Monday, November 14, 2011

The Morning After: Cowboys 44, Bills 7 (5-4)

Something very important has happened with the Cowboys over the last few weeks.

No. The important occurrence was not the 44-7 thumping of Buffalo and a rather underwhelming, but commanding win over Seattle. Although, those wins were both imperative and necessary and have the Cowboys off to a nice start in this stretch where they would play 5 very beatable opponents and would need to go 5-0 to have a chance at the NFC East entering the final stretch in December.

No. The important occurrence was not the continuing breakout and dominance of rookie RB DeMarco Murray. Although his 4-game stretch in games that he has started since Felix Jones went down in New England is easily the best yardage total of any 4-game stretch of any Cowboys Running Back EVER. Murray has 601 yards in 4 starts, and as a reference point, Emmitt Smith's biggest 4-game yardage pile is 550 yards from 1993. Nobody is saying that Murray is Emmitt, but, um, we must be saying he is pretty good.

No. The important occurrence was not Tony Romo finally resembling the QB that he has been since 2006 with a nearly perfect passing performance against the Bills. Only Peyton Manning and Tony Romo have a streak of the last 5-straight years of over a 90 passer rating. He is sure to make it 6 in a row, it would seem, now that he has bounced back from his broken rib/punctured lung episodes from Week 2 and finally looks the part of a QB who is in charge of his offense.

And, No. The important occurrence was also not the defense suddenly making opposing QBs look helpless against various blitz concepts. Although it was sure pleasant to see some invention and execution meet on the field after the debacle in Philadelphia where Rob Ryan's bravado seemed to lack a whole lot of substance when his poking-with-a-sharp-stick routine fizzled on Sunday Night 15 days ago. Now, the blind-side hits on unsuspecting QBs are adding up and so are the takeaways. That is a very key development as well, but not the most vital.

The very important occurrence that has happened for the Dallas Cowboys 2011 campaign might have taken place in a meeting room in Valley Ranch or perhaps on the team chartered airplane as it flew quietly from Philadelphia back to Dallas. Wherever it happened doesn't matter. But it happened. Jason Garrett decided to challenge and trust his offensive line and return to attacking offense. And when that happened, the Cowboys offense received a facelift that it needed terribly.

Anyone who watches the Cowboys on a week to week basis with a very careful eye will see that the Cowboys problems are not nearly as delicious as people want you to believe on the national pre-game shows. While they argue that Jason Garrett doesn't trust his QB Tony Romo to make smart throws at big moments, the reality was right in front of everyone's face. The head coach would love to be put in a spot where he had to trust his QB again. But, the issue never got that far as he stopped believing in his offensive line, one could argue, in the Metrodome back in the 2009 playoffs when Ray Edwards tossed Marc Colombo around the dome while Doug Free and Jason Witten were trying to handle Jared Allen. Then, in the middle, the Cowboys had their hands full with the "Williams Wall" and Romo was running for his life. As for the running game that day, well, there wasn't one. Romo was sacked 6 times and the Cowboys were spanked 34-3, leaving a bad taste in the mouth of those were were feeling pretty good about the 2009 season to that point.

From there came a 2010 season where the Cowboys started the year with Jason Garrett allowing the offensive line to prove itself. Within a month, the line was caving in on all running plays (who can forget the way Tennessee destroyed the Cowboys' front all day) and Romo was under pressure constantly. Leonard Davis and Colombo looked like they were done and the Cowboys had nobody behind them that they were willing to put on the field. New left tackle Free was being given help on nearly every occasion as Dallas was wisely making sure he was ready for primetime. They left the training wheels on Free through another trip to the Metrodome last season in Week 5 as the Cowboys threw 22 of 32 passes at or behind the line of scrimmage. They threw the ball because they had to, but the passes were all short and quick because they did not want to see if the OL could hold up. It was arguably the least aggressive game plan of Garrett's career and the Cowboys lost late without ever really throwing their best punch for fear that the punch might expose them to a counter they couldn't handle. It was textbook careful coaching.

