Monday, November 16, 2015

The Morning After - Buccaneers 10, Cowboys 6 (2-7)

This has become ridiculous.   Not you, too, Dez.  
There is simply no other way to describe the last seven games in which this team has allowed just about every department of this organization to take their fair turn as the target of ridicule for another Cowboys loss. 
Nobody has been blameless.  Nobody can say that they always delivered when the team needed them most.
Not the coaching staff.  Not the front office - even the NFL 2014 Executive of the Year.  Certainly, not the offense as they have had their hand in the blame almost every week.  Or, the QB (or the other-other QB).  Not the defense, either.  Not the all-world offensive line.  And now, amazingly enough, as if the football gods deemed it so after another raging against the machine, not even the people's champion, Dez Bryant.
Dez is one of the most interesting Cowboys we have seen in this generation.  I normally don't spend much time on the guy after a loss, because normally, he is generally so precise and dominant in his responsibilities that it makes very little sense to ever look in his direction.  He almost never lets you down.  He is that good.
But, in this vital game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was being featured as the clear main offensive objective against a secondary that had nobody remotely able to defend him under normal circumstances, Dez took his turn on the pedestal of blame. 
Oh sure, it is more satisfying to blame Jason Garrett, Scott Linehan, or Matt Cassel for the offense generating 6 points on Sunday.  And I am surely not sitting here arguing that this all goes on Dez, as he had plenty of help.  But his issues Sunday on three of the final five drives were devastating, and you can believe for sure that the Cowboys were not expecting him to be part of the problem against the Bucs and Sterling Moore. 
In fact, you can believe that they were expecting him to have at least the impact that Mike Evans was having on the other side of the field.  Evans, a 2nd year player who looks like a real difference maker in this league once he develops through his rough edges, was forced the ball 13 times and although it wasn't always pretty, generated 126 yards in receptions and another 55 yards in penalties.  You can imagine pretty clearly that in a game where offense was nowhere to be found, that 181 yards to their star receiver was able to almost single-handedly cancel out all of the Cowboys offense (216 yards) over the entire day.   That simply cannot happen.  The Cowboys knew that Dez would dominate Sterling Moore and by extension, Mike Evans.  They had the better cards in this hand.  
But, it didn't matter.  Somehow, despite the Cowboys making a concerted effort to focus their attack through Bryant, and then running plays and making throws where the ball arrived on time and on target, Bryant had two drive-killing drops in the 2nd half and then a rather odd and uncharacteristic effort on the final offensive snap of the game where he appeared to campaign for a call rather than attempt to make a dominating play on the ball.
First, with 10:32 left in the 3rd Quarter, the Cowboys moved their first drive after halftime into Tampa Bay territory.   On a 2nd and 10, Cassel fires an easy pass to Bryant's hands with Jude Adjei-Barimah playing "off and soft" which if caught would have set up a rather easy finish into field goal range, at least.  Instead, Dez drops the pass and then gets up looking to the official for a hit to the head in the aftermath from William Gholston. 
Then, perhaps the most egregious of the errors, happens after Jeff Heath gets his 2nd interception of the day and the Cowboys take over with under six minutes to go and a 6-3 lead from inside their 10-yard line.  The Cowboys run on 1st down is doomed and could not have gone worse.  Darren McFadden gets no help as the Cowboys are outnumbered in the box and he tries to take the play outside before being corralled for a massive loss of 7 yards.  Then, on 2nd and 17 from the 2-yard line, Cassel channels his inner gunslinger and fires a strike to Terrance Williams to get 16 yards right back.  It was rather unlikely, but now the Cowboys can move the chains with one yard.  And in this situation, it won't take more than 2 or 3 first downs to finish the game. 
Third and 1 is something you would like to believe that the "best offensive line in the NFL" could take care of, I know.  But, there was enough evidence to suggest that running the ball here was going to be a chore.  Tampa had been loading up to take away the run all day and in the 2nd half the Cowboys had run the ball seven times for a total of four yards.  They were outnumbered and decided to put the ball in the hands of their difference-maker, #88.
It made plenty of sense.  And the situation called for a strong throw in the face of a Tampa Bay blitz.  If they complete it, the Cowboys stay in control of the game and will have a chance to never give the ball back.  Cassel stands tall and faces the Tampa Bay blitz, but Sterling Moore - who certainly tried to deal with Dez on hundreds of occasions during Cowboys practices and camps through the years - is on an island against one of the NFL's best.
The ball arrives on the back shoulder fade at a spot where Dez shields off Moore and has the ball literally hit him between the "8" and the other "8" on his chest.  Cassel could not have walked it out there any better and under-handed it to him.  But, somehow, in the least Dez Bryant-like moment of the day, the ball dropped to the ground. 
On comes the punt team. 
