Any Monday morning this time of year in Dallas Cowboys territory is filled with hot opinions of the event the day before. Either this team is the greatest side in the league and is no doubt destined for a run deep into post-season and beyond, or this team is awful and may not win another game. Both of those extreme positions are then generally reversed as soon as the results on the field switch - which they invariably do.
But, on a day like today, when the Cowboys are recovering from a disappointment at home when they were in the lead for a great deal of the proceedings, despite not having arguably their two most important pieces available for this game or any game in the next several weeks, it is important we don't offer too harsh a review on those that remain.
The Cowboys did not have what they feel is one of the very best quarterbacks in the entire league, and one they happily paid $108m in a contract that offers him, on average, over $1.1 million every time the team plays a game ($18m a season).
They also did not have their emotional leader and fan favorite wide receiver, whom most would agree is, at worst, one of the best 5 in the world at what he does for a living. He is a player who seems to not comprehend the idea of defeat or concession, and will battle to the very end. They agreed to pay him $14m per season, nearly $900,000 per game. Combined, every Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys pay those two men $2 million for each game.
Atlanta has a QB they feel is of Tony Romo's quality (and pay scale) and a WR that they think is better than Dez Bryant (and makes more). Both of those well-compensated players were present and playing at a very high level yesterday. The Cowboys had no answer for Matt Ryan or Julio Jones. The Falcons did not need an answer for Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. Sometimes, this game is not that complicated. It might be as simple as taking attendance at the start of the day.
I am reminded of what my boss once told me: "If nobody misses you when you stay home from work, that says you might not be very good at your job." Clearly, Romo and Bryant do not need to be concerned with that being true anytime soon. Longtime Cowboys' coach Joe Avezzano used to tell me every week when he arrived for his television show that "the other team pays their players, too", which is the beauty of professional sports. Both sides have a story to tell, injuries and contracts, game plans and frustrations, and then they battle every Sunday for our entertainment. And when it is over, either they are champs or chumps. We do it every week.
This week, the Cowboys had this game in a great position in the 1st half. Somehow, they sprinted out to a 14-point lead on two occasions against a team that had its most valuable players present and accounted for. The Cowboys spent an entire week planning on ways to win this game and never in their wildest dreams did they see a scenario where their offense would generate 28 points in the 1st half without the benefit of a game-changing defensive or special teams play. These were 4 drives that were put together by an offense that was without anything remarkable (by NFL standards) at almost all of the skill position spots and yet put scoring drives together of 80, 77, 56, and 80 yards. They did not settle for field goals on any of them. They took the ball and with the aid of that offensive line and some fine work in the short passing game marched down the field four times and needed a 3rd down conversion only once (which they converted on a pass to Cole Beasley) in those opportunities.
Maybe this offensive line is that good. Or maybe Joseph Randle does know how to consume all of the meat on the bone. After all, on his first three carries he accumulated 85 yards and basically the first two drives were all about the 5th round pick from the 2013 draft. He looked confident and decisive and any concerns that the Falcons would stack the box and require more than just a Cowboys' ground and pound session were thrown off by the early success. Could it really be this easy to get to 3-0?
You now know the answer. No. A 21-7 and a 28-14 lead was not enough to rescue the Cowboys from a very disappointing 2nd half collapse and defeat against Atlanta. The Falcons look like one of the teams this year that will rise up and be right in the playoff mix all year (thanks to some players that are impossible to defend and the NFL's 32nd most difficult schedule), but the Cowboys had this game in a really strong position when the defense held Atlanta to a 3-and-out and the offense took possession with 6:03 left in the 2nd Quarter and up, 21-7.
And that is when the mistakes started happening.
The Cowboys have the view that the backup QB behind Tony Romo has one job and one job, only. That is, do not make a mistake that will lose the game. That is important to know, because since the game is over, the view that Brandon Weeden is out of his depths has been offered (by me!) and while that is true, we must be fair to him or anyone else who will replace Romo in the next 6 games. The truth is, whether the backup QB is Jon Kitna, Kyle Orton, Brandon Weeden, or even Matt Cassel, the coaching staff of the Cowboys gives these QBs a very strict directive that you should look to check the ball down in almost every situation.
Now, this directive could change as the team desires to remain in the race for the NFC East and the playoffs during this absence, but for now, if you talk to anyone close to the situation, you will quickly arrive at the conclusion that the play-calling and coaching directives all repeat the instructions loudly to any QB not wearing #9: Make safe throws.
