Monday, December 16, 2013

The Morning After: Green Bay 37, Dallas 36 (7-7)

Let's get the positive spin out of the way at the very top here.  The positive spin of such a day like yesterday is that nothing much changed in the pursuit of the NFC East and its divisional title which will still come down completely to whether or not the Cowboys can handle its divisional mates who come with just as much inconsistency and disfunction as they do.  The idea that they only need to beat a Washington team that doesn't beat anybody this season and then prepare for a no-hold-barred, anything-goes showdown in Week 17 for the entire divisional flag against those Philadelphia Eagles in the climate-controlled home confines is still very much alive and well (thanks to the Eagles equally silly loss to a Vikings team that was playing without their best player and isn't very good even when he does play).


Otherwise, there is nothing that anyone wants to hear on a morning like this one that will smooth over the catastrophe that occurred at the Death Star on Sunday afternoon with a ridiculous loss to a Green Bay Packers side that appeared accepting of its fate for much of the day.  The Packers, playing without their machine gun QB for yet another depressing week, had almost no fight and resolve for the entire 1st half of football that was a masterpiece of ease and domination from the Cowboys.  Green Bay was ready to be put out its misery down 26-3 at the half and Dallas might have enjoyed the intermission considering a scenario where Week 17's matchup with Philadelphia might not even matter anymore.

The 332 yards and 26 points in the first half exceeded the yardage output of 8 games from this season and the points output of 5 games.  Meanwhile, Green Bay needed a final play before the half that was merely cosmetic in its yardage compiled to exceed 100 yards in the half and embarrassingly wandered back into its own locker-room to ponder 2014 and its poor fortune with QB health.


This is the NFL.  That isn't to mean that halftime leads of 26-3 dissolve on a routine basis, because they don't.  Teams don't blow leads of that magnitude very often - in fact, according to Scott Kacsmar, the NFL has only blown 3 home leads of this size since 1999.  3 times, of which the Cowboys have authored 2 of the 3 with Jason Garrett and Tony Romo at the helm.  That's right.  The Cowboys have done it twice in the last 3 seasons with this loss and the home loss to Detroit back in 2011 (when they enjoyed a 27-3 lead early in the 3rd Quarter before ultimately losing).

Realizing that the margin for error in both of those seasons is a single win separating a divisional title from another season on the outside of the playoffs, those facts alone might be enough to get many coaches fired under the "fireable offenses" bylaws that circulate around professional football.

We can get to the discussion of how close the Jason Garrett era is to ending in the next 14 days where it will either be put to bed or it will happen, as I am now convinced that the next 2 weeks decide his job future 100%.  This loss is unpardonable on the heels of the disaster in Chicago and considering the way this team has a history of playing just well enough to stay alive in the race until the end and just poor enough to spit the bit at the moment of truth.

The easy narratives are something I always cringe at.  I don't like the anchors looking at each other, shrugging, and wondering why this always happens to Tony Romo and the Cowboys and why December is so difficult for them to navigate as if they are some victims of a curse or a magical spell that when the calendar turns they are hopelessly futile.  I like to dig deeper and have logical explanations that seem to make more sense to very complicated questions without the most simplistic answers being applied:

"They choke."

"The Pressure got to them again."

I don't like of those explanations.  They don't consider 100 different nuanced factors that bring this team to its knees at this time of year - every single year.  They don't look at the attrition that then takes us down the trails of poor drafts, even poorer salary cap management, and the diseased ways of Jerry Jones running an organization straight into the ground while coordinating art work, underwear emporiums, and monster truck rallies at his temple constructed unto himself.

Instead, it puts the blame on Tony Romo and Jason Garrett.

And today, I may not like those easy narratives, but much like last year in Washington, I cannot battle them with a clean conscience.  Because they are seemingly spot on.

Yes, there are many other things that go into what makes a football team good.  Yes, this thing is hopelessly diseased and the necessary changes will not be made because the man with all the money doesn't want to make changes that take away his favorite toy.  But, no, there is no real way to make this week's catastrophe about Jerry.  At least, directly.

