Tuesday, August 31, 2010

That Schedule

As Seen Here: http://cowboysblog.dallasnews.com/archives/2010/09/cowboys-should-be-nervous-abou.html
When considering where a team will end up at the end of a given season, we can look at personnel, injuries, luck, and many other topics that are worthy for debate. However, in this day and age of the NFL, we are fools if we do not also consider the simple fact that some teams have easier roads than others.

There is no question the Dallas Cowboys have one of the most difficult schedules in all of football. Perhaps this pays them back for playing one of the more manageable schedules in football in 2009. Last year, the Buccaneers, Chiefs, Raiders, Seahawks, and Panthers allowed the Cowboys to stack up wins against teams that were not very good. The cupcakes are not nearly as plentiful this season.

The NFL Schedule is based on a divisional rotation where every year, each NFC division will play one NFC division (on a 3 year rotation) and one AFC Division (on a 4 year rotation).

They will also play home and home against each team in their division. This rotation, which has only existed in this fashion for a short amount of time now insures that 14 of your 16 games are identical to each team in your division. Sort of.

In the NFC East this year, each team will play the NFC North (widely considered the toughest NFC division of the 3 possibilities) and the AFC South (at worst, the 2nd toughest division in the AFC, and possibly the toughest).

So, the entire division must play the Vikings, Packers, Bears, and Lions; and the Colts, Texans, Titans, and Jaguars. However, the one element that is not uniform is WHERE you play them. Of those NFC North teams, which would you rather play at home or away? Surely, you would want to avoid the Metrodome and Lambeau Field, right? Well, the Redskins and Eagles do avoid those places and get to instead travel to Chicago and Detroit. Meanwhile, they play the Vikings and Packers at their place. But, the Giants and Cowboys get the Lions and Bears at home, and must travel to those very difficult environments in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Meanwhile, for the AFC games, the Redskins and Eagles both get the Colts and Texans at home, instead traveling to Jacksonville and Nashville. The Cowboys and Giants will go to two extremely difficult places in Indy and Houston.

To make matters worse, do you recall that i said 14 of the 16 opponents are the same? Well, what about the other 2 opponents for each of the NFC East teams?

Washington: @ St Louis, vs Tampa Bay
Philadelphia: vs Atlanta, @ San Francisco
New York: Vs Carolina, @ Seattle
Dallas: vs New Orleans, @ Arizona

Amazing. No matter how you slice it, the Cowboys have a bear of a schedule.

Look at their 8 road games this year and find the easy wins: At Washington, Houston, Minnesota, Green Bay, NY Giants, Indianapolis, Arizona, and Philadelphia. They could be road underdogs 5 times and easily go 2-6 on the road.

I can only recall the last trip to Houston (loss), Minnesota (blow out loss), Green Bay (loss), Giants (loss), Indianapolis (loss a long time ago), and Arizona (loss).

In my opinion, I would rank the 8 NFL Divisions from toughest to easiest like this:

1. NFC East (all 4 teams could be above .500)
2. AFC East (I think 3 worthy playoff teams)
3. AFC South (solid depth)
4. NFC North (Detroit should be much better - other 3 could win division)
5. AFC North (Strong but Cle pulls them down)
6. NFC South (Atlanta and New Orleans look class)
7. AFC West (Nothing besides San Diego)
8. NFC West (San Fran by default?)

If I am right, there is no question how difficult the Cowboys road is. Look at the other divisions in the NFC:

North: Plays NFC East, AFC East
South: Plays AFC North, NFC West
West: Plays NFC South, AFC West

This tells us that the NFC West and NFC South teams may have inflated win totals with a relatively simple schedule. But, the NFC North has a tough road as well - except they still are a division with a predicted bottom feeder in Detroit (albeit much improved).

What does all this mean?

The Cowboys should be nervous about how difficult it will be to approach 11 or 12 wins again. If they get there, nobody will be able to question their schedule.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Bacsik on Baseball Terminology

Mike Bacsik has been writing periodic baseball blogs here for the last little bit. He is a wealth of knowledge and is quite a resource. This particular entry was inspired by a reader email over the weekend. Check it out:

For all the baseball guys that don’t quite understand certain terms when it comes to baseball, I’m here to try to help. First pitching terms: When a commentator refers to a pitcher as a control pitcher it usually means 2 things. The pitcher throws strikes with multiple pitches and he doesn’t throw hard. The word command is similar but has nothing to do with the speed the pitcher throws. John Smoltz had great command of his fastball. He threw in the upper 90’s. Trevor Hoffman has great command of his changeup. Cliff Lee commands the strike zone with multiple pitches. These words (control/command) can be interchangeable but have a little different meaning.

Another one I get is what’s the difference between a curve ball and slider? Players like to use the clock to describe a pitchers breaking ball because a lot of times there is very little difference between a pitchers curve or slider. Also, most pitchers throw one or the other, not both. Back to the clock, a true curve ball has a 12 to 6 break (think of numbers on a clock). A slider from a lefty is going to be a 2 to 8 breaking ball. Opposite for a righty it will be a 10 to 4 breaking ball. This helps out hitters in the back of the order. It is the leadoff hitter’s job if he makes an out to describe to other hitters on the bench and the hitting coach how the ball is breaking. If the hitter says his breaking ball is flat, that means it has no depth to it and is a 9 to 3 or 3 to 9 breaking ball. In general curve balls are usually thrown slower than sliders. If a pitcher is more than 10 mph off his fastball than it is usually a curve. Less than 10 it is usually a slider but you can’t put everybody in the same box with that speed chart.

Sometimes you’ll hear a player say, he has good life on his fastball. Life means both speed and movement. This is WAY more important than just speed. Have you ever asked yourself, how did a guy like Tommy Hunter get so many swing and misses on his fastball tonight and in the same game Feliz throwing 8 mph harder to the same hitters get hit so hard? It’s because the starter had life on his fastball tonight and Feliz didn’t. (This might not be the best example but hopefully you get it)

The question of why didn’t that guy throw an off-speed pitch in that situation or how come he can’t throw a changeup are very common questions I get when someone really wants to break down a game. The simple answer I usually give is because he can’t. Pitching is different from any other position in all of sports. You only have so many throws in a day. Usually you can play catch for 10 to 15 minutes in a day during the season. For starting pitchers they get bullpen work on the 2nd day after they pitch. That bullpen will be anywhere from 40 to 60 pitches. Anything over 60 and your arm might not recover for your next start. Relievers rarely get any bullpen work because they have to be ready everyday. Think about other sports. If you want to become a 3 point shooter you can shoot up to 1000 shots in one day. Quarterbacks can throw for an hour straight and come back in the afternoon and have another throwing session. Hitters in baseball can take hundreds of swings in a day. A pitcher is limited in his work to develop his game. You will always spend most your time working on your fastball. That is always your best pitch. Also, you don’t want to get beat with your 3rd or 4th best pitch. A great question pitching coaches and catchers should ask there pitchers in spring training are what your go to fastball is, and what is your go to off-speed pitch? This way when a big situation comes up the catcher knows what your strengths are. If you go away from that the pitching coach can ask why did you throw that pitch because you told me your bread and butter was this not that. So the simple answer to how come he doesn’t throw that is because he can’t.

That’s enough on this topic. If you have any other baseball questions email Bob and he’ll email them to me. Next blog I’ll write about what a pitching coach says to pitchers when they visit the mound. Go Rangers!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

EPL Fun Bag - Week 4

Funny thing about following English Premier League Soccer is that they have many of the same debates we have here in the States. Including my favorite: They debate non-stop about the use of instant replay! Boy, Norm doesn't know what he is missing, does he?

The picture you are looking at was the Frank Lampard goal that wasn't allowed in the World Cup match between Germany and England. This is one of the craziest missed goals in history, and surely one of those historic moments that inspires change and reformation in how FIFA does business, right?

Wrong. FIFA has dug in. THey will not adapt replay technology. Part of the ruling seems to make sense based on the fact that FIFA does not govern the EPL rules; they govern WORLD football rules. So, any rule change they make has to be honored by the entire world of soccer. And their rationale is partly based on all of the corners of the earth where replay technology is simply not affordable and practical.

So, they do nothing. And then situations happen like they did on Saturday, when Stoke was pushing for an equalizer, and appeared to have had it when they thought they scored their 2nd against Tottenham in a game I was locked in for:

Stoke City and their boisterous home support thought they had equalized when in the 90th minute Matthew Etherington found Danny Collins from a corner. Collins headed towards goal only for Spurs keeper Gomes to punch away. In the ensuing insanity, Jonathan Walters looked to have sent the ball over the line with a diving header towards a falling Peter Crouch who was on the line for Spurs.

After multiple views using slow motion on a DVR, the ball looks to have crossed the line directly into Crouch’s chest only to bounce back out while the ref allowed play to continue. Michael Dawson eventually cleared for Spurs who were then out of danger with three points to take back to London.

Here is yet another glaring example of why FIFA needs to implement goal-line technology into football in some form or another. Stoke City look to be robbed a point while fans, bloggers, players, refs and the suits at FIFA headquarters raise their curious arms in the air, shrug their shoulders and look dumbly at each other wondering when, if ever something will be done about an obvious problem that remains in football.

Sound familiar? If we have the technology, and the guy on the couch at home knows it was a goal (or in the case of this one - thinks that it was a goal) shouldn't we take the time and the technology and get the call right????

Asked another way, haven't we established that goals are REALLY hard to come by and we should make sure we honor those that actually do happen? My head may explode. This "no replay" bit in soccer has gone on for years and years. Imagine the NFL without it now. Norm and Dale wish it were true. Silly Old people.
Other Notables from Weekend #2 in the Premiership:

- Dropped points from Manchester United at Craven Cottage. I have tried to explain in the past few weeks that to fully process the EPL title race, you need to resist the urge to simply look for losses. The EPL title race is not won or lost based on losses. What separates the top few teams in the EPL title race every year is the number of draws. Seriously. A win is worth 3 points and a draw is only 1. Too many ties and you will drop 2 points each time. Chelsea won the crown last year by 1 point. So, when United drop 2 points at Fulham like they did, you can understand that some followers of theirs are already freaking out this early in the season.

