Monday, September 08, 2014
If you had 3:27pm in the pool for the time of the first enemy missile hitting the good ship Cowboys, you are a winner. For that was the time that DeMarco Murray was stripped of the ball by 49ers linebacker Dan Skuta, followed by Chris Culliver running it back into the end zone to give the visitors a lead they would not come close to relinquishing the rest of the day.
54 seconds of game time and roughly 2-3 minutes of real time had expired in a new season before bad things happened in 2014.
The anticipation of a new NFL season builds gradually to a frenzied climax the weekend of Week 1 each season for most of us who are addicted to this fantastic sport. Unfortunately, when toe meets leather at 3:25pm the Sunday of Week 1, the dread of reality comes rushing back for many and the rest of the season begins to feel like a row of ominous storm clouds.
The wise amongst us would remind us that this is merely 1 game and that the journey has just begun. Regardless of how you feel about this team heading into 2014 (and I don't feel very good about them), it should be noted that no league is more difficult to forecast than the modern day NFL. Upsets and unlikely events happen all of the time in this league, and every team should be allowed to demonstrate whether they are up for shocking the experts. But, um, that wasn't the start Dallas was looking for.
Despite the Murray fumble, the biggest reason for the patches of panic that are developing around the area surely are linked to the performance of the man who is the highest compensated in a Cowboys' uniform, Tony Romo. Romo, for those who are predicting a fine year, is the single biggest reason for hope. The idea is that any team with Romo at the helm will have a chance to win most weeks, which demonstrates the value of having a franchise QB.
But, 2014 has felt different for a number of reasons when it comes to the man under center. His future is very much in question to the cynical eye, based on health, age, practice attendance, and a 2013 which was statistically flattering, but contained many moments that gave pause to those who wonder if he will be able to perform to the levels of his new contract that pays him from 2014-2019. In other words, that $108 million dollar deal is now 1 game old and 95 to go (optimistically).
There is a theory when it comes to Romo that exists amongst those of us that attempt to properly avoid the noise regarding his career and just look at the cold, hard facts. If you try to ignore the photoshops, memes, message boards, stand-up comedians, and other places where Romo has been made into a human piñata, but also ignore the puff pieces, adoring fans, and personal protectors of him from a positive side, you can try to figure out where his legacy really stands. That, of course, is a very difficult thing to do. Because everyone has an opinion about Tony Romo. Everyone.
Anyway, the theory is as follows: His bad moments - fewer than most people would ever admit - happen on the highest-rated stages where it seems the entire world is watching this game, while many of his best moments have happened on regionally-split, small audience games that might be noon starts with fragmented parts of the football world tuned in.
Is it a coincidence? Nobody knows for sure. But, for whatever reason, if you were to make a list of Romo's 10 biggest disasters, just about all of them had a giant late afternoon or night audience that was shown to 90% of the country and with millions of eyeballs. Whereas many of his 10 biggest performances have often been 12pm starts at home against Buffalo, St Louis, or Tampa Bay.
In fact, there was a fantastic story a few weeks back documenting one of the best traits about Romo is that he doesn't have the meltdown games that prevent his team from having a chance to win nearly as often as many in his position. In fact, only Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Phil Rivers, and Peyton Manning had a lower percentage of "bad games" or games where the QB rating was sub-67. However, they all have poor outings and Romo has averaged about 2 times a year where he basically prevents the team from winning.
See Chicago on Monday Night 2012, at Washington on Sunday Night 2012, and San Francisco in the season opener 2014 as the 3 that come quickest to mind in the Head Coach Jason Garrett era.
Romo threw 3 interceptions yesterday, could have thrown a few more, and generally looked about as bad as we have seen him look in his many years at the helm.
The timing, of course, is most disconcerting as it follows a training camp where he was very spotty in his participation and after the offseason where his back surgery was a real cause for concern about his future resembling his past.
Already, many are insisting his back was not the cause of these picks, but nobody knows for sure. From this vantage point, the interceptions and general poor throws all day seemed to be a mixture of uncertainty, confusion, and looping throws that lacked velocity and accuracy when needed. Those elements conspiring together are a very troubling mixture that dooms any chance this team has if it is more than a bad hour of QB play.
