Monday, October 14, 2013
For every point of football beauty that we pontificated about for a week straight after the Denver-Dallas ballet from last Sunday, we should have known that there would be a bit more brutality the next time a game was played on that field. Especially when the Broncos' record setting offense was replaced with the Redskins, a team that has been searching for its 2012 groove for over a month now. It was going to be a trench war and a test of the resolve of the Cowboys from man 1 to 45 on the game day roster.
It wasn't pretty, but football often isn't. It is the ability to do what you can with what you have and to force the other team into undesirable situations that can then be exploited. It is the ability to beat down a hated rival with a few timely plays that snuff out a game in perhaps unpredictable ways.
Last week, the Cowboys depended on its highest-compensated player to rewrite the record books and duel to the finish with one of the best in the history of the sport. Last night, the Cowboys were all asked to do their part and show last year's division champion that this team has more resolve when it counts and will not concede an inch.
And this week's performance left with a very important divisional win over the Washington Redskins, in a game that will not present nearly the awesome highlight segments, but will do a better job of getting this Dallas team where it wants to go.
It was a test of wills last night, and although the Cowboys paid quite a price to enforce theirs - with costly injuries all around - they surely left the stadium with an assortment of players who can feel that they contributed and earned their spots this week. And that is what is often missing from this franchise in recent years. Everyone feeling like they can make a play and then efforting to do so. It is not easy to affect games if you are not one of the focal points, but you every time you step on the field you are either trying to turn the game or you are wasting everyone's time. Thankfully, there are a lot of players who realize that opportunity cannot be wasted in this line of work, and many with stars on their helmets who understand that this is their chance to grab on and to make a name for themselves.
The Cowboys won this game because they received contributions from all over the field and all over the roster. There will be plenty today who complain about lack of yardage and proper statistics like QB rating, or total yards, or total plays, or run/pass balance. I am sure those same people will not remember that they argued that those numbers do not matter just last week when all the statistics in the world were not enough to get a victory.
That is the game of football in a nutshell. The only objective is to leave with the victory, and if these last two weeks do not demonstrate that truth, then we might consider watching something else. The Redskins swept the Cowboys last season because when the game was on the line, they could force the Cowboys into spots of discomfort on both sides of the ball.
Make no mistake, that Redskins defense presented a test of blitzes (17 of them) that were just as lively and complex as what they threw at Tony Romo last December, but this time, the Cowboys burned them just enough times to put points on the board. That is what was so frustrating about week 17 last year. They blitzed the Cowboys into mistakes and then kept blitzing. The Cowboys conceded sacks and interceptions and found no real big plays of great substance. Now, whether it was when Haslett sent 6 on Romo's amazing TD pass to Terrance Williams where he had to beat an untouched corner and sustain a linebacker hit to make a lofted throw into the corner of the end zone, or when Haslett sent 7 and Romo had to count on Cole Beasley to be where he needed to be to get the 1st Down, the Cowboys did what an offense should do to a blitz. Make it pay. Easier said than done.
But, they found just enough points and moments to burn the Redskins to stay ahead in a game that was hanging in the balance for much of the night. A loss would have been demoralizing and devastating, but if the Cowboys don't make those 2 key plays against Haslett's aggressive blitzing, then this outcome might not be achieved. Make a play like that last December, and you win the NFC East. Don't make plays like that and you hear from 10 months how Jim Haslett made you look bad. He tried again last night and although it was only a few, the Cowboys should be credited with making enough of them to earn their win.
It helps, though, when this game isn't just about offense. Last week, the offense put up 48 and it wasn't enough. We talked about all of the records they set in defeat. But, this week, the special teams proved special again and just like last season in Philadelphia, you could make the case that Dwayne Harris won a game by himself. The 2011 6th Round pick was a fringe roster guy just 2 years ago, but now has demonstrated how important it is to have a play-maker on returns. The Cowboys have thought that Dez Bryant can be that guy, but hesitate to use him very often on returns for fear of injury. In steps Harris and after being waived in October of 2011 and on the practice squad for much of his rookie season, is now an indispensable player who can put a charge into the stadium. His 18.1 yards per punt return average since the start of the 2012 season leads all return men in the NFL. All of them.
