Monday, September 16, 2013
"We lost a game that we shouldn't lose" is a cliche that is thrown around rather easily on Mondays in the National Football League. Sometimes, there are really cases of a massive favorite being upset by fluke circumstances that cause someone to rightly say it.
However, most times, it is two franchises and fan bases that both have a lofty feel for their own squad and therefore feel that they should beat their opponent, even though their opponent is across the stadium telling their fan base that they believe they should do the same thing to you for the same reasons of perceived superiority.
In reality, the NFL is as close in 2013 as it gets, with a few teams up top and a few teams down below. But, in the middle, there are 2 dozen teams (or more) that are relatively within arm's length of each-other and every single time they take the field, the victory will belong to the team that can get just a few moments to go their way. Any claim by their fan base that they should win a game on the road against a team in a similar talent neighborhood is often pure delusion. The fact is, they might win and they could win. But should? Not very often in this league. And certainly not very often for the Dallas Cowboys when they go play a team in a hostile environment like Arrowhead Stadium yesterday afternoon.
The Cowboys lost a game yesterday that feels like a game they should have won. And below, we will make a case that they really let a golden opportunity get away. But, I do think it is important to note that all week, in Kansas City, they felt like they had a team that "should be able to beat a mediocre Dallas team at home," and then, of course, they did. I believe most neutral observers saw this as a fringe NFC playoff hopeful playing at a fringe AFC playoff hopeful, and therefore installed the Chiefs as slight home favorites.
This is the 21st time in the Jason Garrett era (2007-present) where his offense has played a road game and has failed to score 20 points at least. In those 21 games, the Cowboys are 4-17, with 2 wins in Washington in 2008 and 2009, a win in Philadelphia at the end of 2010 when Stephen McGee was the QB and the Eagles had checked out, and a win last year at Carolina. Conversely, when they go on the road and score 20 or more, they are 22-6. So, pretty clearly, the object of the game is to figure out how to score at least 3 touchdowns when you play at a place like Kansas City in Week 2. And frankly, it is why we wish to show a little frustration when it appears the offense has fallen into the familiar trap of conservatism.
This is not the time to detail chapter and verse the number of times where the Cowboys change their personality when playing on the road from attacking opponent's weaknesses to protecting your own, but it is a clear characteristic of the Garrett/Romo marriage.
The signs were there yesterday on a number of occasions. The most frustrating would be the pivotal moment in the game in the 3rd Quarter where the Cowboys received the ball to start the 2nd half with a 10-7 lead. They seemed composed and reasonably ok with protection and the huge numbers of blitzers that the Chiefs and Bob Sutton were throwing at them throughout the game to that point. Romo had the offense on the march and on 3rd and 3 took a real nice chance to go at Terence Williams who was in man coverage and hit a 20-yard completion for a 1st Down into the red zone. A Lance Dunbar 12 yard gain put Dallas at 1st and Goal at the 5. And then, a combination of events conspired to leave valuable points on the field.
First, an interior communication issue between the rookie center Travis Frederick and right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau had them both turning away from that gap that giant nose tackle Dontari Poe occupied and he raced in to smash Romo to the ground. Then, a false start to left guard Ronald Leary set up a 3rd and goal from the 9.
But here, on 3rd and goal is where one really has to show confusion about the entire philosophy of the Dallas Cowboys' offensive decision makers. The offense deploys 11 personnel in a 3x1 formation that puts Dez Bryant in a 1-on-1 setting with Brandon Flowers - a player he had already proven had no answer for him all day.
Bryant is calling for the ball and Romo knows how this has worked all day. We have seen Bryant beat Flowers on a fade, a back shoulder fade, and pretty much any route he wants. This is what you dream of: a huge moment to get your most dominant player in a 1 play scenario where if you are successful, you take a double-digit lead. And if you are not, you still settle for 3. And yet, the offense decides to throw it into the crowd over to the other side and Williams again on 3rd and goal on a hopeful wide receiver screen which loses 3 yards. It confused everyone who follows this team and yet was painfully predictable if you are familiar with they way they conduct themselves in these games. They play for 3 points and the safest percentage plays. And in doing so, they keep the opponent in the game yet again.