In 2009, Liverpool finished 4 points behind Manchester United for the EPL crown. But, in the 38 matches that constitute a full season, Liverpool lost only 2 matches and United lost 4. So, what was the difference that won ManU the crown? United drew 6 times, Liverpool settled for just 1 point on 11 different occasions. It wasn't the losses, it was the ties.

Anyway, in the match itself, we learned a bit about a man named, Brede Hangeland, the Fulham Norwegian central defender. Late in the match, he scored the terrible own-goal on a deflection that surely crushed his spirit and looked like it gave United the result they so desired. Moments later, already up a goal, United was awarded a penalty kick from a hand ball in the box. But, they missed the PK, and Fulham was still alive. In stoppage time, it was only poetic justice that a corner kick found the head of Hangeland who redeemed himself and earned Fulham a tie with his goal that squeezed into the corner of the United net. A glorious end to a fine 2-2 match.

Here is video of the finish that I recommend you enjoy:

- Chelsea and Arsenal destroy their undermanned opponents. Blackpool found out what the Premiership can really be like as they were lit up at Arsenal. Chelsea continued to make a mockery of their opponents with another 6 goal demolition.

- Manchester City made easy work of Liverpool that both demonstrated the quality on the blue side of Manchester and the chaos that currently strangles the red side of Merseyside. Tom Hicks, please sell this team!

This Weekend's TV Schedule - ALL TIMES EASTERN

Saturday, August 28:
7:45am: Blackburn Rovers v Arsenal, ESPN2
10am: Spurs v Wigan, Fox Soccer Channel
10am: Chelsea v Stoke, Fox Soccer Plus and FoxSoccer.tv
10am: Blackpool v Fulham, FoxSoccer.tv (also shown on delay on Fox Soccer Channel at 9am on Sunday, August 29)
10am: Wolves v Newcastle, FoxSoccer.tv (also shown delayed on Fox Soccer Plus at 6pm)
12:30pm: Manchester United v West Ham United, Fox Soccer Channel

Sunday, August 29:
8:30am: Bolton Wanderers v Birmingham City, Fox Soccer Plus and FoxSoccer.tv
10am: Sunderland v Manchester City, FoxSoccer.tv (also shown delayed on Fox Soccer Plus at 5pm)
10am: Liverpool v West Brom, FoxSoccer.tv (also shown delayed on Fox Soccer Plus at 7pm)
11am: Aston Villa v Everton, Fox Soccer Channel

Honestly, not the greatest lineup of matches. I think Arsenal up in the north of England at Blackburn is generally a place where the Gunners could drop points, so that is worth watching. Blackpool at home could be wonderful against Fulham. And Everton at Villa Park is worth your time, too. But, let's be honest, pretty weak lineup and then next week we have nothing because of another international break.


And now, to the email:

Hey Bob,

Maybe a stupid question here, but I was wondering why Spain's La Liga is the most successful league in the UEFA Champions League, when the EPL is considered the best talent in the world? Is it mostly because Real Madrid is so good? Love to hear your thoughts for this soccer newbie.



Ah, the Spain versus England debate. This is a popular discussion in the sport where people try to identify the best league. In Spain, they have arguably the 2 deepest, richest, most talented clubs in the world in Barcelona and Real Madrid. Trouble is, nobody else in Spain is nearly as loaded, and the rest of the country never makes an impact on the world stage or even in the domestic battle for the crown of La Liga. England is thought of having 4 huge clubs, and at least 4 more with some level of deep quality. Perhaps it is a matter of personal preference, but I think England is much more compelling. But, the landscape changes every year, Italy should also be considered, and maybe the tie-breaker is simply the amount of English media that makes following the English league so much easier.

Hey Bob,

Love the show and your blog. I just watched Man U vs Fulham and really enjoyed it. My daughters (12 & 14) are playing select soccer (Solar '98 & Sting '96), but I'm still learning the sport - which is a good thing because I don't act like I know everything, thus I don't "coach" my kid from the sideline or yell at the refs like other soccer parents...but, I digress.

I need to pick my EPL team now! I'd be interested in any input you have on Fulham? One of my children's soccer coach is from London, and he's an Arsenal fan...so, I think I am down to these two. Thoughts?


Fulham and Arsenal are both in London. And the similarities stop there. Fulham is a middle of the road club that has virtually no present chance at competing at the highest level. Arsenal is from time to time in the running for the best club in the world. In fact, I was just looking through my ticket stubs the other day and was reminded of the day in February of 2004 when I had a chance to see Arsenal in person (with Spike Lee and the picture I took below)

Arsenal in 2004 was known as the Invincibles as wikipedia wrote: The 2003–04 season was Arsenal Football Club's 12th season in the Premier League, and their 74th consecutive season in the top division of English football. In remarkable fashion, the team from North London managed to go through an entire league campaign undefeated and regain their status as Premiership champions; thus becoming only the second team to do so since Preston North End in 1889. Interestingly, manager Arsène Wenger had predicted in 2002 that his squad was good enough to go unbeaten for an entire season, an accomplishment which he cited as a personal goal of his.

So, long answer, but Fulham is interesting, has a great stadium, and has Clint Dempsey. Whereas Arsenal is one of the biggest clubs in the World. So, consider those points in making this most important decision.


I don't know if you have ever covered this in a blog, but I am really unfamiliar with the contract and loaning of players. For example, with Man City, King is a great young keeper. Well the papers are talking about now backup Given could go to another team for loan? I don't get it. And like Bellamy to another team, they say he is on his way to Cardiff, s Is this a trade or loan or just outright sell? Then you take the story of Milner from Aston Viilla coming to City but someone is saying there is tampering with all of it....???!!!!

I am trying my best to get into this, but this contract stuff is tough to figure out.... Can you please help with this.. With maybe a blog about it or response.. Cause as of now I ain't gotta clue.

Dano's iPhone

This will require either a long answer or a shorter one. Let me opt for the shorter one here. International soccer has almost no trades. It has no draft. It has almost no free agency. Everything (or 98%) involving the acquiring of players and distribution of talent is a simple and massive game of monopoly. If you have money, you can buy the best players in the world. You do not need to have a good draft spot - there is no draft. There is no benefit to having a lousy season - there is no draft.

So, money buys assets (players) and you get money from selling assets (players). It is really that simple. And if a team wants a player, they can continue to increase your bid until you are compelled to accept it. Sometimes, the money gets stupid. Like when Real Madrid wanted Cristiano Ronaldo. They money-whipped Manchester United until United had to accept it ($132million dollars). This is not his contract. This is his fee that they had to pay to Manchester. Then, they had to come to terms with him on a salary (which is believed to be over $16m per season). As you can tell, this gets expensive.

Loans are another way to keep your investments up like a stock. If you have a goalie that you own, but don't want to play him, nor do you want to sell him - in case you need him down the road - then you loan him out. He plays for a lesser team and maintains his value for future sale with the money coming to you. The team you loan him to must pay his salary and if you want, you can even put conditions on his loan where he cannot play against you.

It is all difficult to process for the American sports fan, but it is actually a system that makes sense once you get used to it.


And now, this week's EPL question of the week from Craig "Junior" Miller:

Craig: I like that Arsenal game. It reminded me of watching OU beat Iowa State 63-3 in the Switzer days. Good times. I don’t understand the offside rule. I think it has something to do with that big box outside the goal box, or where the linesman is standing, but it’s unclear to me.

Bob: Offsides: I could write a really long answer, but watch this and see if it makes sense first

Craig: Doesn’t that rule seem a little silly? It’s like “wait—we can’t have TOO much excitement and scoring, so let’s say if a guy gets past the defense, he’s offside!” How much would that suck in basketball? We would never have a breakaway dunk.

Bob: In some ways, but I guess hockey, football, and soccer all have somewhat similar rules to make sure cherry picking doesn't exist. They don't want guys just hanging out around the goal/endzone. Once the play starts (or ball is kicked) then you can go wherever you want. You must just start the play honestly.

Craig: Ok—the cherry picking thing makes sense, I guess.


Finally, in case you missed it, I leave you with this that I posted a few days back. It is the greatest goal I ever witnessed in person. David Beckham on a glorious pass from Paul Scholes that he chips (without controlling) into the smallest and furthest corner of the net. Amazing skill from both players. Enjoy.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cowboys '09: Game 18 at Minnesota


I am always interested in the rationale of fans the day their team exits the playoffs (By the way, I am one of these fans who try to put my feelings into words, so don't think I am looking down at anyone).

Fans who are victims of the excruciating OT loss wish that they would have been blown out because that wouldn't hurt so much. But, then fans who are victims of the blow out wish they would have been beat in the last minute because then they would feel like they are competitive and closer to their goal.

Both sides are just looking for something to make themselves feel better.

But, the facts are these:

1) Losing is gut wrenching in the NFL Playoffs.
2) 11 of the 12 teams will experience this feeling in some way, shape, or form.
3) The other 20 teams in the NFL aspire to switch spots with you.

See, that is the thing about the NFL season; Just when you get things figured out, they all change. The Cowboys own the line of scrimmage, right? 7 days later, they certainly did not.

The Vikings, Saints, and Colts did not finish the season on a roll, right? It appears they rolled pretty well this weekend, and I believe we all got a slight reminder of why all 16 games matter. To get playoff home games and bye weeks, it will require a 16 game body of work that is nearly flawless. And when you achieve that, it will guarantee nothing - but you will be in your building, with your noise, and your fans. And that will greatly beat the alternative.

I was sure this game was so close that there would be one play that would certainly reach legendary status in both cities because it decided the game - and perhaps the destiny of both organizations. I guess I had that one wrong.

This game did not come down to one play. It came down to the Vikings defense blowing up the Cowboys offense in just about every way, shape, and form. The Cowboys did not give the ball away, the Vikings took it. The Cowboys did not make huge mistakes, the Vikings just made plays. They looked like they had a pretty good idea of how to destroy drives with a "Minus Play" as Tony Romo would reference them in the press conference. One minus would sabotage a drive, and that is something we have become quite familiar with over the season. Drive all the way down the field and then a minus turns 7 into 3, or 3 into 0 as quick as it gets. The yards have not been converted into points often enough.

