Monday, September 12, 2016

The Morning After: Giants 20, Cowboys 19

The Dallas Cowboys season started yesterday with a mighty show of force.  They took the opening kickoff and marched down the field, just like they intended.  Along the way, they earned five first downs and converted on several third downs.  The rookie QB, Dak Prescott, looked composed and poised and as the yardage accumulated, time elapsed, a chunk at a time. 

Ezekiel Elliott fell ahead for the fifth first down to the 10-yard line and the Giants already looked winded.  On first and goal, Cole Beasley had the first touchdown of the season go through his hands on a catchable pass that would have capped off the first drive in the way it deserved.  Instead, two Elliott plays later, Dan Bailey comes on to kick his first field goal of the year to end a 15-play drive.

Then, to prove that it was no fluke, they drove the ball again.  Once again, they started deep in their own end, and again, they marched it all the way down the field.   Another 15-play drive that took them all the way down again into field goal position had the Giants gasping for air.  But, another stalled out trip ended with a long Dan Bailey field goal. 

At this point, the game was nearly 20-minutes old, and the Cowboys had held it for over 80% of the elapsed time.  They had held the Giants on the sideline and moved the chains ten times.  It was a thing of beauty.  Aside from the ending.  But, they were still putting up points. 

The Giants answered the next time.  In fact, it was the type of answering that you fear if you are not convinced the Cowboys defense is going to be able to hold up its end of the bargain.  It took the Giants four plays, three of them for double-digit yardage, including a 45-yard Go-route to Odell Beckham.  One play later, they were end the endzone for a go-ahead Touchdown.  So, 30-plays for 6 points, and it takes the Giants four snaps to pull ahead, 7-6. 

The theme would continue as the Cowboys marched the ball a third time. 
This time, it appeared they absolutely had hit paydirt as they moved Dez Bryant into the slot to attempt to get him matched up with a safety and it worked perfectly.  Now, with Dez taking Landon Collins to the endzone, Prescott puts the pass right where it needed to be and usually when that happens you can run out the extra-point team.  On this occasion, though, it appeared after further review that Collins recovered to help knock the ball loose as Dez hit the ground.  It wasn’t the first time Dez Bryant was bitten by the review bug, and the play caused the Cowboys to end a third excellent drive with yet another field goal. 

For all intents and purposes, that would be the last time the team would touch the ball in the first half, meanwhile, the Giants would drive the ball and open the account of Sterling Shepard before halftime with a beautiful throw from Eli Manning and despite the Cowboys owning all of the halftime stats that don’t matter, they were behind on the halftime stat that does, 13-9. 

Dak Prescott continued to push this team down the field and play well, in his professional debut.  His numbers and his throws had plenty of room for improvement, but anyone expecting more than they received from Prescott yesterday was probably being unrealistic.  He handled his business quite well and did his part to throw touchdowns to Cole Beasley and Dez Bryant.  If both of those are brought in by the receivers, the team takes a lead into halftime and most likely wins the game.  But, he can only do half of the job and that job was not fully completed by his mates. 

They did punch it in to take the lead in the earliest moments of the 2nd half, as the Cowboys defense generated (or were given) a takeaway, and Elliott was able to break free for a rare occasion to put the Cowboys on top, 16-13.  Then, another field goal extended the lead to 19-13 early in the 4th Quarter. 

Now, you have a rookie QB who has taken you on five scoring drives in his debut.  I am not here to set everyone else’s expectation level, but I think most of us would have taken that when the day began.  The team has a 4th Quarter lead and they have been able to put points on the board and to keep the defense off the field.  Now, the two questions will be whether A) the defense can come up with a stop when it matters most and B) whether the offense has one of those 15-play drives that take 9 minutes off the clock behind the NFL’s best offensive line and the top RB taken in the draft?

Starting in reverse order, the answer is no and no.  If you thought this offense could ground and pound the Giants when it mattered, the team ran for six yards in the 4th Quarter.  One in which they had the lead.  The blueprint of leveling an opponent looks so good on paper, but why don’t we ever learn?  With very few exceptions, the NFL remains a passing league and with the Cowboys in a game where they pretty much were able to set the terms, they ran the ball only 30 of 75 snaps, and in the 2nd half, that number was 11 runs in 37 snaps.  This was a game where they only trailed in the 2nd half a few minutes, but they didn’t run the ball in high volume.  Why?  Because they couldn’t.  The Giants would not let them.  This is the NFL.  Where opponents do not let you do what you want to do if they have anything to say about it. 

So, back to the real question at hand: Could the defense get a stop when it needed it most?  Staked to a six-point lead, would the defense be able to save the day by getting that big play at that big moment?

Almost as if the Giants wanted to rub the Cowboys face in the sand, they started running the ball right at the Dallas defense.  This is how you demoralize an opponent on the ground with the battering ram approach.  Shane Vereen for 10 on a short pass, then runs of 9, 2, and 10 on the drive that ended with Victor Cruz dancing in the end zone. 

Next, now with a 20-19 lead, it was Rashad Jennings.  For 7, 12, 3, 9, 1, -3, and then 11 on a 3rd and 12 where he almost ended the game right then and there.  So, the Giants run for 50 yards in the 4th Quarter to kill the clock and the game and the Cowboys run for 6, despite having the lead when they entered it. 

Not the formula we were looking for in the opener.  Ezekiel Elliott and this highly compensated offensive line was supposed to be able to overrun a defense that has no linebackers.  Meanwhile, the Cowboys defense was supposed to be able to at least fight back when someone tries to kill them on the ground.  Not a great debut for Rolando McClain’s default replacement, Anthony Hitchens, as the Giants were mowing right through his area too easily from the first look. 

And finally, the mechanics of the 2 minute drill.  1:05 left and the ball at the 20.  All you need is to give Dan Bailey a chance and the whole stadium knows he can get it done. 

Oh yes, the stadium.  Almost forgot about the stadium.  The one where no expense was spared and where opulence lives in every direction.   The stadium where on at least three occasions, Cowboys plays were sabotaged by sun in their eyes – in an indoor stadium.  Future generations are going to look at this paragraph and marvel at the possibility an indoor facility could have sun ruining the home team’s hopes, but I assure you, future humans, it happened.   Why didn’t they get curtains to block the sun?  You won’t believe this – they have them.  They just refuse to use them for Cowboys games.  But, Coldplay appreciated not having the sun in their eyes a few weeks back by pulling them shut.

Back to the most pivotal moments of the afternoon, the Cowboys had 2 moments where players had to choose to save seconds or gain yards.  The first, by Lance Dunbar was not nearly as leveraged and you could make the case his was not that big of a deal.  But, the thing that will remain in our minds is the decision Terrance Williams made when he got the ball in his hands with 10 seconds to play.  He had one chance to save the game, which is try to get out of bounds.  Could he have done it?  I think so, but likely would have still been at the 45 yard line.  This means that you either try one more play with seven seconds to play (or so), or you run out Dan Bailey to try a 63-yard Field goal which would tie the all-time record for longest kick in league history. 

Williams must have figured his best chance was to cut back and take it to the house, because as goofy as that sounds, the other possibility – that he could get another play off with the clock running – is even more insane.  It was a rather brain-dead assessment of a situation they work on constantly, which reflects on the coaching staff, to be honest.  It is one thing for a rookie to make a rookie mistake, but again, this is a veteran who has to know the situation.

So, they drop a vital divisional game that they certainly are kicking themselves for.  There were some very good things in this game, but like those opening drives, everything was decent – aside from the ending.

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