Surely, it is times like this where we are quickly reminded that sports can be an endurance test that checks the resolve of anyone who wishes to climb to the top. There are times where everything comes easy and the only questions are where to go celebrate after the game, but that is not what tests character and resolve.
No. That isn't how this usually works. What usually happens is that you go through gutting defeats, damaging injuries, frustrations, and the feelings of doubt rush in.
That is what made 2014 so odd. The Cowboys changed from laughingstock into heavyweight without too much of a struggle. Almost from mid September until mid January, they knocked down anything that walked into their path with just a speed-bump in October in the form of a Romo injury and a Thanksgiving humbling at the hands of the Eagles. Beyond that? It was pretty much full steam ahead without doubt, panic, or grief ever stepping in their path.
2015 is not being so kind. For all of the big plans of August that included a close examining of the stadium in Santa Clara where the Super Bowl would be played, the last 6 weeks have been nothing but body blows that would take one significant piece off that team bus after another.
Orlando Scandrick late in August fell. Then, Dez Bryant in Week 1. Tony Romo in Week 2. Now, we wonder if Sean Lee and Rolando McClain will ever actually take a meaningful snap together on the Cowboys defense. No matter what the Cowboys try, either one is missing or the other is. And Lance Dunbar? I fear we won't see him again in 2015.
If championship teams are forged through adversity, then the Cowboys are in for an exciting winter.
Last night the game in New Orleans felt like a contest that could be grabbed if those Cowboys who remained could simply take it. There would be opportunities. Boy, there would be opportunities.
On the opening drive of the game, Tyler Patmon would have an interception fall right into his hands. And then right to the ground.
Two drives later, Drew Brees would throw a helpless heave right into the waiting arms of Barry Church in Saints territory. Unfortunately, that play would not count because Brandon Carr was rightfully called for a needless defensive holding play.
Early in the 2nd half, the Cowboys would stop the Saints after New Orleans took over early in the 2nd half at the Cowboys 38 yard line. It was just the 3 and out that the defense needed, but when the punt team was ready to concede possession back to Dallas, the Cowboys were stuck with 12 men on the field because one couldn't get off. Call timeout! Instead, this small detail turned big as the Saints ran the field goal unit on to the field and accepted the generosity by taking 3 points.
Next possession for the Saints, it sure looked like Andrew Gachkar had stripped the ball from Mark Ingram. But, after further review, Ingram's knee got to the turf just in time before the fumble and this kept the ball with New Orleans who then added another 3 points to their tally.
None of those situations cost the Cowboys their 2nd loss of the season individually, but collectively, they were all missed opportunities - some by the mere fraction of an inch. The margins between win or lose are so small in the NFL when all systems are go, and they shrink when you are on the road without your difference makers. The Cowboys had a real chance to win that game last night against a Saints team that was begging to be defeated, but this group that currently wears the uniform does not resemble that team from 2014 that would just take what they wanted.
This team is just trying to scoop the water out of the boat before it sinks as they wait for help to arrive. They are in survival mode and doing whatever they can, but often, that isn't enough.
Last night's proceedings were extended more painfully when the Saints let the Cowboys off the hook by missing a chip shot field goal at the end of regulation by banging it off the left upright.
Gachkar was in for Sean Lee who left the game early after taking a collision with big tight end Ben Watson down inside the 5-yard line in the 1st Quarter. He was decent throughout but factored in the loss in overtime in the most unlikely of ways. On the first play of the overtime, he was injured on one of the many rub-route/pick plays when Willie Snead knocked him off his path and appeared to bang knees with Gachkar. This injured Gachkar to a point that he is trying to limp off the field. Call Timeout! Fall down! You admire the toughness, but you don't admire the football IQ of the Cowboys at this point. He has to fall to the turf if he is hurt.
Instead, he tries to limp off and get a replacement. Drew Brees is too smart for this test because the moment he recognizes this advantage - Damien Wilson is going to try to replace Gachkar from the Cowboys bench and sprint on as the Saints are already at the line means that the speedster CJ Spiller is going to have a head start to the far sideline on a wheel route where Wilson never has a chance. This play is doomed from the start and when Barry Church misses another chance for a Cowboys safety to end a play before it gets worse - see last week - the play is in the end zone and the game is over.
We might discuss the wisdom of matching up linebackers with Running backs in man coverage when Sean Lee hasn't been in the game for the last 3 hours, or we might discuss the overall absence of Football IQ last night at various points. Whether it is time management, 12-men on the field at just the wrong time, or not falling down when you are actually injured - stopping the game and allowing your defense a chance to get situated at such a vital portion of the game - the Cowboys just didn't keep their poise enough to get that winnable game into the proper column.