The key match-up of the Vikings DL against the Cowboys OL was a mismatch. Romo was sacked a career-high 6 times and escaped several more with his feet. Obviously, they finally were bit by the injury bug when Flozell left the game with a calf injury (as an aside, for some reason I feel better when my key injured players "look" injured on the sideline - Flo seemed pretty normal over there.) and the OL that was already under siege seemed almost "done for" right there. Ray Edwards was great, Kevin Williams did plenty, and Jared Allen attracted all sorts of attention. Romo was running for his life. He was beat up pretty badly, and when you hit him - or any other QB hard enough (especially from the blind side) he will cough up that ball.

So, because of the pressure, Romo started getting rid of the ball quicker so as to stop getting hit. This led to a 2nd half that completely lacked throws to the Wide Receivers, and a very impotent Cowboys offense.

Meanwhile, the Brett Favre show was certainly on full display. After a 3-and-out to start the game, Favre led the Vikings on 3 straight scoring drives to put the Cowboys in a deep hole, 17-3 in the 2nd Quarter. The theory that was repeated all week (maybe all season) that "Favre will make a mistake at some point" seemed to never happen. I don't recall anything close to an interception and his incredibly efficient play kept the Cowboys defense on the run. It wasn't a number of great plays, and Adrian Peterson certainly did not get off, but the damage was done - slowly, but surely - and by the end the Cowboys had been sliced and diced.

I don't think for a second that the Cowboys are 31 points worse than the Vikings. But, things just snowballed. The Cowboys did not grab the chances early and the Vikings just fed off the momentum in a game that was never in doubt.

And now, here we are. Standing, looking at a pile of rubble again, as another season of Cowboys football smolders. Just 1 day ago, we all thought we were really enjoying this movie, and couldn't wait to watch more.

And then, Thud.

I think the Cowboys' season was successful in some regards. But, surely, when you lose by 31 in a playoff game, we must look in the mirror and ask some difficult questions again. Making the Final 8 is nice, but not near enough. I believe I will let the smoke clear before elaborating on my Wade Phillips views, but obviously, on Saturday it seemed foolish to suggest his job was on the line. But, with that loss now on the ledger, I assume it will at least be considered again with no contract in place for 2010.

More thoughts and observation from the spanking at the Metrodome:

* I assume most everybody felt like I did when Wade waved out the FG team to try a 48 yarder on 4th and 1 on the 2nd drive. There are, of course, a number of reasons why that was a bad idea. First, in the playoffs or any difficult road game where you are an underdog, you must make the absolute most of your chances. I know that I said "Punts are good" on Friday, but it is an altogether different animal when you are at their 30 yard line and facing a 4th and 1. You need to try to take the game by the scruff of the neck. Second, your kicker is Shaun Suisham. This may have snuck by some people, but Wade knows this. He has to know that Suisham shouldn't be trusted for anything longer than a chippy. I am not suggesting that I have a ton of great ideas against the Vikes in short yardage (No, not the pitch right to Barber!) but I certainly am not risking a kick that, if missed, demoralizes the team and gives the Vikes great field position.

* -3. Two other games were worse than -2 in this season of "Romo Friendly" protect-the-ball football. -4 loss to the Giants in week 2 and -3 at Green Bay. Not breaking new ground here, but -3 is almost impossible to overcome. In fact, in the NFL regular season 2009, the record for those -3 or worse is 1-49. Somehow, the Patriots were -3 against the Panthers and still scratched out a win.

* Marc Colombo had no answer for Ray Edwards, and when Flozell left the game, the Cowboys had to give all of the help to Doug Free all of the time. It was the worst case scenario. We have no idea how differently things might have been, but Flozell actually was able to stay in front of Jared Allen awfully well in the first 3 possessions. I wonder how healthy Colombo was, because Edwards is good, but I am pretty sure he isn't that good. If Free would have kept his RT job, I suppose they would have just slid him over to LT if Colombo had to come into the game. But, that is your game. The Cowboys couldn't protect the edges and Romo was running for his life from the very start of the game. The passing game was brought to its knees without hardly any impact from Cowboys WRs or Vikings DBs. Amazing. The pass rush controlled the game.

* The most amazing thing about the Brett Favre aerial attack (starring Sydney Rice): Neither Rice on Sensabaugh's TD nor Rice on Jenkins' TD were an example of poor coverage at all. He dropped the ball right on their hands and the defenders were hip to hip with the receiver. He is a 40 year old QB dropping the ball right on their hands from 40 yards away. We have never seen anything like the 2009 season of Favre.

* But, on that Sensabaugh-allowed TD, what was Terence Newman's role? It sure looked to me like that crucial moment in the SD game where Newman is supposed to get the jam on Vincent Jackson and doesn't which allowed a very big completion. There is nobody else in Newman's zone and yet he pretty much just watched Rice run by him. I am no DB coach, but that seemed very bizarre to me. Equally bizarre might have been how Sensabaugh seemed to have no idea where the ball was when Rice had it right next to him and they both jogged into the endzone for the final 10 yards. Find the ball, son. I would love to know several things about that play.

* Here is my take on the question about "running up the score". Honestly, I had very little issue with it once the Cowboys decided to use all 3 timeouts down 27-3. Prolonging a game that was already determined is essentially "asking for it". I understand Wade Phillips and Keith Brooking and anyone else being angry. It should make you angry that they are scoring again when they don't have to. But, again, I think you risk angering the other sideline when you call all of your timeouts down 24 points, so don't be shocked when they return the favor with their resources, too. Just yesterday, I was reading a story about the Washington Capitals "running up the score" by leaving their best players on the ice for a Power Play up 6-1, and one of the comments left was this: When I was listening to a baseball game this past summer, the idea of “running up the score” arose and I heard probably the best comment about it I ever heard. The announcers said that they were sure the team winning big would agree to stop scoring so many runs, if the losing team agreed to stop trying to come back. If both teams agreed to stop trying and just go through the motions, fine, but otherwise just play baseball. I guess that is exactly how I feel. If you are still doing everything in your power to come back, then they should be allowed to do everything in their power to end the game and force your surrender. And let's not forget the Cowboys were up 34-14 last week, and throwing on 1st down 3 different times. This is the NFL, people. Not your kid's little league game.

* Why is it odd to see Prince at a Football game? Surely, it seems plausible that a man can grow up in the United States and follow football his whole life. Millions of us do. But, it is Prince. Next thing you know we will find out that he won his Fantasy Football League or something crazy like that. There cannot be a very long list of American males that would be more unlikely to see at a NFL game. Seriously. Try to name 3.

* I wonder what the future for Marion Barber is. I really appreciate what he brings to the table, and I think he is quality. But, like Julius Jones before him, it seems like the options (Felix and Choice) are perhaps now better options. The life-span of an NFL RB is shockingly short. That is why it is vital that the Vikings win quickly, because Adrian Peterson's prime may only last 2-3 more years if history is our guide. For every Emmitt Smith, there are 10 Larry Johnsons.

* It seemed clear that Keith Brooking was being picked on by the Vikings in their offensive attack. In the 3rd Vikings drive, they isolated him against Kleinsasser (+14), Peterson (+18), and Taylor (+9). He is clearly an emotional leader, but he also is part of a defense that has many superior parts - so they attack places where they think they can do some damage. And it is no secret that getting Brooking in coverage is a place many teams have tried to attack. The Vikings did it with success.

* Anthony Spencer, Mike Jenkins, DeMarcus Ware, and Jay Ratliff are all young and potentially dominant players on the defense. There is no reason to believe that this defense won't continue to be very, very solid. I think for the first time entering an off-season in years the Cowboys can focus their resources on the offensive line and Wide Receiver in the spring. Not saying the D doesn't have any holes, but I think they are closer than ever.

* Tony Romo's press conference to end the season went much better this year than last. I think he has come a long, long way in the last 12 months in the maturity department. I believe in the kid. He is not perfect, but he is darn good.

I thought the Vikings might win this one, but I certainly didn't see it ending like this. The Cowboys are closer than they have been in years but still awfully far away. I think we are all interested in knowing what is around the next corner.

The offseason begins today. Get to work, front office.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Cowboys '09: Game 17 vs Philadelphia - Playoffs

0 days.

It has been 0 days since the Dallas Cowboys have won a playoff game. Nobody has a shorter drought. It may have took 4,761 days to get there, but I would say if you are going to win a Wildcard Weekend playoff game, you would want your foe to be the Philadelphia Eagles (especially after 44-6) and you would want to beat them like a drum.

Check. and, Check.

Every Friday, we try to break down the game in terms that will give you some ways to view the game that the national tv guys may not be on top of. This week, it seemed too easy . I suppose that is what happens when you play a team 3 times in one year - things become clear. Things become clear about what they have no answer for. Mismatches that are not going to fix themselves in 6 days time. Styles make fights. And for reasons that now seem all too obvious, the Cowboys new style is impossible for the current Eagles to deal with.

I am sure with an offseason to deal with the pain, the Eagles will address those shortcomings. They will get some valuable injured pieces healthy, and then they will go get some help at safety, linebacker, and offensive line. But, they didn't have time for all of that on Saturday night. They had to bring the same crew back in here that they rode with last Sunday. A team that could not deal with the Cowboys "power run" sets. A team that could not get the Cowboys blocked to allow Donovan McNabb a chance to find his guys. A team that could not scheme a way for DeSean Jackson to get loose. A team that could not stop Tony Romo from taking easy routes all night long and playing catch with wide-open slant routes. And, a team that could not stop a freight train that has been obsessing about this day since 44-6.

From a Cowboys perspective, this was about a team that would not be denied. And to me, that comes back to two guys erasing their legacy. Wade Phillips got a monkey off his back that spans his entire head-coaching career. Whatever you think of his job performance and his personality (I think I have made myself clear over the years), you have to be happy for a guy who stayed the course and kept chipping away to eventually he can field a team that will step up at the moment of truth. His defense has the entire league spooked right now, because they look like a defense that is not going to give you an inch. They are not only stopping you, but they are punishing you physically in the process, too.