Interception #1 was a very poor decision out of a run formation (12 personnel) and play-action on 1st Down. There is nothing worse than a veteran QB taking an unnecessary chance by throwing into coverage on 1st Down. If you follow this blog, play-action fakes are something Romo/Garrett have very seldom employed, but with Scott Linehan here it is assumed it will be used much more as a weapon that exploits the powerful run game that appears to be present. With Terrance Williams springing open over the top, Romo forces the ball into coverage at Dez Bryant and a sea of red with Eric Reid making the catch and a huge runback.
Interception #2 was even worse. This was 1st and goal from the 5 and another play-action fake that gave Romo lots of time with Dwayne Harris open at the goal-post early, but you can see Romo double-clutching the ball as he looked there. He stood there, then rolled right to buy some extra time and then, inexplicably, lobbed the ball in the general direction of Jason Witten, but it had no chance. Patrick Willis recovered as the ball hung in the air way too long and made the pick, which if he did not grab, teammate Antoine Bethea might have. Just an awful decision from a guy who doesn't make very many.
Finally, interception #3 which was also on 1st down and also on play-action was another run strong formation (13 personnel) which used the run fake and the personnel to isolate the lone WR Dez Bryant with a light secondary. But, the Cowboys have shown this enough to warn the opponent that they love to do this with Witten trying to attract the safety underneath and Dez going over the top. The safety Reid was on the scene and Perrish Cox actually pulled in the deep shot that again was a very poor read.
Where the blame rests - the brain or the back - is something we will debate this week, but the result requires no debate. It was absolutely his worst performance since 2012 and the game was over by the 2nd interception and 3rd giveaway. I think you can blame both, as his rust was obvious, but his throws did not look right on several occasions as he airmailed receivers or just threw balloon balls at times that had no zip. His mechanics looked poor and he also took some pretty big hits as he was mauled for 3 sacks.
For now, let's assume it was a poorly timed bad performance and assume that it can only get better with more reps (for the sake of this column, I will avoid ranting about the way this was all handled in August in Oxnard).
Beyond Romo, let's look at a few other elements that might actually have us optimistic moving forward. For instance, the run game was not out-matched and 5.5 yards a carry and 127 yards overall must be given a passing grade. They looked physical and useful and despite the frustrating decision to try to pass it into the end zone on 2nd and 1 from the 2 which resulted in the Justin Smith sack, the reviews of the line were passable. This all, despite Tyron Smith looking as poor as he has in his 49 games as the Cowboys best linemen. Yes, the competition level in San Francisco puts him up against very talented defenders, but he also picked a bad time to look pedestrian. Ahmad Brooks and Justin Smith both had moments against Tyron that were are not accustomed to seeing.
The defense also looked interesting. In particular, Jeremy Mincey, Henry Melton, and Rolando McClain had flashes of a bruising style that we haven't seen in preseason much. As the rebuild of this defense continues, we must take positives where we can find them in 2014, and those 3 all looked quite reasonable for me - but I do want to examine more as the week goes on.
The tempered enthusiasm on the defense would be based on not taking the ball away at all, and the Cowboys have now lost 17 games in a row when they generate 0 takeaways. Of course, nobody is pointing at that because the team was -4 in the turnover differential, and no team won a game when they were -4 in the entire NFL in 2013 (1-19) except when the Lions did it to the Cowboys last October 27th.
The 49ers are one of the tougher tests on the schedule and were the favorites yesterday. They likely will go down as simply a better team than the Cowboys are prepared to handle right now. But, Dallas made it entirely too easy, and the oddity of the QB being the biggest reason is rather indisputable.
Now, road tests at Tennessee and St Louis await, before another heavyweight comes to Arlington at the end of the month. The biggest question then is whether the stadium in Arlington will be more covered with Saints fans in every section than the amount of 49ers fans who over-ran the building yesterday. I am not sure whether they out-numbered the Broncos fans from last season in Jerry's house, but in either case you can not call that a home field advantage anymore.
It appears the locals are tiring of the mediocrity and are fine with cashing in their tickets when the price is right to traveling fans of the opponents. That is their right for sure, but it is one more layer of depressing news for those that want to see this team back amongst the league powers.
Right now, that seems a reality that is a million miles away.