I’ve written in several articles that I don’t necessarily mind the Cowboys losing a close game – can’t win them all – but just wanted them to compete. Well, this last Sunday gave me an opportunity to test that theory. The Cowboys came achingly close to defeating the Baltimore Ravens and despite the maddening mistakes by players and coaches alike, I have to admit that the loss was a lot easier to stomach than the embarrassing blowout against Chicago. Not many teams have been able to go into Baltimore and come out with a win. It’s a good football team and a tough environment for visiting teams. There was a lot to like about the Cowboys performance despite the loss. And, there’s a lot not to like. And, some really, really bad stuff too. Here’s my take on all three.
> Running the ball. The Cowboys set a record of sorts rushing for more yards (272 yards total) against the Ravens than any other team. It was heartening to see the commitment to the run and the positive results. That one single thing if it can be continued will solve a lot of the Cowboys’ offensive issues.
> Felix Jones. Where has this version been? When DeMarco Murray went out with a sprained foot, most thought the running game would be abandoned as usual. But, Felix stepped in and like he did last year did an admirable job in Murray’s absence. I’ve been as critical as anyone about Felix’s lack of production but he shut me and a lot of critics up last week (at least for one game). He seemed to have recaptured some of his burst and looked like he was giving it a full effort.
> Offensive Line. This group has gotten a ton of well-earned criticism so far this season. I thought this was by far their best outing and hopefully a sign that the return of Phil Costa will solidify this very unsteady group. Not a perfect outing by any means, but anytime you generate 272 yards on the ground, you don’t do it without some decent run blocking that has been sorely missing.
> Running Back Depth. Never good to lose your starting RB in the first half after he’s already logged over 90 yards rushing. But, Felix Jones stepped in and did great. When he went down with cramps, Phillip Tanner stepped in and newly activated Lance Dunbar stepped in an kept the ball rolling until Felix could get back on the field. All seemed to perform well. That’s very good news for the Cowboys finding out that if the injury bug hits them, they have players at an important skill position that can step in.
> Jason Witten. Wasn’t it just a few weeks back we were all speculating that maybe Witten had lost it? He made us all look really stupid the last two games – particularly on Sunday when he picked up both huge first downs on 4th down – the last a spectacular diving catch as he was going to the ground. Whatever problems he was having catching the ball, they are solved. Mr. Clutch is back and that should bode well for the Cowboys’ hopes for the balance of the season.
> Dez Bryant. It’s not all good here as we’ll discuss in more detail when we review the bad, but you can’t let a 13 catch, 95 yard, 2 touchdown performance go unnoticed. Although he still makes a lot of mistakes and takes a step backwards at times, he is clearly making a little progress.
> Dez Bryant. Great overall game. But, when the game is on the line, you HAVE to make that catch. Disappointing to see a guy wearing scuba gloves more or less try to make a catch with his forearms. Almost equally disturbing is to see him get up and look for the flag. Short of decapitation, you aren’t going to get a flag there and you just have to make that play or man up and walk off the field with some dignity. Crying and bitching about the no call just makes you look small in my opinion. Dez still has some growing up to do no doubt. Let’s hope that his teammates pull him aside and teach him that.
> Penalties. Thirteen penalties this far into the season is way too many. But, it’s not just the number of penalties, it is often the timing of those penalties and it shows a lack of mental focus. Too often on Sunday they were also needless penalties – a holding call that occurred after the running back had already gone by, Ogletree and Austin both moving at the same time when the play call was changed to a run. They both moved a few yards closer to the ball nullifying a first down and neither one had anything to do with the play. They could have stayed put. To be fair, some of those 13 penalties were questionable. The pass interference on Claiborne when he was injured should clearly have been offensive PI. And, on the play during the last drive where Ogletree dropped a touchdown pass, it would have been erased by a horrible “chop block” call that was no where near that. It was called on Felix Jones who was the first to hit the defensive lineman low – not a lineman already engaged in a block. It’s great to have the “real” refs back, but boy they sure aren’t perfect as this game illustrated.