And then there is Tony Romo. The bar that he must jump over as a star QB in the NFL will continue to rise. But, he was painted with a certain brush by an awfully lot of people who now have to reconsider what they think of him. And he made that happen by determining that enough was enough. I have written at great length what I think of Romo and what I think he had to do this past off-season. After a long year of being ripped, I believe he has been vindicated. He has put this offense on his shoulders with performance after performance that has been nearly perfect - and they all happened after Dec 1. The challenge was laid out for him - play your best football when your team needs you most - and he has. I think any Cowboys fan has to be proud of the man. He had the weight of the world on his shoulders, and he proved he is fit to play the part.

Yesterday demonstrated a valuable lesson: History does not win playoff games. Quality football teams do. No amount of Andy Reid 1st round victories could stop the Cowboys offense, nor could any playoff failures from other Cowboys teams help the Eagles pass protect.

Next weekend, the Cowboys will face a team with many fewer holes than the Eagles and in a stadium where they have not lost since Brett Favre became their Quarterback. The challenge will be pretty immense, but the beauty of this thing is that there is no telling what the Cowboys do now. They could throw that burden off their back and begin destroying the NFL one team at a time (given that they are 2 wins from the Super Bowl and 3 wins from Lombardi Trophy #6...). Or, they could celebrate beating the Eagles like it was their Super Bowl and go out quietly next week. I don't think any of us have any idea what is next. But, the key here is that there is a "next".

Well done.

And now, with more playoffs on the horizon (seriously!), here are various other notes and observations that should be remembered from an unprecedented 3rd defeat of a team that went 11-5 this season:

* Ken Hamlin put quite a fingerprint on this game. I have to tell you that having exceptional safety play is not something this team has seen for much of this decade, but I wonder if they may have figured it out in 2009. Gerald Sensabaugh and Hamlin are seldom exposed, and more importantly, they seem to make positive plays. Last night, Hamlin was flagged for putting some pretty questionable hits on Brent Celek and Jeremy Maclin. My opinion? Fine with me. I think if you are going to have a dominating defense, occasionally, you just have to let the rest of the league know that there is a chance that you will get your head taken clean off if you go across the middle on us. You have to pick your spots, but I almost felt like Hamlin was putting the rest of the NFC on notice for future dates with some of those kill shots he put out there. And you cannot convince me that he wasn't in Maclin's head as a carry-over from last week.

* Desean Jackson is a remarkable player who will be dangerous for years to come. But, he is a knucklehead. That is why he fell in the draft and that is why so many teams didn't even have them on their draft board. Well, this week, with all of twitter nonsense he might not have helped his cause (although I don't suppose that we know for sure what Twitter has done for providing platforms for people who might not be sure with what to do with said platform), but he surely pushed my buttons last night. The situation: Late 3rd, Cowboys up 34-7, and McNabb throws an interception to Mike Jenkins. Jenkins makes an odd decision (as DBs often do) on his return and while trying to pitch the ball back to Terence Newman, Jackson strips him of the ball and gets it back for the Eagles for one of their bigger gains of the day. But, after the play, here is Jackson trash talking up in the face of Jenkins. I don't mean to be the old man here, but nothing makes me crazier than the trash talker who is on the wrong side of a 4-touchdown margin. That should be grounds for a league suspension, and my memory of the Dave Campo Cowboys who went 15-33 in his 3 years is Darren Hambrick celebrating a big tackle after a 9 yard gain at Baltimore when the Ravens were up 31-0. The true definition of embarrassing.

* Felix Jones rushes for 148 yards and a catch for 30 yards was gigantic. As you know, I have questioned a number of times whether or not he is a "full time back". Well, that remains to be seen, but with Barber hurt yesterday, he was money. His explosiveness is shocking, and he is a true game-breaker from the RB position which is a rare bird in football. So, I guess I still have a hard time seeing him durable enough to be a 300 carry guy, but I think you limit his work over the course of the season and play to his special and rare strengths. That was remarkable stuff.

* We talked about Field Position all season, so let's not lose track of it now. It is so huge to play a team like Philadelphia and to be able to neutralize a huge part of their big play attack with your 2 kickers. David Buehler and Mat McBriar did it again last night. Eagles average start spot was their 20. In the first half, they started at the P10, P5, P17, P20, P20, and P25. Meanwhile, the Cowboys started 8 drives outside their 40 yard line! Keep it up. Percy Harvin can return kicks, too.

* If the Cowboys are going to keep torching everyone on 3rd Down (9-16 again last night) then they are going to keep winning. The 3rd Downs are all out of S11 it seems, and it sure looks like there is nothing they enjoy more than Patrick Crayton in the slot against Joselio Hansen on a simple slant. Pitch and catch, and a game of spreading you out and picking the matchup they like. Hansen is one of several Eagles defensive backs who played a reasonable season but were gobbled up by this Cowboys offensive machine.

* Marc Colombo is back. I was a bit nervous about messing with what was working, but Colombo did very well in his return. Doug Free will reemerge soon enough I am sure, but Colombo is a tone setter for the entire offense. You want him out there stirring everything up like he does.

* This is probably a good time to mention the single most important Replay Challenge in Cowboys history. I thought Wade wasted a challenge, and I am still not terribly sure that wasn't an interception, but talk about a pivotal moment in the game. At the time, the Cowboys are nervous, the Vick to Maclin play just happened, and the very first snap for the offense is a back foot prayer from Romo to Sean Jones in center field. It sure looked like he had control of that, and if the Eagles punch it in the score is 14-7, Eagles, and who knows what happens next. But, Wade got this right, too. You know, I must tell you, Wade is on quite a hot streak. Since that night in the Superdome, I am having trouble finding much to bust his chops about.

* How does it feel to be the last NFC East team standing for a change? I dare say that is the first time since we have gone to 4 divisions in the NFC that you have outlasted the Giants, Eagles, and Redskins.

* I think the shine is off Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown. Especially Brown, who the Cowboys were seeking out with great regularity and going right at him. I think he is serviceable, but nothing better than that. And Samuel? Nice Int Numbers, and he has made some big plays in his career (of course, a dropped Samuel INT cost the Patriots the 2007 Super Bowl, too), but he guesses on routes, he doesn't like to tackle, and Miles Austin had his way with him 2 weeks in a row.

* I hope you had a chance to read the Sports Illustrated feature on the Eagles blitz a few weeks back. If not, check it out. I felt like the Double-A blitz was easier to understand in depth after reading it, and the context it gave me for the game last night was excellent. Here is one passage:
The best way to exploit the Double A Gap is to block it effectively, a difficult proposition says Gruden, but "if you're using it against a CEO-type quarterback, like Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, who understands how to pick up blitzes, you can have problems because you're short of personnel in coverage, and they'll get rid of the ball quickly." Says Trotter, "Teams run quick screens, slants, things like that, because normal pass routes take too long, and the pressure is right on the quarterback."

Quick screens, slants, things like that? Think Jason Garrett and Tony Romo read SI?

* Strike up the annual will McNabb be back conversation. As someone who roots against the Eagles, I hope they send him away. He is quality. And I would love to see them with Kevin Kolb.

* Look, I don't know where this thing is headed, but the combination of Roy Williams making plays, Bobby Carpenter recovering fumbles, and almost no injuries at all, you can see how people are starting to get that feeling.

* I would like to nominate DeMarcus Ware's sack and strip of McNabb late in the 4Q for the "Thing in sport that most resembles a lion running down a wildebeest". What a violent thing of beauty.

Do me a favor: Enjoy this for a few minutes. Nobody takes more grief than Cowboys fans (some of it has been earned, mind you) and you should not get caught up in the Vikings just yet. Be proud of your heroes for 10 minutes, before you start to worry about more. Tony Romo, Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, and the rest have never tasted this before. They were told they weren't worthy, and that they will never measure up. Well, guess what. They proved they can put the sword to a hated rival when it matters most.

44-6? Vindicated.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Cowboys '09: Game 16 vs Eagles

2009 NFC East Division Champions.

How many thought this was a likely result to the regular season when the Giants were running away with the division at 5-0? Or when the Cowboys lost in Denver to drop to 2-2, and needed overtime at Arrowhead to keep from going 2-3? But, 2 1/2 months later, the Cowboys are 11-5 and have won the division.

Good for them. And, I mean that. The Wade Phillips' Cowboys have been painted with the same brush since that 2007 finale against the Giants - all sizzle, no steak. But, this 2009 crew swore they were a different animal. Through subtractions and maturation, they claimed that the leadership had shifted, and that because of that, this is not the same ol' Wade Phillips-led Cowboys.

This group was different. This group would not crumble at the moment of truth, they said. But, I was skeptical when they started slow in September. I was even more skeptical when they started December with 2 straight typical close-but-no-cigar losses. At 8-5, the playoffs were in great doubt yet again. And the Divisional crown seemed like it had floated away.

But, then something changed with this team. Some suggest it was DeMarcus Ware's injury against the Chargers. Others say it was Tashard Choice addressing the team the next day. Personally, I don't have a clue what happened, but the end result to me is watching a Cowboys team that doesn't seem to play like a team that keeps waiting for something bad to happen anymore.

Surely, you know what I am talking about. This team, for the better part of 3 seasons, looked like a team that was under such severe pressure - be it real or imagined - that they were like the kid at the recital that could play the song in practice perfectly, but when the show started he felt something warm running down his leg. Their mental block, perhaps best demonstrated by their QB, was that of a team that was afraid to fail - rather than a team that was ready to win.

Now, if they were a reflection of their QB, I would imagine that we can all understand why he was a mental wreck. Being the QB of the Dallas Cowboys is tough under any scenario. Then, the last two playoff exits from a team riding a 4,755-day drought between playoff wins were either fully blamed on him, or merely the lion's share of the blame was heaped on the undrafted QB. Then, between a high profile "private" life and a high profile spat with Terrell Owens, suddenly the kid is an absolute sports-talk lightning rod from sea to shining sea.

And the bigger the situation became, the more everything came crashing down on his head, culminating in his confusing post-game address to his public following the Eagles 44-6 thrashing of the Cowboys at the end of the 2008 campaign.

