running as poorly as the Cowboys in situations where you have to run the ball. And this is the problem. As much as everyone wants to talk play-calling and QB play, the issues in the red zone and the 4-minute drill come back to the fact that this team cannot run the ball and has no faith in its offensive line right now.
Could you imagine the amount of grief Garrett would take if he called 3 passes and the Cowboys possession there lasted 15 seconds while not causing the Patriots to use any timeouts? It is a classic case of he is going to be picked apart no matter what he calls if the Cowboys don't move the chains two more times. Instead, they faced a 3rd and 18, ran a draw play, punted, and put the ball in the hands of Tom Brady with plenty of time to march down the field and get the win.
Until these issues get fixed, Romo and Garrett will continue to get hammered for their alleged incompetence. But I would imagine most NFL coaches and scouts, who can see these issues clearly and that are not affected with sports-talk narratives and rooting allegiances, would admit that the Cowboys are in a real pickle right now. They cannot run a large part of their offense because their personnel dictates their decision making. And by losing Nagy for the rest of the year, the lack of depth on the interior of the OL only worsens with no solution in sight. Surely, Andre Gurode and maybe Brian Waters are getting a chuckle from the developments.
Yes, the play-calling needs to improve at times. Yes, the QB play is a real issue at times. But, I cannot believe most people ignore the fact that the personnel on this offensive line is inadequate. They turned over quite a bit of the 2010 OL that so underperformed, but in watching Wilfork, Kyle Love, and Albert Haynesworth devour the interior of the Cowboys offense, it became very evident that "different" doesn't always mean "better". It might mean cheaper, though.
Leonard Davis and Marc Colombo had to go. Gurode likely did not. Waters wanted to play here after Kansas City cut him loose. Instead, the Cowboys elected to set sail with undrafted center Phil Costa, and 7th round rookie Bill Nagy. Yes, they were different, but they were not better. They could develop into something better, but while they learn to play in the NFL, the Cowboys must tailor their offense around them. The moves smacked of financial considerations rather than jobs won. And for that, the Cowboys lose a game that was sitting there ready to be won.
5 games in, and the youth movement on the offensive line is appearing to be a real achilles heel. Tyron Smith appears to be a stud-in-waiting, and if he was the only rookie on the OL, like New England with their RT Nate Solder, then Romo and his skill players would have a chance. Instead, the personnel/financial department of the team took a real chance at a youth movement. And the results are bad and getting worse.
But, even so, one more positive play would have meant victory in Foxsboro. And that is what is so frustrating to those around the squad. The offensive line logic in the offseason seems to have put a real leash on how good this team could be this year. This appears to be a game that was lost in August, thanks to the way the roster was handcuffed.
The NFL is tough enough. Nobody wins in New England. So, you certainly don't need to be inflicting wounds on yourself.