From there, Tampa put together its one drive of the day that actually took a snap from inside the red zone and with the aid of a few strong plays, a few penalty calls, and once case of pure luck after Winston fumbled the ball jumping into the end zone, the Bucs took the lead with 0:54 left to go in the game.  The Cowboys would now require - for yet another game during this 2 months in the football wilderness - a late-game drive to save the day. 
But, this time, they would quickly get the ball into Tampa territory and have a chance to throw it into the end zone a few times. 
At least that was the plan.  But, on their first chance, Bryant took the left safety, Bradley McDougald, in the Cover 2 as wide as he could before heading back to the post to have inside position.  The play surprisingly (because where else did Tampa think the Cowboys were going with the ball in that scenario?) presented a real opportunity for a one-on-one battle for the ball in the end zone if the ball gets there.  The ball did arrive and McDougald pushed off on Bryant enough to win position and to get the ball. 
Bradley McDougald was celebrating his 25th birthday on Sunday, so perhaps the officials were trying to honor that, or perhaps they were attempting to let the players decide things on the field unless the penalty was absolutely clear and obvious.  But, for me, when the officials allow a battle of strength to decide on a fight for the ball in the end zone, I will usually take Dez Bryant in every situation.  Somehow he lost this battle and McDougald not only prevented a touchdown, but he also secured the ball to win the game. 
The absolute worst thing that could happen has to be an incompletion so that they can re-rack and try it again, so when Bryant is gesturing to the officials to make sure they saw the push, it is worth wondering why he didn't make a stronger play on the ball to prevent the killer interception at the very least.  Terrance Williams would have been heavily barbecued had he allowed that ball to be picked off.  Bryant being guilty of this is unthinkable.  He wins all aerial battles.  That is what he does. 
But, he was guilty, this time.  He did contribute on several occasions on Sunday for the offensive bog-down.  And so goes the Dallas Cowboys story in 2015.  The foolproof plans of August have fallen through.  And now, in this game where everyone seemed to agree this was where the losing streak would end, it pathetically carries on and many are amazed that this one gets blamed on a guy who seldom gets anything but praise for his on-field contributions.   It has been that kind of year. 
If 2015 has taught us anything about how things work around here, it is that Tony Romo is one of the Cowboys greats.  That's right.  He may not make anyone forget Staubach or Aikman, but if you don't appreciate his special qualities with his presence, then perhaps his absence is enough to convince you.  He is returning and if he is healthy, the team might look incredibly different in short order. 
That, of course, allows him almost no time to shake the rust off or, heaven forbid, it certainly doesn't take into consideration the imperative objective of keeping him from taking direct hits from eager pass rushers.  He is awesome, but we have also learned he is a player who has the body of a mere mortal.  And whatever remains of that body must be protected by his team-mates, lest they face the future without him.  And we know how that works. 
And if 2015 has taught us anything else, it is this odd reminder of how during this era of Cowboys football, it seems that we know nothing.  I am reminded that the seasons of greatest expectations in training camp were 2008 (following the 2007 13-3 season), 2010 (following the division winner in 2009) and 2015 (following the great season of 2014).  In all 3 years, the team exhibited confidence and a clear plan with lofty objectives for all to see and hear.  And, in all 3 years, the disasters and disappointments were too numerous to list - including losing the QB to injury in all 3 years for a lengthy spell.
Then, if that wasn't odd enough, the best years - 2007, 2009, and 2014 all appeared out of nowhere in the other direction when we thought they might need the breaks to go perfectly just to make the playoffs.   So, basically, their best years all snuck up on the masses and so did the worst years.  In other words, the more we know, the less we can predict, I guess.
Regardless, this team now sits at 2-7.  This was absolutely the worst-case scenario when the Cowboys placed Tony Romo on the injured reserve list back on September 22nd and traded for Matt Cassel.  They figured, between Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel, the team would be able to get 2-3 wins, even if it was because guys like Dez Bryant and Greg Hardy and Sean Lee and Rolando McClain and Jason Witten and Joseph Randle and the "best offensive line in football" dragged them to victories, in spite of their QBs. 
Everything is now being questioned - including those who just a few months ago had seemed to build up enough credibility to have a full account.  From Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones to Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith, the unmitigated disaster of the last 57 days tells us that every corner of this organization has come up short when they could least afford it.
I have made excuses about this journey.  I mean, who beats the two Super Bowl teams from last year without your starting QB?  But, when you are losing to the young kids from Tampa Bay and your best players are the ones letting the ball drop to the ground, then the disease of losing has spread everywhere.  
The cure has arrived too late, it appears.

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