Monday, December 21, 2015

The Morning After - Jets 19, Cowboys 16 (4-10)

There is generally very little of the positive variety that can be said when an offense turns the ball over four times.  All four, as you will recall from the proceedings on Saturday Night against the New York Jets were interceptions -- most of the brutal variety.  In fact, the four turnovers equal the season-low that was first achieved a few months back at Met Life Stadium against the other New York team, the Giants.
2015 has been a long, strange trip.
And there is no question, that if you look at the game from a perspective of the Dallas Cowboys continue to try to play football with very little regard for the fundamentals of winning, that this team lost yet another game where they appeared to have the talent to scratch out a win.  They lost to a Jets team that is pretty impressive in some regards, but also full of self-defeating attributes that are not unlike the Cowboys in many respects. 
But, Dallas did all of the things it simply cannot do.  They threw four interceptions.  They did achieve one takeaway - their first defensive takeaway since the Rolando McClain interception for a touchdown in Miami four games ago - and are now within striking distance of getting their season total into double digits by season's end after having 31 in 2014.  They also surrendered too many points (10) and yards (128) in the 4th Quarter alone (yet again) and could not get a stop when it appeared they really needed one if they planned on winning their 5th game of 2015.
They have too many holes to win without their QB1 and he isn't coming back this season.  They hoped to be a team that could be led along with a physical running attack, but the 3rd down issues since the last collarbone injury are now impossible to overcome at 4 for 31 (12%).  If you cannot occasionally convert a 3rd down and extend a drive and further a scoring attempt, well then, you get what you get.  And for the Cowboys, that means their first 10-loss season since the last time they lost QB1 to a collarbone back in 2010. 
It has been a very disappointing year and most of us look forward to the Bowl games far more than the remaining Cowboys' contests so that we may break in further on the 2016 draft where the team seems assured of picking in the Top 10 and twice in the Top 40 for the first time in a quite a while. 
With that in mind, I would love to discuss a few of the performances from Saturday night on an individual basis that I see as reasons for great optimism moving forward.  This has been a lost 2015, but if you want to look for reasons that this team can grab the ball and run with it into contention in 2016, it would have to be the idea that this team has added some blue-chip performers recently that might really distinguish them from other 10-loss teams.  In 2000-2002, this team lost eleven games on a pretty regular basis.  I don't remember thinking they had excellent talent all over the roster back then.  But, I think they are in pretty good shape right now in most spots.
The best piece of good news in these past few weeks is the play of DE DeMarcus Lawrence.  Now, before we elaborate, there are a lot of teams play lousy football and tell you about a defensive end they have that is playing great, but I feel like the 2nd year player out of Boise State is now making enough plays that we can officially suggest he is in the midst of arriving.  This week, it was one sack of Ryan Fitzpatrick to go along with four other tackles for loss.  Included in there was a superb play on 4th and one from the 3-yard line where he simply ended an early Jets drive by throwing his man to the side and making the play on Chris Ivory.  Lawrence has always had a knock on him about defending the run, but he is gaining strength to go along with his already solid quickness and tenacity and is growing into the playmaker up front that the Cowboys have been missing for several years.  He is still so young, but each week we see the young man figuring the game out and now leads the team in sacks and the defensive line in tackles.  The team went through a lot of trouble to get him on draft day of 2014, but it sure looks like they have found a 10-sack defensive end for 2016.  That is a massive acquisition.
Additionally, most were already sold on corner/safety Byron Jones - the 1st round pick out of UConn.  He has been very good this year and represents another difference-maker on the defense that this team can fell very good about.  On Saturday, he was asked to step in for Morris Claiborne who was out with an injury and that put Jones back wide at corner.  I would suggest the best part of Byron Jones at this point is the idea that in either spot - corner or safety - he has spent very little time this year getting burned.  He plays with confidence and very strong technique for a rookie and the Cowboys seem able to believe in him quite a bit.  But, here, late in a 16-16 game where his team must get a stop, he busted on the Cover 2 that the team was playing and later admitted he was playing press coverage when he shouldn't have been.  There was a bit of 2-minute drill chaos flying around and he was on the far sideline getting a call that perhaps was incorrect.  Regardless, he then peeked back at the QB and Kenbrell Thompkins was on a fly route right down the sideline where he was hit with a beautiful pass that essentially won the game.  You would certainly ever hate to be the blamed party in a game-losing scenario such as that, but for me, Jones has built up enough credibility that I am confident they found a real keeper late in Round 1 of the 2015 draft, as well. 
