Monday, October 22, 2012

The Morning After: Cowboys 19, Panthers 14 (3-3)

Just get to the bus.

When you win ugly and to a certain extent as the recipient of a far amount of good fortune (dare we say, luck) in the National Football League, you do not wait around or apologize for the result.

You fully realize how rare and difficult wins are to achieve, and therefore, when something unexpected and fortunate happens to you, you try to hide your smiles, remember what you did to earn your victory as well (because good fortune is never enough to win a game on it's own), and hurry to the bus, lest anyone changes their mind about the generosity of the opponents, the weather, or in this case, those officials who sometimes make a mistake or two in your favor.

Such seemed to be the case in Charlotte on Sunday when the Cowboys escaped the Panthers partly because of some calls that favored Dallas late in the game and partly because Carolina seems to have as many (or more) issues that they are dealing with as their opponent did.

Nevertheless, given the finicky hand of fate, the Cowboys lost a game in Baltimore that they should have won, and perhaps won a game against Carolina that they were pretty fortunate to win.

Such is life in a sport where there are so few games and everyone of them seems like the end of the world.  And, as I write many times a year, it is also a sport where at the end of the year they don't ask "how" - as in, how did you win these games? - but rather, "how many" - as in, how many wins do you have?

And, aside from a few select teams in the NFL who do nothing but win (Atlanta, Houston), and a few teams that do nothing but lose (Cleveland, Jacksonville, and even, Carolina), this is the NFL right now.  It is a league where as I write this, 21 of the 32 teams have either 3 or 4 losses.  They are neither in a good place on October 22, nor are they out of the race.  They have handful of wins and a handful of losses.

None of these teams want to be in this spot, but when 66% of your league is all in this similar position of having 3 or 4 losses so far, it is tough to say that all the complaints about Dallas right now don't apply to quite a few different teams.  Not expecting that to make anyone feel better, but rather, just to understand that the issues are not uncommon and league-wide.

Yesterday, the Cowboys fell victim again to red zone inefficiency.  When your offense is struggling to amass yardage, and yesterday with just 312 yards, that would apply, then you have to be able to come away with 7 points when the chance arises.  But, in each of the 3 opportunities for Dallas, they left with 3 points, instead of 7.  That puts them at 42% (8 for 19) for red zone scoring efficiency.  53% is the league average, with a few teams above 70% (Green Bay and New Orleans).  Dallas finds itself surrounded by other stunning offenses like Cleveland and St Louis.  If just one of those field goals is a touchdown, the Cowboys are not scratching and clawing, while needing a helping from Lady Luck to put this one in the one column.

This may speak to execution, but it may also speak to more on the topic of Jason Garrett's aversion to risk.  Down 14-13, with under 4 minutes to play, the Cowboys find themselves at the Carolina 15.  On 2nd Down, Tony Romo puts a pass right on Dez Bryant's hands in the end zone.  Bryant cannot come up with what would have been a nice catch, but rather petitions the officials (again) for a flag he will not get.  So, the Cowboys face 3rd and 9, which is when Garrett does not allow for another shot at the end zone where it will force Carolina to also score a Touchdown or lose.  Rather, he calls a very safe middle run that ends the drive's TD prospects, and settles for a 16-14 lead that hangs by a thread.

On the ensuing drive, the Cowboys front is doing a nice job of getting pressure as finally getting Jay Ratliff and Anthony Spencer to join DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher is looking to have some positive results.  But, with a 4th and 2 coming, the Cowboys fall back into their bad habit of not being lined up with the proper 11 players in a timely fashion, and it almost beats them.

Luckily, this 13 man grouping was not flagged, instead they were granted the timeout that Anthony Spencer is trying to call as he runs to the sideline. Very fortunate, given that the Panthers were already into a play that they completed for a 1st Down, and that the league has really been cracking down on "12 men" calls this season league-wide.

"They are extremely fortunate to have gotten that timeout called" - Darryl Johnston, Fox

Then, on the very next play, the Panthers' claims for a pass interference are ignored as Louis Murphy had Morris Claiborne on his back before the ball arrived.  As any player will tell you, it is only a penalty if the flag is thrown, but anyone watching it realizes the rookie corner got away with a big one there, as well.  A new set of downs at midfield, while only trailing by 2, would have set up Carolina in a pretty good position with 2 minutes to play.

But, the Cowboys took those 2 breaks and tried to kill the clock off with a few run plays.  However, facing a 2nd and 9, the Cowboys enjoyed yet another beneficial ruling as James Anderson was called for a horse collar penalty he didn't commit on Phillip Tanner.  This gave the Cowboys 15 yards and a chance to kill off more precious moments in the final 2 minutes.

They kicked a Field Goal to go up 5, and then had more big moments from their defensive front, including a sack by Anthony Spencer who played a dominant game in his return.

We can talk about making your own breaks and things of that nature, but sometimes you get a call and sometimes you don't.  The Cowboys need to make no apologies for their 3rd win of the season, as they battled hard and overcame quite a few injuries that required the next man up to perform.  But, this also won't go straight to Canton as a masterpiece of football precision.

At 3-3, they are right in the heart of the toughest part of their schedule.  Everyone knew this 4 road games-in-5 game stretch was going to be a bear the second the schedule was released.  It was going to be imperative that they weather this storm so that when they finish with 5 of their final 7 at home, they would still be within striking distance.  And, as the Giants come calling next week, we can see a scenario where they complete a season sweep against New York (if they can do something that they have never done - beat the Giants in Arlington, Texas) and place themselves right in the heart of the NFC East divisional race.

