Monday, January 02, 2017

The Morning After - Eagles 27, Cowboys 13 (13-3)

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Mark Sanchez (3) is sacked by Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham (55) during the fourth quarter at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017. The Dallas Cowboys lost 27-13. (Jae S. Lee/The Dallas Morning News)
Staff Photographer
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Mark Sanchez (3) is sacked by Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham (55) during the fourth quarter at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017. The Dallas Cowboys lost 27-13. (Jae S. Lee/The Dallas Morning News)
Much like a large majority of the football public around here that has closely followed the Dallas Cowboys over the last two decades, I will confess that I don't really know how to process the events of Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia.  So, I won't.  

Forgive me, but I am far more used to high-stakes games being played in Week 17 where the destiny of the entire season is being determined over one 60-minute contest against a bitter rival in, usually, a bitter setting.  I am also used to fretting over the injury report and wondering whether someone will get fired for the result (before remembering that there is no way Jason Garrett is ever getting fired). 
So, preparing to write up some thoughts on this Week 17 affair in Philadelphia, I was certainly struck with how pretty much nothing that happened Sunday mattered. 
Oh sure, there were a few things that jumped off the screen in the meaningless loss.  Not the least of which was the first (and only?) series where the familiar face of Tony Romo was leading the huddle and then the offense right down the field with a quick and decisive drive that ended in 7 points. 
Romo appeared as sharp as a knife, making strong and swift decisions and putting the ball right where he wanted it to go as if he was still at the height of his powers.  It verified how strong his practice performances have been, where observers gush at how it looks like "old Tony" out there.
Of course, we know that the only way to verify if he really is as good as new would be to leave him out there to take some of the hits that Mark Sanchez received in the second half after the Cowboys offensive line was stripped down to the bare necessities to get them through the game.  Like in practice, Tony was not touched.  Travis Frederick and Zack Martin did their part inside, but Ron Leary joined Tyron Smith in sitting out the contest and were replaced by Joe Looney and Emmett Cleary.  Those two, along with Doug Free - who is not blocking Brandon Graham under any circumstances - made pass protection a far more adventurous prospect against an Eagles front that stymied the starters back in Week 8. 
Sanchez was tossed around quite a bit and spooked into some poor throws.  Whether Romo could have withstood those hits and blitzes with his health and nerves intact is mere speculation, but the Cowboys were not about to leave him in there to find out. 
That, for me, seemed a bit curious to be honest.  Yes, the Eagles likely would have tried to test his body out and see if his core is up for any more challenges than it has shown in the last 18 months that have seen him knocked out of action on three separate occasions for a minimum of two months each time.  But, if you sincerely hoped to prepare him for the playoffs, it would seem that getting that first hit out of the way would have done some good. 
Were they simply trying to prop up some sort of offseason trade value?  And if so, would six plays - no matter how impressive - really cause some team that was not interested in his services on Saturday to change its mind by Sunday? 
Because I do see real value in increasing his preparedness for the playoffs, and I would have given him the entire second quarter.  That, ironically enough, perhaps would have saved us from the two interceptions that Sanchez promptly threw on two of his first three series in charge of the Cowboys offense.  This powerhouse unit was stripped down without many of its key parts, and after the two giveaways quickly just wanted to get to halftime before any further damage was done. 
In the second half, it was pretty clear that the Cowboys joined me in simply hoping the game would switch to a running clock.  There was nothing particularly noteworthy from players of great significance, but I would offer a few quick thoughts from the game before we turn the page:
Randy Gregory still has all of the traits that made me happy the Cowboys took him when they did at the end of Round 2 in the 2015 draft.  Yes, that looks silly to say, given that he might be leaving again soon on yet another suspension, but I would offer you the premise that this is what the draft is all about.  You want the best crack at quality at the cheapest price possible.  It is the difference between Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott, to be honest.  There is almost nothing Elliott can do that makes him exceed expectations.  To be clear, he is meeting his expectations, but merely duplicating Darren McFadden's stat line from last season was not going to be enough.  He had to compete for a rushing title.  He had to make a significant difference.  And even when he did, it would be more from a standpoint of living up to his hype, rather than shocking anyone.
Prescott is quite the opposite.  The bar from him was simply to prove a worthy backup QB within 3 seasons.  That is all he had to do is show that in 2018, he could win a few games in relief of the starter at the time, who the Cowboys figured would still be Tony Romo.  He has exceeded it so much that the future of his predecessor appears to be elsewhere.  That is called jumping over your bar.
Now, where is Gregory?  I admit, as we end Year 2 that we are pretty much right where we started - except a bit more aggravated that he still is dealing with the very causes of his slide in the first place.  Anyone that sees one snap can see that he is incredibly gifted with a skill-set that is rare and highly coveted.  But, anyone that can read sees that he appears to be his own worst enemy.  So, those who wanted the Cowboys to look elsewhere at that portion of the draft seem vindicated, but I still hold on to the belief that he is going to be superb for somebody before it is all said and done.  But, those flashes, including another few Sunday, may be all we have if the league doesn't respond favorably to another appeal of discipline in the next week.
Meanwhile, I am asked all of the time what gives me the most cause for concern in the playoffs for this 13-3 juggernaut.  Let's start with the fact that there isn't much.  This team is pretty healthy and pretty solid everywhere you look.  Its secondary is better than it appears on paper and the defensive front has hardly been an issue all year.
I am quite concerned with the last month from Doug Free.  He has been a very solid pro for a long time, but his diminishing performances recently have me believing this is his last run as a starter on this line.  Right tackle will be occupied by someone new next season, although the Cowboys do have some appealing internal options.  He just can't stay in front of elite pass rushers anymore and Danielle Hunter, Brandon Graham, and even Romeo Okwara have made that abundantly clear.  With a healthy Tyron Smith, you can always slide help Free's way, but if Tyron isn't right, things get complicated. 
Beyond that, this team looks ready.  There are matchups that seem more favorable than others, but any battle happens here and the Cowboys can rest while the field bludgeons each other for the right to limp to Dallas in 14 days time.  The Cowboys have earned this and will be expected to play in their first NFC Championship Game since 1995. 
This Eagles game will offer nothing terribly memorable, aside from Romo's 6 snaps, but 2016 has been anything but forgettable. 
Now, the real fun - and stress that goes with it - begins.

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