This loss, as painful and ridiculous as it truly was, must go to those who coordinate the decisions made by the offense.  And since we cannot decipher whether Tony Romo is in charge of Jason Garrett or Garrett is in charge of Romo, we will, in this space, split the blame right down the middle for the insane game management of the 2nd half of yesterday's game where they played as if they were needing more points.

The reason I feel that I look to those two - the two easiest targets, admittedly, but sometimes the easiest targets are the correct ones - is that the defense is the defense.  Yes, it is poor, but it is consistently poor and nothing can help that lot, especially on Sundays where Sean Lee isn't available to minimize the ridiculousness.  To ask the defense to handle its business is asking your toddler to get a job.  It would be nice if he would help pay the bills, but evidence shows you are wasting your time on that front.  Such is life with the Cowboys defense these days.

But, the offense?  They are capable of the highest highs.  They have near perfect health and fantastic resources that allow them to show their might when they are on their game.  And for most of yesterday, they were very much on their game.  Explosive plays, success in run and pass.  Romo at 250 yards at the half, DeMarco at 93 on the ground, and Dez at 102.  All at the half!

And yet, in the 2nd half, when the game clearly called for the Cowboys to shorten the contest with each snap, and to understand that their defense did not suddenly turn into the Doomsday squad of domination, the Cowboys kept looking for kill shots - despite being up 3 scores.

The offense ran 30 plays in the 2nd half, almost half with double-digit leads, and yet, they did not seem to grasp the concept of shortening the game.  Why did they stop running the ball late in the 3rd Quarter?  Nobody really knows.

They ran 7 plays in the 2nd half on the ground.  In order, they gained: 5, 1, 6, 6, 5, 5, and 4.  That is 32 yards on 7 carries for over 4.5 yards per carry.  If the Packers stop you on the ground, then they stop you.  But, Green Bay never did.  There were only 2 runs the entire game that were unsuccessful (1 in each half) and yet, the Cowboys stopped running the ball despite averaging 7.5 yards a carry over the entire game.

Why would you stop?  Why would you do something riskier when there was no reason to do it?  Why would you risk stopping the clock, lengthening the game, or even worse, giving Green Bay the ball back with a short field if you make a mistake?

During this run with Garrett/Romo at the helm of the Cowboys franchise, there have been a group of games that have been lost because Romo made a very poor decision/throw at just the wrong time and another group of games that have been lost because the coach didn't seem to grasp the concepts of game management.  But, this one was a great example of shared responsibility between the two where putting it all on either one would be unfair to the other's culpability.

Because the Cowboys obliged Green Bay in lengthening the game (they had one possession with 3 pass plays run off just 1:09 late in the 3rd Quarter, with the time elapsing only because the Cowboys kept the clock running after a sack) and continued to pass the ball, there was life on the other sideline in a game they surely already had in the loss column.  This simply must fall to Garrett.  They start a possession at their own 15, throw 3 times, punt from the back of the end zone and give Green Bay the ball nearly in the red zone to make it a game again.  Yes, his QB has the power to make adjustments, but you simply must get in his ear and if necessary, remind him of Detroit 2011 or other blown lead debacles and just start playing the clock.

But, they didn't.  And then, because the defense began resembling the defense, the game started getting interesting again.  How, 6 days after a game where they never forced a punt, Dallas could forget that they generally cannot stop anyone with their patchwork defense is, again, a clear demonstration that their head coach might not be right for this job.

By the time James Starks ran in to make it 29-24 with 12:47 left, you could sense the feeling of dread that took over the stadium.

From there, Dallas had to figure out how to get more points, because now, 29 was not going to be enough.  And here is where they barely avoided a costly interception when a Romo pass was ruled an interception by Tramon Williams on the field but over-ruled on replay when the tip of the ball touched the ground giving Dallas 2nd life.  7 plays later - all of them passes - the ball was in the end zone again with a fantastic catch by Dez Bryant who managed to get both feet in bounds when it appeared nearly impossible.  36-24 with 7:55 to go.  This lead is safe, right?  Well, actually, this also reminded us of 2011 - this time Week 13 in the home game against the Giants when a Dez Bryant TD gave the Cowboys a 34-22 lead with 5:41 to go.

