Sunday's defeat will be likely be quite difficult to completely shake by the end of 2015. Wins are precious in this league where seemingly there is no way to predict outcomes due to the constant uncertainties of the sport. How the ball bounces on a particular day combined with who is healthy enough to influence the proceedings equals uncertain results at every turn. It is why the sport is so intoxicating and so very frustrating.
Generally, in the course of a year, nine victories is the average number required to qualify for postseason play. Nine of 16 games is all you need. From that perspective, it makes it sound reasonably easy to win 56% of your games. But, anyone who follows this sport knows how difficult that number is to achieve.
Sunday, like the Atlanta and New Orleans games before it, was a game that was available to be won. The Cowboys were in a decent position into the second half and seemingly had a great opportunity to take an important divisional win from the New York Giants.
Until, that is, the unintended generosity took over the game and sunk the Cowboys throughout the second half. Without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, the team is becoming accustomed to the idea that they cannot withstand multiple mistakes, but they also cannot play with the only intention of avoiding those killer mistakes. Therefore, they have to strike a medium of attacking carefully. In other words, they need QB play that may not be available as long as Romo remains in street clothes. And that may mean that the hopes and aspirations of 2015 are quickly slipping away.
If nothing else has been accomplished from this difficult 5 weeks without #9, it is that the area approval rating of the long-time Cowboys QB has seen an unprecedented spike. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, then the city has never been more in love with Romo. You get the feeling that he may not be underappreciated again, but I am sure he is far more worried about salvaging one of his precious few remaining seasons and the only way that can be accomplished is if they can win before he returns.
And Sunday is a great example of how difficult that truly is.
They turned the ball over four times. Matt Cassel threw three interceptions and Cole Beasley fumbled on a punt return. Then, if 4 giveaways were not enough to insure another painful defeat, then the kickoff return conceded to old friend Dwayne Harris cemented their fate. Especially on a day when the Giants did not return the generosity at all (no turnovers and no special teams gifts), defeat seemed the only logical outcome.
Which made the details difficult to fully comprehend as the Cowboys actually were driving in to tie the game inside the 2-minute warning. A 4thdown attempt from Matt Cassel was short of the sticks, leaving James Hanna the job of trying to run for the first down as the Giants desperately corralled him short. They had finally snuffed out the last signs of Dallas life.
Buoyed by a running game that showed dominance for the first time in 2015, the Cowboys took a 13-10 lead into halftime. Most of that dominance involved Darren McFadden who ran with burst and conviction for the first time in a Cowboys uniform and found yards on nearly every carry. Whether it was his first real opportunity or whether it was fresh legs coming off the bye week, McFadden turned the clock back to 2010 with a fantastic performance all day long. 29 carries for 152 yards for the former elite back definitely has many drawing conclusions about who should get the opportunities moving forward.
Knowing they would also receive the second half kickoff, they knew they were in an advantageous position if they could just keep walking the tight rope of attacking without mistakes. Cassel in the first half found two vital downfield passes - one to Terrance Williams for 27 yards that led to a field goal and one to Jason Witten for 35 yards that helped put up the touchdown - but he also narrowly avoided an interception right before halftime.
As we indicated in the piece about his performance from last Tuesday, Cassel is an aggressive QB who believes in his arm, sometimes to his own detriment. He will look for passes down the field and many will connect. Several others though will flirt with disaster and I believe we saw plenty of both varieties on Sunday. The team moved the ball with him at the helm repeatedly - after 11 3-and-out drives in the last 3 games, the team gained at least a first down on all of their ten drives on Sunday. He made as many throws (5) for explosive plays to wide receivers (20 yards or more), as Brandon Weeden had for 3 games combined.
But, he also quickly exceeded the giveaway totals of Weeden and in one half of football ended three consecutive drives with interceptions, with two of them as direct results of poor decision-making and execution from the QB position. There is a reason that Cassel is a solid backup QB option in this league and not of the starting variety. And on Sunday, we saw that the throws that can only be described as a sudden-rush-of-blood-to-the-head can both keep you in the game and then take you out of it.
The first interception would have to go on the ledger of the young Baylor WR, Terrance Williams. Williams has disappointed for the most part in the absence of Bryant and now has many wondering about the size of the Cowboys commitment to his career moving forward. Would you invest heavily in his second contract after seeing too many cases of disappointment in his play? On the devastating Pick-6, when Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie ran his out-route better than he did and then danced 58 yards for a go-ahead touchdown, Williams never looked confident in the play. And on plays like that when your receiver doesn't maintain leverage and position on the play, a QB can end up looking at fault when he is certainly not. At this level a QB has to have trust that his guy will not hang him out to dry, and that trust was violated there. Giants 17, Cowboys 13.
