Monday, November 09, 2015

The Morning After - Philadelphia 33, Cowboys 27 (2-6)

Sometimes, you get the feel that this might not be your year.
Every team who has ever played any sport at any level has been met with resistance at some point or another.  But, there does come a point in a given season - especially one that left the port with so much promise of good times ahead - when you begin to take the hint that the implied promises were not worth the paper they were printed on.  The season takes so many negative turns that it appears hopeless before you are even able to get the hopes elevated. 
In other words, 2015 appears to be the exact opposite sports experience for Dallas Cowboys fans that 2014 offered.  Last year was a season where nothing but misery was expected and before it was done, many saw that this team might have been capable of winning the Super Bowl if the cards had fallen slightly differently. 
Well, 2015 was the other side of that coin.  A full offseason of imagining what the view from the pinnacle of the mountain might look like and even the symmetry of a preseason trip to the very stadium that would host the Super Bowl offered the sneaky suspicion that this could be a special journey. 
And then, as life and sports is wont to do - thud.
All of those amazing plans and good times come to a crashing halt before they even began.  And not the quick death that is almost painless because of the sudden end, but rather a long, drawn out, page after page, experience that goes from September to December.  It is merciless, but it often allows you to get a breath of air - only to inflict more damage.  It is ugly.
Some of us are charged with the task of putting into words a season like this.  If I am partially to blame for writing things all year that helped build the promise of 2015, I should be present to lend perspective along the way about why it is going wrong and perhaps even offer a date or two of promise where things are going to turn back around.  It is the least any journalist can do; provided he has any explanation for this mess, either.
The fact is, at least from this seat, the 2015 season has educated us again on the most important lesson in all of sports.  That is simply put, "you just don't know."
As the Eagles sunk the Cowboys 2015 season - perhaps once and for all - in front of thousands of blank-staring fans in Arlington (a place where four of these six consecutive losses have taken place), the Cowboys looked like they were beginning to get the message that this season is just not going to cooperate.
The Cowboys threw their best punches.  They made some plays they had to make.  They received some fortuitous calls at fortuitous times.  They had some people step up and contribute when those people did not look terribly capable of doing so.  But, this last stand, against the most hated rival that has plenty of its own problems, in their home stadium, would still not be enough to avoid a 2-6 record at the halfway point. 
And when that all happens, an observer like me - employed to offer answers and explanations for this sort of situation - doesn't have many solutions to offer.
Let's detail some of the talking points:
· I thought Matt Cassel played about as well as he is capable of playing.  He battled hard to keep plays alive.  He spun out of trouble on a few occasions and somehow had his prayers answered on a miracle touchdown pass to Dez Bryant that looked as hopeful and ill advised as the interception in Giants Stadium.  Cassel ran for yards and passed for almost 300.  He took some pretty significant hits but then got back up and put the ball where it needed to be on a number of occasions.  He made a throw that many will suggest got them beat when an interception was returned for a touchdown (something this team clearly cannot overcome), but from a perspective of reasonable standards, they received as close to a representative Tony Romo outing from someone not named Tony Romo that they could possible hope for.  The quarterback put them in a position to win with an aggressive and bold performance.  
· Dez Bryant may not be 100% but his play all night was ferocious and determined.  Pretty clearly, he was not going to allow this season to go down the tubes and was going to fight through whatever discomfort and go take a victory.  His ability to jump above the fray and come down with that touchdown in the 4th Quarter was fantastic.  It won't be remembered as one of his greatest moments, given the final score, but it did issue the reminder to the league that he is back to being a real matchup issue. 
·  I am going to return to a theme from this summer here and express the belief that the Cowboys offensive line has all sorts of talent and potential.  And yet, they were likely anointed on potential before reality, as they have never been elite in pass protection.  This is a group that can run block with the best of them, but are susceptible to teams that can stand up to them and collapse the pocket.  Potential is great, but words cannot properly summarize how worthless that is when you are playing against a defensive front that is also filled with talent and generally does very well against you.  The Eagles have always given this group a fit up front and that continued again last night as they collected four sacks and were close to several more.   On two of those sacks, Brandon Graham powered by Tyron Smith and the ball came loose both times.  The facts are the facts, the Cowboys offensive line never has dominated the Eagles defensive front in any of the many matchups head to head.  If the Cowboys OL is elite, then so is that Eagles DL. 
