Where do we go?
Where do we go now?
Where do we go? - Axl Rose
The problem with "measuring stick" games is that often times we see that the measurements found were completely different than the measurements that were anticipated.
Sure, victory was far from assured entering a Monday Night Football match-up with the Chicago Bears, but, you certainly thought the Cowboys would be able to make this a battle that would hold the nationwide audience for 3 riveting hours of football entertainment.
Instead, midway through the 3rd Quarter, even the television sets in North Texas were seeking baseball in an effort to find a competitive event.
Because "competitive" was not how you would describe what the Cowboys ran out there on Monday night. And without question, front and center in this discussion must be the offensive unit that has so underperformed its level of expectation.
The offense, with all of the marquee names that it includes, has not come close to keeping its end of the bargain since its shocking win in New York a month ago. Since then, we have seen nothing to remind us of the big nights it has enjoyed under Jason Garrett. It is a 1-dimensional mess that has had a blue-print laid out by Seattle to the rest of the league on how to take it down hard.
Start by controlling and discouraging a run offense that has no conviction and no real reason to enjoy any self belief. After impressive numbers in New York that were partly assisted by a miraculous run down the right sideline by DeMarco Murray, this team has run the ball worse than any team in the entire league. They, in weeks 2-4, are last in the NFL in yards, yards per carry, yards per game, and pretty much any other metric one could possibly keep to measure a running game. The demoralizing way in which they return to the huddle after turning another 1st and 10 into a 2nd and 12 can be felt through the television. They seem to know that the play is doomed the second the call comes out of Tony Romo's mouth.
But, they run the play anyway. Someone gets steamrolled at the point of attack. The line leaks defenders like a sieve, and Murray is creamed again before he ever starts his run.
Once the opponent has the Cowboys properly demoralized with 4 or 5 negative runs, the battle has been won.
From there, the offense begins to go into its own self-destruction mode - eliminating 50% of the playbook because they simply are not good enough to try anymore runs. Now, they become easy to defend as a team that is clearly going to throw the football. Now, Chicago, a squad that gets pressure without ever bringing a blitz, has you panicking. The Cowboys offensive line knows that they are up for a big struggle just against the front 4. If the Bears choose to send more than 4, then it is going to cave in the pocket once again. So, they bluff again and again in the presnap. They "sugar" the blitz and require mental gymnastics from all of the Cowboys' line to process what could happen with different spooks and bluffs.
The line communicates carefully about each scenario and sort through who will try to block each defender. "Try to block" is the key here, because of the distinction between knowing who to block and actually then carrying out said assignment. At the same time Romo must be confident that his receivers know what is happening, and in the event of one of those Lovie Smith blitzes, he has to belive that the receiver knows to cut off his route. Dez Bryant needs 3 seconds to get off of press coverage and run a "Dig" at 15-20 yards, so, if a blitz is coming, he has to know that Romo doesn't have 3 seconds. He must adjust and cut off his route - like they have practiced every day for years. But, that requires him to see and process what he sees the exact same way as his Quarterback sees it. And clearly, that didn't happen as Charles Tillman was all alone on the screen where Dez was supposed to be on the interception that began the destruction last night. It is a bad sign when the opposing cornerback reads the blitz adjustment better than the wide receiver he is covering.
Then comes the rare opportunities to actually hit a home-run over the top that will save the bacon of the offense with a giant explosive play that finds the end-zone or at least a field-shifting gainer that allows everyone to capture a little wind of momentum and confidence. And, for these last 3 weeks, we have seen every opportunity hit the ground (or in the case of last night, hit a defender). We have seen at least 2 balls hit Dez Bryant in the face in the last 3 weeks and several more where he looks as reliable as a dead battery. We have seen at least 2 balls hit Jason Witten in both hands as he was running down the seam and headed for the end-zone for another certain touchdown. We saw a slant perfectly thrown through Kevin Ogletree's hands yesterday and hit his forearm before bouncing right to a Bears' defender for another interception that swung the game dramatically.