He went into hiding, and before we saw much of him again, he had shed both the high profile romance and the unwanted alpha male in his huddle. So would his 2009 be different?

The Regular season sure was. Career high in QB Rating, Yards, and most importantly, both the fewest interceptions and the fewest fumbles of any season in his career. By a huge margin. He looks composed, calm, and in control. And, he plays like it. And whether this made the team click gradually - as if they saw him trying to carry them during those first 2 losses in December - or if something else triggered this perfect December storm, I don't know. But, the team showed up in New Orleans like a new team. A team that those of us who watch this team closely didn't recognize. They were a team that was playing like they don't give a flip. They are tired of playing scared and nervous and "not to lose". They are done doing that. And what we have seen the last 3 weeks is a team that is going for it. They are playing to win. They are playing with confidence and dare I say just a bit of swagger.

Don't ask me how they got here. But, try to stay as long as you can.

The results of Sunday's dismantling of the 24-0 win against the Eagles will not be fully known until next week's rematch is played. The win seemed dominating and dangerously easy in some regards. But, much like any other details of this season, any success is attached to the stated mission of winning in the playoffs, ending the 13 season drought, and thereby detaching themselves from the '07 and '08 Cowboys teams that did not achieve. A win of the division was great, shouldn't be marginalized, and it made you feel better about last year's week 17 failure, but now what?

And that is why this edition of the "Morning After" may seem a bit more of a "state of the union" address rather than a breakdown of the win. I think most of us feel like the Cowboys-Eagles game is only at halftime, with a week between halves - and the first half score doesn't matter.

I loved the domination. I loved the determination. And yes, I even enjoyed the Cowboys leaving Romo out there and throwing for more. Sure, maybe they should have taken him out when it was 17-0. But that is playing with caution and concern. This team has tried cautious and concerned, and it hasn't work. Now, it is playing with disregard for caution, and I dare say that these last 3 weeks now have me wondering what this thing could turn into.

They have self-belief. A direct reflection of the maturity of their QB. Now, let's see if he is ready to break on through to that other side of playoff accomplishment.

How about some observations from the 2nd consecutive shutout against a divisional foe:

* 1st Drive Touchdowns are all part of this Cowboys transformation. I don't quite know why things are clicking, but you cannot underestimate the effect of taking the opening kickoff, driving 80 yards, and scoring 7. In the New Orleans and Washington games, they did not get the ball first, but in all 3 games, after each team enjoyed the ball the Cowboys had 21 points, and the opponents had 0 - with just 1 solitary 1st down. They are ready to play when the game begins. It changes everything.

* 9 times this season, Tony Romo had a QB rating of over 100. Including, 5 of his last 6 games this season. We detailed at the start of December how he has his worst numbers in the biggest month. We can no longer say that. His last 6 games, his ratings were, in order: 121.2, 112.1, 111.7, 104.0, 86.7, and 106.4. That more than qualifies as saving his best for last.

* That Touchdown run from Felix Jones demonstrates why so many Cowboys fans go crazy over him. I know that I have painted myself as a bit of a pessimist on the Felix front, based solely on the idea that I have a very hard time projecting him as a #1 RB if he cannot take the beating. But, with his workload slowly increasing, I must concede that we are making progress in that regard. Anyway, the TD was that same Power 35 play they have run to the right again and again. Kosier pulls and kicks out, the 2 TEs cave in, and we have big success running right. But, a few times this season, they will run that play, except pitch it left when the entire play is running right to see if the LBs are keying off the blockers instead of watching the ball. We saw it work to perfection, as he only had 1 or 2 guys to beat (with help from Witten) and his speed did the rest. More on that play in Football 301 on Tuesday.

* Field Position is important as usual. Let's check the Eagles starting field position for their first 9 drives: P20, P14, P19, P20, P20, P12, P20, P20, P20. Tough to score points when your shortest field is 80 yards. Full marks to Mr Buehler and Mr McBriar for their fine work once again.

* No, I do not believe for a second that the Eagles were "playing vanilla" or holding things back. Look, they had a chance at the #2 seed and a bye week. If they were making decisions based on the idea that they are about to drop to the #6 seed, then they have no business in the playoffs anyway. Now, if your point is that they called off the dogs at 17-0 and showed nothing in the 2nd half, I will buy that. But that 1st half performance was not because the Eagles were trying to hide things. They just got their butt beat.

* Mike Jenkins is a pro bowler, whether he is invited or not. I apologize for having ever doubted his Football IQ. He is a very intelligent, competitive CB who the Cowboys are lucky to have. I am quite leery of Desean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin being held down a 3rd time, but so far, whatever Wade is doing is giving the Eagles absolute fits.

* The fact that the Cowboys passed for an all-time team record 4,483 yards in 2009 should tell you once and for all that the Cowboys do not miss Terrell Owens statistically. And the fact that they are 11-5 and seem to like each-other should tell you once and for all they do not miss Terrell Owens emotionally, either.

* Slant passes to Patrick Crayton that go for 30 yards are both wonderful and suspicious with their ease. How did that keep happening?

* With the exception of the Brent Celek show and Asante Samuel guessing right once, the key players on that Eagles roster were collectively very quiet. Do not make the mistake of expecting to see that happen again on Saturday night. I expect they will get their act together and offer a far more abrasive stand when these teams meet again. But as far as this business of it being impossible to beat a team 3 times in a season, my numbers indicate that there have been 19 such instances in NFL History, and in fact, the team going for the 3-game sweep is actually 12-7. Which would suggest a win rate of 63%, and proving that it is far from impossible. Of course, the Cowboys are 0-2 in such instances. So....

* Take this for what it is worth, which isn't much, but I do not particularly care for putting on "Division Champs" shirts and hats as the game ends, and then go across and shake hands with Andy Reid, who you have to play again next week, with your hat on. It seems like A) something that doesn't require much celebration and B) it could be interpreted by Philadelphia as bulletin board material. Again, not the biggest issue in the world, but since I have accused the Cowboys of over-celebrations and getting satisfied with themselves quite easily, it did strike a small nerve last night.

* The Cowboys had 40:23 minutes of possession. They also had 474 yards of total offense. The runners combined for 32 carries for 179 yards, and a QB who threw for 311 yards. To suggest that the offense had great success is fair. Troy Aikman suggested that the Eagles will try some different things next week. I think they better.

* Four more sacks, with 2 from Anthony Spencer. No matter how much pressure you get, it still looks like you need more. Donovan McNabb always seems like he is one throw from really hurting you, and the Eagles have to feel like they left plenty of points on the field.

* Who have you given up on more? Roy Williams or Martellus Bennett? You just can't predict this stuff in training camp, can you?

So here we go. Now we can spend the next several days breaking these two teams down further. Saturday Night cannot get here soon enough. The Cowboys have come a long, long ways. But for Wade Phillips, Tony Romo, and this entire Cowboys team, a playoff win is badly needed. This can change their legacy. To feel good about Cowboys football, it must start with ending that drought of 1996. Until they do, they will be painted with the same brush that all the Cowboys have been painted with in the "post-triplets" era. But, bouncing the Eagles would demonstrate progress and change. Wade would no longer be the winningest coach who has never won a playoff game (and he likely keeps his job) and Romo would then have as many playoff wins as a guy like Drew Brees (1!).

To say it another way, 11-5 is nice. A division title is nicer. But, to feel good about the direction the Dallas Cowboys are headed, they need at least one more victory this season.

Saturday Night.

How to Be a Football Dork

I often get asked about my fascination with football strategy and understanding what each team is trying to accomplish and how they are going to get there.

Well, It is just inside me. I want to know more. There are enough people in my business that focus on the ball and watch football from a fantasy football perspective. Meanwhile, I want to know what each player is supposed to be doing on each play and how it all fits together.

I want to know. I want to understand. I want to feel like I comprehend the idea behind the Jason Garrett offense and how that differs from the Norv Turner offense.

So, how does someone who never played 1 down of football go about trying to learn the sport from a coach's perspective?

Luckily, in 2010, there are a few places where football dorks can find this sort of thing. The best is to speak to those who know what is going on (but that might not be practical for the average person). The rest are open to all:

1) Sirius NFL Radio - Moving the Chains - Pat Kirwan and Tim Ryan (2p-6p) - I realize in the business of radio, it is poor form to plug the competition, but I have never learned more about a topic than what these two guys have explained to me and their audience over the last few years. Kirwan is amazing in explaining terminology and coaching points. Ryan is so good as a Fox commentator (even though he gets buried as their 3rd or 4th team) that I often Tivo his games just to have him explain more football to me.

2) Smartfootball.com/ - this blog is about the strategy side of football and I find it wonderful.

3) Football Outsiders.com - The brother site of baseballprospectus.com doesn't really explain coaching points, but their statistical analysis is invaluable when you consider what a team does well. So, I consider it an essential part of the total package.

4) Matt Bowen's inside the Playbook - Matt is a longtime NFL Defensive Back, and because of this, he actually knows how to break it down at the National Football Post website. Below, I want to show you his Inside the Playbook features. I love them:

Inside The Playbook
May 13 - The Tampa 2
May 19 - Cover 3
May 21 - Zone Blitz
May 25 - How to Defeat the Tampa 2
May 27 - Brady to Moss
June 1 - Defeating Man Pressure
June 4 - Peterson runs on Cleveland
June 8 - Defeating 2 man coverage
June 17 - The Miami Wildcat
June 23 - Porter's Super Bowl INT
June 29 - Defeating 2 man in the redzone
July 1 - The “Spot” Route
July 6 - Complex blitz schemes
July 8 -Red Zone passing concepts
July 14 - Play Action Game
July 22 - The Tebow Impact
Aug 19 - Redskins Swap Option

They used to call Bowen's feature "Scheme Session" last season, so here are those features, too.

Scheme Session -
Oct 6 - The Zone Blitz
Oct 13 - Ed Reed's Pick 6
Oct 29 - Beating the Minnesota Blitz
Nov 5 - Big Play Eagles (DeSean Jackson
Jan 16 - Romo vs The Vikings
Jan 18 - Favre lights up Dallas
Jan 26 - Favre's INT vs Saints
Jan 28 - Peyton in the Redzone
Feb 2 - The Darren Sharper factor
Feb 4 - Big Play Saints

By the way, none of this means I actually do understand football more. It just means that I have fun trying.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Cowboys '09: Game 15 at Washington

Anytime you beat a division rival on the road with such ease that a 17-0 final score is still the source of some level of discontent, you know that either A) you are a pretty good team, B) your opponent is certainly not, or C) both of the above.

