Monday, December 29, 2014

The Morning After: Cowboys 44, Redskins 17 (12-4)

What a difference a year makes.  Or two years.  Or three years.  However you want to slice things with your segments of time, any Cowboys' fan who is passionate about breaking the cycle has to be doing a small, measured da nce today knowing that "Black Monday" in the NFL is not on your mind.
For the last 3 years, 2011-2013, the Cowboys have spent this day - the Monday after the final game - with the macro discussions of a team in perpetual failure mode.  I have certainly been front and center for this tradition with mind-numbing dreams of this franchise in a parallel universe where disappointment isn't delivered fresh every Black Monday.
This franchise is broken and it is not getting better. Another showdown against a beatable division rival showed you all you should need to see. Assuming the last 15 years didn't already provide enough evidence.
for some reason, this one feels a bit different to me than 2011.  In 2011, I thought the Cowboys were overwhelmed by the New York Giants in the final game of the season because of the simple mismatch problems that they had no answer for.  There was no strategy or posture that was going to allow that Cowboys OL to handle the DL of the Giants.  It just wasn't happening.  
But, this one, despite the familiar result, seemed a much different style of loss.  To me, especially from an offensive standpoint, this one felt like the Cowboys suffered the most disappointing of failures on the field at the home of their hated rivals.  This one felt like a self-inflicted defeat, full of wasted opportunities and poor execution.
And so ends another season on this treadmill of mediocrity at Valley Ranch…
It is different, in many respects, because this time the culprits are some who were not even part of the story just a year or two ago, with names like Monte Kiffin and Bill Callahan at the top of the list of people sitting on seats that may in fact be warming to hot.  There are new coaches and players in the chairs of blame and some will be replaced and some will not.
But today, those of us who were pretty sure things could never change at Valley Ranch until they did actually change must stand down and admit that a leadership of Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett really could change things around.
After yesterday's resounding regular season finale where the Cowboys crushed a divisional rival on the road to wrap up a perfect season of road football, it is time to gaze at this 12-4 team and admit that no matter how much you study the NFL and sports in general, it is a bad idea to say "never" about anything.  Especially the idea that Jerry Jones will never be able to figure things out at this stage of his career and that Jason Garrett will never be a solid head coach.
I would have fired Jason Garrett after Washington in 2012.  The disappointments were too many and the number of instances where I felt the head coach had cost them the game were more than a few.  They could not afford to have a "learn on the job" head coach and that this thing is doomed until they get a wise man who has already figured out head coaching hired here.  But, we all know that will "never" happen because Jerry Jones will "never" hire that type of guy anymore.
They "never" will buy into power football as the franchise seems to in love with finesse skill position players who make great fantasy football selections, but the Cowboys get killed in the trenches too often.
And, Jerry Jones as a fantasy football general manager who seems more interested in a profitable stadium than a dominating football team?  We can't fire him, so we may just have to wait him out.  They can "never" win with him calling the shots.  He is too in love with his players and by the way, will they ever win with Tony Romo anyway?
These things were said.  Some here, some not, but they were said and repeated and shouted and promised.  The evidence seemed strong and the plan seemed weak over the 2010-2013 range that they were lost without a compass.  And then, strapped with salary cap mistakes and the idea of having to say goodbye to the good players they did have on defense, how could 2014 be anything short of a disaster?
I said 6-10, and although I already knew I was bad at predictions, this one might take the cake.  The Cowboys not only won twice as many games as I predicted, but they are not done and have a real shot of a deep run in January where you could make the case that the Cowboys match-up with every single team in the NFC.  They will start with Detroit at home next Sunday and I can already tell you I anticipate them to advance on to Green Bay for the following Sunday (But, you have already been informed repeatedly about my ability to make predictions).
The talk about this win in Washington seemed somewhat irrelevant for much of the week, because for once this game was not leveraged at all for the Cowboys divisional title or post-season hopes.  They insisted on doing what they do - which is to play each game as if the stakes are high and that means playing the starters with no intention of carefully managing the risk of bad things happening at just the wrong time.  To their credit, they have pretty much stuck to this all season and have remained consistent throughout that if there is a game, Tony Romo and DeMarco Murray are going to play and they are going to play a lot.  Again, I will admit that this philosophy is not my cup of tea at all, but to this juncture, one would fairly have to study this and say that it appears to be something that the whole team has bought into as far as an overall worldview and mentality that this team would be happy to meet you in a parking lot to play with no crowd present and engage in a street fight.  It is something that Jason Garrett has preached for years, but when something is developing under the radar, it looks vague and difficult to detect.  Then, it fully arrives all at once and you can see his "process" right in front of your face.
