Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Morning After: Cowboys 20, Dolphins 19 (7-4)

How different is this Jason Garrett-coached Dallas Cowboys team from teams that have preceded it? Perhaps, as the Cowboys have dragged themselves to win in two very "lose-able" scenarios these last 5 days, we have had some light shed on that interrogative.

There are certainly many similarities to the Wade Phillips' teams that have come before it. Mistakes are a bit too plentiful. Talent is a bit too scarce. Turnovers make things more difficult than they should be. Stops at the moment of truth are not always around. Heck, even the go-to move of the last decade of Cowboys football - 12 men on the field - is alive and well.

This is not a team that is going to threaten the 1972 Dolphins in the quest for football perfection without a substantial facelift in many areas.

But, in the afterglow of the 20-19 win over the 2011 Dolphins yesterday at Cowboys Stadium, Dallas appears to have discovered something that didn't live in Dallas last season.

Guts.

For it was guts that helped the Cowboys escape Washington with a much-needed victory on Sunday when things were conspiring against them. That was a very dangerous game that was on the brink of defeat for much of the afternoon. The defense caved, the running game stayed home, and it was a gritty and gutty effort from Tony Romo that rescued the victory from the jaws of defeat with big-time moments and big-time throws.

And then, on a short week of work where soreness was present as well as an opponent that did not offer much familiarity, the Cowboys ground their way to another ugly win that required all 60 minutes to take the final lead. There were several opportunities to lose the game and more than a few Cowboys' loyalists already allowed themselves to accept the outcome, but once again the common denominator that seemed to save their skins was actually inside their skin.

Guts.

A quick scan of the game log of the 2011 season for Romo will reveal that Thanksgiving was one of his worst statistical performances of the year. It would be foolish to fight this sentiment based on a 1st half that included 2 interceptions and 2 punts in the first 4 drives of the game. A drop here, an under-thrown pass there, and before long the Cowboys offense had once again found themselves an unproductive bunch with a 4th Quarter deficit of 16-10. Surely, it is slightly ironic that a similar offensive performance on Sunday yielded a similar deficit (17-10) after 3 quarters on Sunday.

But, the 9th drive of the game was the kind of drive that will hopefully allow some of his biggest critics (Cowboys fans) to see that he is having one of his best seasons of a very strong career. Time after time on that drive he either was decked by a Miami blitzer or nearly avoided being decked by a Miami blitzer. And each time - whether being decked or not - he delivered a great throw to a Cowboys receiver to keep the drive alive. Bennett. Witten. Murray. Robinson. Robinson again. Witten again. And finally, his finest play of the drive that should be dropped in a time capsule, Laurent Robinson in the back corner of the end zone for the Touchdown. It was a drive of sheer guts. A QB who has dabbled in injury for much of the last two seasons throwing caution and good health to the wind and taking some major shots to make some major plays.

Of course, that would not be enough to find a victory at 17-16. Instead, the defense had a big stand nullified when a DeMarcus Ware sack was cancelled out by a Abram Elam holding penalty. Momentum was lost and the Dolphins offense gained in confidence and marched down the field. After a Anthony Fasano reception and a pointless Frank Walker penalty for hitting out of bounds, the Cowboys faced a situation where the Dolphins had 1st and goal from the 3 yard line. Cave in here, and the Cowboys chances would reduce quite a bit.

But, they didn't. They held the Dolphins out of the end zone and gutted their way to only conceding the 3 points. Still down, 19-17, but still alive.

The teams traded possessions and that left the Cowboys with 1 last chance and the ball at their own 36 after Dez Bryant showed the Cowboys a return could turn into something marginally exciting again.

From there, Dallas had a "get it done or lose" situation. 2:59 to go. Must get at least a field goal and you would sure like to not leave the Dolphins any time to counter.

And that is where the guts of Tony Romo, and the guts of both his new sidekick, DeMarco Murray, and his old sidekick, Jason Witten marched the ball right down the field. Murray, like Romo, will not have the type of gaudy numbers that were there a few weeks ago, but Murray's conviction when he is running the ball and his willingness to punish anyone that attempts to tackle him is a thing of beauty right now. He had a very large impact on this contest. As the last of their 179 seconds ticked off the clock, Dan Bailey hit his 26th straight field goal from short range and the Cowboys won another game in which one can either take the victory and breath a sigh of relief or they can take the next 10 days to list all of the ways the Cowboys need to get better.

In 2010, we saw the Cowboys lose a lot of games when it came down to a showdown of guts. The first team to cry "uncle" would lose and the Cowboys "uncled" their way to a 1-7 start that saw Wade Phillips fired. There seemed to be almost no guts on this team when Jacksonville were humiliating them on their own turf. The next week, they seemed to care even less at Green Bay. It was a sad display that made you wonder if those players were fit to wear the uniform.

I don't necessarily suggest Jason Garrett is coaching strategies based on "guts", but I do feel like his QB and other vital members of this squad have decided to not allow this team to cave in and accept defeat. Sometimes, Romo knows he must make a play at the moment of truth or the team will lose. This team puts a ton on the QB, and while everyone seems to discuss the Jets and Lions games, I would like to counter that with those wins against the 49ers, Redskins, Redskins (again), and now the Dolphins. The Cowboys simply do not win any of those 4 games if Romo is not making the plays. He didn't make them all. Just the ones that mattered to the outcome of the contest.

Romo showed guts. The defense made a stand. Murray never quit on a single run.

So, you can fixate on the issues that are still around on this team, for there are more than a few. But after these last two games, I think it is notable to point out that this team has something that has been missing around here for a while.

Resolve. Fortitude. Guts.

Those characteristics can go a long way down the stretch in the NFL.

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