But, on the very next drive, also on a second down and also on the Giants end of the field, Cassel tried to hit Williams over the top for a beautiful play-action touchdown to take control of the game right back. Williams had Jayron Hosley in all sorts of trouble with a step or two, but unfortunately, Cassel could not get the ball to the back of the end zone. Instead he put the nose of the football high into the air and the wounded duck fell well short of its target and into the waiting arms of the Giants free safety, Brandon Meriweather. The Giants also would cash in on that with a long drive down the field for a field goal. Giants 20, Cowboys 13.
Again, now, for a third consecutive possession in the second half, the Cowboys again marched right into Giants territory and again were in a spot to get back to level. Now, on the first play of the fourth quarter and the Cowboys in a first and 15, Cassel sees Butler on the deep-in route and tries to hit the throw. Unfortunately again, Rodgers-Cromartie is sitting on this route from behind and makes a very impressive break on the ball to intercept Cassel yet again. Replays would show that profitable check-downs were available and should have been taken, given that it was just first down.
With Cassel, the team moved the ball far more impressively and put drives together. Also, the running game worked and while it would be disingenuous to fully credit the QB with that success, it would also be too simplistic to conclude there is no relation to a vertical passing attack and an easier running performance. Cassel and the Cowboys had 460 yards of offense which is a massive day, but there are many times where you have to use more caution - especially on early downs when there is no reason to force things into danger.
In other words, what we have here with Weeden and Cassel appears to be the following - neither is close to perfect and neither is good enough to win right now. You have one who has the strong enough arm and is not willing to use it, with the other who doesn't appear to have a gun, but is too willing to use it. Welcome to living in a world without a franchise QB. Many organizations call this "normal".
Cassel and the offense kept fighting though and the defense kept them in the game long enough to put a great drive together with solid runs and then maybe Cassel's best sequence of the game where he hit Williams on the sideline for 21 and then Devin Street in the end zone for 25. The Cowboys had come back to tie the game at 20-20 with 7:14 to play. It was a very impressive show of determination after the earlier disappointments.
Now, put the defense back on the field and count on them to get a stop to set-up for a Dan Bailey winner, right? The defense would never get a chance. On the ensuing kickoff, disaster would strike. There is never a good time to concede a kickoff return touchdown, but this particular time and place seemed extra cruel. Late in the game to their former team-mate, Dwayne Harris. Harris had returned 77 kicks for the Cowboys over the years, but never once did he run one back for a touchdown (2 punt returns for TDs in Dallas). But, on this occasion, after it appeared JJ Wilcox and Byron Jones were unable to close the hole in the middle of the field, Harris was off to the races and would give the Giants the victory.
The Cowboys would finish with 4 giveaways, 0 takeaways, and 1 special teams TD conceded. Amazingly, the Cowboys did win the miracle in Buffalo back in 2007 with a similar set of circumstances (-5 turnovers and a kick return TD), but that is the only time in the history of the sport it has ever happened. Not just Cowboys history, but NFL history. Yesterday's circumstances of "-4" and a Kick Return Touchdown had only happened 10 times in NFL history, and the offenders are now 1-9.
Opportunities are beginning to slip away and frustration is really starting to set in. Yesterday included another controversy on the sidelines as new man Greg Hardy thought he would step in and have a productive word with the special teams players after they conceded that kick return touchdown. To nobody's surprise, that was not well received and a pushing and shouting match ensued which even included the aforementioned Dez Bryant, which will now surely begin another news cycle of Cowboys' drama nonsense.
The bottom line is simple. This team is desperate and losing their grip on a season that they truthfully believed would take them to a Super Bowl. The culprit might be some combination of poor injury luck combined with even poorer turnover luck and miscalculations in an offseason of hoping they were fine at running back and backup QB. The defense had to pull them through this time without their best offensive options, and they put yet another day together of lots of effort and no game-turning takeaways. It is their 5th such day in 2015, matching their worst season total since 2004 - in just six weeks!
People want answers and someone to yell at, but it does seem like a series of unfortunate events that doesn't have an easy target that should shoulder a majority of the blame. Winning in the NFL is very hard and sometimes the ball doesn't bounce your way.
When that happens, you have no choice but to keep digging out of the mess. There is no sympathy and no other option. Everyone has their sad story if they are losing, but the league carries on with or without you.
Next week, another chance presents itself with the Seattle Seahawks. Until then, there is plenty to dissect and bemoan. At 2-4, they aren't dead, but they are certainly losing signs of life quickly.