Monday, December 17, 2012

The Morning After: Cowboys 27, Steelers 24 (8-6)

If it makes your stomach turn to know that many Steelers fans infiltrated your stadium for a pivotal game in mid-December that you simply could not afford to lose, it should.  Maybe there will come a time when the Cowboys enjoy such ticket-holder loyalty that those who cannot attend the game make sure their tickets only find other home-team faithful, but clearly that time is not December, 2012.  However, after thousands do storm your castle, your holiday revenge can be best enjoyed by watching them exit your stadium with sad looks on their faces because they just suffered a potentially season-ruining defeat at the hands of your battered band of brothers.

If you cannot keep them from visiting, make their experience end in such an unpleasant way that they might not be as inclined to join you again.  What wasn't accomplished when all of the Bears fans visited in September, was accomplished on Sunday evening.

Happy Holidays, Pittsburgh.

Brandon Carr, who cost $50 million to acquire in the offseason, had a rather quiet start to his Cowboys career, but his 3 interceptions have all come in the 2nd half of the season and have all included returns of 36 yards or more.  But, yesterday, when he stepped in front of a Ben Roethlisberger pass intended for Mike Wallace, he won a game that was vital to the way 2012 is remembered.  If they are to qualify for the post-season, that result was demanded to be put in the win column, and their big off-season purchase did the deed.

It was another game that required late game heroics, and some pass rush moments that make you think the Cowboys defensive front is developing a flare for the dramatic.  It was not easy, nor pretty, but since when has success been so plentiful around here that style points were important?

This is a team in 2012 who has shown its greatest attribute is their battle.  They, honestly, have seemed to make up for some shortcomings by being the team that has brought an amazing amount of intestinal fortitude and drive to these games, and unlike some of their predecessors, have not seemed willing to be the first team to blink.

And that fight can make up for quite a few things on the field - especially when you are a team that has a lot to make up for.  But, will can push skill quite a ways.  And this team continues to demonstrate a fair amount of will.  Even if their own stadium is being over-run by "terrible towels".

Now, let's not get carried away with this discussion.  The facts are that this team went on a run when it started getting better performances from its franchise quarterback.  If we all believe that Tony Romo is a better than average QB in this league (and anyone who doesn't should just stop reading now), then it certainly behooves him to play like it.  And, for reasons that are both clear and unclear, it seems that he has had to hit his stride after some catastrophic experiences early in each of the last 2 seasons.

In 2012, Romo had one of his slowest starts ever.  After the Giants game on October 28, where he had a very forgettable 1st half to both the game and his year, we broke down his season to date:
Romo is +73 (TD/INT) for his career, but a painful -4 for his season.  And his 13 picks are already the 3rd most of his 7-year career.  After always being amongst the league leaders in QB rating with numbers in the mid to high 90s, he finds himself below Jay Cutler and right next to Michael Vick in 2012, with a 78 QB rating (very close to Quincy Carter's 71-type numbers).

What is happening to one of the more efficient QBs of this era? In almost all metrics, since he has come into the league, he is no worst than 5th when it comes to QB rating behind Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning. That is the entire list. Anyone else? And Romo has them on statistical metrics of the individual variety.

It is tough to narrow down specifically what is happening, and honestly, to blame one aspect of the offense is to let others off the hook. But, the following items are true.

* Romo has turned the ball over more than anyone in the sport this year
* Romo has 0 TDs and 5 interceptions on 3rd and 4th downs
* Romo has the 33rd worst QB rating on 3rd Down of 34 qualifying QBs (Skelton, Arz)
A lot has changed since that day.   Including a stretch where the Cowboys have turned a 3-4 record into 8-6, and have won 5 of their last 6 games.  They have certainly not found an offensive line that has made life easy at all, but Romo and the offense has figured out how to exist around their issues and have put up points and production.

In those 7 games, Romo has found 13 Touchdowns without throwing many picks.  3 Interceptions, with 2 of those happening on Thanksgiving against Washington, and a QB rating that is back in those familiar Romo numbers of efficiency with a rating of 101.4 over the stretch which puts his season numbers over 90.  That 90 milestone is of interest because there is one (Romo) and only one Quarterback in the NFL since 2006 who has eclipsed 90 for each and every season.  His 90.2 rating for the season is still the lowest of his career, but the run he has been on since Halloween has put his performance back in the neighborhood of what he has presented the league with his entire career.