I choose C.

I imagine that all accounts of the Cowboys' 10th victory of the 2009 season will focus on the importance of taking care of business and setting up the chance to play for a NFC East division title in 6 days time. We will spend the next few thousand words discussing things that went right or wrong, but I would find it simply irresponsible, on a day when teams like the Saints and Giants would welcome a less-than-perfect win, to point out the absolute lead story was that this Cowboys team responded very, very well to the Saints victory by rolling out a road-trouncing of the rival Washington Redskins.

The Redskins, as we knew all week (or all decade), are a mess of the highest order. Their organization seems to often hamstring their own team's efforts with the insane nature in which they do business. No matter how goofy Jerry Jones makes things in Dallas, to suggest that he has set up the most chaotic environment in the NFL is to ignore the Raiders and Redskins. So, at least we have that going for us.

The story of Game #15 for me would have to be the precision with which the Cowboys offense seemed to operate with again - only to leave many, many points on the field due to the inability to get the last yard at the moment of truth. The Cowboys called 5 running plays on 3rd and 4th down with 2 yards or less to go. All 5 were some variation of a power run to Marion Barber. And all 5 failed. It is certainly not difficult to imagine the trouble that can cause down the road. If you combine that with a kicking situation that is less than rock-solid, you can understand the ice the Cowboys stand on is exceedingly thin. Think about it: The Cowboys are in a crucial game with huge stakes (every game from here until the Super Bowl would qualify as a crucial game with high stakes) and they face a 4th and half of a yard from the opponents 31 yard line. Do you trust the kicker to make a 49 yarder? No. Do you trust your OL and RB to be able to get that last 18 inches? How could you after the issues against the Chargers and Redskins in the last few weeks? The quandary is there for all to see.

So, why can't this team move the chains when they need to most? Especially when I have spent the season talking about how this team seems to be a solid power-run team. Well, running in "21" or "22" personnel is one thing in normal down and distance situations because on 2nd and 8, you do not face 10 or 11 in the box. But, when it is 4th and half of a yard, the defense knows what you want to do. They plug a jumbo personnel group right at your OL, and if your OL cannot push back, the RB doesn't have much of a chance. This is not to say that Barber is not to blame - because he is. Barber looks tentative and frankly a bit lacking with his usual strength in busting through with his relentless abandon. But, I also have to question the boys up front getting and winning their individual blocks. We have quite a few plays to consider in these last 3 weeks that fall under the "short yardage" banner, and the fact is that there are a number of reasons they are not getting it done. But, I don't think you blame Jason Garrett (this time). What else would you call on 4th and 1? You play the percentages. And the percentages suggest that any NFL offense should be able to get 18 inches. But, especially this NFL offense, who has many rich men on that offensive line - some who attend the Pro Bowl on a regular basis. This isn't Garrett's problem. This is on the players.

But, otherwise, the passing game still looks sharp - with Miles Austin and Jason Witten again combining to show us how elite they really are. Austin had 10 balls thrown his way, caught 9 and moved the chains 7 times. Witten had 7 passes in his direction, caught 6 for 4 first downs. The efficiency with which those 2 have operated this year have almost made the frustrations of watching Roy Williams a story that while annoying, does not seem to hamstring the offense dramatically.

The defense was very good at snuffing out any of the feeble attacks the Redskins could mount. This was not a stiff test for them, but it was more of the same from the last several weeks, with Ware and Spencer on the flanks looking the part of destructive OLBs in a 3-4 defense that make production extremely difficult for most offenses.

Other observations from the completion of the first season sweep of Washington since 2004:

* Let's start with Joe DeCamillis who was in the hospital at the time of the game with a "sudden attack of appendicitis" according to Evan Grant. Man, that guy has had a rough 2009. The Special teams coach suffered a broken neck back in May during the practice facility collapse, and now will stay in a Washington hospital until Wednesday. I think most of us have appreciated his improvements to the special teams, but for some reason writing about his coaching seems a bit irrelevant when the guy is still in his hospital bed, so let's wish him a speedy recovery and get on with some of the other details. However, I should say this: When you talk to guys who work for the Cowboys - you often get the claim that he is a great candidate to be a future NFL head coach.

* Keith Brooking has been such a great addition to this team. He makes plays and he brings intensity. I have no idea what that audio routine proved that NBC showed of his "WWF-style" pre-game rant, but it did bring a smile to my face. After the Zach Thomas era came and left with little result or effect, I was not overly optimistic about what the Brooking signing might mean. But, the intangibles that he has presented this squad seems to be just what was needed. But, as we have found over the years, the ability to speak in the lockerroom often is dictated by the ability to make a real difference on the field. He, obviously, can do both.

* It is clear to me that Cris Collinsworth has no idea who Alex Ovechkin is.

* That Touchdown pass on the 1st drive of the game was such a thing of beauty that further demonstrates that Tony Romo is a player with rare talents. He doesn't panic in the face of a pass rush, and is more than willing to buy that extra split second to make a play. That particular play looked dead in the water with Kedric Golston breathing down his neck, but in typical Romo fashion, when he is in the red zone he seems to develop even a better feel for what is available. He lobbed that pass on a perfect trajectory to Roy Williams and scored a TD that was beautiful. The ball floated right over the hands of DeAngelo Hall and right in front of Reed Doughty.

* So, London Fletcher's hit on Patrick Crayton is not a penalty? Blow to the head and defenseless receiver rules don't apply if they don't feel like calling it?

* If you read this blog on a regular basis, you know I was not terribly bullish on shares of Doug Free when Marc Colombo broke his leg in Green Bay. But, I must tip my hat to the young man and suggest that he shows plenty of promise. I still think he can stand to gain some strength, but he appears to have plenty of fight and desire, as well as solid quickness for a tackle. If a guy enters with no experience to a team that is on a playoff run, then plays 6 weeks without any sort of train wreck games that cost you, then it is time to declare his showing a solid success. I do wonder about short yardage with him versus Colombo (evidence shows this team was quite a bit better when Colombo was there), but otherwise, Free looks like a keeper.

* NBC's game broadcast always has more information and statistics than the other networks. I assume this is because they can focus on 1 game rather than the 6 or 7 that Fox and CBS must prepare for, but regardless, I enjoy the numbers that they produce. In particular, the stat of Roy Williams leading the NFL in "on-target drops" with 10 was a number that merely confirmed our beliefs. I think it might be harsh to call that interception last night Roy's fault completely - as the ball may have been a tad high - but, I need Roy to out battle Carlos Rogers for position on that play. It always looks like he has half as much fight for the ball that he needs.

* 1 play after that interception, Anthony Spencer (with help from Igor Olshansky) tried to take the ball right back on a sack that almost resulted in a fumble strip, too. Spencer looks so confident right now, and you can clearly see that when a pass rusher is no longer satisfied with just the sack. He wants to take that ball, too. And he came darn close. I think Spencer's breakout stretch is continuing quite well.

* I don't believe Terence Newman enjoys dealing with Santana Moss. His interception early was a real momentum changer, but through the night, anytime Moss grabbed one of those WR screens (which appears to be about the only route on the Redskins' route tree), Newman looked fairly uncomfortable trying to contain, control, and tackle. Moss has given him fits for so many years, and I believe Newman would be happy to be done with him.

* Albert Haynesworth is an absolute impossible matchup. I am not sure I have ever seen Kyle Kosier tossed around like #92 caused last night. Albert is a handful, and while I agree that he is a bad investment for a team like Washington that possesses so many holes that spending a huge chunk of change on Haynesworth doesn't make sense. However, he is tremendous quality. And he is unblockable in certain spots. And, he is perhaps the best reason the Cowboys couldn't win their blocks on those short yardage situations. So, I understand this idea that Washington overpaid and that it likely will not work. I also understand that his conduct this past week is not admirable in any way. But, wow. He is unstoppable.

* I am very much on the record with my opinion of Wade Phillips. I think he should have been fired in the lockerroom after 44-6. But, since he wasn't, I wonder where we are now. They are 10-5, and have a chance to win their division. If they do, they will host a playoff game with an 11-5 record. If they win the first playoff game in 13 seasons, we would have to admit progress was made. That is alot of "ifs" but, if those "ifs" happen, how do you fire him?

* Jay Ratliff is awesome. And there is no bigger punctuation mark for a big Cowboys performance than a Ratliff sack celebration. What a stud.

So, 10 wins. A playoff berth. And a rematch with the hated Eagles for a division crown on Sunday afternoon. This is what you want. This is riveting stuff. Who knew 2 weeks ago that the season was going to take this turn?

Now, Green Bay and Arizona play in Week 17, and the Eagles are here. All 4 teams are likely to play during the Wildcard weekend, with the only things assured are that Arizona will be a home team and that Green Bay will be on the road. Beyond that, it is all in front of us.

Strap in.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

EPL Fun Bag - Week 3

Opening Weekend of the English Premiership is in the books, and we are out of the gates in brilliant High Definition.

I really don't want to get carried away, but with the addition of HD and the new 1-hour replay of the games on Fox Soccer (also in HD), I have caught myself watching a ton more than usual. Now surely, the start of the college and NFL seasons will severely consume most of my free time, but I am pretty fired up about what we have cooking in England.

Highlights of the Weekend according to me:

- The thrilling season opener between Tottenham and Man City at White Hart Lane will demonstrate to some newcomers to the EPL that winning on the road is very difficult. If you are like me, you have a favorite team, and then you love to look for upset possibilities. Well, first know that defeats are bad, but so are dropped points. "Dropped points" is what decides the title every year, and it isn't defeats as much as it is bad draws, too. To tie a match means you get only 1 point instead of 3, so if Chelsea and Man United and Arsenal want to win the title, they surely realize that pulling 1 point here and 1 point there will not cut it. They know that they need 3 points most weekends. So, is Manchester City up for this? Despite the absolute advantage in wages, they did not look the better team on Saturday. The goaltender, Joe Hart, kept them in the match, but Spurs was all over them in the 1st half. Is Man City too conservative because of their manager, Mancini? Many think so. But, that was an absolute wonderful 0-0 draw (yes, you will see wonderful 0-0 draws if you watch the match).

