Monday, November 12, 2012

The Morning After: Cowboys 38, Eagles 23 (4-5)

While I cannot imagine that game will ever be given the coveted "instant classic" designation, the result for the Dallas Cowboys was exactly what they needed.  A road win against a team that is even more hopeless than they are.  A team with perhaps more drama.  And more veterans who may or may not have inspired efforts ready.  And a coach that is certainly not enjoying his final days at his post.

There won't be many opportunities for wins like this - A team just begging to be put to sleep if only you would oblige them.  But, you take your wins how you find them along the way and you move along.  The Cowboys now have a record of 4-5 and thanks to the rest of the NFC East having equally frustrating seasons, they now see hope and a potential winning record in just 11 days time.

It wasn't easy.  It never is with this bunch.  But, finally, in the late afternoon in Philadelphia, we saw "all 3 phases" of the team pitch in and make plays that found a victory in a place where that never comes easily:

OFFENSE - On this day, the theme was simple.  Philadelphia was going to get their pass rush going at the expense of a Dallas offensive line that is just not at the quality it needs to be.  They can not run block with any amount of consistency, and when an opponent decides they want to bring pressure against the Cowboys front, they are seemingly defenseless.  As the 2nd Quarter began, the Cowboys offensive line started to cave in at all of the wrong times.  We knew the Eagles rush was not as bad as their results this season, as they appear to have an advantage at pretty much every spot up and down the line against Dallas.

Then, because this is how coaching is done, when the Eagles saw that the Cowboys couldn't block them to give Tony Romo a chance to make a throw, they started sending more.  They blitzed in most likely passing situations, making the Cowboys offense even more frustrating for all involved.  On the 2nd drive of the day, facing a 3rd and 5, the Eagles actually blitzed 7 men in a cover 0 situation and Romo over-threw Dez Bryant down the right sideline.  This only encouraged more of the same.

On the 3rd Drive, the Eagles found back to back sacks on passing plays where the Cowboys could not hold up for even a moment.  Romo was hauled down twice so quickly that by the 2nd time, he appeared to almost have the Drew Bledsoe look in his eyes where he was not able to look up at his receivers because he knew he was about to get smashed.

The blitzes were all getting there, and each time they got to Romo, morale was dropping in the Cowboys huddle.

On the 4th Cowboys' drive, the Eagles decided to press their luck.  It was 1st and 10, with roughly 6 minutes left in the half, and new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles was now so confident that the Cowboys offensive line had no idea what to do next that he brought pressure right away.   He blitzed 6 and they were again collapsing the line, but Romo was ready for them.  He moved around, buying himself an extra split second, and went back to Dez Bryant down the sideline for a 49 yard gain.  So much about the blitz is picking your spots.  And maybe the new DC got a little greedy, because the Cowboys finally figured out the only way to battle a blitz - burn its hand when it touches the oven.

Still, the Eagles went to the locker-room only down 10-7 to a Cowboys team that looked like it had no idea how to generate many points on the scoreboard.  They were going to continue to bring pressure in the 2nd half and make the Cowboys offense under unpleasant working conditions.

Two series starts in the 2nd half resulted in 3 and outs for Romo and his crew, including another sack and a series where Romo was running for his life on every play.  Meanwhile, the Eagles were scoring 10 points on their first two drives of the half with a QB who was seeing his first professional action.  Now, the Eagles had a 17-10 lead and their stadium was beginning to enjoy a rare moment of hope this season, especially if they can crush the remaining life of their most hated rival from Texas.

And with 2:14 left in the 3rd Quarter is where perhaps the season saw a burst of hope.  Romo did what he has done so many times in his Cowboys career, make something out of a play where the offensive line gave him absolutely nothing.  It was 3rd and 5, and the Eagles only rushed 4.  But, they twisted Fletcher Cox around Trent Cole and both players were past Nate Livings and Tyron Smith and both had a great chance to crush Romo, but somehow, he twisted out of danger.  Meanwhile, Jason Babin had run around Doug Free from the other direction and also seemed to have Romo in his sights for a blind-side hit, but again Romo moved at the moment he had to, and then twisted into the open to find Miles Austin down the field for 25 yards.  It was a moment of genius.

3 plays later, Romo again bought just enough time to find that match-up he wanted so badly with Dez Bryant working against Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie.  The Cowboys were deploying 4 WRs and Witten, with three receivers to the left.  This left Cole Beasley and Dez to the right.  Because of the down and distance of 3rd and 4, the safety sat on the short route to Beasely at the sticks - which is where Romo went earlier in the game.  This left no safety over the top for Bryant, and Romo put the ball where it needed to be.

