Monday, October 10, 2016

The Morning After - Cowboys 28, Bengals 14

This has all been so surprising this season.  I think you would have to begin in 2015 when we saw the true value of losing your long-time "QB1" to injury and what happens to an entire franchise when this happens. 
Actually, it doesn't always cripple a franchise.  It just always cripples this one, it seemed. 
During 2015, we would hear that one team can survive and another team can keep getting wins, but this team never does.  They have a special QB who does great things, but he has gone from sometimes-injured too often-injured in the span of just a few short years.  It happens.  The NFL takes a massive toll from these men's bodies over the course of a decade and it should not surprise anyone that Tony Romo's body has paid dearly.

But, for the fans of this franchise, all it did is put you in this hopeless conundrum of depending on a scenario where not only are you good enough, but now also you had to be lucky enough to play well all while avoiding the landmines of getting No. 9 hurt again.
Could you make it through a four-month season to get to a one-month playoff with a QB who might not survive too many hits?
No.  You couldn't even get past August 25.
Hope seemed lost right there.  They bet heavily on their hero, and their hero cannot take it anymore.  A hard lesson learned yet again.
Little did anyone know, they were about to go on a journey that would take them to first place on October 10 of the division that boasts the most wins in the entire NFL. 
In other words, don't waste your money, kids, trying to bet on what will happen in the National Football League.  Nobody knows what is next, and for certain, nobody has built a fortune predicting outcomes in this unpredictable league.
And sometimes, fortune seems to smile on you with some gifts from the football gods. 
Let's not be fooled.  I realize that GM Jerry Jones has been credited with the idea of taking Dak Prescott at pick No. 135, but I have never heard it explained how they had pick No. 101 at the start of that round and took Oklahoma DE Charles Tapper instead.  Sources have confirmed that pick No. 101 was earmarked for QB Connor Cook from Michigan State as the Cowboys wanted a young player behind Romo.  Oakland, however, decided they wanted him more and traded with Cleveland to get pick No. 100 and took the Spartan QB.  This left the Cowboys with a choice to take their next QB or go with a DE and they took Tapper.  That has always prevented me from being too full of praise on how things all happened.  Luckily for the future of the franchise, not one QB was taken in the next 34 picks.  Not one.  So, when pick No. 135 came around, Prescott was still available. 
It was either lucky or insane to take that risk.  Brilliant does not seem like a word that should come to mind.  Unless, that is, we are describing what we have seen in the first five weeks.

And, what we saw Sunday would clearly have to be considered brilliant.  This team put out its finest performance we have seen thus far in this Sunday in a showdown with one of the four franchises in the league that have been in each of the last five playoffs (Cincinnati, New England, Denver, and Green Bay).   The Bengals have a defense that is physical and doesn't get pushed around.  They don't give up 100-yard rushing days and they don't spend too much time getting humiliated.
Go ahead and cross all of those off the list.  For the Cowboys rookie duo of Ezekiel Elliott and Prescott have shown few signs that any of this is too big for them, and together they dismantled the Bengals in a destruction that felt over in about an hour.
The first drive was almost completely on the ground with the final 39 yards all coming on three consecutive handoffs to Elliott that sliced through this Bengals defense like a hot knife.  They ran a pulling play to the left for 17 yards and then a zone play to the same side for 9 more.  From the 13-yard line, a beautiful zone read give ate up the remainder in a touchdown that started the avalanche.  It was clear what the intent was from the offense.  Pound this physical defense and see if they can stand up to it.
The second drive was far more Prescott.  He is certainly part of a group that is not always asking him to make plays, but when they do, there is no reason to believe he is incapable.  The drive required an early third-down conversion that he whistled behind the linebackers to Terrance Williams for 16.  Two plays later it was a little rollout dart to Brice Butler for 13.  Zeke again was next for 15 with some pulling linemen clearing the way with authority.  Then, back to Dak for 21 yards on a seam pass to Williams another time for a first down and goal at the 4.  This was a pass down the field where his legs were being taken out at the release.  He stood in and made the throw well. 
But, the beautiful moment on this drive was the ensuing touchdown (which will clearly be a focus Tuesday in our Decoding Linehan piece).  They dialed up another zone read but did exactly what everyone has been calling for in the progression of unleashing a truly unstoppable offense.  That is, all of the different options on an option play.  In this case, the Bengals' front knows this is going to Elliott.  Their LDE, the feared Carlos Dunlap, knew that Elliott was getting the ball, and that is why he had him in a bear-hug behind the line of scrimmage.  The problem was that Prescott still had the ball and waltzed by the DE who was assigned to contain and into the endzone untouched.  It was offensive simplicity at its finest.  They must defend every scenario or you simply give it to the guy who isn't being accounted for.  In this case, a Prescott keeper was bringing the Bengals to their knees. 
Two drives, two touchdowns. 
This is where it gets a little silly.  As the Cowboys will each week, they gave Alfred Morris the third drive.  So, on this drive the offense gave Morris the ball plenty, and he moved the ball from the 20 all the way to the 48-yard line.  And that is where Dak Prescott and his weapons started going back to work.  Another touchdown might put this game away early, and that is exactly what happened next.
Seven yards to Butler against the blitz.  Then on third-and-3, Prescott duplicated what he did early to Williams.  On a third-and-short, the Bengals were sitting on Cole Beasley at the sticks (since that is what their scouting told them to do) and the Cowboys again showed the change-up when the Bengals were sitting fast ball and hit Witten on a crosser behind the linebackers again.  Prescott hit him 15 yards down the field and then Witten offered a fine stiff-arm and ran for 16 more in "YAC".  Very next play, Prescott rolls to his right after the play breaks down and Beasley mirrors him to the sideline, gets open, catches the ball short of the 5 and gets into the end zone with ease. 
The rout was on.  This showdown game was over in less than 60 minutes.  They would have stopped this fight. 
The last show of strength from the offense was further validation of the Elliott pick at No. 4, under the "you can't pass up on a guy who can do this" rule.  The Cowboys again used a change-up of the "drive starter QB rollout-waggle" play that Prescott has had called over and over again.  This time, it was all a fake and he gave to Elliott in the middle, showing how confused the Bengals were.  They chased Witten out into the flat, but Dak did not have the ball.  This allowed Elliott to cruise right down the middle of the field and by the time the Bengals realized what happened, hit turbo had kicked in and the play was over.  He was gone for the dagger.
The defense obviously played a role in this, because you hardly heard AJ Green's name and Andy Dalton appeared frustrated in his homecoming. 
But, again, you don't have to dig too deep on this one.  The two rookies keep doing what they have been doing and showed up in a "showdown" game with enough authority that they NFL has taken notice.  They won't sneak into Green Bay unannounced. 
The thing is, as good as this offense is right now, sneaking in doesn't seem very necessary.
I remember the old saying that the only person who could stop Michael Jordan in college was Dean Smith, his coach.  Nobody could defend MJ, but his coach used him carefully and in moderation.
Now, we wonder if the only thing that can slow down this train is the front office and coaching staff wanting to get Tony Romo right back into action when he is healthy enough after the bye week. 
In other words, is the only thing that can stop Dak and Zeke right now their own organization?
Sunday makes you wonder.

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