Monday, September 15, 2014
Yesterday, the NFL demonstrated loudly and clearly for all who forget that this league is difficult to predict and impossible to figure out. I can't imagine there are many people who profit off the ability to forecast NFL games correctly (despite the large number who claim to have this ability), because from what I can tell, we repeat the exercise every season of thinking we know more than we actually do - only to admit later that the more we watch, the more it becomes clear that nobody truly knows much about this unpredictable sport.
When it comes to the Dallas Cowboys and their 2014 season which has almost nobody optimistic, the predictions have been based on a few specific gripes. The most important remains their franchise QB, Tony Romo, returning to health and performance that is expected from a man that they pay more than $1m per game.
However, the rest of the bearish views on the team surround 2 major issues: the defense that they have was one of the worst ever in 2013 and the additions to improve it are largely anonymous and therefore are not expected to have lasting effects and the other issue was whether or not this team would truly ever be able to have a physical, imposing, and yes at times, dominating offensive line that would both protect their QB and open up holes of a running game.
And while the developing story of Romo's search for his top form continues, I think 2 weeks into the season has to have made everyone feel better about the defense sorting itself out under Rod Marinell. Meanwhile, the offensive line's impact on the first two games has been about as positive as anyone could have hoped, and the way the running game has come out of the gate in 2014 might be the game changer that nobody believed possible.
The Cowboys, as an underdog on Sunday in Nashville, dominated the ball on the ground with force and might and makes everyone imagine the possibility of a personality change with a franchise that seemed allergic to the physical brand of football that Seattle, San Francisco, Baltimore and other powers have used for the last several years.
Have they figured something out? It is only 1 game and part of another. It is early for sure. But, to comprehend 347 rushing yards through 2 games this season is difficult, when we consider that in 2013 they ran for 123 yards, 2012 it was 182, and in 2011, it was 109 through their first 2 games, respectively.
But, now, perhaps through necessity, they have run the ball with incredible proficiency so far. They lined up and smashed the Titans front which is not a small task. They had to fight through the adversity of an early DeMarco Murray fumble again, and their first 3 drives ending with 2 sacks and a giveaway. But, they didn't lose their nerve, nor their objectives. They simply decided to stay on their script and in the end had their 4th biggest running day of the last decade as the Titans were unable to mount much resistance.
Not only that, but in this space we have discussed the cycle of Cowboys' road disappointments at great length. The offense consistently underperforms by having no running game, a passing game that is defeated with blitzing, and ultimately putting too much pressure on a defense to keep them in games until it ultimately collapses. But, yesterday, the Cowboys showed the opposite to be true. The running game backed off the Titans blitz, because they did not have the Cowboys passing game in a bind the whole day. The Cowboys were only predictable on 3rd Downs and then were able to dictate the action, while the defense stayed fresh. The Cowboys snapped the ball 76 times and dominated the clock with 41 minutes of possession as Tennessee only ran 49 plays. If you feel that the Cowboys were in control of the proceedings the entire day despite Romo never having to do too much on his own, you feel correctly. They dictated the action and the direction of the contest with 43 running plays to the tune of 220 yards on the ground. 5.1 yard per carry from 43 attempts? Who are these guys?
Perhaps, they are exactly who they thought they were when they spent big on Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin to rebuild an offensive line that was in fact offensive for 2011 and 2012. We certainly are not going to rush to the anointing oils, but this looks like a group that is not perfect, but when firing forward and trying to run the ball, they look more than capable. And for the entire complexion of the organization, everything changes when you are suddenly able to be the team on the field that can be physically dominant.
We shall see if they can prove it in the weeks to come. If they can, you may see optimism return to this fan base in short order. For now, we marvel at what happens when every play seems like a positive gain.
This isn't just about the ground game, however. What makes this win for the Cowboys feel extra important was the way it appeared to have a total team feel to it. The special teams were fantastic as Dwayne Harris and Dan Bailey led this crew to their own dominant day. A nearly blocked punt, a downed punt deep in Tennessee territory, well covered kicks, a nice punt return, and of course, Bailey picking off long field goals like there is nothing to it. If ever there has been a better kicker in Cowboys history than what Dan Bailey is doing right now, then the margin is slim. Bailey is as elite as it gets right now when it comes to making long kicks automatic. He is truly at the top of his game.