And that makes the moment at 6:03 extra painful. For on that 1st down, the Cowboys planned on catching the Falcons off balance. It was their 15th 1stdown situation, and at that point they had run 11 times out of 14. They had Tyler Clutts and Randle behind Weeden and showed a power run. This was a chance to catch the Falcons in a run-look and then hit Terrance Williams or Brice Butler on deeper routes. Unfortunately, almost from the snap, Travis Frederick was beaten badly by DT Paul Soliai and Weeden had no chance to set his feet and make a throw. In fact, he was flushed out of the pocket immediately. From here, Weeden heads to his left and is being chased by Nathan Stupar. Randle and Jason Witten both see Weeden in trouble, so they try to mirror his path to the left sideline to give him some options. The play here is to get the ball out and face 2nd down. Not a big deal. The team is up, 21-7, and it is 1st and 10. This is not the time to try anything risky.
Instead, Weeden, a player who almost never takes a chance, decided that on this occasion he was going to try to hit Witten. His throw, impacted by Stupar's pursuit, sailed well over Witten's head and right into the waiting arms of safety William Moore. Moore took the gift to the Cowboys 23 yard-line and was the game's only turnover. But, it was a big one.
After the Falcons cashed that gift in and cut the lead to 21-14, the Cowboys, again, surprisingly put together a huge drive. This was aided by a personal foul where the Falcons hit Cole Beasley out of bounds, but it was a lot of Weeden hitting Lance Dunbar where the shifty weapon can carve up the defense like he did against the Giants in the final drive from Week 1. His 2ndreception weaved in and out of traffic all the way down to the Falcons' 1-yard line with 0:46 left. Confusingly enough, the Cowboys did not see the opportunity to not only score, but to take the clock all the way to halftime in the process. Instead, they called a timeout, which certainly allowed them a chance to get their tactics right, but in doing so left Matt Ryan plenty of time to answer before the half. Randle leaped the pile and the Cowboys had restored their lead to 28-14.
But, forty seconds and 3 timeouts is all the Falcons needed, as DeVonta Freeman really showed his skills and perhaps the Cowboys were fortunate to only concede a Field Goal. Either way, at 28-17, and receiving the 2ndhalf kick, Atlanta did not seem overly stressed about the hole they had dug for themselves.
And why would they? The Falcons and Cowboys both knew that 30 minutes of football where both teams could assess and adjust would reveal the team more deserving of the win.
Dan Quinn would get credit for making the better adjustments and Jason Garrett will be ripped for not, but you will find that the coach with the better players often has the luxury of making better adjustments. In other words, the Falcons had options in this game. The Cowboys had all of their best options wearing street clothes. They would need some good things to occur in the 2nd half to hold their lead after gifting Atlanta 10 points before the half.
The complete destruction Atlanta put on Dallas in the 2nd half was quite thorough. They outscored Dallas, 22-0. They outgained the Cowboys 259-52. They held the Cowboys to 5 carries for -4 yards in the 2nd half. They deployed all troops to the line of scrimmage and were determined to take away the running game and dump-offs to Dunbar at all costs. Put the game in the hands of Weeden and make him demonstrate the ability to make throws down the field.
This coincided with the Cowboys pulling in the reins on their backup QB after the interception. There was one "aggressive" throw in the 2nd half, a seam route to Witten, but the pass sailed high and missed. Otherwise, it was a number of throws, none of which was adventurous enough to stress the Falcons secondary by any means. Tyron Smith hardly ever gets beaten, but he picked exactly the wrong time for rookie Vic Beasley to turn the corner on him and to end a drive with a sack of Weeden early in the 4thQuarter. That would be the last offensive snap where Dallas had a shot to win the game.
The true issue and story of the game was the defensive efforts against Ryan, Freeman, and Jones. Also, without most of their defensive linemen for various injury and suspension reasons, the Cowboys were subject to a physical challenging from Atlanta. They would deploy a fullback and run the ball into the teeth of the defense, and by the end of the day the results were disappointing. Freeman ran 30 times for 141 and 3 touchdowns. A backup RB should not destroy your morale, because Julio Jones was going to be enough trouble.
And he was. 12 catches for 164 - most of it in that 2nd half. 20 targets. And just running free in the secondary no matter if the Cowboys tried man, zone, or double teams against the superb receiver. On top of that, 0 takeaways and only 1 sack, and giving Ryan too much time to pick his spot. Their final 3 drives were touchdown, touchdown, touchdown.
The Cowboys plan was to win with a big effort from the offensive line and the defense. Instead, the OL busted too often with Travis Frederick and Tyron Smith having protection breakdowns at just the wrong times. The defense had no answers and seemingly no ideas against Ryan, Jones, and the Falcons offense when it mattered most.
It was a very disappointing day, but a great indication of what to expect in the next several weeks. The difference makers are in street clothes (they didn't show up for work and were greatly missed), so they will need to play and coach at near perfect levels to get wins against strong opponents.
On Sunday, they were not near perfect. And they are now 2-1.