Romo has been betrayed by his offensive line for years, but now the receivers cannot catch the ball either. Frustration grows with each ear-holing hit he sustains in the pocket which is obviously drastically affecting his judgement as Romo has thrown numerous brutal picks this season. We could debate which pick was the worst, but QB errors in pretty much every game are not helping the situation either. Romo, coming off maybe his best season, is regressing quickly to mediocrity in 2012. After a season where he turned the ball over only 13 times all year, he already has given the ball away 10 times. Nobody should blame him for a good portion of them, but they are what they are. And his ball security is not improving. The reasons are explainable to a point, but nobody wants explanations right now. They want performance. And this offense is performing very badly.
This 2-2 start is quite disappointing after the way the first night of the season transpired. But, it should be remembered that 4 games, no matter how good or bad, does not a season make. There is plenty of football to be played and the Cowboys will now take a 2 week break to think about where they are and how to get out of this mess. They share a 2-2 record with a majority of the league and therefore still have a chance to get out of this mess. But, I fear that the only true fix to their problems is not available to them until the season is over.
And while this is a familiar theme to readers of my work, it is morning's like this one where it should probably be pointed out again: Until this organization places a priority on building its roster from the "inside-out", they will always face nights where they are bullied around the field.
Football is not a finesse game. It is played by giant humans with mean intentions. If you don't have enough bullies, than you will get bullied. And, right now, it seems just about every week that the Cowboys are out-numbered in the bully department by quite a bit.
And while it is too simplistic to always claim that the team with more muscle wins, we can clearly see that Dallas is generally at a muscle disadvantage on both sides of the ball and they need big plays to erase the battle in the trenches that they never seem to dominate.
And that is why when free agency and the draft comes around every year, a few voices who watch this cringe when the Cowboys target yet another player that barely weighs 200 pounds in the top few rounds. Cornerbacks, wide receivers, and other light-weight players can break games wide open with a single play, but a 300-pound stud on either line can impact EVERY play by either being un-blockable on defense or a pillar of granite on the offensive line that opens holes and protects your passer.
No, there is very little "wow" in taking a guard or defensive tackle in the draft or in free agency, and for an organization that boasts the only art exhibit in the NFL, the only Victoria's Secret location inside a stadium, and the only NFL-themed golf course, perhaps "wow" is the primary objective. But, it is night's like last night where you see that your offensive line never had a chance, and despite the fact that the Bears offensive line is a mess, your defensive line had no way of proving that to anyone by making the Bears look bad.
If you cannot block theirs, but, they can block yours, then football is going to be a very difficult game for your team to win. Obviously, a quality QB can turn that in your favor, but if he is off - even a little bit - then you are in big trouble.
Your offensive line is caving in. You cannot run the ball to save your life. Your QB is missing throws and the receivers are dropping others. Other than that, the offense seems in pretty good form.
Perhaps the biggest point of depression should be that there is no help arriving soon. On offense, unless you think Phil Costa is the savior of this thing - and if you do, I advise you to find film of the New England game last year - then you probably realize that your "best 11" are already playing. There are no injuries to speak of and your squad is fully present and accounted for. You left the port with the plan of Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernardeau upgrading your guard positions, when the league was scratching their heads at the Cowboys free agent strategy on that front. When the Panthers have a vacancy at guard and don't consider a 26-year old for that opening who is already on their roster, then you should likely ask questions about why that is.
Nobody had an issue with signing Brandon Carr or drafting Morris Claiborne. They look like excellent players, but could the Cowboys afford to put all of their resources in the secondary? I have written plenty on the topic in the past, but it seems slightly more relevant when your offense cannot run its own playbook because of how bad they are up front.
The season is far from lost, but I never imagined we would not be any further down the road than this by now when Jason Garrett was named head coach. My gut tells me that we have tried his offensive philosophy for years now and have yet to find much to say it is approaching elite status. But, is it his playbook or the pieces he has to work with? Like the Wade Phillips defense, which seems to work pretty well in Houston, is it a matter of simply being betrayed by personnel?
For the most part, that is what I believe. This personnel department, led by Jerry, the man who has brought bras and panties to the art gallery, has continued to sell style over substance when making the big decisions that impact this team on game day.
It is a tired conclusion that was played out a decade ago when Dave Campo's run was reaching its end. But, the decisions that are made in the offseason to get the "wow" guys in here are continuing to keep this organization in a perpetual state of neutral.
And last night, at the hands of Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears, the Cowboys once again couldn't get out of their own way.
This year, as far as we can tell, is not different.