Was it really a catch?  Or simply pass interference?  The possibility of a touchdown being overturned never materialized, and the Cowboys put a drive together when they had to do it.  They tied the game at 17-17 entering the 4th Quarter, in a game that they had to have.

I would love to know if the offense was going to be able to do it again in the 4th Quarter if they were not assisted so well by the defense and special teams in that final quarter, but we will never know now.  Would Romo have to find a few more magic tricks? Because it sure doesn't seem that the OL had any chance for most of the day.  Any if you can't run block or pass protect, what exactly can you do?

Luckily, though, all 3 phases chipped in.

SPECIAL TEAMS - The irony of the punt return and kick return issues has been that ineffective players have been left back in each spot for quite a while despite their performance because they had both shown at one time they were capable of "big plays".  So, Felix Jones and his kick returns of years gone by and Dez Bryant's electric punt returns of 2010 were both used despite the eye-ball test that indicated that Felix didn't have the burst anymore and Dez still made too many Dez-like decisions and his ball security was brutal.

So, enter Lance Dunbar and Dwayne Harris.  Dunbar had a big return against the Giants and another real solid effort in Atlanta since taking over the job.  But, Harris is the one who might have put his stamp on the 2012 season.  He almost broke one against the Falcons last week, but on Sunday, he cracked open that same 17-17 deadlock early in the 4th Quarter with a 78-yard return that justified all of the time and effort they put into his young career to develop him after his early issues in just making the team.

He was shot out of a cannon up the left sideline, and once the Cowboys had scored 2 touchdowns in less than 2 minutes, they had the rookie QB Foles right where they wanted him - in a spot where he might force a throw into coverage.

And that is where the final phase entered.

DEFENSE - It has been a source of many arguments this season, the question of whether the Cowboys are actually an average or a really good defense.  If they are better than average, they need plays where they take the game over.  They need stops at just the right moments.  And they certainly need to rank higher than 31st in the NFL in takeaways.  That is just flat-out unacceptable.

Well, on Sunday, in a place where they were carved up for 495 yards last season (the most yards ever conceded in the 50 trips to Philadelphia), they took the game over with huge plays in the most important moments.  First, Anthony Spencer accepted a Foles screen right into his arms - as Jason Pierre Paul did to Romo 14 days back - only to have the play nullified by Mo Claiborne's toughest day as a pro.  Claiborne held on the other-side of the field, bailing out the Eagles for a few moments - until Harris returned the punt for the touchdown.

Then, Foles tried to throw a slant to DeSean Jackson, only to have Brandon Carr and Ernie Sims thigh combine for a fortuitous interception and then a subsequent return to the end-zone for Carr.  A team that has dropped its share of bounces needed that and appeared to have the game put away.

But, as football sometimes goes, the Eagles stayed alive long enough to have one final chance from their own 6-yard line with :53 left in the game and down 8.  One snap later, Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware meet at the Quarterback and Spencer strips the ball away so that Jason Hatcher can score the easiest of touchdowns by smothering the ball over the goal-line.

2 Defensive touchdowns and a 3rd was nullified by penalty - all in the 4th Quarter.  Those are the types of moments this defense needs more of.

But, you are saying, "come on, Bob.  It was a rookie Quarterback.  How often does that happen?"

Well, actually, the Cowboys next 3 games are against rookie Quarterbacks if Foles for Michael Vick is a permanent adjustment in Philly.  And why wouldn't it be?  Brandon Weeden next week.  Robert Griffin on Thanksgiving (certainly, be careful what you ask for with him), and Foles again on December 2.  Then, on December 9th, they play 2nd year man Andy Dalton.

So, yes, it appears there will be more rookie Quarterbacks to attempt to hassle.  This defense can make its reputation quite quickly against the young arms of the NFL.

Is it fools gold - Or Foles gold?  Maybe.  The Cowboys certainly had many mistakes to clean up and they are not scaring anyone but themselves with that offense right now.  But, they left with the win and now have a schedule that makes 7-5 after 12 games seem like a reasonable possibility with 3 straight at home against rookie QBs.

With all 3 phases chipping in, they preserved their season for the time being.  Now, they hope for a little more health and some good home-cooking in a month where they traditionally make their move.

We will worry about that other month that lies ahead when they get there.  At least now, December appears like it might be the home of some relevant football.  We worried about that 24 hours ago.

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