The next week, the Cowboys saw why Garrett was so scared of his offensive line. Tony Romo was decked because of a faulty blitz pick-up and broke his collarbone. He was gone for the season and whatever remained of the Cowboys season and the Wade Phillips coaching regime was discarded that evening. The last two games Wade likely ever coached as a head coach in the NFL were two of the most embarrassing displays in Cowboys history as they were laughed at in front of their home fans by the Jacksonville Jaguars - a team that seldom laughs at anyone. Wade was put out of his misery in Green Bay in early November, 2010, as Clay Matthews and Dom Capers put a clinic of blitzes on a Cowboys offense that looked like they couldn't wait for the season to end.

In the offseason before 2011, the Cowboys knew they needed to gut their offensive line. They knew if they were ever compete again at a high level again, it would not be with Davis, Colombo, and even center Andre Gurode still holding down unchallenged spots on the offensive line that was no longer capable of even being called average. Their performance handicapped the offensive play calling and while fans wanted Romo and Garrett's heads on platters, the truth was that they were both doomed because of protection and blocking issues every single Sunday. Garrett's only advantage was that he did not suffer physical pain from the OL's lack of performance. Romo was the man who had to wear a sling because of it.

They bid those 3 highly-compensated veterans a farewell, and replaced them with kids. Tyron Smith was highly regarded and promising for any team in the NFL. Phil Costa and Bill Nagy were unregarded and Dallas was really gambling that they were right while the rest of the league missed on two young jewels who were ready for primetime. Change is good. But, change without proper replacements is reckless. It was most curious that the Cowboys seemed so sure of themselves and even talked about their new love for "zone blocking" and smallish type fighters in the trenches that surely did not agree with Hudson Houck's career resume of road-graders and pulling guards.

In the first 5 games, it was different but not better. The interior of the line was very bad. The running game was not going anywhere and the passing game was not stretching anyone. 3 and 5 step drops as Romo was trying to get rid of the ball quickly to save his body from another cast or sling. Garrett was not calling games to attack, he was calling games to just stay alive and hope for a play late. He was playing the cards he was dealt.

Something happened in New England as the Cowboys played another protective, conservative offensive game. Bill Nagy was hurt - forcing the Cowboys to bring back Montrae Holland. Felix Jones was hurt which forced DeMarco Murray into the group. Tony Fiammetta recovered from his injuries giving the Cowboys a true fullback. The zone running was almost completely scrapped for the familiar G-power and larger man blocking that the Cowboys know. Suddenly, the running game returned against the Rams. It gave the defense something to consider and opened up a little more space. At the same time, Romo was healing and returning to a QB who didn't look spooked.

Then, the massacre in Philadelphia hit, and that is when the details get fuzzy about Garrett's thinking. He hides his cards very well and talks for 30 minutes without saying much at his media press briefings. But, his actions speak loudly.

And upon the team's return to Arlington for Seattle and Buffalo, we are seeing the results of his actions. The offensive line has been granted a helping of belief from the play-caller and the Quarterback. They are being asked to block and protect. This allows the running game to feed the passing game and vice versa. And when that happens, things open up. Safeties creep up and get burned over the top. This is possible because the QB and play caller are willing to risk a 7-step drop and believe in pass protection again that is required for deep passes. Blocks are opened and swagger returns. And suddenly, we see that the Cowboys offense, for the first time in nearly 2 years, is back to attacking.

Is Phil Costa ready? No. Is Kyle Kosier healthy? Doesn't seem so. Is Holland any better than he has always been? Probably not. But, the group has a coach that has decided to put some responsibility back on their shoulders. That is easier at home against Buffalo than it is in Philadelphia or New York, but it is a welcome start. As they continue to show that they can be counted upon, I believe Garrett and Romo will continue to feed more their way.

The offensive line is proving it can carry some weight again and that is the story here. That certainly won't entertain a national audience like a Romo/Dez/Garrett/Jerry debate, but sometimes the truth doesn't attract ratings like fabrications.

All that matters from the Cowboys perspective is that they are back on the attack. Let's see if it continues in Washington.

1 comment:

qmc82 said...

I heard Romo played the entire 2009 season with a broken heart. Is that more legendary than playing with a punctured lung?