Monday, December 03, 2012

The Morning After: Cowboys 38, Eagles 33 (6-6)

Context is something that is always required to understand what information you are looking at and how much of what seems real can actually be believed.  Context tells us if all of this money that our paycheck contains is actually surplus, or whether it has been earmarked for other purposes already.  Context tells us if losing 5 pounds is either the destination or the start of the journey.

And that is why in this particular win over that particular team, it might require some context to examine what December may have in store for the 2012 Dallas Cowboys.  Yes, it was a season sweep against a hated rival and a 3rd divisional win in 5 games.  But, can we read anything more into it other than the fact that they beat a bad team that cannot wait for things to end in 2012 and a team whose fans now fear wins because it destroys their draft position?  They beat a team who knows it is about to be burned to the ground and its remnants will be scattered.  Can that truly tell us anything?

Yes, it was an offensive performance that exceeded the 400 yard barrier that used to be a guarantee of winning for the Cowboys under Tony Romo.  Did you know that of the first 21 times that the Cowboys gained 400 yards of offense under Romo, the team was 20-1?  It is because they were a team that struck fear in the hearts of their opponents from 2006-2009.  A team that was versatile and dangerous in the way it attacked you.  An offense that created the classic conflicts in the defense where whatever they choose to key on will be the wrong answer.  An most importantly, they were an offense that carried the tempo of the game to you from the opening kickoff on.  They decided the pace and dictated the style, rather than a team that presently has the game dictated to them.

Since those first 21 times the Cowboys have hit 400 yards in the Romo era, they have accomplished the feat 18 more times (including last night).  These 18 games, from 2010-2012, have been decidedly different in their creation.  With the win, they are now 8-10 when they get to 400 yards of offense in the last 3 seasons, and the reason is that yards are not always yards.  Context comes in here and slaps us in our face because sometimes yards are gained during furious rallies that are accumulated against prevent defenses.

To look a little closer at those 18 games in the last 3 seasons, we find 4 of them were on the road.  They were 3-1 in those games with wins at New York in 2010, at San Francisco in 2011, Opening Night this season back at New York, and then the lone loss was at Baltimore this year in a game they certainly could have won.

And that leaves 14 home games since 2010, where the offense racked up tons of yards and last night moved their record to 5-9 in those games.  Because usually, they were putting up yards in big comeback attempts - down big to Tennessee, Jacksonville, and New Orleans in 2010, or to the Bears, Giants, and Redskins this year.  Yards are not always a product of good football.  Sometimes, they are a product of elongated garbage time and throwing against prevents.  All that glitters is not gold.

And that is why we wonder if last night was something that should give the Cowboys hope or whether it was the simple oasis that is playing a team that is self-destructing on its own sideline.  The Eagles are a dysfunctional group that has fired yet another coach this morning after more discord boiled over and Jim Washburn is now surely a happy man to not have to deal with the chaos any longer.  What a disgrace they are right now, after being held up as a model franchise just a few short years ago for being able to build a sustainable roster that won division titles with great routine, despite falling short of the Super Bowl trophy.

One one hand, we see the offense looking dynamic as Tony Romo shreds the Eagles on play action opportunities because the Eagles safeties and linebackers are dead set on making sure DeMarco Murray doesn't beat them with another run.  And on the other hand, we notice on the same play that there are clearly defensive backs who don't seem to interested in attempting a tackle that may cause pain.

We want to think that the mere presence of Murray has solved many of their problems, but to do that, we would have to forget the issues that we saw against Seattle and Chicago when Murray was present and accounted for.

The offense looked very good in the 2nd half, after every drive in the 1st half contained either a sack, a penalty, or both.  The offensive line continues to look very shaky, and now the focus of the frustration is squarely on the shoulders of Doug Free.  Free was a player who looked like one of the building blocks of the offense after his first season as a starter in 2010, but now looks like a guy who is a candidate for a benching in the short term and/or a releasing when the offseason arrives.  There is no way you can pay him top dollar when he is causing so many issues with his inability to anchor against a bull rush nor move his feet well on an outside move.  Free is supposed to be a pillar and instead, Romo is just celebrating that Free is no longer on his blindside.  At least he can now see the danger that is headed his way with Free at right tackle.  He has regressed to a point where keeping him around to see years 3 and 4 of his 4-year contract signed last July seems to be a bit of a stretch - although the cap hit to releasing him this spring would be nearly $13m in dead money, making that a bit of a hard pill to swallow, too.

