Another game where the game was in doubt late.
Another game where plays were made and unmade.
Another game where progress is questioned and the big picture looks messy.
Another game of Dallas Cowboys football, circa 2012.
You have to wonder what this team looks like through the eyes of Jerry Jones. Actually, it would seem that you can imagine what he sees by simply taking a very optimistic look at reality. For instance, again last night, versus the only undefeated team in the NFL, the Cowboys had a chance until late to win that game.
All they needed was a stop from a defense that was playing very solid football.
So, they were sent out there, trailing by only 3 with 5:21 to play in the game. A stop would mean that your offense would have another chance to race down the field with a chance to win. We know this offense isn't great at many things right now, but the hurry-up offense appears to be something that they are actually somewhat proficient at these days. It is not unreasonable to assume a defensive stop could have generated a victory or at least overtime.
The defense is improved, but we better not get too carried away. It is fashionable to say the Cowboys defense is much better than they have been in recent years, and that seems provable. It is also heard that they are much better than the offense and if anything, is carrying this team these days, and I don't see many people arguing that point, either.
The question, however, is can this team be called a top defense yet? In other words, can they get a stop when they must get a stop? In Seattle? In Baltimore? In Atlanta? Now, we know the answer to that. This much improved defense had 5:21 to get off the field last night. And it didn't happen.
They were gifted a very rare offensive pass interference call to start that fateful Falcons drive. The Falcons evidently knew that burning the remaining time was not going to be easy, so they took a huge shot down the field on their first snap. But, Julio Jones pushed off of Morris Claiborne in a matchup that goes back to the SEC and the Cowboys find themselves in a great spot, pushing Atlanta back in a 1st and 20 hole at their own 10 yard line.
From there, a rather innocuous Michael Turner 10 yard run and a short 3-yard pass to Tony Gonzalez sets up the desired 3rd and long. The Cowboys are great at getting off the field, but they are playing a team that is great at staying on the field. And maybe the best reason for this is that little speed demon, and native Texan, Jacquizz Rodgers. Rodgers, all 5'6, 200 pounds of him, shakes off Orlando Scandrick on his way to a big gainer of 32 yards as a safety valve on 3rd and 7 which moves the chains and the ball past midfield.
Now, the time is inside 4 minutes, and the Cowboys have to burn all of their timeouts to keep this game alive. They do, which sets up another 3rd Down situation where on 3rd and 8, the Cowboys momentarily appear to have gotten a stop when a flag was thrown because Orlando Scandrick again busted when he had a handle on Roddy White's collar. Perhaps this was more of a cumulative penalty because on the play before White was nearly the victim of another penalty when Mike Jenkins was all over him on a fade pattern down the right sideline, but no flag was thrown. When this one flew, the Falcons now had a new set of downs and the Cowboys were nearly out of chances and timeouts.
Yet, once again, for a third time in one possession, the defense had a chance to get a stop and get off the field. This time, it is 3rd and 6 from their 34 yard line. This is a spot on the field that will cause Mike Smith some consternation given his field goal kicker's night. Do you try a field goal and risk the field position given away if he misses? This might be a spot for a punt. But, we will never know. Because for the 3rd time, the Falcons move the chains and kill the clock.
It is again a soft toss out to Rodgers out on the edge, against a Cowboys zone that has Danny McCray in space against Rodgers. To call this a poor matchup is an understatement as Rodgers throws on the brakes, allows McCray to fly by, and then crosses the marker with all of the ease in the world.
Three different 3rd and long situations for the Falcons. Any stop might have swung the game, and on all 3 occasions, the defense caved in.
Now, this isn't to suggest the offense played well. They didn't. Again, this is an offense that can't run, tries to avoid their 2-minute drill all game long, bogs down in the red zone and cannot get the ball to Dez Bryant. They fear their own offensive line and coach many of these games as if they are going to play the safest, most caution-filled game plan they can design to attempt to scratch out a result just like this.
I could go on and on about the Garrett/Romo offense in year 6 still looking like it is inefficient and filled with parts that don't quite match the concepts. But, I assume that is where everyone is continuing to look today.
So, I am attempting to investigate this theory that the defense is now fixed and played "well enough to win."
In my book, well enough to win means that when the game is on the line, they can get a stop. But, just like the Baltimore game, when the game was on the line, the opponent marched right down the field and killed the clock and got their points.
Did they battle hard? Of course. Were there some great individual performances? I am not sure Bruce Carter has ever played better.
But, the following things are true about this "good enough to win" defensive night:
- Julio Jones caught 5 passes for 129 yards
- Roddy White caught 10 passes for 118 yards
- Michael Turner ran for 102 yards
- Matt Ryan threw the ball for 342 yards and a QB rating over 100
- Atlanta put up 453 yards of offense
- The Falcons totaled 8 different plays of 20 yards or more. 8!
- The Falcons converted 7 different 3rd Downs
- The Falcons had 0 giveaways
- The Falcons had 6 drives of 60 yards or more, including all 4 drives in the 2nd half
- The Falcons scored or missed FG's on 7 of 9 possessions
- All 9 possessions started in their own territory, averaging their own 22 yard line
Yes, everyone can point to 19 points and say that holding Atlanta under 20 is good enough, and it seems that it should be. But, if you are guarding Jordan, and you hold him 10 points below his season average and yet he scores all of the baskets late to get the win, did you stop him? Did you play well enough to win?
Did the defense play well enough to win?
The point here is not to in anyway alibi for an offense that is just not capable this season of scaring anyone. Not at all. It is, however, a caution to this idea that this defensive issue is fixed. You wonder what Sean Lee, Jay Ratliff, and Barry Church would mean to this defense if they were fully available, but you also duck lest other teams throw rotten vegetables at you for attempting to act like all teams don't have injuries to deal with, too.
The offense is a mess. The coaching staff continues to put up a track record that seems to indicate .500 is about what they are capable of. This, of course, invites speculation about the direction of the franchise and the stability of the coaching staff. Is Sean Payton a delicious scenario? Or Jon Gruden? Of course, they are. When a team is 16-16 under this coach and showing no signs of going on an extended run, it is tough not to wonder if the direction of the franchise could be improved by someone who has a Super Bowl ring from the last decade.
If this team had won more than 4 of their last 13 games, perhaps everyone could remain calm after another disappointing day. But, things are getting late here. The chances are running out. Either this team springs a win against an equally disappointing Philadelphia, or the time to prepare for 2013 may already be upon us.
Garrett speaks of 3 phases, and as far as I am concerned, special teams and offense have both had failing grades. The defense is marginally better, but don't fool yourself when we speak of elite defenses. Elite defenses take the ball away. Only one team in the NFL has fewer takeaways than the Dallas Cowboys (the Colts).
Elite defenses get sacks and stops. When the game is hanging in the balance for a win, the defense seizes that moment. And in Baltimore or Atlanta, it seems reasonable to ask if this defense behaved like anything better than average when the game was sitting there waiting to be won.
Fixed? I don't share that optimistic appraisal of the situation.
Then again, the Cowboys chief optimist, Jerry Jones, is the one who has an opinion that truly matters around here. That much has been made abundantly clear.
It will be interesting to see how his actions begin to affect this situation the further this heads towards another disappointing end. His early season pursuits of the "glory hole" have been exchanged for a team just hoping to play relevant football into December this year.
An all-too familiar script that is being followed for another year.