It wasn't ever going to be easy for the Cowboys against one of the more talented teams in the NFC. The Atlanta Falcons are certainly not positioned to return to the Super Bowl at the moment, but they have plenty of their pieces assembled to make them a formidable opponent in any circumstance. And the Cowboys certainly did not have all of their pieces in place, so to win a road battle like this would require some precision play and no self-inflicted wounds.
That goal failed on the second play from scrimmage when Jonathan Cooper committed a holding penalty. That was cancelled out by an Atlanta penalty on the same play, but a few snaps later a 5-man Falcons rush profited a sack when Adrian Clayborn shot by Chaz Green without Green hardly touching him.
This is a good spot to mention that the Cowboys were without left tackle Tyron Smith for this contest as he continues to battle a bad back. We first started tracking his health situation when he missed some action in 2016 and started missing practices. In the 2017 training camp, Smith - who I consider one of the best players in the entire NFL - was sitting out long stretches as they were being cautious with his back situation. This was also about the time where we were pondering what the Cowboys' plan for left tackle might be when and if Tyron was forced to miss time at a key point of the season due to this or another injury to the amazing player who you never even think about when he is feeding you a steady dose of excellence.
But, this Tyron has not been the Tyron Smith we have become accustomed to seeing over there at left tackle. This Tyron has occasionally been beaten on the edge for sacks and also committed a few penalties. These are normal things for normal players, but in the case of Smith, it was something that he would go weeks and months between being defeated on a snap - and has been known to actually flirt with perfect seasons.
So, when word passed this week that they might not be able to have their best player with them in Atlanta, it appears most people thought they were talking about the suspended running back they call Zeke. I had a feeling they were talking about the 26-year old, first-team All Pro who has successfully watched the blind side of Tony Romo and Dak Prescott for 7 years of total excellence. It is easy to assume that this job is easy when someone makes it look that way for years on end. One way to destroy that assumption is to put a replacement-level understudy in his spot and see what happens.
I would like to think that wasn't the objective Sunday for the Cowboys brass. Instead, I would suggest this is another case of them hoping for the best and not planning for the worst when they put their team together. Who is the swing tackle on this team? Well, hopefully, it won't matter!
It did matter. The Cowboys had figured that Chaz Green, their lost cause to fix the Jermey Parnell vacancy when they grabbed him in the third round out of Florida, might be a decent backup guard. But those are significantly easier to find than a decent backup tackle. To be fair, the league has almost none. There are not enough decent starting tackles to go around, to expect teams to have two fine tackles who do not get overrun each Sunday and another one in reserve - just in case - is generally seen as unreasonable. So, you find the two starters to protect the flanks against the unreal pass rushers in this league and hope they stay healthy.
Seattle lost its tackle in training camp and finally had to make a big trade to replace him. Green Bay lost both its highly paid tackles and its QB was lost shortly thereafter. You lose a tackle as a contender and you are up a creek without a paddle in many cases, and putting your QB under massive risk. And, any hollow belief the Cowboys were not in that group went up in smoke Sunday about 3:25 p.m.
The odd part is that we didn't expect Adrian Clayborn to be the one to teach the Cowboys this difficult lesson. Clayborn is also in his seventh season - taken in that same first round and 11 selections after Tyron Smith - and after his impressive rookie season in 2011 when he had 7.5 sacks, never had 6 sacks in an entire season.
But, on this day, because the Cowboys were not prepared to play a game without Tyron Smith, Adrian Clayborn had what we will call a "career afternoon".
If you want to summarize the entire battle between a very good Cowboys team and a very good Falcons team and the day they met in Georgia in November of 2017, it will basically come down to this - the Cowboys were unable to overcome the repeated "Drive Killers" that were mostly caused by the fact that a typical NFL defensive end had a superhuman day at the expense of your sub-standard left tackle.
Drive Killers are a term we attempt to avoid - as every NFL offense should. 84 percent of all sacks allowed last season in the NFL ended the drive for the offense. That means that only 16 percent of all drives where a QB is brought down can still continue its success - even if that sack is on first down and for one yard. Holding penalties serve the same purpose, and while it is not as pronounced - probably because you get to repeat the down, at least - that would be the second-most likely drive killer (we don't count turnovers since that is obvious).
