Monday, December 31, 2012
That is how another Cowboys season ends. That is how 2012, like so many years before it, ends. A season that had plenty of things to like and plenty of things to not like, ends in tears on the final day of the season.
Haven't we been here before? Several times?
But, for some reason, this one feels a bit different to me than 2011. In 2011, I thought the Cowboys were overwhelmed by the New York Giants in the final game of the season because of the simple mismatch problems that they had no answer for. There was no strategy or posture that was going to allow that Cowboys OL to handle the DL of the Giants. It just wasn't happening. And Terence Newman to stick with Victor Cruz? That wasn't happening either.
But, this one, despite the familiar result, seemed a much different style of loss. To me, especially from an offensive standpoint, this one felt like the Cowboys suffered the most disappointing of failures on the field at the home of their hated rivals. This one felt like a self-inflicted defeat, full of wasted opportunities and poor execution.
Sure, the Redskins blitzed at every opportunity. In fact, for the game, they blitzed in 25 of 39 passing scenarios and 24 of 34 when the Cowboys were in shotgun. They blitzed and blitzed. And on 2nd down, Jim Haslett sent pressure on 8 of 11 passes, and on 3rd Down it was 10 out of 12. They dared the Cowboys to beat them, and the Cowboys did not.
Now, when a team blitzes that often, they are telling you two things. 1) they are saying that they think you do not handle pressure very well and if they speed up your situations and hit you a bit, you will perform at a lower level than if they allow you to get comfortable. But, don't forget what they are also saying, 2) they are suggesting that they don't think they can get pressure any other way. With Brian Orakpo on injured reserve, the Redskins are a team that is not loaded with pass rushing excellence. If they just send 4, they likely do not get sacks. So, they add players to the rush which subtracts players from coverage.
And you must make them pay.
That is why this offensive performance must be positioned as nothing short of a failure. The job, in particular by Tony Romo - the man who is most responsible for the Cowboys being in this position to begin with - was just not nearly at the level it needed to be to win a tough divisional road game on the final night of the season.
Romo, as I am sure you are well aware, picked a horrendous time for his 4th multi-interception game of 2012. In those 4 games, as you might imagine, the Cowboys were winless. The first 3 were home games against the Bears, Giants, and these same Redskins, but this one had all of the trimmings of a playoff game and the picks were all damaging and key.
But, no interception of Romo's career might hurt as much as the last one of 2012. For that was a pick that comes down to that moment that everyone dreams when they discuss the credentials of their favorite QB. They always ask the question, "can this guy get your team down the field on that one drive with everything on the line?"
There it was. 3:35 to play in the game, down 21-18. A quick 14 yard gainer to Witten down the middle gave the Cowboys breathing room out to their own 29. And on 1st and 10 from their own 29, they hurried to the line with shotgun again with 3:06 to go.
The Redskins bring tons of pressure all game and that particular blitz was seen on several occasions. In fairness to Romo, if he can get the ball over the top of Rob Jackson, the right outside linebacker who starts toward Romo and then peels off to stay with Murray, then Murray will have the ability to run a long, long ways. The Redskins are defending with recklessness and despite their success, if the Cowboys can break one play on this final drive, they can win the game and the NFC East.
But, because of the pressure, Romo is back-pedaling. This will not allow him to measure his throw with any amount of precision. And because he is off balance, his lofted throw is short and Jackson is able to recover and and attack the ball, securing it for the biggest play of his career.
There are a number of problems with this decision from your QB, with the most obvious one being that it is 1st Down. You cannot likely survive a sack, but this is where you either see Witten open over the blitz or you throw the ball into the sideline. You cannot make a risky throw on 1st Down with everything on the line. And you also cannot excuse him because of some Jim Haslett ambush call. That blitz was as predictable as could be after seeing his calls for 57 minutes already. Romo just got it wrong at the most inopportune time - possibly of his career.
And this is where the Cowboys' QB is again; In a place where he will unfortunately have to serve as a piñata for the next several months as people who barely watched him will latch on to the easy narrative rather than considering a very strong season running an offense that made him over-come obstacle after obstacle all year long. He is good enough to carry a team for months at a time, so how come he isn't good enough to perform at an efficient level in this one-game scenario last night against an equally-battered team?