From an offensive standpoint, this game was better than the Atlanta performance in many ways, but similar to the Atlanta performance in others.
First, Brandon Weeden showed improvement with a far more aggressive eye when selecting his throws last night. From the standpoint of expectations to performance for a backup Quarterback, it is pretty difficult to leave too much on his shoulders after he put that drive together late in the game. The final drive the offense put up on Sunday night was a 91-yard touchdown drive with the game on the line and a 4th and 7 touchdown pass to Terrance Williams in the corner of the endzone that he barely kept off the turf.
When you get that from guys not named Romo and Dez, you have a hard time looking that gift horse in the mouth. That was the best offensive moment in the game, but they also tried to go downfield more and they tried to get that running game going again.
Unfortunately, the field was always long and the runners always had difficult paths. After another first drive where the running plays came easy (the first two runs gained 59 yards), the rest of the game was a lot of running into the back of the offensive line again. The last 26 run plays of the game (out of 28) yielded just 56 yards, or 2.2 yards per carry. So much for the narrative that anyone can run behind this offensive line because they are that good.
Right now, for the last two games, the Cowboys have run for almost nothing in the 2nd half of two winnable games with a backup QB. In fact, here are the plain numbers: In the last two games after halftime, the Cowboys offense has run 17 run plays of which they have gained 21 yards. Total. That is 1.2 yards per carry, or about what you could expect if you just ran 17 QB sneaks like you were trying to win the Ice Bowl. We would call that the opposite of dominating.
Now, let's be clear. This was rather predictable (in fact, we did predict this) that the running game would vanish if Dez Bryant and Tony Romo left because the respect for the passing attack of a backup QB and a stable of non-threatening vertical players would mean that every running play would be a major chore against a defense loaded up to take away your obvious only hope. Even mediocre defenses can stop an offense that is trying to survive on telegraphed intentions. It is too easy at this level to take away things like this.
But, in the end, I think we again have to look at the defense and the clear issues that if the Cowboys were going to stay alive in this difficult stretch without Romo, it would be because they could win games in the "team" department. The defense would take the ball away and present short fields. The special teams would give something along the way. The offense would do enough to hold its head above water.
Instead, yet again, the defense did not take the ball away once. The Cowboys scoring drives started at the Dallas 14, 20, 20, and 9-yard lines. If you present this offense in its current form with fields that range between 80 and 91 yards long, you simply cannot keep up with a team that has most of its pieces.
Fans want answers. They want players benched and the coaches made to answer for horrible adjustments.
In no way would I suggest that Barry Church, Brandon Carr, and many other defenders are playing well. They aren't. But benching your few healthy players is silly - mostly because you do not have better options back there. Nor would I suggest that Jason Garrett and his staff are getting everything right.
But, isn't it interesting that last year's coaching staff was so smart? I wonder if most of it had to do with those coaches having a full complement of health on their roster?
For the 2nd week in a row, I will point out that the coaching staff with the better players is often the staff, which makes the better adjustments. The Cowboys, with their depleted roster are trying adjustments. They just don't have the weapons to make those decisions look like they are causing the opponents much distress.
I assume that when everyone cools down after this frustrating trip to New Orleans, we will arrive back at the reality that so much of the NFL - with its small roster size and its tight salary cap - is predicated on keeping your big money producers healthy.
Without them, those who remain behind and make a fraction of the salaries are asked to play against other teams that do still have their franchise QBs - Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Tom Brady - with one hand tied behind their back. That requires some breaks and some good bounces. That requires perfect navigation through games like last night where you don't get called for 12-men on the field penalties and you don't try to limp off the field with the opposition hurrying to take advantage of your decision.
And right now, Dallas isn't getting that. They aren't taking the ball away. They aren't forcing opponent mistakes. They aren't running the ball and controlling the game in the 2nd half. And they sure aren't getting gifts.
Everyone wants answers.
There aren't many right now. You simply keep bailing the water out of the boat as fast as you can. You are trying to survive until the rescuers can arrive. Those guys wear #9 and #88, if you are unclear.
And they are still a ways from arriving. This is a mess and nobody is trying to deny that, but the questions outnumber the answers and you can only take solace in the division being mediocre and that injuries heal with time.
One more game until the bye week. This is a marathon, not a sprint. You don't need to look any further than the local baseball team to realize that a season is long and that there are many twists and turns in the story. Never ever quit. There is going to be adversity. Embrace it and keep battling.