Monday, September 29, 2014

The Morning After: Cowboys 38, Saints 17 (3-1)

It is difficult to measure what occurred last night in Arlington with any sort of clarity as it pertains to previous Cowboys' teams and similar victories to the 38-17 mauling of the New Orleans Saints.  This 2014 side destroyed a favored contender in front of a national TV audience that expected anything but that result when the evening began.

In fact, as the season has now turned 1 month old, you could certainly make the case that the Cowboys are, at 3-1, one of the surprising success stories of the young season (if, in fact, that means anything in the big picture).  Most did not see this coming, and I will be the first to admit that I belong in that category of people who study this sort of thing closely and already might be willing to concede that I might like a "do over".

The Cowboys victory was a rare thing in this era - a thunderous win over an opponent that was favored on the big stage of the national tv audience.  Especially at home?  A search for wins of over 2 Touchdowns in the post-Aikman era finds almost nothing to compare last night against, save for the 24-0 win over Philadelphia to end the 2009 season and to clinch the NFC East.  But, even in that game, the Cowboys entered as the favorites.

Regardless of whether or not this moves quickly to the top of the list of demonstrations of strength from the Garrett/Romo era, the point has to be that (before the Saints are discredited by those who wish to undermine the accomplishment), this win was about as attention-grabbing a win as the Cowboys have had in a long, long time - and for very good reasons.

This is a team that does not destroy very many opponents that have a reputation for being legitimate contenders.  This is a franchise that does not physically impose its will on its opponents.  This is a fan base that almost doesn't know how to respond to something positive happening before its very eyes after all of these years.

And from the open of last nights' proceedings until its drama-less conclusion, the Cowboys served notice to anyone who is willing to consider the possibility, that they plan on making this a much better season than the prognosticators considered possible.

Whether they can actually pull that off is a discussion for another day, but today, we consider just how many ways the Cowboys crushed a team that is wandering back to New Orleans with all sorts of self-doubt about how good it really is.

The biggest questions entering into this game were clearly about the ability to measure up to the New Orleans offense.  Could the Cowboys defense slow them down a bit and more importantly, unlike in previous seasons, could the Cowboys offense actually demonstrate the ability to match up and produce on a night where they would have to do so?  In other words, it is one thing to be statistically ranked in the conversation for having an elite offense.  But, it is quite another to be productive on a stage where you must or you will lose - similar to the task in front of them in New Orleans, last November - something they failed at miserably.

This offense, with its new coordinator Scott Linehan, absolutely has the attention of the league now.  No matter how cynical anyone was about the Cowboys A) having the intention of running the ball and then B) having the ability to actually do that, we sit here on the Monday morning after Week 4 in the NFL and the Cowboys have run the ball more than any team,  have more yards rushing than any team, and somehow average 165 yards per game on the ground.  That makes them 1st, 1st, and 1st by NFL rank.

Given that they ran the ball the 31st most of any team in the NFL in 2013 and averaged just 94 yards a game, hopefully everyone can forgive the cynicism, but many of us needed to actually see it to believe it.  And again, the stats are nice, but what happens when the other team sits on your run and tries to make you prove it?  Well, as you saw, 190 yards on the ground, and passes to defensive backs who had no safety support that ended up as touchdowns because the Cowboys receivers were taking candy from babies on back shoulder fades.

It sounds so easy and yet the Jason Garrett designed offense has been talking about this for years and years and never come close to pulling it off.  To hear Cris Collinsworth tell it last night, this was all a grand design to build a giant offensive line that took years of patience and understanding.  In reality, it was massive salary cap mismanagement that had them gut their aging offensive line, but regardless, they now have a young and capable group that are running the zone stretch with such precision that Alex Gibbs is somewhere watching with tears in his eyes.

Just look at the very first drive of the game - a 12-play, 80-yard masterpiece that we will study more on Tuesday.  For now, know that there was a perfect blend of runs and passes, shotgun and under center, multiple personnel groupings, and a varied approach that saw positive yardage on 11 of the 12 plays and only saw 2 3rd Downs the entire way down the field.  Those 2 seperate 3rd Downs were both converted on 3rd and 2 and 3rd and 3 passes to Jason Witten.  Tony Romo looked athletic himself and with his new found running game doing what we hoped it would for years - take players out of the secondary - he dropped back with many options, all looking promising.

