Monday, September 22, 2014

The Morning After: Cowboys 34, Rams 31 (2-1)

How many times did that game turn?

How many ways did the Rams give the game away?  5?

How dead did you think the Cowboys were when they were down 21-0?

The NFL is amazing in its competitive theater that it can take a snoozer matchup between a home team starting a QB most of the league has never heard of and a road team that is expected to disappoint, and produce 3 unforgettable hours and an instant classic.

Rate the 16 games when the schedule comes out for intrigue and a noon start at St Louis in September might be the last one you would choose.  But, now, the rest of the schedule will have its work cut out for it if it is to give us a game on par with that.

And, most importantly, the Cowboys left with a victory that would certainly put them in a position to have their legions of doubters delay any 2014 Cowboys funeral for several more weeks.  They have won back to back road games - a rarity in recent times to say the least - and now return home for a massive stretch of home cooking where they play 5 of their next 6 games at home and aside from that one trip to Seattle do not play an actual road game again (we can't count a neutral game in London versus Jacksonville) until November 23rd at Giants Stadium - or 62 days from today.

62 days from now, what will this team look like?  Will it be 7-3 and in a position to battle for the divisional crown?  Or will they have been taken down with injuries, attrition, and the familiar plots and sit 4-6?

That discussion is for another day.  But, on this day, the details and twists of a 34-31 win against the Rams is our focus.  And it should be.  For it is the biggest comeback for a regulation win in the history of the franchise.  Down 21-0, you will have to forgive those of us who wondered how bad this season might get and who the next coach will be (midseason or would Jerry wait until January?).

You don't come back from 21-0.  The game is over.

In fact, to that point of the game, the Cowboys defense looked helpless - whether it had to do with Rolando McClain's absence or not - and the offense had 3 drives ending in a fumble, a 3-and-out punt, and an interception for a Pick 6.

The Pick 6 looked like a rare 2nd Quarter dagger.  Tony Romo stared down Dez Bryant on 3rd and 8, despite Cole Beasley open right in front of him for an easy 1st down, and Janoris Jenkins - the biggest gambling CB this side of DeAngelo Hall - jumping the route and racing into the end zone unchallenged.

It was clear.  Romo had lost his self-belief.  The Cowboys were being humiliated by a team that seldom humiliates anyone.  The season hardly outlasted the 2014 Rangers debacle.

So, what happened next?

In my mind, and I am sure it is not the only explanation, the game was then introduced to Scott Linehan.  That, alone, was full of ironic thoughts due to the fact that he had walked the Rams sideline as head coach in that very building so many times and most of them were losses (11-25 career record with the Rams).

But, on this day, Linehan was that coordinator hire that the Cowboys have been looking for years.  A voice in the ears of Tony Romo that demanded the team not lose sight of their own identity.  I have written for years about the lack of conviction that Jason Garrett the play caller has when the game starts going off the rails.  The Cowboys have spent most of the last several years working all week on a game-plan and then tossing it in the trash if they ever fall behind by double-digits and run their 2 minute drill the rest of the game.

That leads to even more issues of predictability, and often the hole gets deeper.  But, it seldom addresses the actual issues and sticks to the plan of the week.

So, when the Cowboys turn the game around with a massive 8-play, 80-yard drive on the back of 5 DeMarco Murray runs from under center for 37 yards, you knew that Garrett isn't the man with the play calls anymore.  This was the work of a guy who understood that you don't give up on a 60-minute game in the 2nd Quarter.  You stick to your plan.

Now, please don't get the impression that Garrett isn't useful for other traits, because he seems to be.  But, when it comes to his vision for this offense and his relationship with his QB1, I will always argue that a fresh set of eyes were called for years ago.  Bill Callahan didn't seem to be that trusted man, although the proficiency of this offensive lines grasp of the zone stretch and the devastating cutbacks must go on his ledger.

But, for this new offense - one that seems both creative and determined - I must tip my cap to Linehan and what we already are seeing that is different and smart.

Of course, none of that matters if we are going to be dealing with a QB that is paid like franchise guy, but can no longer perform as one.  So, can Tony Romo ever get back to what made him special?

I think we saw flashes of brilliance on Sunday in St Louis that should put many of the alarms on snooze, at least.  Romo did have a few ducks mixed in with his day, and his read on the Pick 6 was not good.  But, overall, and especially once he shook off his early start, we saw a play-making QB again.