Overnight, the Cowboys went from a team that was always the 2nd most physical team on the field each week to one the meanest bullies of the NFL, and for those of us who covered this team closely during the entire process, it would have been easier to follow if they had a more linear progression.  But, sometimes, it just clicks and "presto!" you have a team full of bullies.   And, evidently, bullies don't sit games out because you are worried about whether or not it is a good idea to risk injury.  At least that is what popped in my head yesterday as Romo and Murray were playing in the 4th Quarter for no reason and how badly this whole run would suffer if either of them were to get nicked up.  Jason Garrett and his team believe that as a football team with a "team tough" attitude, they can't play conservatively anymore.  They can't play with the worst case scenarios always making their decisions.
Risky?  Maybe.  But, if that is what put them in this spot of 12-4 and the team nobody wants to play in the playoffs, then I would be tempted to keep consistent with the team attitude as well.
Beyond that, you saw more of the same on Sunday.  You saw an offense that Washington had no real answer for.  The drive chart reveals that the Cowboys first 5 drives all resulted in points as the Cowboys quickly put up 3 touchdowns and 2 field goals to jump out to a 27-7 lead against a long-time rival that has so lost their way that calling them pathetic might be flattering.
Alas, it is now a rival that looks lost without a compass, with personnel moves that continue to sabotage them and a ill-advised trade up in the draft that has left things as hopeless until their owner stops playing fantasy football and starts to realize that he is going to need to stand down and let the real decision makers help him see his way through the complications of pro football.  The Cowboys have been the nail for so long that it feels weird to be the hammer again.
But, here they are.  Jim Haslett wants to send the house on a blitz?  Tony Romo cooly sees it, throws it to Dez Bryant who puts a wiggle on his man and runs for a touchdown.  You want to blitz the Cowboys defense?  Let that be a lesson as to what happens next for those who want to try that in the future.
Defensively, make it 9-0 this season when the Cowboys take the ball away 2 times or more.  They get takeaways and they win, and four times on Sunday, Robert Griffin - the man who had humbled the Cowboys so badly in 2012 - was making foolish decisions with the football.  They fly to the ball with great energy and take it away.  They have taken the ball away 31 times this year, 2nd in the league to only Houston with 34.  Again, if you saw this coming after a 2012 where they only had 16, then you have predictive strengths I do not possess.  28 in 2013 and 31 in 2014 are two major steps for a defense that was without identity.  Now, over a 32 games sample, 59 takeaways tells us they are not the Seahawks, but they will go get that ball on you.
I, for one, have no idea where this January will take this team.  We now enter the time of the season where one poor play can end your year without warning.  It is the amazing emotional roller coaster of playoff football that can make or break legacies.  The Cowboys have entered the post-season with a parade of destructions in December that are unlike anything this generation has witnessed in Dallas, and have confidence that should take them places.
They are healthy and sure of themselves and more importantly, have a quality to their offense that makes them a force to be reckoned with.  And, without warning, they have a chance to go on a run with a few players - Tony Romo and Jason Witten - that had to wonder if they would ever get another crack at the ultimate prize.
20 teams are mourning Black Monday today, and the Cowboys are one of the 12 franchises that hardly will even notice.  They don't have to have a macro discussion about the hopelessness of their ownership group or the incompetence of their coach.  They have persevered when many of us would have started over with a new coach, a new mission statement, and a complete re-rack of the 5-year plan.  I have to give them credit.  They stuck with it and now find themselves about 4 years into a 5-year plan that looks as convincing as just about any of their adversaries.
They can enter this wild card week with a business plan that tells them they can go toe to toe with whoever they encounter on this march, and the even more exciting idea that they are but 4 wins from a Lombardi Trophy.  That possibility is still miles down the road, but most of us would have to agree that they are already much closer than any of us thought possible under their current regime.
Credit is due, but I bet they aren't worried about that right now.  They want playoff success much more.  And they can start grabbing that prize in 6 days time.

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