They continued throughout the night with productive drives, scoring on 6 of their 10 drives and getting Touchdowns on 4 of their first 6 drives.  It was amazingly effective with 8 3rd Down conversions and they got 7 all 3 times they were in the Red Zone.

Meanwhile, about that defense.  They were 32nd in the NFL last year and humiliated on national TV in New Orleans last season to the tune of 49 points, 625 yards, and 40 first downs.  

This time, they accomplished the 2 objectives that Rod Marinelli has stated for his defense.  1) get off the field on 3rd Downs as they allowed only 4 of 10 to a team that leads the NFL in 3rd Down conversions at 62% coming into the game.  Teams don't get off the field against the Saints and the Cowboys did.  And then, 2) take the ball away.  The Cowboys had 3 takeaways on Sunday thanks to the playmaking trio of linebackers: Rolando McClain (forced fumble), Justin Durant (forced fumble and interception), and Bruce Carter (tipped pass for Durant's Interception).  They needed players to step up and end drives by making plays, and the Cowboys linebackers are doing just that.  And that should be impressive when you consider that linebacker is where the Saints and their offense were expected to attack most of all.  It didn't happen last night, despite the yardage totals that were largely hollow.

The Cowboys took the ball away 3 times and did not give the ball away all night.  That +3 in the turnover margin is notable since in the last 25 years of Cowboys football, they are 33-4 when they are able to get to +3.

Sometimes the narratives of the pre game shows and the talk all week are right on the money about how a game will go and then there are weeks like this one.  So much talk about Jimmy Graham and Drew Brees and what the Cowboys would do against a "real opponent" after impressive wins against the Titans and Rams (for largely different reasons).  Now, they destroy the Saints with Graham and Brees hardly factors at all and we then move on to reason why the Saints aren't very good after all.

This type of logic fuels the league, but if you boil it down to our annual discussions at this time of year about which teams are actually good and which are only propped up by perception and myth, we arrive at the idea that no wins are impressive for teams you root against.  Only a win against the Super Bowl champion at their stadium would impress some fans.  Well, guess what?  These Cowboys have a chance to go to Seattle in 2 weeks.

As for my stance on the Cowboys, if that matters, I will tell you that I am not certain about whether there is sustainability here, as sometimes it only takes one injury to stop the train.  But, they look like they have the pieces on offense to keep this going if health remains on their side, especially with Tony Romo looking like he is in a pretty good spot again with his arm and more importantly, his brain.

The defense looks like it has very little flash, but an awful lot of intestinal fortitude and battle which can go a long way.  It does appear that the depth is being tested and the injury news on Morris Claiborne is anticipated to be very bad (ACL tear) and would cap off a nightmare week for the young CB from LSU.  Most expect that 16 games will reveal that this defense needs top personnel additions, but for now, they have certainly not let this team down through 4 games.  And, with Anthony Spencer joining the side with DeMarcus Lawrence on his way, optimism is actually alive.

The rhetoric today will be predictable.  Many will mock the celebration as people getting way ahead of themselves, but I think it is reasonable to allow a team to be judged on what it has done.  And, at 3-1, there is nobody saying this proves anything for the rest of 2014 - except that those of us who thought they might very well be 1-3 at this point might want to hold off on any declarations of imminent disaster.

This team has put themselves in a very nice position as we head to October, and we know that with the exception of that trip to Seattle, they will spend the entire month at this very same home stadium. They will have an opportunity to deliver a message to Philadelphia that this division will be a battle all the way to the holidays and as San Francisco seemed to show yesterday, the Eagles may not enjoy a physical, grinding offense running right at them.

In other words, it appears the plot might be thickening.



John said...

When does Jerry give Garrett an extension? Not that he should, but wouldn't it be very Jones-like to give him one this week?

Vince D said...

Look at Sturm's Top 100 draft board. 64% of his OL play for teams in the AP top 15, 55% in the top 10, and 41% in the AP top 5. Good O-line play makes winning teams at all levels.