A season that has been largely enjoyable and surprising from many perspectives was run over by a speeding truck yesterday in Arlington. The Philadelphia Eagles destroyed the Cowboys by a 23-point margin and in many respects, the game was not even that close.
At 8-4, all hope is not close to lost, but the views of what this team is capable of may need to be tailored with a bit more reality as they face a daunting December with 3 of 4 in cold weather situations and plenty of chips in the middle of the table.
The following are the ugliest characteristics of a decisive thumping by a division rival in your own building to try to ruin Thanksgiving:
- Your QB plays arguably the single worst game of his career from a QB efficiency standpoint. Tony Romo had a passer rating of 53.7 for the day, yesterday. You would have to go back at least 5 years to find any performance that is really in the same neighborhood. Those candidates would include the first game ever played at Cowboys stadium against the Giants in 2009 (29.6), 3 games late in the season against the Eagles in 2006 (45.5), 2007 (22.2) and that 44-6 debacle in 2008 (55.8), another late season trip to Pittsburgh in 2008 (44.9), and the miracle win in Buffalo in 2007 (49.9). In other words, when he was young he threw up some worse stinkers, but the type of game he played yesterday hasn't been played here in the post-Igor Olshansky era. Romo was never locked in, his passes were loopy and short of velocity for much of the day, and he showed us that skittish demeanor in the pocket which seems to be triggered best by big blitzes and that sometimes cause him to bail to the ground before the pressure arrives. I spent a good portion of the week expecting the Cowboys to be better than the Eagles, with my principle reason being that Romo is a far better QB than either QB that Philadelphia has on their payroll, but it seems pretty silly in hindsight to leverage much weight on that based on what we saw for 3 hours yesterday. He simply did not look himself for much of the day and even many of his completions downfield looked hopeful. One would have to assume that a QB that hasn't practiced on a Wednesday all year may not have the ability to play 2 games in 4 days.
- Your dominant ground and pound offense is out gained by the opponent by 163 yards. The Eagles demonstrated the ability to run the ball from the very first drive yesterday with simplicity. It started early and never stopped. The Cowboys surrendered a massive 36 yard run to LeSean McCoy right off the bat on the first possession when they unbalanced their line to the left and then simply cutback to the wide right. This had all of the Cowboys rushing to the strong side and there was absolutely nobody to prevent McCoy out-sprinting Rolando McClain to the sideline for a huge gainer that set the tone for the afternoon. When your middle linebacker is the only guy handling outside contain, you have a major problem on your hands. JJ Wilcox and Anthony Hitchens both crashed to the inside and fell right into a scheme trap from the Chip Kelly recipe book. Evidently, the short week did not sufficiently cover the Eagles just getting the Cowboys to align improperly. Meanwhile, Dallas ran its 2nd worse rushing day of the season (Arizona) and its worst rushing day when Romo was available to keep a rushing defense honest. Murray and the offensive line were able to get some decent yardage at times, but when the long gain on 25 carries is 8 yards, and when McCoy had 3 carries of over 19 yards each, then there is very little that you can draw from that matchup that would be considered acceptable in a showdown game like this.
- You lose the turnover differential decisively and take a -2 at home. The Cowboys turned the ball over 3 times and that is a problem, but we are also seeing a major trend in what is needed from the defense to secure wins. In the 8 wins, the Cowboys have taken the ball away 16 times. In the 4 losses, including yesterday, they have taken the ball away 3 times total. In fact, yardage allowed seems to have no correlation whatsoever to wins and losses, but when the Cowboys don't take the ball away, which they seldom ever accomplish in home games, but the way, they generally don't win. The lone exceptions were the Saints and Giants games where they took the ball away a combined 5 times. Otherwise, in the other 5 home games, they have grand total of 4 takeaways. And in all 7 home games this year, the defense has accounted for just 4 interceptions. Everything else has been accumulated by fumble recoveries which depend on the good fortune of the ball bouncing properly. And, as we saw yesterday when Tyrone Crawford stripped Mark Sanchez, when Cole Beasley was stripped before halftime, and when LeSean McCoy's rear end touched the turf before Barry Church pulled the ball out, the fumble luck was not on the Cowboys side on this day.
- You take a massive loss in the trenches on both sides of the ball. This wasn't a great week for the offensive line to turn in one of their roughest days, either. What makes it disheartening for the Cowboys has to be the fact that this is how they thought they were equipped to deal with the Eagles. The belief was that you could just beat them at the line of scrimmage and that affects everything else on the field. Unfortunately, Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan proved to be more than the Cowboys were able to deal with inside and that, of course, made DeMarco Murray and Tony Romo look far more ordinary that usual. Looking back at the Giants game, it is clear that much of Romo's success in throwing the ball is due to the time and comfort he had in the pocket. Now, we see the other side of that equation, when the lack of a pocket for much time caused him to look as awful as memory can recall. Given that we never heard from Trent Cole all day, it appeared Tyron Smith played very well - aside from the possible exception on that crucial play in the 2nd Quarter where it appeared Travis Frederick snapped the ball before anyone else expected it. But, from my perspective, it looked like that is all on the center since nobody else budged on that very significant moment in the game.