So, let's walk through the 10 drives the offense rolled out on Sunday.
Drive 1: Holding by Cooper, sack allowed by Green.
Drive 2: A clean drive, most likely because the drive started at the Atlanta 21. Touchdown.
Drive 3: A sack killed the drive, surrendered by Green.
Drive 4: Cooper with another holding, Zack Martin gives up a sack.
Drive 5: Green with a holding penalty, then Green with a sack allowed.
Drive 6: Green gives up another sack.
Drive 7: Green gives up yet another sack.
Drive 8: Byron Bell replaced Green and then gave up a sack and took a hold on the same play!
Drive 9: Bell gives up another sack.
Drive 10: Game mercifully ends.
True story: Clayborn has incentive clauses in his contract that he makes $250,000 if he gets 6 sacks in the entirety of 2017 and $500,000 more if he gets to 8 sacks. He had 2 sacks total coming into Sunday and $750,000 more in his pocket that night when he had his 8 bagged.
So, we could check and see if Clayborn is Von Miller or JJ Watt (he is not) and if not, we can simply conclude that lost in all the discussion about Ezekiel Elliott and which court is the next to hear the appeals of his lawyers, the Cowboys perhaps detonated the time bomb of what would happen if Chaz Green actually ever had to play tackle and try to keep the offense functional.
They can't. He can't. And even if he could before Sunday, the mental damage when an average defensive lineman destroys you like that will likely be felt for years. I am not sure Chaz Green can take another snap out there at left tackle.
Could it have been avoided by the time you get to game day? Yes. The coaches did him no favors. You can't hide a left tackle, but you can help him. In the third quarter, the Cowboys are still in the game. They take their first drive of that quarter right down the field with great power on the ground. Down just 17-7 with much of the second half to play, they marched all the way to the Falcons' 12-yard line after Alfred Morris had runs of 14 yards, 20 yards, and 11 yards. They have actually salvaged the situation and now have a first down in the red zone. Why then, Mr. Linehan, would you decide to hop back into shotgun on first down and ask Chaz Green to pass protect - on an island - against a guy who already has 4 sacks against him? It is first down and your offensive line and power personnel groupings had just mowed all the way down the field in a few short plays. And now, you want to take those tight ends off the field and get back into shotgun on first down?
Predictably, the play ended in a sack and that drive was killed, too. In fact, when Mike Nugent even missed the chip-shot 38-yard field goal, the game effectively ended.
Unfortunately, the coaches had not done enough damage yet. Even though the game was over in the fourth quarter (after a few more sacks), the staff that evidently had their brains suspended for the game are calling timeouts down 27-7 to try to get the ball back so they can call more plays in shotgun and get their star QB blindsided a few more times by Clayborn and friends who have savaged the left tackle spot long after Chaz Green was gone and Byron Bell (their other idea) was being served up on a platter.
They should have been running the ball or even taking a knee - not calling timeouts to prolong the destruction - but Jason Garrett is going to never stop being Jason Garrett. They never really helped out Chaz Green, nor did they modify their strategies to protect him from getting Dak killed, but instead wanted to get the ball back to rerun their same poor strategies. Madness.
There were many other talking points to discuss, not the least of which is another disappointing turn in the injury-prone path of the fantastic Sean Lee and what that does to render the defense immediately helpless, but we have a few more mornings to break this down.
For now, the injury-free season of the Cowboys seems to have taken quite a turn. If they can keep their pieces assembled, both with health concerns and the all-too-frequent suspensions this team has become famous for, they look like a real NFC contender.
But, days like Sunday in Atlanta are stark reminders about how thin that tight rope truly is. They couldn't get out of their own way. They couldn't block or tackle and they couldn't make wise decisions. They have 6 days to Sunday when the Eagles come to town and the trainer's room will be full of guys trying to get ready.
If they aren't ready, they will watch the Eagles take their division title in the Cowboys stadium. And nobody around here wants that.