I will continue to say that the Quarterback is not holding this franchise back - not at any level. But, that doesn't mean that he didn't let them down last night. In fact, this was a spot where we knew that they needed their best players to be their best players, and as much as I appreciate the challenges he has to deal with, he simply had to do better than he did with his opportunities on this Sunday night.
Let me define that: Did you know the Cowboys had the ball in Washington territory on 8 of their first 9 possessions last night?
8 times on the Washington end of the field in their first 9 possessions (they only had 11 - the 10th possession was the interception to Jackson and the 11th possession was the garbage time sequence with 1 minute left) only resulted in 3 scores. 3 others ended in punts from plus territory and then, of course, the 2 interceptions that both ended drives early.
And that is the real killer. The running game was working. The play calling was balanced. Honestly, the game-plan was rather sound and the offensive line was playing at a reasonably decent level. And that is why you sit here today and feel that the Cowboys should have been able to win that game, despite not having any real ability to stop the Redskins rushing attack.
But, in the end, they lost because they took a -3 in their biggest game of the year. With 116 games in Cowboys history in which they were a -3 in turnover differential, the Cowboys record falls to a 10-104-2 record. And in the Romo-era? Well, the record is now 1-15. In other words, you don't win games when you turn the ball over that much.
Some years, the conversation is much wider and more nuanced about what went wrong. In 2008, the team was just not together when they went to Philadelphia. They had a divided locker-room and needed to make changes. In 2011, they ran into a better team in the final game.
But, last night, with Robert Griffin unable to do anything more than limp-jog, a defense that could not get pressure without blitzing, and an offense that hardly completed a pass down the field all night long, I am hard-pressed to say they ran into a better team.
I think that was a winnable game that had a lot of variables fall the Cowboys way with big special teams plays, a missed field goal, and even a timely late game sack (Anthony Spencer again) that gave the Cowboys a chance to over-come everything that went wrong to that point.
They had the ball and were only down 3. They had all kinds of time and a kicker who certainly seemed able to get you to overtime if you just completed a few more passes. And that is why I am choosing to make this column about a guy that I have spent a lot of time appreciating over the years. This one is squarely on Tony Romo for picking a really poor time to make his worst throw of the season at precisely a moment in which he could not make that throw.
That is how his position is judged. All of the fantasy football numbers do not matter, it seems. When you melt away the numbers and games that do not stick, most players are remembered for a few plays made at high-leveraged moments when we are all watching.
One of those happened last night for Tony. And that is why he will continue to be a polarizing topic, just as he has been since 2007 when he went from being an underdog to a national celebrity in a matter of months.
He is a heck of a player and I would wonder what the 2012 Cowboys record would have been with Jon Kitna or Kyle Orton at the helm (5-11?), but the truth is that last night was a game that was there to be won and it ended just like the others - with an apologetic Romo at the podium talking about what went wrong and how this will test his team's resolve as they look to next season.
The Cowboys will likely grant him a massive contract extension this off-season because unlike most of their fans, they do recognize that however unfortunate that moment was last night, you still need to hang on to a really good QB until you have a better idea. And for every QB you would happily trade Romo for (Brady, Manning, Rodgers, Brees), there are way more that you would not want to see replace him.
He is what he is. Which most weeks is quite solid. And that is why the Cowboys simply must improve their squad to a point where they can win a game in which he doesn't play at his very best. This year they set records for their inability to run the football and they lined up one of the worst offensive lines in club history. They also were exposed for not having enough depth or quality on either the offensive or defensive line.
All of that must improve.
And yet, with a defense that in no way resembled the defense that they left training camp with, they were once again playing for a division title with 3 minutes to play in the season.
So, do you fire and trade everyone - including your quarterback?
No. I am guessing you get to work on building a team that does not have to rely on Romo to get them everywhere they arrive. Because at this point, we seem to have a pretty good idea that that can only take them so far. Like most NFL teams, the Cowboys do not have a QB who can drag the rest of the club all the way to the Super Bowl.
Nobody wants to hear that right now. Romo had the season in his hands last night and he threw it to the other team.
8-8 in 2012 follows 8-8 in 2011. And .500 football goes all the way back to pretty much the last championship parade in early 1996.
And as the Washington Redskins are celebrating what they believe is the start of a long-term football revival built around a Texas kid under center, the agony of defeat ends another year of Dallas Cowboys football.