Monday, September 24, 2012

The Morning After: Cowboys 16, Bucs 10 (2-1)

A quick thought or two before we get into the meat of the day's events; wins are hard to come by in the National Football League.  Every week, some teams play their hearts out and still do not get to leave with the victory.  Wins are the entire point to sports, and while there are personal statistics, fantasy teams, style points, opinions that matter, opinions that don't matter, execution, point spreads, and countless other subjective and objective ways to analyze a sporting competition, the win is all that truly matters in the long run.  They will not ask "how" at the end of the season when they are deciding which 12 teams advance to the playoffs, they will ask "how many" wins do you have?

The Dallas Cowboys set the bar pretty high for this franchise.  They do not value a win like the Carolina Panthers or Cincinnati Bengals value a win.  They have a higher goal in mind at all times based on the 5 Lombardi Trophies and world titles.  This has turned the modern-day Cowboys' fan into one of the more self-loathing fan bases in sports today.

In a normal 9 or 10 win season, based on the fans I hear from, the Cowboys win about 3 games a year against teams so bad that the fans won't allow themselves to smile.  Then, the Cowboys win about 3 more other games each year where the team didn't play well.  So they aren't happy about those wins either because "that will never do in January" or "If this team thinks they can win with that effort each week, they have another thing coming".

By the time all of the complaining after wins is done, that leaves roughly 3 to 4 days each calendar year when most Dallas Cowboys fans allow themselves to feel good about the football team that they follow.  That constitutes about 1% of each year, with the other 99% spent wishing that Tom Landry and Roger Staubach were still here to teach these guys what good football looks like.  Because surely, those two never made mistakes, threw the ball into coverage, or won a game the ugly way.

We must all remember, wins are very hard to get in a sport where there is one game a week and the physical toll is so high.  Some teams make it look easy, but most struggle every single week.  Nobody is asking a Cowboys fan who has seen the mountain top to try to forget that, but it just seems that there should be a difference in public reaction between an ugly loss at Seattle and an ugly win against Tampa Bay.  Both were ugly.  Both were not well played.  Both were mistake filled.  But, the contest yesterday has about as important a distinction as there could possibly be in a sporting event; it was a victory.

As long as we can all see the obvious point that the world's ugliest victory is significantly better than the world's most beautiful loss, then we are on the same page.  But, man, the reaction that is in my email box and on my twitter account seems to indicate that nobody is willing to acknowledge that point.

OK, on with the talking points...

One thing that was consistent between the Seattle and Tampa games was the inconsistency of the offense and the frustrating difficulty it is having in trying to execute its game plan.  There appears to be some significant issues that surround this offensive unit and have made them a complete mess.  297 yards of total offense was nearly twice what Tampa Bay was able to put up, but far, far behind what the  mighty Cowboys offense is capable of.

Consider this:  In the Tony Romo era, according to my numbers, there have never before been consecutive games in which the Cowboys had Romo as their QB and fewer than 300 yards of offense each time.  In fact, when it has happened ever so rarely, Brad Johnson or Stephen McGee were making a mess of the offense that Romo has generally orchestrated with some ease.  But, now, with Seattle at 296 and Tampa at 297, the Cowboys offense - with all of their weapons present and available - they have stalled to an all-new low of production under their top QB.

Those issues are obvious and they seem to be snow-balling.  And again, many of the issues can be directed to the achilles heel of the modern-day Dallas Cowboys, the offensive line.  The players and names change, but the issues stay exactly the same with this unit, it would seem.  Changing 4 of the starters before the 2011 season and changing 3 more before the 2012 season hasn't appeared to adjust the narrative - they still cannot get out of their own way and seem to be incapable of winning their battles in most games, regardless of opponent.

They commit penalties by the dozen, while getting beat so badly that Romo appears lucky to still be able to stand.  Tampa featured a pass rush that is 32nd out of 32 teams since the start of the 2010 season, and yet the Cowboys were reduced to nearly helpless against them yesterday in the 3rd and 4th Quarters.

And we haven't even begun to discuss the running game, that appeared to try hard to feature DeMarco Murray as the centerpiece of the attack.  But how many negative runs can you allow before you stop allowing 1st and 10 to become 2nd and 12?  Well, by my count, they stopped at 8 for DeMarco.  And of those 8, I have about 0 of them as his fault as the OL was being over-run by Buccaneers that seemed to have little regard for the blocking efforts that were in front of them.

So, you scrap the running attack to go to the aerial plans, but those require that you can keep your QB from the injured list.  The hits Romo took yesterday were vicious and at times scary.  It seems like playing "Russian Roulette" where you simply hope that this isn't the hit that puts your Quarterback out for 2-3 months.  The one sack that really boggles the mind was the moment late in the 3rd Quarter when Romo sustained a brutal hit from Michael Bennett, brother of Martellus.  The Bucs rushed only 3 players on that down, so clearly Romo was thinking he had time.  But, Bennett was pushing through the blocking efforts of Jason Witten as if Dan Bailey switched uniforms with the usually reliable Witten.  Meanwhile, Doug Free, who had no other possible responsibility with other rushers in his area seemed to have a great spectator position on the play as he certainly did not assist the over-matched tight end.  The result was a collision that ultimately caused Romo to fumble the ball and perhaps to sustain a few aches he will feel this week.