- Your defensive line did not generate any pressure to speak of and really aside from the Crawford sack/fumble in the first minute of the 2nd Quarter, I am not sure a Cowboys front seven guy touched Sanchez all day long. This is a game where they absolutely needed Anthony Spencer, DeMarcus Lawrence, Henry Melton, Jeremy Mincey, or George Selvie to make a play on Sanchez, but they couldn't get there. Without a doubt, the Eagles get the ball out as quickly as they can to lower the weight on their QB's shoulders, but there were moments where he did have to stand in there and wait for something to develop. For instance, on that 2nd and 20 after the Sanchez fumble when he had to wait for Brandon Carr to leave Maclin because Carr thought Darren Sproles was going to get the ball in the flat, and was then burned over the top on the clear busted coverage for 58 yards.
- The 3rd Down situation was a disaster, as well. If you are going to get destroyed up front, perhaps you can still turn the game with some 3rd Down work to cover some of the issues. Well, that didn't happen either. The Cowboys converted at 33% (4-12) which continued a massive slide down the NFL standings since Romo missed a game where they are just 14-46 in their last 4 games. This after leading the NFL for much of the 1st two months of the year. Then, defensively, they allowed the Eagles to move the chains on 8 of 15 occasions, which takes the opponents' 4-game trend against Dallas to 32-60 (53%). What was going so well in the first half of the season and the Cowboys rode to a 6-1 start is now going quickly in the wrong direction and 2-3 since tells the story. They were winning 3rd Downs in both directions and now they are being soundly defeated.
The issues were many and the solutions were few. The Cowboys thought they were ready for this stage against this opponent (as did I) and were quickly shown that they were not and the reasons for optimism leaving that game were almost non-existent.
They were dealt a very damaging blow in the attempts to win the NFC East and to even qualify for the playoffs. But, with 4 games to play, the Cowboys very much control their own destiny in those regards. The questions are whether or not we should assume that Thursday was merely an aberration and something they can shake off and easily overcome.
More than anything leaving the game, the real concerns over whether or not the Cowboys could deal with the Eagles differently when they have time to prepare is being discussed. Was it simply a matter of a quick turnaround and a short work week that had them looking both mentally and physically slow. There are players like Romo and Rolando McClain that looked to be shells of themselves on Thursday, and you wonder if it is just one of those games or if they were simply unable to play again so soon after a taxing night in New York on Sunday.
But, those would have to be filed under excuses that nobody wants to hear when the season is on the line.
Chip Kelly did look to be the better tactician on Thursday as his team did look prepared and confident. Maclin looked better than Dez Bryant, McCoy looked better than Murray, Fletcher Cox looked like a star defender (the Cowboys traded up in that draft, but they found Morris Claiborne more worthy of that price tag than Cox who was believed to be high on their list, too), and even Mark Sanchez looked to be the best QB on the field.
The worst part of it all? It could have been much worse. The Eagles actually stumbled quite a bit in the red zone (a trend that the Cowboys defense has been on the wrong side of for a month now) and only converted 1 of 5 trips into touchdowns. Had they been able to execute down there with the same ease as the rest of their offense all day, a 23-point margin could have easily been significantly more painful.
The Eagles were picked by virtually everyone who picks the NFL to win this division in 2014. Then, they were destroyed on national television 2 weeks back and the Cowboys started asking "why not us?" Now, the national television destruction hits home and the doubt will switch camps for 16 days until these teams meet again. In the meantime, Dallas has to deal with Chicago and the Eagles have Seattle coming to town. To suggest that anyone knows for certain how this will look in 2 weeks is laughable.
But, for Dallas to keep this season of promise from turning into one of the more disappointing endings in memory, they are going to need to shake this one off in a hurry and prove their resilience.
Because right now, everything they have shown to be positive this season is being questioned. The dominating run game, the opportunistic defense, and yes, even the QB having his best year ever and being suggested in this space as a potential MVP candidate 4 days back. The doubts and the doubters have reemerged, and only the 53 in that room can restore order.
With a month to play, the Eagles are setting their sights higher than the divisional race to see how they measure up with the NFC heavyweights. Meanwhile, the Cowboys are left here to figure out a response, before it is too late.