Monday, November 11, 2013
There are certain games that become landmark moments because of the events that they contained and the way that the game shaped the season. When people mention a year, those of us obsessed with following a certain team have a few games from each season that come quickly to mind.
They take that spot on the main stage because either the highs were phenomenally high or the lows were incredibly low.
I don't think we have to tell you which was which last night in New Orleans as the Saints went a long way embarrassing the Cowboys and then Dallas took it from there. Games like this, that are as one-sided as Alabama against a 1-AA school in early September, require the accommodation of both teams - with precise and powerful execution from the victor aided by ineptitude and, at times, the seeming give-up of the defeated.
New Orleans was so great offensively, coming off a discouraging defeat at the hands of the mighty Jets the week before, that the thorough domination is impossible to properly describe. On one hand, the Saints were so explosive that they had an absurd 9 plays of 20 yards or more, which is a number that you will almost never see above 5 or 6. Heck, the Broncos only had 5 when they put on the 51-point clinic back in Week 5. But, on the other hand, the Saints had enough small gains to sustain long drives and move the chains at will to the tune of accumulating an equally absurd 40 first downs.
Now, generally, first down stats are not very indicative of a team that had a big day. They are not always a fair metric to spend too much time worrying about, because a 50-yard play is more desirable than 5 10-yard plays for a number of reasons. But the Saints were so good on Sunday night, that they set the season high for explosive plays against the Cowboys with 9, and the all-time NFL record for first downs in a game with 40.
What if I told you that day back in Week 5 when Peyton Manning did whatever he wanted with his high-flying Broncos offense that by November 11th, pretty much all statistical totals would be surpassed twice by upcoming Cowboys opponents in Detroit AND New Orleans?
This time, the all-time Cowboys defensive yardage record was broken by Drew Brees and an offense that was not fully in sync when the game started, but as the night went along, they were so good that they stopped trying in the 4th Quarter. That's right, despite throwing for 392 yards, Brees did not attempt a pass after the 12:51 mark of the final quarter. And yes, that's also right, they broke the all-time Dallas Cowboys yardage record for an opponent - a record that has been standing 14 days!
The Saints had just 10 possessions to do all of their damage that were not aided with a single Cowboys turnover (the one thing you can say about the Cowboys' offense that is not negative) and after the 1st drive stalled with a punt, the Saints next 9 drives looked like this on the drive chart:
Touchdown, Touchdown, Touchdown, Touchdown - Halftime - Missed FG, Touchdown, Touchdown, Touchdown, Kneel Down - Game Over.
I am pretty sure Aledo High School has had the authorities called on them for drive charts that look like that.
Injuries have hit the Cowboys hard again, making the depth chart that left Oxnard just a faded memory. For those of us who believe that the personnel department has made some strides in 2011-2013, this is a stark reminder of how far they must go to fortify the roster to withstand the annual outbreak of hamstrings and knee issues that attrition claims. No, the Cowboys are not alone as the NFL seems like it has more injuries every single year to a point where roster expansion might be the only way to operate a team in this league anymore, but they have been hit hard again and like 2012, by the time they get to November, the defense looks like someone's practice squad all-star team.
Sean Lee joined Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff (gone, but not fully forgotten), Jason Hatcher, Morris Claiborne, and JJ Wilcox as starters who were unavailable as Brees was marching up and down the field. This will mark the 4th year out of 4 (and many more in college) in which the fantastically skilled Lee has been unable to withstand the rigors of a season without an injury that has forced him to miss a chunk of time.
Down 6 starters and watching DeMarcus Ware and Barry Church play hurt demonstrates how perhaps the injuries have finally taken an insurmountable toll, and that the defense is obviously at a spot now where they are throwing guys on the field who are not at a level that is required to perform well in the NFL. But, they are the "next man up" and you have no other choice. This makes you recall silly statements from the owner/general manager on whether the defensive line was the strength of this roster and whether anyone ever learns from the annual lessons about how attrition demands depth and also recommends that you avoid building your team around players who are old and have an extensive injury history.