·  Meanwhile, the defense continued its trend of fading as a game goes along.  NBC did a fine job of detailing that on a consistent basis in 2015, the Cowboys have conceded more yards and points - by a significant margin - in the 4th Quarter than they have in any other Quarter.  It is a trend where the statistics meet the eyeball test and the findings are that the Cowboys just can't get a stop when they need it most.  We can offer all sorts of theories as to why this is happening, but in the end when you add the lack of takeaways to the allowing of the majority of opposition production when the game is on the line, well, you can expect the results.  The 2015 season was predicated on the Cowboys defense supposedly being greatly improved and on its way to building something powerful.  Instead, the pass rush now appears to have reduced to the Greg Hardy show (which is good for one or two big splash plays per game), but beyond that there are no sacks, no interceptions, no fumbles, and no crucial stops.  The Eagles gained 192 yards and scored 19 points after the end of the 3rd Quarter, which is certainly not going to be good enough to win.   In fact, the Cowboys actually stopped the Eagles on all 3 3rd down situations in the 4thQuarter and overtime.  The issue there is that they were unable to force 3rd downs most of the time.  The Eagles marched right down the field when the game was in the balance.  The Cowboys were sure their defense would improve with all of the talent being assembled, but it is difficult to suggest that a unit on pace for 8 takeaways this season that has come close to happening.
·  Which leads us to the unfortunate run of Sean Lee.  For the 2nd time this season, the Cowboys have lost their outstanding linebacker, Sean Lee.  It appeared that he sustained his 2nd concussion of the season and yet another incident where his availability and durability were lost again.  Everyone enjoys Sean and especially enjoys him at the peak of his performance - as in that first meeting with the Eagles 7 weeks ago - but, this is starting to feel as if his body is sending a very clear message to the veteran linebacker.  He is willing, but his body is not.  I fear that the end of his playing career is close upon us.  What was supposed to be the focal point of the defense this year, Sean Lee and Rolando McClain playing together, has never been able to get off the ground.  McClain looks heavier and unable to move like he once did and Lee looks rather constantly banged up.  What was sold as a strength has turned into a weakness. 
·  I thought overall that the offensive coaching and overall posture made sense.  They managed tendencies properly and put the ball in the hands of playmakers.  They rediscovered Cole Beasley and the electricity that he offers if you actually use him in the offense.  They went for it on 4thdown and seemed to generally maximize their offensive opportunities.  In the end, both teams went for 4th downs on two occasions each and converted all four of them.   The Eagles conversion in overtime preceded the final play that would end the game. 
So, where do we go from here?  2-6 suggests that the season is already lost.  I am a big believer in the premise that football season is too short so abandoning a year at the halfway point is not my style.  There will be plenty of time to familiarize ourselves with the 2016 draft, but now is not that time.  The Cowboys likely are out of the mix, but with most of November and all of December to go - and with the return of Tony Romo now one game away, I plan on continuing to follow the daily twists and turns of the 2015 Cowboys.
But, wow.   This 2015 season was not what was expected.  Even in a very mediocre division, the loss of Tony Romo and Dez Bryant sabotaged the year beyond anything that the remainder of the team could overcome.  The front office may have overestimated the true quality of the roster (as did at least one media member) and oversold the idea that the defensive front could take over games.  If we have seen something constant in this 50-day odyssey, it is that the defensive front - with or without Greg Hardy - is not able to take over games when they needed them most.
This isn't to say that the defensive line is fully to blame because clearly there are many things at work here.  But, the defensive front 7 - the DL and the Linebackers - was going to have to be the strength and to keep opponents to a reasonable output.  But, in five of the six games, the Cowboys would have had to get four touchdowns to win without their full offensive compliment and without the benefit of even a single takeaway.  And that, was simply a task that was going to be asking too much of a backup QB.
There have been exactly zero teams all-time who have ever made the playoffs after starting 2-6 in a season.  Those odds would seem to answer the question of whether the Cowboys are still in the mix this year.  It would appear to be safe to answer that if they were to crawl back into this, it would be the first time it has ever been done.  With that in mind, the team now tries to prepare for their next battle and hopefully last without Tony Romo for a long time. 
You may check out on 2015, but the team has only reached the halfway point.  They have two more months to go.

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