Tuesday, December 08, 2015

The Morning After - Cowboys 19, Washington 16 (4-8)


Chalk that one up to another memorable night in the Cowboys-Redskins rivalry. 
Too often in the last two decades, when these two teams meet, it is not a matchup of NFL heavyweight contenders deciding a spot in the Super Bowl anymore, but rather a game where both teams resemble two street drunks that exchange wild punches until one actually lands. 
It was not aesthetically pleasing to the eye sport, to say the least.  But, in the end, if you must spend the better part of an evening searching for a piece of good news to take home with you, the Cowboys did at least make sure that the Washington Redskins will not make this 2015 even more difficult to swallow with a celebratory Monday Night dismantling of their hated rival.
Somehow, the Cowboys emerged with their 4th victory of the 2015 campaign and did so on the home turf of their long-time rival in a way that will not inspire textbook accounts, but rather the relief that nobody should have to witness that again.  Further, the idea that it was done without the necessity for overtime only added to the relief of any Cowboys fan that was there to confirm the events.
If you read this space in an effort to hear about playoff scenarios and hope to salvage 2015, you might leave disappointed.  Yes, there is no denying that 4-8 actually leaves them in a spot where they again rue the inability to win any game between Philadelphia and Miami, because if they had found one single victory there (Atlanta, New Orleans, Tampa Bay - any of them), they would be actually be at the top of this ridiculous collection of mediocrity that comprises the once proud NFC East.
It almost seems that the one takeaway from last night is the idea that "someone has to win every game" whether they played particularly well or not.  This point alone seems to make the idea that this team lost seven straight games even more remarkable.  There are enough mediocre opponents that no matter how gloomy your own situation is, there should be someone across the field that occasionally accommodates another victory like Washington did last night.
Both teams looked positively lost on offense.  The Cowboys had the distinct advantage last night purely on the fact that their mercurial play-making weapon did not do anything that would be considered brain-dead, while Washington's version certainly did.  DeSean Jackson and Dez Bryant are both unbelievable playmakers, but that accompanies a reasonably high maintenance level in the huddle, sideline, and locker-room that is called "passionate" when the team wins and "problematic" when they don't.  But, make no mistake, Jackson's sense of adventure on a key punt return last night turned the game on its ear, and yes, perhaps the divisional championship.  I suppose you take the good with the bad if you employ him, but his list of idiocy precedes him.
His generosity, this time, was offered when JJ Wilcox stripped him of the football a mere inch before he was down after an amazing circuitous route on his punt return and it was recovered by the punter, himself, Chris Jones.  Of all of the playmakers this team has put in place to generate takeaways, of course, it was going to be the punter who would actually reel in the football, right?  I don't think we can give that takeaway to the defense, but we shall also not look a gift horse in the mouth.
Amazingly, though, the Cowboys could not just call it a night from there.  Washington had just 2 timeouts remaining and the Cowboys had the ball with 1:26 left in the game.  If they could get just one 1st down, the game would be over if the Cowboys could execute "game management 101" to finish the job.
Yet, to continue the ineptitude that included 3 giveaways, countless penalties, and one of the more frustrating offensive nights in a season that has been filled with them, Darren McFadden runs out of bounds to stop the clock on a 9-yard run.  Then, on the next play, he runs into the end zone.   Not only did the Cowboys not kill off the final 86 seconds, but they actually only used 12 seconds and allowed the Redskins to keep both of their timeouts. 
I suppose it surely seems like outside the box thinking to not take a touchdown when one is presented, but if he stays in bounds on the first play and falls at the 1-yard line on the next, they are absolutely taking a knee until there is no time left in the game. 
Now, I suppose you could argue that McFadden has so seldom been on the winning side of a game in his NFL career that the finer points of killing off a game might have been a course he has not fully completed, but that was remarkably poor awareness on a night where he also had 2 vital fumbles lost. 
Then, to make matters worse, the constant issues with special teams penalties added to an already troublesome kick return when JJ Wilcox was properly flagged for a facemask infraction and that started the Redskins desperation possession inside the Dallas 43 with well over a minute to go.
But Washington needed a touchdown, down 16-9, and went to work quickly to make that happen.  From the 28, Kirk Cousins lofted a pass that poetically landed in the hands of DeSean Jackson over Morris Claiborne after the Cowboys keep rolling with Cover 1 and not offering a safety to help.  That seemed pretty illogical given that Jackson's value is his speed and that he has previously proven he could run by Claiborne in a play that just missed connecting earlier in the game. 
Nevertheless, it appeared Jackson had redemption as the Redskins scored in dramatic fashion to pull the game back to level at 16-16.  But, now, did the Redskins leave too much time?
