The price for a win in the National Football League can be extremely high and this morning we are calculating the costs. The Cowboys won in Philadelphia yesterday in a game that A) wasn't as close as the final score indicated and B) had costs that might be felt for the remainder of 2015.
It is the harsh reality of our favorite sport. Your best laid plans that might fancy a trip to the Super Bowl in the deepest part of winter can hit an iceberg at any moment if your Quarterback winds up on the turf in pain. This can happen at any time and on any play and it will definitely happen when your opponent is testing his affinity for contact.
Things were going fine on this afternoon in Philadelphia for the Cowboys who looked in great control of the game, up 13-0 and driving again inside Eagles' territory after a beautiful long pass to Lance Dunbar against rookie linebacker Jordan Hicks from Texas. That 39-yard play converted a 3rd and 13 as Romo scanned the matchups and saw Dunbar out wide against Hicks and lobbed the deep ball right into the bucket for a fine big gain.
The formation for that conversion, though, was the same formation that the Cowboys have used so much since 2013 and would use again 2 plays later. It is "Shotgun 11 empty", with 3 WRs, Jason Witten, and with Dunbar lined up wide as a wide receiver. The good news is that this means Dunbar will often be in man coverage against a Linebacker who cannot run with him. But, this also means that Tony Romo and the offensive line are on their own. "Scat protection" means just the 5 on the line and no blitz support should the defense bring pressure. The defense is not inclined to bring pressure often, of course, because the Cowboys have them spread way out and have 5 men in routes. This requires all of the coverage guys you can handle so the Cowboys are used to getting 4-man pressures against this look.
But, 2 plays later, the Eagles had enough. They were not getting anywhere with 4, so they brought a 5th man. That means it is 5 vs 5. The Cowboys offensive line pitted against the Eagles pass rush. If anyone breaks through the line, he instantly becomes "Tony's guy". That means Romo has to get the ball out and save himself, especially on a 2nd down.
Instead, disaster strikes. Fletcher Cox moves Tyron Smith out wide. Beau Allen takes Travis Frederick the other way. This leaves the man the Eagles wanted to attack - whoever happened to be playing left guard, Mackenzy Bernadeau or La'el Collins, in this case Bernadeau - isolated on an island. Bernadeau picked up the blitzing linebacker DeMeco Ryans quite well, but there was a trail blitzer right off Ryans back shoulder. It was Hicks again. That same rookie Longhorn who was covering Dunbar on the long pass was not the surprise pressure man and when the Eagles in front of him all occupied their men, he had a free run at Romo. From there, Romo must get rid of the football.
Why he didn't is interesting as well. The Cowboys are definitely looking to their left to run something involving Cole Beasley who is between Terrance Williams and Witten. Williams is going on a deep route, but Witten appears to be intersecting his route with Beasley on what is commonly a "rub route" to free Beasley in the middle of the field. Unfortunately, it doesn't really appear that Beasley is planning on doing what Witten thinks he will do. Made worse, Malcolm Jenkins, the Eagles safety who is up on Beasley, is sniffing the same thing Witten is seeing and cuts inside to jump the WR screen to Beasley (even though Beasley doesn't look like he is planning on that at all).
All of this makes Romo change plans. He is definitely planning on the quick pass to Beasley. But, Jenkins jumps it meaning that if Romo throws it, this can easily become a Pick-6 for the Eagles. So, he doesn't throw it. He pumps, double pumps, and then loses the ball as Cox and Hicks converge. If he throws it away, this might not happen, but Romo was planning on some of the improvising that has made him very successful. This time, though, after Hicks lands on top of him as his body lands on its side, a maneuver we have seen over and over demonstrate that the human body was not created with pro football in mind, the clavicle was broken by the impact.
And just that quickly, it was easy to have the rest of the game occur in a blur. The Cowboys ended up winning - again, with shocking ease against a team that appears to be imploding before it ever got off the launch plad - but you can understand the distracted demeanors on anyone who is part of the Cowboys organization or in their fan base. If the entire season's fortunes depended to a large extent of keeping Tony Romo and Dez Bryant healthy, then the collateral costs for these first two division wins borders on catastrophic.
It is a real shame, too, that the lead story was a 2nd down and 10 in the 3rdQuarter. Because there were so many other storylines that would normally be all of the talk.
