Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Morning After: Cowboys 28, Cardinals 17 (2-1)


Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) scores a rushing touchdown on an 8-yard run in the fourth quarter during a National Football League game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona on Monday September 25, 2017. The Dallas Cowboys beat the Arizona Cardinals 28-17. (Andy Jacobsohn/The Dallas Morning News)
Andy Jacobsohn/Staff Photographer
Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) scores a rushing touchdown on an 8-yard run in the fourth quarter during a National Football League game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona on Monday September 25, 2017. The Dallas Cowboys beat the Arizona Cardinals 28-17. (Andy Jacobsohn/The Dallas Morning News)
The Dallas Cowboys' victory on Monday night in Arizona should remind any and all of one simple fact:  Winning isn't easy in the NFL.  It requires resolve, determination, and the ability to understand that to land a punch you have to take a few, too.  It might not always look aesthetically pleasing to the eye.  It might not always give your fantasy football team the points you so desire.  It might also not leave the fans on the couch feeling great about your ability to smash the rest of the league at will.

Sometimes, it is only about standing there for three hours and asking yourself if you are willing to start crawling up that mountain again to prove that you are what everyone thought you were in the offseason.
In other words, what you want this football team to accomplish is a very difficult thing to pull off. If it were easy, it wouldn't take over two decades to rise back up in the NFC and build the next Super Bowl contender in Dallas. The opponents saw the Cowboys' 2016 and studied it closely. If there were any tactical adjustments to be made by the young Dallas QB and RB, you had to know they would be presented in September when Dallas had three very difficult defensive opponents to start the season.
These opponents - New York, Denver, and Arizona - play an aggressive style of punishing defense with much of their team's financial resources earmarked to find players who can cover great wide receivers, can rush the QB, and can defeat run blocks as well as one can hope. There are no soft defenses that play passively and try to bend but not break. Not in the first stretch. These defenses were going to challenge you to stick to your convictions and beat them in a might vs might battle in the center of the ring.
And, to me, that is why last night felt pretty good once it was over.  Once Dallas saw that the game isn't 30 minutes or even 45 again.  Once the Cowboys realized this league isn't impressed with their young upstart squad's story of 2016.  Instead, the league was determined to bring them back to earth in 2017.  Denver gave the league the belief that there is a recipe for limiting the Cowboys offensive machine.  Arizona looked at it carefully and agreed to bring much of that back this week.
That left Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan with a very important week of soul searching since their trip to Colorado.  They seemed to play right into Denver's hands last week.  The Broncos challenged their conviction level and when the stadium started rocking and the bad plays started happening, you could almost feel the coaching staff remembering the times they fell into situations like this in hostile environments and asked Tony Romo to save them with some throws to the right spots at the perfect moment.  Now, they had this young QB who cannot do those same things in the same way.  But, that wasn't going to stop them from the same visceral ideas.  
They went back, watched the film, and I believe came to the same conclusion many of us saw last week.  For better or worse, they built this team to play a certain style with a certain attitude.  If that is what has been built and those are the core beliefs, then you can only prove that when someone tries to hit you in the face. 
And for me, that was what was so satisfying about watching the Cowboys deal with what Arizona was throwing at them on Monday night.  The Cardinals jumped on the defense quick - just like the Broncos.  The Cardinals kept the Cowboys from moving the chains - or even running hardly any plays in the first quarter -- just like the Broncos.  The Cardinals tried to stack the box and chase the Cowboys back into a "2-minute drill playbook" offense - just like the Broncos.
But, what I really enjoyed about the exercise, is that given a week to think about how Denver had punched you in the face and you never answered - this week, the Cowboys roster was not afraid to stand tall and fight back.
In other words, they were challenged last night and they learned from the humbling of Denver that there is no solution but to answer the physical challenge with one of your own.  And as the game went along, you could see that Arizona did not have the substance to stand tall with the Cowboys for 60 minutes.  Dallas got back to its identity and that made their  second victory of the season possible.
They snapped the ball three times in the first quarter.
At the half, they had just 57 yards of offense and just over nine minutes of possession. They had a star running back who can't get to four yards per carry and a star quarterback who had 25 yards passing in a half. They were equally miserable in the first half in Arizona to the game they played in Denver.
But, to their credit, they stuck with the plan. The plan that caused them to invest every last resource in a physical running game that would allow them to run the ball with a play-action passing game behind it. Not every play will win the game, but the cumulative affects would be felt over three hours - provided the plan was followed.
Now, keep in mind, it isn't just about the running game. In fact, it requires Dak Prescott to make a number of decisions on each drive that will distribute the ball to the appropriate places. Sometimes, that would be for him to keep it. The zone read decisions he makes were mostly perfect. The play-action off run looks changed the game. Prescott is going to be reminded every week that he isn't Romo and can't do the things Romo could do. Fine. Nobody should expect that. Troy Aikman certainly wasn't a clone of Roger Staubach.
But, Prescott has shown plenty of times - including last night - that if you need a play to be made by your QB when things are breaking down, he has a real ability.  His best comp has never been Romo.  For me, as early as last September, he looked as if he was a bigger and sturdier version of Russell Wilson.  Wilson's best attributes are his ball skills at the snap, to protect the football from costly turnovers, and to make a few plays on his own that appear to rely on his improvisational skills and knowledge of when to take a shot down the field off a play-action look.  Will that make him a statistical darling who threatens for passing titles?  Maybe not.  But, it has put Wilson's team in the Super Bowl mix for most of his career and if that is how the Cowboys see their offensive approach - but with a much better offensive line and running game - then that makes a lot of sense to me. 
This game was about more than Prescott making a few awesome plays - but the back to back offensive snaps that were play-action rollouts to his right to find Brice Butler for a 37 yard touchdown and then a 53-yard near-touchdown were pretty special.  And his keeper on the zone read which made the Cardinals' Markus Golden look silly each time for keying so heavily on what he was certain was a give to Elliott. 
It was also about Dez Bryant's refusal to be denied on his touchdown catch and run to the goal-line to give the lead in the third quarter.  And it was about DeMarcus Lawrence destroying yet another right tackle who will remember him for a long, long time.   The man is playing his best football when the team needs him most.  And it was about the offensive line and Dallas running the ball 26 different times and not giving up no matter how many negative runs or how many defenders Arizona put in there to scare them off their tactics.
Most importantly, this game was about the defense and the special teams helping the offense do its job by presenting it with great field position on pretty much every scoring drive but the last one.  The Cardinals never got the ball on the right side of the 50.  The Cowboys did three times and scored three touchdowns off those short fields. 
These games are not supposed to be easy.  They test your resolve and your convictions and your desire to hang in there when things look bad.  It builds character and it puts deposits in the bank for later in the season. They sit at 2-1, but more than anything, they started to remember what made them so good last year. 
They got back to the basics of ground and pound Dallas Cowboys football. This wasn't pretty and it sure wasn't productive.  But, in the end, the players looked pretty exhausted and pretty pleased with taking a physical challenge from another capable foe and not wavering from their identity. 
In other words, they followed their own plan.  
This was not the team in Denver.  This was the 2016 team showing its teeth again.  They can be way better than this, but don't underestimate the value of a street fight road victory early in the season.

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