And what has that change in performance done?  It has stopped the free flow of giveaways and turnovers.  It has made the Cowboys a tougher team to play against, and after being 2nd (to Kansas City) in giveaways at the halfway point of the season, they have just 6 giveaways in the last 6 games.  That number puts them among the fewest giveaways since Halloween and back in the mix for the playoffs.

This is absolutely not a coincidence.

The Cowboys have many flaws, but when you combine erasing mistakes with a fantastic uptick in 3rd Down efficiency - where no team in the NFL has more 3rd Down conversions in the last 6 weeks than the Cowboys' 41 - and you can see how Dallas has now been in games where the competitive will can make a difference.

And to my eyes, the amount of "will" a team has is always tough to quantify.  But, let's try anyway.  I think that digging down deep and finding a big play is the best way to demonstrate how badly you want to leave with a result.  And late in the game, when everyone is tired and battered, the Dallas Cowboys have become a team that can find the 4th Quarter sack.  Think back to almost any win you would like, and you will almost always see some key moments late in the game that involved the Cowboys pass rush.  And sure enough, that can be proven in that the Cowboys are 2nd in the NFL with 4th Quarter sacks with 16.  And from November on, the Cowboys are #1 in the NFL with 10 4th Quarter sacks.  You can almost name them all, including clutch moments last night as the Steelers were trying to find a winning score.  3 giant 4th Quarter sacks took down Ben Roethlisberger that started with DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer sharing a sack, then Sean Lissemore popped through to get one, and finally, Anthony Spencer who did it again.

Spencer is quite a story, as he has been the definition of "what's wrong with this team" according to many Cowboys' observers over the course of his career, but I have always argued for his value.  But, in 2012, it seems that he doesn't need an advocate any longer.  He trails just JJ Watt and Aldon Smith in 4th Quarter sacks this season with 6, and many of them have been absolutely huge.

Those are just a few players who require recognition, but there are any more.  Dez Bryant has taken a gigantic step forward in the leadership of this team by big moments and a demonstration of toughness and desire that should make any critic quiet.  He has kept playing and figured out how to contribute despite a left hand that looks almost decorative at this juncture.  DeMarcus Ware appears to be playing with one arm, as he wears a huge brace from a hyper-extension felt in Cincinnati.  DeMarco Murray runs with a reckless abandon that shows fresh legs and a refusal to be denied.

The list goes on and on... In this space, we have been quick to point out that this team seems to have an annual swoon in December due to a lack of depth and quality at the bottom of the roster.  I was asked last night if I would concede a change in that quality due to a 3-0 record in December in 2012.  Surely, we must be mindful of sample sizes and not get carried away from just 3 games, but when you consider that Dwayne Harris, Alex Albright, Lissemore, Victor Butler, John Phillips, and James Hanna all played large roles in yesterday's gutty win, you can see that something is being built around here.

They are far from where they need to be, but you can see that the Jason Garrett program is showing signs of life.  His team appears to be adopting those characteristics of teams you admire around football.  A toughness and a level of physicality that make every game a street fight, coupled with a refusal to go quietly in the night.

There was no way after leaving Atlanta at 3-5 that many of us thought this team could make a legitimate run at 10 wins and a division title, but here they are - 2 wins away from the finish line.

In my line of work, after 15 seasons of covering Cowboys football, I am always hesitant to declare anything without reservations, because it seems that the next change in direction of fortunes is just a week away.   But this has been a very interesting season and memorable in that the flaws are so profound and yet the team has not given in to them.

This win against Pittsburgh was just as tenuous in its outcome as many before it, but this team is starting to show us that they may not dominate teams on their schedule, but they seem to be willing to "outlast" some of them over a 3 hour battle.

They have put themselves back into a spot where they have a fighting chance.  And, fighting seems to be what this team does best.

Its been a while since people were saying that about the Cowboys.


Dave said...

nicely said.

Unknown said...

I had almost given up on this team in frustration. They teased us many years in a row...just teased us only to let our hopes down. I love the never say die attitude they are playing with right now. That is what competitive sports is all about and they are fun to watch.