Especially on 3rd Downs, Romo was extraordinary.  3rd and 3, he finds Witten for 9.  3rd and 2, he finds Escobar on the play before the 67-harder to Dez.  Then on the game winning drive, he converts 3 more 3rd Downs, including a 3rd and 13 that Romo scrambled for 16 and a 1st Down which is something that I don't feel that I have seen for years.

So, being me, I had to know.  When was the last time Tony Romo ran for more than 10 yards on 3rd and 10+ for a 1st down?  What if I told you there was only 1 time he ever did it?  It was September 30, 2007 against the Rams?  Then, what if I told you it is not the play you are thinking of - where the ball was snapped over his head a mile and he went back to get it and then ran for the 1st Down?

It was not this play:

It was this play:

The point is that the Cowboys were down 24-20 yesterday, with less than 12 minutes to go in the 4th Quarter, and most of us didn't think Romo had that scramble in him.  Did he look like Colin Kaepernick in the open field?  No, he looked more like a dad at the health club running full court basketball and using old-man tricks, but it moved the chains and kept the drive going.

Then, a few plays later, he steps up in a collapsing pocket and hits Terrance Williams for 20 yards on 3rd and 14 to extend the drive.  5 snaps later, on 3rd and 2 from the Rams 12, Romo slays a Rams blitz with an underneath connection to Williams again who can stroll into the end zone.  27-24, Cowboys.

What do you love most about yesterday from your QB?  All the 3rd Down plays?  How about the targets on those 3rd Downs being guys named Williams, Escobar, and even Lance Dunbar instead of Dez and Jason Witten?  It all has to excite a fair observer.

One more item on Linehan's genius yesterday (I will elaborate plenty more on Tuesday) has to be the Play Action bomb to Dez Bryant.  There are a million items about this play that I love, but the best is this - the Cowboys set a hook based on tendencies.  1st Down, Cowboys under center, let's examine the last 7 times before that deep shot: Run, Run, Run, Run, Run, Run, and Run.  Do you think the Rams knew this?  Do you think they were all preparing to deal with another zone stretch?  I do.

So, they move forward and decide to man-up on the outside edges.  Then, Romo fakes to Murray, and pulls the ball back.  The safety is moving forward.  Jenkins, who already has a Pick 6 is sitting on the deep out, Dez cuts back inside and now all Romo has to do is prove he can throw it in the air that far. Dez sets up for a near fair catch and jogs into the end zone.  Touchdown.  Coaching wins.

But, it wasn't just a day for the offense.  The defense needed to get a stop or two late.  We have no idea what the ending narrative of the Cowboys defense will be (although many of us have projected it), but for the Cowboys to do anything memorable in this season, it was going to have to get a better year from the defense.  And, given the issues in personnel, the only logical way that this could happen is for those blue-chip prospects to actually play to their paper.  In particular, the underachievements of Bruce Carter and Mo Claiborne was going to be the focus of Rod Marinelli's campaign.  Could he reach them and have them play their best?

Well, clearly, he has miles to go to get Claiborne back to the "top defensive prospect of the 2012 draft".  He was burned repeatedly again yesterday and looks to be about the 4th best cornerback on the roster right now.  But, his interception to end the Rams rally in the final moments of the game yesterday is proof yet again that sports is the perfect ground for redemption as your chance at making things right is always around the next corner.

And Bruce Carter, who has frustrated to a lesser extent, played his spot perfectly on his interception for the touchdown that actually gave the Cowboys a 10-point lead after a 21-point deficit in a game that had a little of everything.

The poetic justice of those 2 making the biggest plays for the defense - along with young Anthony Hitchens stopping a 4th down - show the lights of optimism on the horizon.  We shall see what Drew Brees does about that in a week, but for now, the plane home must have been full of smiles.

This game may have swung on some touchy penalties, many that went the Cowboys direction.  That roughing the passer or even the defensive holding late are sure to be issues in St Louis today.  But, for Dallas, to be 2-1 after the opening 3 games is a strong wind in the sails.  Of course, they have been 2-1 after 3 games in 2011, 2012, and 2013, as well, only to the lose the next 2 each time and to be 2-3 after 5 games.

How will 2014 be different?  Perhaps the next 2 weeks will tell us plenty.


patrick bailey said...

Reason for optimism prior to season was Linehan. First bona fide playcaller in years and will make romo and cowboys better. He will have bad moments but overall a huge plus.

Oscar Granado said...

Great analysis, Bob. Keep doing what you do. Most people are sports morons. I hate looking at my Facebook feed on Sundays, because people are just trashing Romo for the pick 6, and saying nothing else, as if they turned on the tv to witness that one play, and then turned it off.