At this point of the review, I am compelled to review all of the time spent between April and August discussing the ability of the Cowboys to replace Dwayne Harris properly.   They banked on the idea that given the situation, they could only keep Cole Beasley or Dwayne Harris as both would be getting similar money in the free agent market.  It seemed that they made the wise choice of keeping Beasley as he had developed some very nice 3rd down chemistry with Tony Romo and Harris had not provided any highlight returns of note in a few seasons.  Then, they thought they had targeted and secured an undrafted free agent that they saw as a real weapon in the return game from Florida Atlantic in Lucky Whitehead.
When the season began, they appeared rather reluctant to use him much - partly because of some uneven preseason performances that tempered the enthusiasm.  But, in this season where progress and growth on the roster has been difficult to detect, Whitehead has come a long way as more and more people have bemoaned the loss of Harris to the Giants where the former Cowboy has turned into a fine addition as well. 
Whitehead had his best night as a Cowboy last night and that included finally getting loose on some of the end-a-rounds that they have been threatening all season, but more importantly, what appears to be the intent of play-making in the return game.  Beasley can be a weapon on 3rd downs, but in the punt return game, he appears to be a fair-catch machine with 17 of them this season in 28 opportunities.   Whitehead has no fair-catches this season and slightly better return results. 
But the real discovery has been in the kick return game where Whitehead has broken 2 very big kick returns for this team in the recent weeks.  The timeliness of last night's that immediately followed the Jackson touchdown set the stage for the victory as he burst out just short of midfield.  You can tell his confidence is now growing and he is no longer fixated on worst-case scenarios.  He is ready to make a play and while that occasionally includes some collateral damage potential, the Cowboys desperately need a player to step up when they have so many issues with their conventional offense. 
From there, the Cowboys just needed to move the ball about 20 yards to give Dan Bailey a chance to stick the dagger into the hearts of those Redskins.  And this is where having Dez Bryant on your side comes in quite handy.
He was targeted on seven occasions during the evening by the inconsistent Matt Cassel and on many of the throws they were not on the same page - so much so that you could once again see the agitation growing in Bryant's demeanor.  But, the final Quarter was where they connected on all three completions and they were all massive - including all of the 20 yards needed on the final drive.  Bryant was certainly trying to take the game over late and in a setting where the events of the season have not been ideal, it was good to have a game-breaker available to help get the game into the win column.
Additionally, to have what many believe is the best kicker in football available is a weapon that means Cassel only needed to get to the 36 of Washington to end the game.  Surely, the overall comedy rating of the night suggested that the field goal would not split the uprights, but rather hit each upright and bounce out which would insure overtime, but the comedy gods showed mercy.
Bailey split the uprights and the Cowboys found the rarest of birds in this ridiculous 2015 season - a victory.
The issues that plague the team certainly do remain.  The coaching still seemed to take the path of complete and absolute risk aversion with no stomach for attempting to turn field goals into touchdowns and, more importantly, attempting to steal a win in enemy lands with a chance or two, but perhaps we should conclude that this particular leopard is not going to change his spots.
The QB play is still wildly inconsistent with a running game that appears out numbered at the point of attack too often.  This leads to an amazingly disappointing list of performances that include 1 first down in the first quarter, 89 yards of offense in the 1st half, only 1 3rd down conversion all night (a 2nd Quarter hook to Jason Witten on a 3rd and 11 that went 12 yards for catch #999 of his decorated career), and of course, 3 fumbles lost. 
It was not much to get too excited about from a production standpoint.
Meanwhile, the defense started with a few sacks on an evening where Rod Marinelli insisted on blitzing again and again to try to generate confusion, pressure, and sacks. 
The 13 blitzes on pass plays was in addition to several more run blitzes and would equal a season high in bringing aggressive pressures.  Surely, the plan was also to generate a few takeaways, but Cousins protects the ball pretty well and the Cowboys could not get him into trouble aside from the sacks. 
So, perhaps the outcome depended on the fumble recovery by their punter.  Or the big return from their undrafted rookie return man.  Or, maybe a nice 54-yard field goal to win the game in what would be the longest game winner in the history of the franchise, eclipsing Nick Folk's winner in Buffalo in 2007 - also on a Monday Night. 
Whatever the case, the Cowboys are 4-8 in a division where that record is not laughed at by the field (the audience is laughing). 
It has been one crazy year.  One that surely is going to end in 4 weeks, but the door remains cracked to once again fly in the face of our expectations. 
Who knows anymore?

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