- Blackpool won its first match at the top level in 40 years by beating Wigan 4-0 on the road!?!?!

- Chelsea proved that they can name their score in most matches at Stamford Bridge. They are loaded and amazing. Drogba is still the most imposing striker in the league, and he scored 3 in barely 70 minutes. I do enjoy watching Chelsea play for a number of reasons, but one thing that is fun to look for is how much Frank Lampard appears to hate Drogba. The video below shows most of what I saw on Saturday, but when there is a free kick, both players want it. Drogba takes it without Lampard's consent, and Frankie stands there and pouts. So much so that when the ball hits the net, Lampard looks angry and never considers celebrating or congratulating. This is not a Chelsea issue, necessarily, but rather on the big clubs in Europe, there are all sorts of personalities put together like in the NBA that might not fit. But, unlike the NBA, here, they also speak different languages and come from different corners of the planet, and play on teams where they know the coach is disposable. it is just the way it is - the players are not always happy for eachother or pulling in the same direction. Lampard doesn't even look like he enjoys 6-0 wins sometimes. Life on a big club.

- And then on Sunday, new-look-but-still-poor Liverpool hosted Arsenal in a "Big 4" clash that was way too early in the campaign. In fact, the promo on Fox Soccer channel right before the match advertised "Fabregas and Arsenal take on Torres and Liverpool from Anfield!" Well, they got Anfield right. Torres, Fabregas, and Robin Van Persie were all left out of the starting 11 for each side citing World Cup Recovery (it is a long season for these boys). Anyway, Arsenal looked to be the better side, Liverpool somehow scored with a man down (Ngog shuts me up) and then just when it looked like the Reds might start a season properly, Arsenal pulls a draw with a late goal that put a knife in the heart. Honestly, I think it was a pretty tough play for Reina, but it is one he must make or the result gets away.

Anyway, a great match on Sunday ended in a 1-1 draw where both teams likely thought they deserved 3 points. Have you ever seen Fanzone? It is where one of the networks in England gets a fan from either side to call the game and you can actually watch their broadcast (I think) on one of the alternate audio channels. Then, they show the highlights here:

THe USA needs to steal this idea. Yankees and Red Sox fans sitting next to eachother in October would be money.

This Week's TV Schedule - ALL TIMES EASTERN! - Games in Bold indicate my "best matches of the weekend for you to check out"

Saturday, August 21:
10am: Everton v Wolves, Fox Soccer Channel
10am: Stoke v Spurs, Fox Soccer Plus and FoxSoccer.tv
10am: Arsenal v Blackpool, ESPN2
10am: West Ham v Bolton, FoxSoccer.tv
10am: West Brom v Sunderland, FoxSoccer.tv
10am: Birmingham v Blackburn, FoxSoccer.tv
12:15pm: Wigan Athletic v Chelsea, Fox Soccer Channel

Sunday, August 22:
8:30am: Newcastle United v Aston Villa, Fox Soccer Plus and FoxSoccer.tv
11am: Fulham v Manchester United, Fox Soccer Channel

Monday, August 23:
3pm: Manchester City v Liverpool, ESPN2

Yes, I bolded 3 games - including Blackpool vs Arsenal. You truly must read up on Blackpool to understand how awesome this story is. This is why the promotion/relegation system is superior to anything we do over here.

OK, and now on to your email:

hey bob. Any idea why dempsey only played 17 minutes? Michael

The Clint Dempsey situation is one of many that we should not get too concerned about this early in the season. Especially in a World Cup season, you should never read anything into playing time in the first few weeks of a season. Dempsey played 15 minutes + against Bolton in their opening match which was a scoreless draw.

The reasons not to get too caught up in it are many; 1) He has a new manager, Mark Hughes. Hughes will basically look at this roster and make the best 11 emerge on their merit. The old Manager at Fulham, Roy Hodgson is up at Liverpool now, and despite the fact that he loved Dempsey, it won't matter this year at Fulham.

2) The transfer window is open for a few more weeks, so rosters won't be settled until Labor Day or so. Guys are coming and going and it is too early to get worked up about it all. and 3) we don't know the full level of his health - I believe he is fine, but they are not always open about everything. He was really physically beat up at the World Cup, so there is a chance he isn't ready for 90 after a tough summer.

Hey bob, I am going to London in early nov with my wife & we are hoping to catch a soccer game while we are there. I saw that fulham is playing @ home while we are there but I have no idea how to get tickets? Can you let me know the best way to get tickets to a game? I appreciate any help on this.

Thanks man


Sure, Grant. Fulham at home for Aston Villa? I think your chances are pretty good. I might start by contacting Fulham (google it) and work with the ticket office. It is possible that you might be able to get in at face value. The bigger the game, the bigger the whip to get in. Here is what I wrote in 2007 On this topic ...

Last October, I surely thought that getting tickets was not going to be a problem, since I now know several soccer “VIPs” from various places. During my last journey, those VIPs were able to gain us admission to the matches we wanted to see, but this time I had chosen what amounts to one of the biggest matches of the soccer year. My connections could not get me in. I was going to have to pay about $700-$800 each to get these tickets from ticket brokers. Wow. People always ask me what these tickets cost and of course it depends on the game. If you are going to go over there, may I suggest you do not select the biggest games. Pick your favorite team playing a team of lesser appeal. Unless you don’t mind $700 a ticket. Usually, $100-$200 can get you into most games, but just don’t pick the big 4 clubs (Liverpool, Man United, Arsenal, Chelsea) against eachother. If you do, prepare to get hammered.

Anyway, long story short, through an incredible coincidence, Tom Hicks bought Liverpool a month ago, and although I don’t believe he is fond of my work, someone who he employs hooked me up, and I was able to get into this match for face value - $67 a piece. That person knows who he is, and I know owe him a ton. The other game we attended was Blackburn at Bolton, and for this game, you could get tickets at the gate without any problem as it was not nearly sold out.

And then this email. last week from the Ticket's Craig Miller!

Saw your tweet about soccer in HD. I’ve been wondering that myself—will FSC and GOL games be in HD once the regular season starts? I don’t like watching it in normal def.

I’m 2/3rds through Fever Pitch. I got sidetracked this weekend when the English version of Laurent Fignon’s autobiography arrived in the mail, so I’ve been reading both. Will have FP back to you shortly.

So, in the EPL, there are no playoffs? Best record wins the league, that simple? Is that ever a buzz-kill at the end of the year? Has it always been that way? I notice Hornby in the book talks about going to Cup Final games a lot—I realize that they play for many cups each year, but it seems that he’s mentioned going to the league championship (before it was the EPL, I guess?) a few times—did they used to have a playoff?


Gol went HD on Directv a few days ago. I actually watched the Bundesliga match on Saturday (Schalke vs. Bayern Munich) in HD. I never watch German soccer, but in HD, it felt right.

Fox Soccer and Fox Soccer Plus are said to be flipping the switch on Aug 11. I hope and assume you have HD.

Fever Pitch is wonderful. It teaches us all that we are not alone if we obsess about sports.

Playoffs? Not for the Premiership. I know it seems crazy, but without playoffs, everything matters so much! It is wonderful and different. You must experience it.

Hornby references Championship Playoff, but I feel if I explain what he means, it will only confuse you.

But, there is no end of season buzz kill. The promotion/relegation battle is intoxicating. Sometimes, the championship is decided. But, since 3 teams at the bottom of the league will be kicked out, the battle is fierce.

Imagine, instead of NBA teams jockeying for position in the lottery, what if Minnesota, Memphis, the Clippers, the Warriors, and the Raptors were competing to STAY IN THE NBA!!!! Because 3 are leaving, to be replaced by the top 3 teams in the D league or somesuch.

This is from a blog entry from 2006:


Every season, there are as many as 5 different trophies your team can win (although you could not win all 5 during the same year). For instance, my club, Liverpool has not won the Premiership since 1990. But, in 2005, they won the European Cup, and in 2006 they won the FA Cup. So, while not winning the league, they have added to their hardware and have celebrated as champions. Here are the 5 competitions each season:

#1 – Premiership Title
This goes to the team who demonstrates the dominance in the ultimate marathon, a trip through the entire 10 month marathon. It takes 38 games (all 19 opponents, home and away) and is considered as good a test to determine the team with the best quality as any. Chelsea has won the Premiership title the last 2 years, Arsenal before them, and the Manchester United owner the decade of the 1990’s more than the Cowboys did.

#2 – FA Cup
The oldest football tournament in the world, this trophy is won by advancing through an amazing field much like the NCAA tournament. Except that there is open admission. Last season, that meant 687 teams make the tournament. Imagine the NCAA basketball tournament, except that any city league team may enter the tournament, too. The big teams don’t join the tournament for 2 rounds, thus generally bouncing the ridiculous entries first, but every team that wants in can be in. This is a knockout tournament but without brackets. Instead, after each round, there is a new random draw. It sets up amazing drama and the players seem to act like this is the Super Bowl.

#3 – European Cup (The UEFA Champions League)
This is possibly the biggest championship of them all, but because it is so rare, it is almost the impossible dream for most clubs and they don’t even consider it. The best teams of each of the European Leagues play in a full fledged 32-team tournament every year. Last year, Barcelona beat Arsenal in the Final, the year before Liverpool beat AC Milan. It is an amazing tournament matching the best teams from Spain, Italy, Germany, England, Holland, France and beyond against each other in clashes that are almost all played at night in mid-week.

#4 – League Cup or Carling Cup
This is very similar to the NIT. It is inferior to the FA Cup, and there are years when some teams don’t even try to put their best effort out in games of this tournament. They will almost lose on purpose so that they can preserve their team for the competitions they deem more important. Unlike the FA Cup, it is limited to only the 96 teams that make up the English Football Association (All 5 divisions). The Championship is played in Early March, and often thought of as a consolation prize for a big team, or a huge victory for a little guy. The only problem with my NCAA/NIT comparison is that you can be in both tournaments at the same time.