This, to me, comes back to the odd issue the Cowboys have with their perennially under-achieveing offense. They feel they have a franchise QB and pay him as such. And, he performs that way most of the time. But, it seems, when the chips are down in tight road games like this one and teams with franchise QBs would normally put it all in the hands of QB1, they seem to want to save Romo from high leverage situations by playing it safe. On 3rd and long, they are likely to call a draw play or a safe throw behind the line of scrimmage, when coverages and situations seemed to plead for them to take their $100 million QB and their unstoppable wide receiver and shove a sword into their opponent with a will-breaking touchdown.
When looking at the throws that Romo does take down the field, it seems like the Cowboys are pretty comfortable with fade throws down the sideline in man situations and dump offs underneath. But the "trust" throws in between the hash marks in windows that might require some precision and perfection, we just didn't see much at all, leading us once again down the road of speculation on whether his ribs allowed him to throw fastballs yesterday and whether the trust - internally or from the coaches - allows him to rip a throw into a tight space like his contemporaries must do in times like these.
Offensively, they allowed the defense to dictate much of the game to them. They had a half-hearted attempt at running a conventional offense before scrapping it all and going all-shotgun, all the time. They ran 13 plays from under center all day and 7 of those were "drive starters", meaning it was the first play to start each drive. The other 47 snaps were from shotgun, and that is fine if you are going to use your weapons to create issues and opportunities all over the secondary. But, instead, it was dump off after dump off and they played right into the pressure that the Chiefs were running at them again and again. The Chiefs would keep pressing the secondary forward, and the space would shrink even more. Before long, a 2 yard pass to Jason Witten on 3rd and 9 is impossible. The Chiefs made the clock in Romo's head go off early, then took away his Witten security blanket, and he played right into their hands.
Then, Lance Dunbar fumbles late in the 3rd and Romo is blindsided and coughs it up early in the 4th and the Cowboys take a -2 on the road. Since Jason Garrett has been head coach the Cowboys have never won a road game with a -2 (0-5).
Moments later, Romo lofts another deep perimeter pass over Flowers into the waiting arms of Dez Bryant yet again. This time, however, he drops a perfect pass and another opportunity is wasted when the ball falls to the ground.
But, to put all of this on another chapter of frustrating play-calling and execution on the road in a hostile stadium is missing a few important topics. Namely, the defense not generating takeaways (since 2010, the Cowboys are 0-11 in road games without a takeaway) and most annoyingly, the defense clearly gassed when the game was on the line and unable to stand up to the physical challenge late.
Dan Bailey hit another key kick with 3:50 left in the game to cut the Chiefs lead to 17-16. Kansas City has not received anything on the ground from Jamaal Charles all day (8 carries for 8 yards) to that point. Dallas also has all 3 of its timeouts and the Chiefs have had a poor return and start at their own 16 yard line.
To make matters worse, the Chiefs have no intention of passing in this drive as they run 2 RBs and 2 TEs in a kill the clock, 4-minute drill posture. They give the ball to Charles eight times from this same formation and personnel grouping that declares run from the time they break the huddle. And on those 8 carries, he puts the game away with 47 yards (5.87 yards per carry). He even had another 7 yards called back on the illegal shift penalty, thus putting the Chiefs in a position to actually have to throw one pass - on 3rd and 10 - which turned into a pass interference on Morris Claiborne. The call looked very touchy, but also one that often is thrown. But, the damage had nearly already been done by a demoralizing sequence in which it appeared the Chiefs were going to try to get a 1st down from their RB that had not found success for the entire afternoon - and the Cowboys couldn't stop him.
Even before the pass interference, Charles had made the Cowboys burn all of their timeouts and flipped field position in a big way. When the defense absolutely had to prove stout against the run, they were run over at the moment of truth.
So, a wasted opportunity in a game you really wanted once again. It is painful, because despite the season being so young, the principles involved make you feel like you have seen this episode too many times.
They show they are talented but then play "not to lose" too much. They trust their "franchise QB" to a point, but then admit he is not to always be trusted, it seems. They put their fate into the hands of their defense, but then the defense shows you they are not of elite quality when the game is on the line. They try to convince you they are better than 8-8, but then show you things that you see from 8-8 teams.
This is a very tight league with very tight games. To win on the road, you cannot afford mis-steps. And yesterday in Kansas City, they had a few too many. And to get better than 8-8, they have to turn those gut-wrenching road defeats into victories more often.
Now, the urgency of getting out of September at 3-1 is felt with the Rams and at Chargers coming next.
This should be an interesting week at Valley Ranch (again).