Meanwhile, the defense has the look of a unit that has finally reached its breaking point with injuries.  No Sean Lee, no Bruce Carter, no Jay Ratliff, no Kenyon Coleman and others who are hurting have the Cowboys defense now in full regression.  After 10 weeks of hanging tough, this is the 2nd consecutive week where they were unable to do much to stop the opponent on the ground.  Alfred Morris gashed the Cowboys for almost 5 yards a carry on 24 runs for 113 last week and the equally anonymous Bryce Brown decided to one-up him with 7 yards a carry on 24 runs for 169 this week.  Thankfully, his ball protection skills need some work and his fumble effectively ended the Eagles chance at the upset, but there was plenty of open field which made getting off the field difficult.

And to comprehend how amazing that Brown performance was, one simply has to look at the Eagles offensive situation where there is nobody still healthy and remaining from the offense that they started the season with.  They are legitimately working with what could be described as their junior varsity on offense and still put the Cowboys in a spot where they were sweating until Jason Witten secured the final onside kick attempt in the final minute.

So, before we get carried away with spending on all morning on playoff scenarios and December ideas, let's remember that the Cowboys just got done playing 3 teams at home that are going nowhere in 2012.  In those 3 games, the Cowboys enjoyed a total of about 6 minutes of time of possession with the lead.  They did show signs of being a competent offense again and the arrival of Dez Bryant as a beast appears to be well underway, but let's not get too excited.

This is where context is required.  This is where we must realize that the final 4 games include 2 AFC teams fighting for the final wildcard spot (with each-other) and are a combined 5-0 this season against the NFC East and both play a physical style that will attempt to batter and bruise Romo and plug up any openings that Murray may be seeking.

The final 2 games, assuming the Cowboys are still somewhere in the mix after the Bengals and Steelers back-to-back, will be against a Saints team in the home finale who seem to have a decent track record in Dallas recently and they will finish the season in Washington against their new nemesis, Mr Griffin.

Winning 3 of the 4 will be required to even be in the conversation, but even that is likely not enough given Seattle's big win in Chicago yesterday, their head to head destruction of the Cowboys in Week 2, and their gift win from the replacement refs in the "fail Mary" game.  Also, the Bears hold a head to head advantage with the Cowboys, too, which might come back to haunt.

Context tells us that despite wins in the last month over the Eagles, Browns, and Eagles (combined record 10-26), we should understand that this team is still a battered mess with plenty of issues to address before they will cause a ripple of concern across the NFL.

They welcome DeMarco Murray back with open arms and I recalled that day in August when I wrote about the Cowboys training camp theme of their two best players being Murray and Bryant.  That dream of what might happen to this offense if Jason Witten and Miles Austin were merely complimentary pieces that happily conceded touches to the young and strong bucks who are willing and able to make their name by demonstrating their elite potential on a weekly basis.

Bryant looks closer than ever as he is now routinely dominating plays and winning on routes.  He still makes you wonder if he will be on the same page as Romo when those key moments present themselves, but when there is a ball in the vicinity, it is now routine to see Bryant pull off another circus catch.  He is as fantastic as he has ever been in Dallas, and now appears to be a bright spot as a game breaker moving forward.

As for Murray, we wonder if we will ever see the great runs on an extended basis.  He is clearly a man who possesses elite upside, but will that always come with a fragility that is one hit away?  His great runs last night mixed in with his limps back to the huddle properly sum up his status right now as the Cowboys hope.  He can make everything better.  The offensive line has a chance.  So does the passing game.  So does the pass protection.  Play action actually has teeth.

But, the second he leaves the field, all the problems come rushing back.

This is a painfully flawed team in another painfully flawed season.  They are good enough to tease you and bad enough to frustrate you.  They are still alive, but barely.  And you wonder if they will ever get all of the pieces in place.

And maybe, all of those "what ifs" are what make Jerry Jones the risk taker that he is.

He sits up there, squints, and thinks he can see a time when everything happens simultaneously.  The defense is stout, the offense is dynamic, and all of his players who are prone to injury are suddenly healthy at the same time for an extended period.

And maybe, in this dream scenario, they could play a gang of quitters like the Eagles every week.

Then, the far-fetched dream of the playoffs in 2012 might not be so far-fetched.

Health, context, and squinting.  When all else fails, that is what we are built upon right now.

On to Cincinnati, we go.

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