This is far from a flawless football team.  The penalties are continuing to be prohibitive.  The self-inflicted errors and poor decision making will certainly continue to take its toll at inopportune times.  Not only that, but the war of attrition is certainly being felt each week as the Cowboys have lost Phil Costa for the foreseeable future, just as he was beginning to earn a reputation as a quality center.  Other injuries to players like Sean Lee seem less serious, but they are certainly still felt when he must watch the crucial moments from the sideline.

But, let's us not forget in our self-loathing and angst that this is the NFL - where every team has issues.  This is the NFC East - where the Eagles just fired their defensive coordinator.  And every team has issues that are frustrating and annoying and the worst thing ever.  In each port of call, there are media and fans claiming that "this type of performance will never work against the Giants" or "if this team thinks it can make the playoffs playing like this..." That is the nature of the beast.  And it is what makes this game intoxicating on every level for the entire autumn and winter.

This is where a small dose of perspective might actually be called for.  The chances of finding a flawless team this time of year are not very good.  Myopia makes you feel like the laughing stock of the league, until you step back and check your opponent's situation.

Understand that there is only one opponent you play each week.  And that opponent has its own issues and baggage and self-loathing.  One look at Cam Newton in the post game press conference reveals the piano of expectations that he is carrying around on his back.  And when work broke this morning that they relieved their general manager of his duties, it became apparent that Carolina has plenty of its own issues.  Just like Baltimore, Chicago, and Tampa Bay.

Like so many teams in the NFL, the Cowboys are going through the pains of another season.  Odds are horrendously long that they will be the 1 team of the 32 to hold a Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans this year, because that is simple math.

They could use more talent, more health, better coaching, and better performances - like everyone else.

But, as we go through another round of assuring each-other that they are just another team, we should remember that there are some pretty good things going on for the Cowboys as well right now.  They do appear to be a defense that can make some stops.  They do appear to be a team that will battle hard for 60 minutes.  They look a little more convincing up front than a few weeks ago.  They do appear to be a team that is capable of winning any game on their schedule - as well as losing any game on their schedule.

The league has never been closer.  There are a few out front, a few way back, but the peloton in the middle is jammed with flawed teams and doubting fan bases and has never been bigger.

And you know something?  The peloton of mediocrity in late October has produced a Super Bowl champion later that winter about 4 of the last 7 years.

In no way should you read this and draw the conclusion that I am saying that the Cowboys are next on that list.  The only thing that list tells me is that winning ugly games to stay in the mix is a reasonable means of survival during the heart of the NFL season.

You certainly don't rest on your laurels after another ugly victory.  There is much to work on and clean up.  This is an unsustainable model for success right now, with self-inflicted errors and mediocre execution.

But, in preparing for the Giants on Sunday afternoon in the biggest showdown game since the last date with the Giants on opening night 7 weeks ago, apologizing for a fortunate win in Charlotte should be nowhere on the list.

Just get on the bus and get back to Dallas.

And remember those pleasant gifts next time a call goes the other direction.


The Phat Controller said...

Bob - good analysis. I wish we could steer the discussion away from playcalling to execution and depth.

Nobody seems to have problems with play calls that end up in TDs, or it least it's hard to find fault with a play call that results in a TD.

I think the deeper story here is that the Cowboys execution is so poor and their depth is lacking (except for pro player assessments - they can find street free agents, can't they??) such that they have very slim to zero margin of error.

All this points back to the front office which keeps drafting players who may have a shot to contribute 2-3 years down the road rather than make an immediate impact now. And mixing draft picks with value and need. I like the Mo Claiborne pick but I would like to have a quality mid-teen draft pick and a second rounder who may sniff the field at some point in the 2012 season.

Sean said...

Can we please stop saying "it does not matter how ugly the win is" or "do not apologize for wins" or "just get to the bus"?

While I do not disagree with the sentiment to a certain degree, the reality is that the cliche does not apply to these Dallas Cowboys. If the team is a perennial contender or even a team with a recent streak of solid 12-4, 13-3 or 11-5 records, then, sure, go ahead and say "just get to the bus and don't apologize for the win." But teams that are perpetually mediocre or downright bad have no business extolling the virtues of the notion that a "win is a win is a win." Doing so merely perpetuates the culture of under-achievement and self-congratulation that permeates the fabric of the Cowboys organization. Ugly wins (which arguably make up the majority of the Cowboys wins every year...) are symptomatic of an undisciplined, disorganized and less-than-talented bunch that scraps together a win because the other team is slightly worse that day. Parity in the NFL, however, is not an excuse to excuse an ugly win. Performance matters. Performance dictates consistency. Teams that continually win ugly are not consistent, cannot break out of perpetual .500 football and will not win the Super Bowl.

99-99 in this century. Frustratingly inconsistent. Ugly wins and demoralizing losses do not set the standard or even come close to approaching the standard of excellence that the Cowboys of the past created around here. Yeah, an ugly win will get another one in your win column, but with this bunch of inconsistent and undisciplined players, the rhetoric of "it's a win, doesn't matter what it looks like" will do nothing more than ensure the Cowboys are playing for a wildcard spot in the last two weeks as a .500 football club.

It's time to hold people accountable. Garrett shouldn't be exclaiming that "wins in the NFL are hard to get and I'm proud of you" in the locker room after a win like that. He should be telling them that it isn't good enough and repeated mistakes will get players cut. The rhetoric of apologia has got to stop at Valley Ranch or the infinite loop of mainlined mediocrity will never be broken.*

*Technically, I think all of the above is irrelevant anyway because until Jerry's gone it's all wishful thinking........