This also brings up the question of how Rob Ryan was fired for a similar predicament last season and even the greater question of whether a Monte Kiffin defense can still handle the modern NFL offenses as just about every opponent that has a QB is passing for 400, gaining 550-600, or both. How do you evaluate whether the scheme is able to work when for 2 straight years you have bodies that are likely incapable of running any scheme?
Which brings us - albeit a little deeper in the column than they should be positioned - to that disappointing offense.
You know, the one that again, knew what sort of mess the defense was in and who the defense was going to be trying to stop. The offense that, for the most part, has its full compliment of weapons at its disposal and was going to be asked again to carry the lion's share of the responsibility if this team was going to achieve anything.
The one that punted 8 times and after hearing how badly they have been on 3rd Down conversions in road games this season (30th in the NFL, 14-49 entering last night) and everyone agreed that this simply must improve if they were going to compete in games like this one. Instead, the team put on one of the worst 3rd Down nights possible as they stalled out at 0-9 and now sit at the very bottom of the NFL in this category - 32nd, 14-58 for 24% conversions. In fact, now it is so bad that in all games they are ranked 30th on the "money down" above only Arizona and Jacksonville for overall 3rd Down conversions.
They put another bizarre game plan together that seems incapable of mixing passes and runs, and you almost wonder if they are trying to find comedy in the extremes that they put out there. First, last week, it was the highest pass/run ratio in NFL history with a 6:1 ratio, then this week they ran on 9 of their first 12 plays and 11 of their first 15. This served as an example of running the ball, yes, but it also did not allow Tony Romo and the passing game to attempt passes on consecutive plays until the game was over 25 minutes old with 4:19 left to go in the 1st half. Did this not allow them to find a rhythm until the game was already turning into to a track meet where you either keep up or get blown out?
To further add to the confusion, they seemed to be doing just the opposite of what has worked in freeing up Dez Bryant from the clutches of double teams. For instance, it seems that when the Cowboys roll out 4 WRs, that the defense has to either loosen up Dez or get gashed underneath by Beasley and Williams. So, why then, did the Cowboys have 1 or 2 WRs on the field on 15 of the first 17 snaps in those first 4 possessions? Did they want Dez completely locked down? Because James Hanna is not going to change the convictions of a defense, that is for sure.
But, despite these strategic questions, at some point in these battles - especially on the road - Tony Romo is going to have to match wits with the guy across the field, this week, Drew Brees. And his 2013 season has been a mixed bag of results, especially on the road. One particularly interesting trend that is headed in the wrong direction is his ability to complete passes (which one might argue is his primary job). In the first 5 weeks of the season, he had completed 72% of his attempts and the offense seemed capable of competing in a game like this.
But, in the 5 games since, Romo's completion ability has fallen substantially into the 57% range and 2 of his last 3 games his completion percentage has dropped into the 40s. That is very troubling with this many weapons at his disposal. Also, the yards per attempt are down substantially to 6.36 after being at 8.10 in the first 5 games. Yes, this isn't merely a Romo issue, but it does fall to him to deliver the ball where it needs to be and his protection to give him time. And honestly, after a 10 completion game in which the opposing team almost matched your completions with touchdowns, there are not many other places to look.
Yesterday was a complete mess made worst by what appeared to be a complete give-up by the defense in the 4th Quarter that reminded many of Wade Phillips last stand on a Sunday Night in Green Bay back in 2010. I don't recommend you watch it again, but let's just say there sure appeared to be players in the middle of that defense that had decided to start their bye week about an hour before they were allowed to do so. When a team loses the stomach to even stand up and fight, that sends very disconcerting messages to any who care about the organization, so let's hope that is not tolerated when the film is examined.
But, who is examining it? Is Jason Garrett and his staff on thin ice as we hit the bye week? They sit at 5-5 and surely a division crown is required for them to feel safe and even that appears far more tenuous than it did a few weeks back after leaving Philadelphia with a win.
Here is a much needed week off to try to get some bodies back, but it looks like life without Sean Lee is a reality for the rest of November and possibly a bit longer, so they are going to have to plan on scoring 35 because the defense doesn't look capable of stopping teams. But, can this offense figure out its own issues?
They showed no signs of that last night.
6 games to go. But all signs point to the ultimate destination being a very familiar one around here.