#5 – UEFA Cup
This is the NIT of the Champions League. In England, the top 4 teams go to the Champions League, and I believe the next 4 teams go to the 32-team UEFA Cup. Playing in Europe is very presitgous to all clubs, and for many teams in Group 2 or 3, just playing in the UEFA Cup is thought of as a pretty huge deal. Of course, if Manchester United is in this tournament, they are pretty embarrassed. But, it does happen, and it is better than nothing.

There you go. Now, to really make your head spin, all of these competitions are going on at the same time. It is not uncommon to play your Premiership game on Saturday, a Champions League game on Tuesday, The FA Cup on Saturday, and another Prem game on Monday. This is where you need lots of depth on your club, because no player can sustain a schedule like that.


Of course, since that email exchange with Junior, HD is up in full force on Directv. Life is so right now.

Cowboys '09: Game 14 at New Orleans

Raise your hand if you understand pro football. I am obsessed with this sport. There is nothing I spend more time thinking about and reading about and studying than the NFL. But, I sure don't understand it. Except, I do understand one important element about my lack of understanding: You can never account for the unaccountable. Said another way: Last night is why it is not smart to gamble on "sure things".

The Cowboys pulled the unthinkable last night in New Orleans with their performance that surely was one of the best games of football any of them had ever played. Once in a while, with all of the chips down, they find what they were looking for, and it so happened to be with the entire football world watching (provided they had the NFL Network) on this Saturday night in December (of all months).

On one hand, you have to be very pleased for these guys who spend a lot of time answering why they are not up to the challenge of winning important games such as these. On the other hand, you wonder how this is going to feel if they lose to Washington next week. But, that can wait for 8 days. This was a thing of beauty.

The offense made all the sense in the world. And it made all the sense in the world because the offensive line held up its end of the bargin, because Jason Garrett seemed to pull the puppet strings with great precision, and because your QB was the perfect maestro of the proceedings.

Tony Romo has not been the focal point of too many of these "Morning After" columns for a few reasons, but I think this may be the perfect day to spend a moment or two on the leader of this offense. Nobody is more scrutinized nationally than Tony Romo - whether it is appropriate or not never seems to matter. He had painted a large target on his chest long ago, and has been declared dead quite a few times by the experts.

All along, he has just chipped away at the mountain before him, and I dare say his QB work this season may be his finest year yet. Nobody is willing to admit that he isn't the problem, it seems, but to play the Giants-Chargers-Saints trio in succession in December, and emerge on the other side without one single giveaway (fumble or interception), 6 TD's, and a QB Rating of 109.7 is remarkable. They have lost 2 of those 3 games, so there is still that thread of blame that can be taken back to the QB because that is how we discuss this game. But, in December, Romo has been nearly flawless with absurd pressure and scrutiny aimed at his head. Put it another way: By George, I think he's got it.

And here is the good news: It is still a secret. Romo, it would seem, can still sneak up on the league because some have spent so long claiming he is the problem that they will not concede that point until he has a trophy in his hand. And we all know that is a long trip from here. But, in a 2009 where he had to prove he wasn't the problem, I think most fair observers would realize that the Cowboys have a useful Quarterback - maybe not a perfect one, but one who is very good.

Beyond Romo, there are so many others with their fingerprints on this unlikely win. As Junior Miller said last night, this may be Wade's signature defensive win. I argued that the Green Bay win in 2007 qualifies as well, but in fairness to Craig, that Green Bay team was not the juggarnaut the Saints are, and were not held to 3 points through 3 Quarters on their home field. The defense played very well, holding the Saints to just 1 3rd Down conversion - which occured in the final minute of the game. The Saints set the industry standard on 3rd Down conversions, but on this one night, they could not move the chains on the money down.

And then there is everyone's quiet hero, DeMarcus Ware. There are a number of reasons to look at his performance last night and marvel. One, of course, is that we feared for his physical well-being on Sunday evening at Cowboys Stadium when they are unscrewing his facemask from his helmet and strapping him onto a stretcher. Late in the day yesterday, there were still many reports circulating that he would not be able to play at all. Then, for him to play as well as he did - with a sack and fumble to end the final Saints' drive of the 1st half, and then another sack and fumble to end the final Saints' drive of the game - was the stuff of legends. The Cowboys could have very well crumbled under the pressure in that 4th Quarter - but #94 would not be denied. Joined by #93, Anthony Spencer, the Cowboys pass rush finally made sense for a night. It was like Ware and Ellis used to be. A speed LB who can not be blocked for long on each flank. Was it just a 1-night mirage?

The Cowboys' best players were their best players. They stepped up an emerged with a team victory that could certainly take this team to a new level. But, because of how this league and this team works, we are all wondering if we should read too much meaning into this game. Did the QB break through? Did the coach? Did the team? It all depends on where they go next.

But, for one night, they played like they could win a Super Bowl. I just don't understand the NFL sometimes.

Other observations from the night that ended the New Orleans quest for perfection:

* I suppose I should not allow this Nick Folk elephant in the room go on any longer before we address it. Look, I am all for trying to let a guy break out of his slump before we knee jerk and go to "Kickers-R-Us" for another one, but it is time. There is too much riding on everything this team does to allow one guy to get his head screwed back on. He is a kicker. He must make kicks. To miss that 24-yard Field Goal in that situation is an absolute fireable offense. He nearly cost you the football game - which in turn would have cost many men their jobs. I am sure he is a nice guy, and I hope his career can continue somewhere else, but like a group of athletes in our lifetime, it appears his head is not allowing his foot to do its job. That footage the NFL Network presented showing his pregame warm-ups was quite revealing. And then, on cue, he missed what amounts to an extra point. The Cowboys must get a kicker before Washington. And they are darn lucky that their refusal to address this issue sooner did not cost them another game.

* Mr Austin, your contract is ready. What a stud. 1100 Yards and counting. Was Terrell better than this? And, evidently, the Cowboys' offense also took note as we did Friday that the deep ball is but a faded memory. Brilliant double move off play action on the first drive of the game resulted in a 49-yard bomb to signal the attack. A thing of beauty.

* Does anyone know why the Cowboys would call timeout after Patrick Crayton's big 25-yard catch at the end of the 1st Quarter? I was thoroughly confused as the Saints were given time to review every replay possible during that timeout and decide if they should use a review on that 3rd and 8. Luckily, it held up, but I found that most curious. Let's not act like last night was not without brain freezes, as that decision, the 12-men in the huddle, the play where Barber forgot he was supposed to get the ball, the Flozell facemask, and a few others that we would all be pointing to if the Cowboys did not close the deal. But, they did, so they are but details in a notebook.

* Speaking of the review impacting the game, I was interested in what effect the review of the Spencer hit on Brees with :18 to go in the game had on the next play. If you recall, the Cowboys were rushing Brees on that final drive for 11 consecutive plays. Since they were in the no-huddle, you could make the case that the longer the drive goes on, the more depleted the energy becomes for the pass rushers. But, when they were reviewing the question of whether Brees' arm was going forward, DeMarcus and friends are catching their breath on the sideline. On the very next play, Ware beats Jermon Bushrod round the corner again and seals the game. It might have all happened the exact same way without the break, but my theory is that it helped Ware.

* I would never question the offensive genius of Sean Payton, but David Thomas gets 10 targets? He wasn't bad, but I think I have to adjust my gameplan when I find out my starter (Jeremy Shockey) can't play. The goal was obviously to isolate the Cowboys LBs in space (Carpenter, Brooking, James) and he was willing to work his back-up TE all night to do so. If I am the Cowboys, I am comfortable with Thomas trying to beat me.

* Every week, Garrett rolls out a new wrinkle. I really enjoy trying to predict what it might be, but this week, it was the mutiple looks with Kevin Ogletree. His 2catches were helpful, but I really think they were trying to spring him for a deep TD early in the 3rd Quarter and Romo just didn't have enough time to hit him so he checked down to Austin (who dropped the pass). Even Sam Hurd made a rare appearance late.

* We had to like the way the ball was run in New Orleans, too. They really set the tone and were physical throughout. Marion ran over Darren Sharper in short yardage, showing us that he is not the guy we saw at the goal-line against the Chargers. Felix showed bursts as well in certain situations and always looks like he is about to break one. I thought Bigg Davis played one of his better games of the recent stretch.

* Flozell looks very old. I think Left Tackle better be looked at very closely this offseason. And no, I don't think Leonard Davis is the answer, nor Doug Free.

* If there has been one guy who has certainly showed his quality as this season has gone along, it would be Mike Jenkins. But, if there have been 2 guys, we should add Anthony Spencer. I needed him to bust out, and while it might have taken him until nearly Thanksgiving, I now see his ability each week. He is not just "some guy" opposite DeMarcus. He looks to be very imposing, and difficult to deal with. That sequence where he had a sack disallowed by a Scandrick penalty, only to get one on the very next play was lovely. Of course, sacks are easier to get when you are not blocked.

* 2 potential plays of the game happened on 3rd downs in the 4th Quarter for the offense: #1, 3/4 at the 46, Romo puts one right on Roy Williams in stride which would keep the drive alive - but he drops it. #2, 3/7 at the 23, Romo again finds Austin in the face of a blitz and Austin sprints for 32 more and seemed to seal the game (thanks, Folk). But, overall, the telling stat for the Cowboys offense seems to be 3rd Downs. In Philly and in New Orleans, Romo and the offense made those plays. Against the Giants and Chargers, not so much. Must make the plays in the money scenarios.

* Today,my friend, Doug, notes, the Cowboys world must cheer for the Steelers, 49ers, and Redskins? Strange bedfellows for sure.

So, tell me, was this the aberration? Or is this the start of a 3 game winning streak heading into the playoffs with a division crown on their head and a home playoff game on tap? I wish I had an idea one way or the other. The good news is this thing is still now very much alive. The bad news is that the 2008 Cowboys won their 14th game against a top NFC foe, only to hit the wall in a ball of flames in games #15 and #16.

Is 2009 different? Only the final 2 weeks will tell us.