The defense, for the 2nd week in a row, was good but with some reservations. Last week, it was the score margin made it feel like San Francisco was not using too much of their scheme with a 28-3 lead. This week, they played a QB in Jake Locker who looked discouraged and confused and happy to run off the field at times in the first half. It is a new coaching staff and scheme in Nashville, and for the time being, it might need more time in the oven - although takeaways and short fields in Week 1 helped them shock the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.
But, let's give credit where credit is due as the team turned the ball over twice and found a few more sacks. The optimism of Rolando McClain, Bruce Carter, and Henry Melton making splash plays of impact once again made itself apparent on Sunday. If this thing is going to work, they will need a few players to rise above the group, and in the front 7 I would say those are your leaders for now. We must pace ourselves and remember that attrition will play a role, but again, for the 2nd week in a row, the defense seemed competitive. That, despite Delanie Walker having his career-best day in his 9th year in the league. Through 2 weeks, if there is a major issue emerging, it would appear to be the ability to corral a talented tight end receiving threat. With Jimmy Graham on the schedule in 13 days, that should be a focus moving forward.
I know the record books will remember this game as an easy win that was close to a demoralizing rout, but the game nearly flipped late in the 3rd Quarter and could have easily gotten away from Dallas. Up 16-0 at halftime, the team had to know they had Tennessee in a corner with no real life-lines available, especially with Locker looking so lost. But, the Titans emerged from the intermission with a FG drive, followed by a Dallas 3-and-out with a sack bringing Romo down for one of 4 Titans' sacks.
Then, the ensuing drive was where Delanie Walker caught a ball by the left sideline and sustained a shot from Morris Claiborne, bounced off him and ran to the end zone with impressive wheels for a big man. Now, it was 16-10, with half the 3rd Quarter to play.
The next drive was where the game changed. For much of the day, Tony Romo just didn't look right throwing the ball, and even his longest completion (and only pass play over 18 yards) was a 22-yard gain to Dez Bryant on a crossing pattern where his target was wide open but the pass was at his shoe-tops. Bryant caught the ball into Tennessee territory, but again the discussion from the broadcasters was that something doesn't look right about his ball delivery.
From there, a 6 yard gain from Murray to the Tennessee 33 yard line was where the play of the game happened. It was 2nd and 4, and Romo audibled into a shotgun after he felt a blitz coming from the A-gaps straight ahead. This audible was a TE screen on the right side as Jason Witten would release his protection assignment, Derrick Morgan, and flow past him into the flat. This is a rather normal answer to a blitz threat, and uses the defenses aggression against them.
But, Morgan gets to Romo so fast that the throw back to Witten in the flat was rushed and high. Witten reached back to try to catch it, but in doing so, tipped the ball right into the path of safety Bernard Pollard. Pollard catches the ball and appears to be one broken arm tackle from giving Tennessee the lead, when Witten is able to reach in and knock the ball loose for what would be rightfully called an incompletion. The play - in just the blink of an eye - went from a genius offensive idea, to a game-changing defensive "Pick-6", to simply an incompletion that maybe nobody will remember in a few weeks.
But, that is how games are lost in the NFL where the margin sits on the edge of a knife. And perhaps Jason Witten saved this day with a play that won't even be recorded as a statistic. On the next play the Cowboys picked up a 1st down on a generous pass interference and 6 snaps later, Romo hits Bryant on a back shoulder fade in the end zone to restore the 13 point lead and overall order to the proceedings of the first Cowboys victory of 2014. From there, the ground game was supplemented with Cowboys' fans at the stadium taking over Nashville with their voices in a way that should make Arlington jealous.
They won a game that they absolutely had to win in Week 2, with a potentially perfect opponent hand picked for Week 3 in St Louis before the heavyweights come calling shortly thereafter. If they are to shock the league with a strong 2014, they must get to 3 wins before going to Seattle in Week 6.
But, what a difference a week can make. Now, we think the defense can stand up for itself and the offensive line can lean on opponents routinely. Given that we agreed earlier that we assume too much, too quickly in the NFL, we better continue to see what this team is capable of on a week to week basis moving forward before we jump to conclusions.
We now spend the week wondering about Romo and his self-belief, but for the team in general, this looks far more encouraging than any other indicators we have seen since camp assembled.
A road win, with a dominating physical force grinding the Titans defense down over the course of an afternoon. A defense that was opportunistic and able to get off the field on 3rd Down. Special teams that tilted the game in the Cowboys' direction.
More of that, please.