This is where I hope you will allow me to spend a little time on another Boise State product that likely does not have a whole lot to say about the 2016 product, but let's keep our options open.   Kellen Moore finally broke the seal on his NFL career at the end of the 4th season in the big leagues by coming on in relief for Matt Cassel.  I suppose the final words on Cassel's stay with the Cowboys will be that he ended up looking like a confident man in October who lost his confidence completely by December.  At the end of the Green Bay game and the beginning of the Jets game, Cassel began to resemble the pitcher who has lost all morale and just wants the manager to come get him out and replace him with a relief pitcher.  Shoulders slumped and decisions poor, Cassel had just lost the ability to play at any reasonable level.  His interception to Darrelle Revis was one of the craziest plays ever witnessed as the player was simultaneously guilty of intentional grounding after an aborted screen pass and throwing a ridiculous interception right into the hands of one of the league's finest ball hawks.  He also took a 20-yard sack and threw several very poor passes.  It was time.
And, to the credit of Jason Garrett (or to his blame for taking this long), the Cowboys inserted Kellen Moore into the contest early in the 2ndQuarter.   From there, the team did seem to respond with some spring in their step, knowing many of their routes would suddenly be back in play. 
Now, hopefully by now, you are familiar with Kellen Moore's scouting report.  He was a phenomenal college QB who displayed the ability to beat teams in a number of ways.  He is a real strong QB who has the mental acuity to play the game at a high level, but the stature and arm strength that has most NFL scouts in agreement that he will have a very difficult time at this level. 
On Saturday, in his NFL debut, he entered in the Cowboys 5th drive and on his 2nd pass threw a very poor interception into the middle of the field as he was trying to beat a blitz.  We have seen some poor QB decisions this season and I was convinced that Moore would at least make the right choices, but on his first drive, that appeared to be a real sign that I was mistaken.
But, there were some very interesting things shown from Moore on Saturday night, including the ability see the blitzes and decode them in a relatively quick fashion to know where to go with the ball.  Then, he made some superb passes into the middle of the field and moved the chains quite a few times.  Now, with that came another interception where he thought he was dealing with one coverage and did not know where the backside safety was in the end-zone for a demoralizing 3rdQuarter interception, but overall, there was a lot to like.  Again, I won't offer you some end game that he will ultimately be another Tony Romo, because that was farfetched, but in some ways, you could draw some memories from Week 7 in 2006 when Romo relieved Drew Bledsoe of his duties at halftime and threw three 2nd half interceptions but also demonstrated a few signs of life in a dead offense.
Stop it.  I did not just compare Romo and Kellen Moore. 
But, I did enjoy seeing a guy who believes in himself and has prepared for this opportunity since being told he can't measure up back in 2012.  In fact, he has likely been dealing with people telling him what he can't do since long before that.  Most 3-star recruits out of high school who are 6'0 Quarterbacks and have a 21-inch vertical are used to hearing people question their physical tools.  But, then he won 50 games as a college QB and has been playing professional football for four years (albeit without a single snap before Saturday).  Now, I am seeing him do what he can do, which includes converting a great pass to Cole Beasley on a 4th down to save the day and handling numerous blitzes very well.  This tells you quite a bit because nothing brought Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel to their knees quicker than seeing a blitz.  Moore seems to see them as an opportunity, although on a night where he was credited with three interceptions, I am sure nobody wants to hear that sort of praise.
But, I saw some nice things, despite the signs that his arm is going to be an issue because on several passes to the sideline, it certainly did seem like he was having a hard time getting it all the way to the receiver.  There is not much fastball to his game, but when he had to fit the ball into tight windows with accuracy and anticipation, he did well enough that I wanted to see more Moore. 
And that is where this season is.  We are trying to figure out what pieces make sense moving forward.  Lawrence and Jones for sure.  La'el Collins has played his way into that strong offensive line and Randy Gregory looks like a great piece, too.  Kellen Moore might be a fine #2 QB for 2016 if the draft does not allow a kid - or even if one does, you likely don't want to play him if Romo gets hurt again.
But, the details of another disappointment - the 5th time they have lost on the final drive - will go largely un-discussed here.  They are stats on the page and details for the books.  But, in the larger scheme of things, they simply do not matter anymore this year.
It will be that group of names above that will get us through the final two weeks.

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