That game, like this one, now had a win probability that was almost completely on Dallas.  For it to go wrong, the opponent would have to win the next 4 possessions.  On the 2 offensive possessions, they would need touchdowns - even a field goal would end the game.  And, on the 2 defensive possessions, they would need stops - 0 points.  And, like when the Giants went 4 for 4 in December of 2011, the Packers went 4 for 4 in December of 2013.

First, a Green Bay drive - that featured multiple runs to Eddie Lacy - cut the score to 36-31 on a James Jones TD with 4:17 to play.  Then, the Cowboys 11th drive of the day (having scored on 7 of the first 10 drives) is the one you will never forget.  Playing a Green Bay defense that pushed all 11 defenders to within 6 yards of the line of scrimmage, Romo saw passing opportunities.  And normally, you can understand his logic.  11 up mean that there is no safety over the top, and one reception can go for 80 yards - just like in the Detroit game earlier this year.  But, one false move and the clock stops or worse, you lose possession.

Deep shot to Dez was open, but the ball was under thrown for an incompletion.  2nd Down was another sack after Romo was able to stay alive, but nobody broke open down the field.  Now, it is 3rd and 12 and there is way too much time left.  So, they elect to throw the ball here, on a brilliant slant to Dez who gets 13 yards and keeps the clock running for a first down down under 3 minutes.  One detail that seemed small at the time, but turned out to be big was that Dez looked like he cramped up on the play and needed to miss a few snaps to be stretched out on the sideline.

Then, a Murray run sets up a 2nd and 6.  Green Bay again shows 11 up close to the line.  The Cowboys have a prepackaged play which is supposed to be a zone right to Murray which will, at worst, cause Green Bay to use its final timeout and at best get a 1st Down and kill the game.  Instead, because of no safeties deep, Romo switches to a 1 on 1 battle to Miles Austin (remember where Dez was?) on the backside.  Why?  Because he assumed the run wasn't going anywhere and subconsciously knew what happens if they punt with 2:00 to go against a Packers offense that had 4 touchdowns on 4 possessions in that half.  I am not saying he was right to make this decision, but if you look at it from that perspective, it at least is understandable logic.

So, Romo opts to a pass on a play where nobody but Austin and Romo know it is a pass, and as Romo is supposed to be throwing the ball, Austin's slow release opens on the slant just as an unblocked Clay Matthews arrives on Romo's lap.  Romo amazingly eludes him, but, now the play is off schedule and Romo regathers and throws late and behind Austin.  This brings the speedy Sam Shields back into the play and before you can blink, the ball has been turned over at the worst possible minute.

This is where things get murky.  Yes, Romo opted out of a run play, but only because the play is designed to give the QB the responsibility to diagnose the defense first.  If this happened at any other portion of the game, it is called running the offense.  But, at that point, you need to know how vital clock management is.  You need to realize that two runs take the ball to 2:00 at least.  But, if you punt at 2:00, does Green Bay still score from their own 20?

The real issue is the throw was poor and missed where you simply cannot miss.  A veteran QB, burned so many times with early down interceptions that seem unnecessary, just could not do that.  The interception was then, of course, quickly converted into another Eddie Lacy touchdown, and now Dallas is down 37-36, but still has all kinds of time and even a timeout to go get in Dan Bailey's range which seems to be anywhere these days.

Finally, as if his critics wrote the script, on the final drive, Romo obliges with a 2nd and 1 interception that was first ruled incomplete, but then - as instant replay giveth and taketh away - the same Tramon Williams was awarded his takeaway and the game was over.

Jason Garrett and Tony Romo will always be joined at the hip when we look back at this era of Cowboys football.  And rightfully so in this case.  They both shared deeply in very poor game management and help aid the full meltdown that cost Dallas an important game.

Meanwhile, after the game, Garrett uncharacteristically did not protect his QB to the media.  This can be described as the scramble for the available life jackets and boats that always occur when people know their time is short.

They can still save themselves, and Romo, by virtue of his contract that was unnecessarily given last spring, is assured to be here in 2014.  But, for Garrett, after this inexcusable loss, the writing seems very much on the wall.

Win the NFC East or else.

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