The Cowboys seemed to get lucky in that regard yesterday, but for how long?  The Chicago Bears are the next opponent and they happen to have the most sacks registered in the NFL this season.

As for Witten, the results from the Tampa game were roughly just as disconcerting and shocking as they were the week before in Seattle.  I have no idea what is going on with one of the most consistently excellent football players in this era, but one can only attach his significant injury of August to his most uncharacteristic start in September.  There is a fine line between being a warrior and being a weak link, and Witten is certainly crossing over in the minds of many as the same people who were singing his praises for his heroic rushing back to the field to help the team now want him criticized for hurting the cause.

Is he right physically?  Is he right mentally?  Is the spleen injury simply serving as a easy explanation for a player with incredibly high mileage on his odometer?  Nobody knows, but if we were going to call the Seattle game the worst game of his career, then what do we do with Tampa?  This is a disturbing trend that has to make him question himself right now. Some have asked how this story would be handled if it was Dez Bryant, and the answer from this laptop is disbelief.  If you want to compare someone who has been one of the very best at his position for a decade with a guy who has hardly left the starting blocks in his career, go ahead.  But, I will err on the side of cutting Witten some slack that few deserve and assume he rushed back before his body was ready.  Does he need to play through this or should he perhaps spend the Chicago week and the bye week to get right for October and beyond is the real question in my mind.  He just isn't himself.  But, to assume that he switched bodies with Martellus Bennett in some sort of dollar-movie plot twist, seems folly to me and a major jump to conclusions.  Count him out, at your own risk.

The bottom line, offensively, appears to remain the same.  The offensive line is still broken and the Cowboys are paying the price for trying to find sales last March when perhaps they should have addressed the line of scrimmage first and foremost.  Carl Nicks or Brandon Carr?  If you can't afford them both, which do you need?  There is no wrong answer and there is no right answer.  Which ever you picked would be fantastic and the other position would still be undermanned.  The Cowboys got Carr, but their offensive line still looks like something they have to try to game-plan around rather than use as a weapon.

Meanwhile, the additions of Carr, Mo Claiborne, Bruce Carter, and Barry Church have raised the defensive play pretty well.  Much like the offense, there were too many holes to fill, and now with the huge injury to Church that will cancel the remainder of his season, the Cowboys scramble to find safety play that is anywhere close to passable.  To the Cowboys credit, their first idea seems to make plenty of sense, which is to get their 4 best corners all on the field at the same time by moving Carr to safety.  He certainly has the size to do it, but whether that becomes an issue when more advanced offenses than Tampa are the opponent work on ways to expose that remains to be seen.  The Brodney Pool idea of last spring was a waste of time and money, and now safety seems as thin as it has ever been - which says something if you consider the days of Keith Davis and Pat Watkins.

But, overall, the defense looks more capable than we have seen in a while.  The true tests are yet to come, and the physical loss to Seattle will remain until the Cowboys demonstrate the ability to deal with Ray Rice running the ball at them, but so far so good against teams throwing on Dallas.  3 and outs were the order of the day, and if we are going to point out how great the Giants were at killing the Tampa defense, are we allowed to point out that this inept Tampa offense had a much more enjoyable day playing the Giants, too?  At least compared to their putrid effort of 166 yards yesterday, the 307 yards and the 34 points (albeit assisted by the defense) the week before looks good, right?  Wow.  They must really be questioning where year 4 of the Josh Freeman experiment is taking them.  Before the game, a colleague compared his career to Quincy Carter and I scoffed.  Then, I watched him play.

That was ugly.  Mistakes all over the field and a physical beating was sustained by many key components of this squad.  There is simply nothing easy about this league and this particular team compounds that by making even the simplest game on their schedule look difficult.  And yet, this team is 2-1 waiting for Chicago next Monday Night and has a chance to be in 1st place heading into their bye week.

So, I guess the point is to remember that during the self-loathing and gnashing of teeth, it is ok to do what the team is doing right now for a brief moment.  Sigh and enjoy the rare feeling of victory for a second before starting to work on the next opponent.  No matter how ugly and qualified it is, there are only about 6-12 mornings like this a year if you follow a football team.  Don't be that guy who tells the waiter that this steak is simply unacceptable and walk out of the restaurant.  This league is too close from top to bottom to forget that the ultimate goal every Sunday is to be the one team that leaves that stadium with a "W".

And the ugliest win in the world is still worth the same as the easiest 63-0 victory.

Breathe.  There are too many battles ahead to walk around angry on the day after a win.  Things need to be fixed and everyone is well aware of this.  I imagine Jason Garrett is clear that things need to get way better very quickly.

If only they could play Tampa Bay ever week.


Dave said...

I have no problem with the win. My only concern is, as you stated, the mess that is our offense. What was once a high scoring offense now seems almost inept. We can't expect to win a lot of games with 16 points.

Ben said...

Some possible band aids could be to go to a more short pass oriented offense, with some max pro sprinkled in there to take deep shots. Also Parnell had a nice preseason at OT, could be worth a shot with the way Free is playing.