- The job the defense did was quite impressive. Much of the buildup to the 2015 season from a defensive standpoint was based on the additions of a pass rush and Sean Lee. The pass rush has shown flashes but we are still made to wait until the arrival of Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory to supplement Jeremy Mincey and DeMarcus Lawrence on the edges. If they can all join Tyrone Crawford, confidence is high that the Cowboys will trouble many a QB. But, Sean Lee is present and accounted for, and the job he did on Sunday was nothing short of magnificent. How many times did Lee shoot in like a missile and take out the legs of DeMarco Murray and Darren Sproles? Almost too many to count. If the question was how he would acclimate to his new spot as the Will Linebacker, it appears the preliminary answers are strong to quite strong.
- The Special Teams generated points in the very uncommon form of a blocked punt for a touchdown. Byron Jones split the A-Gap between the longsnapper and the left guard - Bryan Braman, which took the personal protector, Chris Maragos out of the play. This allowed Danny McCray to shoot through the other gap Braman had (the B-Gap) as Jordan Hicks (the left tackle) had already released down the field. McCray came clean up the gut and blocked the punt by Donnie Jones with his right arm. Kyle Wilber picked up the ball and raced for the end zone (picking up a big, vicious hit from Jeff Heath on Jones) and gave the Cowboys their first blocked punt for a touchdown since 1992. It was an incredibly rare feat for this franchise who has given up plenty of blocked punts of its own over the years, but full credit to Special Teams coach Rich Bisaccia and his crew for getting the Cowboys some breathing room after so many squandered opportunities over the course of the afternoon. McCray's acquisition this offseason was supposed to recover much that was lost when Dwayne Harris left, and this signature moment appears to validate that plan.
- There is so much to say about the direction of the Eagles franchise right now as it showed its quality on Sunday afternoon. Most of it should be left for the Eagles writers, but I certainly not let them have all of the fun. It is early in season 3 of the Chip Kelly run, but I must confess I am bewildered with what they have shown in their last month of 2014 and the first few weeks of 2015. Between his conflicting stances on the importance of a Quarterback in his scheme, and under that umbrella whether you should invest heavily in a QB who you could argue was last near elite in 2008 in college, whether or not one needs a franchise RB and what you should pay for one (especially if you already have LeSean McCoy under contract), whether you should pay premium prices to acquire players who have already shredded their knee ligaments multiple times, whether you should disregard time of possession and leave your defense on the field 40 minutes a game, whether you should perhaps adjust a defensive philosophy (constant man-to-man defense without personnel that can do it) that has been humiliated by most top offenses they have played, and maybe the craziest of them all, whether you should allow a coach to take over the personnel department with about 24 months in the NFL in his entire life, the Eagles world sure has plenty of things to mull over before they play the Jets next week. Meanwhile, I am left to wonder why so many respected media members were throwing out Sam Bradford for MVP talk just 14 days ago. It seemed crazy then. It seems like there are not words to describe the insanity of that premise now.
The rest of our thoughts can wait for the remainder of the week beyond the big question of where does this team go from here? The great news is that it appears that everything we were worried about before the year began about this team tactically is in pretty decent shape. They have not seen the success from the running game yet, but at times yesterday they showed their teeth and looked pretty solid against a team that is very difficult to run against. The defense looks solid and confident and guys are not just getting stops but they are also making plays. JJ Wilcox looks like a guy who has taken a step forward and again, Sean Lee is back.
But, now we turn our attention to the health of this team. We certainly have referenced on several occasions how the Cowboys were incredibly healthy last year. They dodged a number of bullets and averaged 14.5 starts/per starter (according to one measuring tool). This year will not work that way. They seem to be on their way to the highest number of significant injuries in the league with losing Orlando Scandrick for all 16, Dez Bryant for at least half the season, and now Tony Romo for what I assume is almost all the way to Thanksgiving.
That is very bad news and generally something that takes a promising season and makes it nearly impossible to recover from. But, the good news is that these injuries happen in September, which means you should get them back with the season still alive. You also have 2 wins in the bank, which are going to be incredibly vital. Over the next 8 games, the Cowboys play Atlanta next, both teams from last year's Super Bowl come visiting, trips to New Orleans, Tampa Bay, and Miami, as well as return engagements with the Giants and Eagles. The hope has to be to get through those 8 games at 4-4, which leaves the record at 6-4.
Even if you can just go 3-5, and emerge at the 10 game mark at 5-5, I think they still will have a real chance to compete for the playoffs and this divisional crown. This is where it really helps to play in a division without another really strong team.
Now, where does this team find 3 or 4 wins between now and Thanksgiving with Brandon Weeden as the QB? Who is the backup QB now? How soon can Dez return to make this easier?
Lots of questions. Not tons of answers, right now.
The Cowboys are 2-0, but the price they paid for those 2 wins is going to make the next 2 months very difficult. And very interesting.