Defensively, it will never be easy to deal with what Mike and Kyle Shanahan's offensive plans as orchestrated by the dangerous Robert Griffin III and his cast of playmakers. It appears Griffin is returning to fitness, and on this night was actually far more willing to put the game back on his legs at certain moments to an extent we have not seen since his major knee injury. At almost 9 yards a carry, he was showing his ability to keep and run, but the reason the Cowboys won on Sunday might boil down to their specific ability to hamper his ability to move the ball through the air. Even with DeMarcus Ware lost to injury with what appears to be a quad, the pass rush was able to trouble him into some difficult spots and even get home for 3 sacks. When they couldn't, the mostly man coverage behind them on the edges was sound and battled all night with the corners all having nice evenings - Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, and Orlando Scandrick - and making plays on the ball at given moments.
Carr, in particular, looked the part of a top corner who was challenged by Pierre Garcon and it took Washington 15 passes for the rather pedestrian return of 69 yards when trying to find their primary receiver with that coverage on the scene. But, this was a very physical game that required physical answers by the Cowboys defense. Barry Church, in fact, was called for personal fouls on two occasions, but overall, the Cowboys seemed willing to battle defensively for every yard. And in the end, the Redskins amassed 433 of them, with many coming in the final quarter against softer Dallas defense. But, raw yardage only takes you so far. As the evening went along, this undermanned Dallas defense was able to hold the Redskins to 0-3 on red zone TD percentage and then found 2 takeaways late that put the game in the win column.
The first might have been the signature moment of the game - if that is not reserved for the Dwayne Harris highlight film - on a 2nd and 19 from their own 11 yard line following a Redskins' hold. This featured a 4-man rush made up of backup Cowboys players primarily from the waiver wire against 5-man protection. Nick Hayden fired in the A-gap and attracted the double team from the center and the left guard, meaning the other 3 rushers would have a man-to-man opportunity. First Drake Nevis was able to push RG Chris Chester back into Griffin's path, and then Chester falling helped knock RT Tyler Polumbus off of George Selvie. Selvie cut back inside and forced Griffin to back up, and when he did Kyle Wilber was arriving from behind after beating the great LT Trent Williams to the edge and blindsided Griffin for the hat-trick bounty of sack, fumble caused, and fumble recovered at the 3-yard line. Wilber was the most renowned of the 4 rushers on that play, but his roster spot was very much in doubt at the end of camp 6 weeks ago. To see that group of no-names and castaways make that play that put this game on ice is rewarding to every man on the roster or practice squad about staying ready.
A few snaps later, Joseph Randle was forced into the end zone as big Travis Frederick arrived at a struggle and pushed his man in for a touchdown despite a host of defenders trying to prevent it. And from there, the game was done and dusted.
So, that is really the theme of this division win - a game in which just about every player in uniform had to do what needed to be done. The price for the evening might be severe as we await the prognosis of both DeMarcus Ware and DeMarco Murray's injuries. It is a physical game and the toll tests resolve and depth on every roster. But, it does seem that this year, with all of the roster turnover, the Cowboys are a bit more fortified to ask the bottom half of their roster to perform to the maximum levels of their ability.
Don't confuse that with the idea that those injuries won't hurt, because they most certainly will. Especially, if like Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff, they end up being a way bigger deal than first anticipated, but the good teams in this league demand that every player in a uniform step up when needed. The good teams have a "next man up" mentality which requires that those who are able figure out a way to stay on target with performances, despite undesirable absences. There is a reason that certain players make more money than others, but in a brutal sport, we cannot act like injuries are a surprise. Deal with them as best as you can and keep playing.
Teams are not going to have ideal conditions very often in the NFL. Once the season starts, attrition takes away important pieces and requires a team to figure things out on the fly. The teams that can find ways to win in less than ideal settings go to the playoffs. This requires the personnel department to churn the roster and the coaches to not make excuses or settle for them. When I see the Cowboys find a way to generate sacks without properly heralded rushers and then to design an offense for a team that has very little at running back, I sense that this team might be more prepared to deal with adversity than some previous versions.
The sport is analyzed from every angle and digested all week long. But, the objective is to out-last your opponent and leave with the victory by any means necessary. This game could have turned on a number of plays last night, but the Cowboys made sure that despite any statistical shortcomings, they had to make THAT play at THAT time.
At certain points, it was Kyle Wilber or Dwayne Harris or Travis Frederick or even Cameron Lawrence. At others, it was Brandon Carr or David Carter or Joseph Randle or Terrance Williams. The point is, after a demoralizing loss 7 days prior, the Cowboys got back on their feet because the entire roster was ready to contribute when called upon.
And those are giant stones to build upon as they head to Philadelphia at 3-3.