> Ogletree/Austin. Are Dez Bryant and Jason Witten the only receivers on this roster? Since game one, Ogletree has been mostly non-existent except for stupid penalties at the wrong time. If he made us ask, “Laurent Robinson who?” after the Giants game, Robinson is likely asking “Miss me yet?” now (despite being sidelined with a concussion right now). Ogletree seems to have reverted to the confused player we’ve come to know the last few years. And, Miles Austin must have injured his hamstring so many times that he’s lost a step. Defenses will often focus on taking the main receiver away from an offense – that would clearly be Dez Bryant right now, but Miles does a disappearing act anyway. With only 2 catches on Sunday he now has 20 catches through 5 games in 2012. Bryant had almost that many in this Ravens game alone.
> Defense. This unit rebounded from the Bears debacle and played much better. But, they still fell prone to the big play and they gave up 24 of the 31 points the Ravens scored. That is just too many for an offense struggling to score points. And, they were “helped” somewhat by the fact that the Ravens barely ran a play on offense the entire 3rd quarter. Baltimore had 3 yards total offense in the second half with 8 minutes remaining in the game and was clinging to a 24-23 lead. When they needed a stop in the worst way, the defense let them go down the field and score a touchdown.
> Special Teams. Wow. This unit has been atrocious this year. Is it DeCamillis fault? Or, has the overall lack of depth on the roster caught up to the Cowboys? Blocked punts for touchdowns. Fumbled kick returns. An NFL record 108-yard kick return for a touchdown. This team is just not good enough to overcome those kind of mistakes against good teams. Just make a tackle on Jacoby Jones’ return and the Cowboys come out of Baltimore at 3-2. Whether it is practicing more, better coaching, or using more veterans on special teams, the Cowboys need to fix this and now.
> Pre-Snap Execution. The Cowboys have a major problem and it has been going on for at least 2 years. It seems to take far too long to get a play in from the sideline. Then, once the team is at the line, a wild series of getting personnel in the right formation, calling protections out, changing plays or faking the audible ensues. Usually the Cowboys finally snap the ball with less than 5 seconds left on the play clock. Tony Romo often looks like an epileptic traffic cop. And, then, oh yeah, he has to snap the ball and actually run the play and hope everyone is on the same page – too often they are not. I’m certainly no expert and I get that NFL defenses are very sophisticated, but we have to find a way to simplify this whole process. The Cowboys offense is trying to be so sophisticated they can’t get out of their own way. I don’t see other teams doing anything like this, so I know it can be done.
The other thing to consider here is that a lot of teams call 2 plays in the huddle. When you hear Romo yelling, “Kill. Kill.”, he is signaling that he wants to switch to the 2nd play called. Depending on the alignment of the defense, a run might be a better call than the pass, or vice-versa. That makes a lot of sense for an offense that isn’t so dysfunctional. And, while he’s clearly a talented athlete, I wonder if he isn’t making some judgement errors when he switches out of the play that was called. Perhaps, they should simplify the game for Romo – take away the protection calls and give that back to the center. Take away the 2 plays in every huddle and develop a simpler audible system. Garrett played QB in the NFL but he’s supposedly a genius (I’ll address that in a minute). I’m not sure Romo is a football genius and maybe Garrett is just asking him to do too much. Let’s call a higher percentage play and take our chances unless it is an obvious miscall – a run into an 8-man box or a deep throw against a blitz. Even a high school football team has an audible system for that. It appears Garrett has this team trying to do Football Calculus 3, when they don’t seem to have mastered Football Algebra. Simplify it to a point they can handle it Coach Garrett and then build from there. Show some common sense and flexibility, adapt your style to your team’s abilities, and stop telling fans you just need to “keep battling”.
> Clock Management. Okay, here’s the obvious one on everyone’s mind. Jason Garrett is in fact likely pretty smart. But, I just don’t think he is good under pressure. What we saw in terms of clock management at the end of the game on Sunday was a complete fail. Once the Cowboys recovered the onside kick, the interference penalty put the ball at the Ravens’ 35-yard line with the clock stopped at 26 seconds left. The Cowboys still had a time out left so Garrett decides to throw an inside slant to Bryant that gains one yard. The other receivers ran long routes. There were still 21 seconds left after Bryant was tackled and the Cowboys didn’t get another play off before calling their last time out with 4 seconds left. For the math challenged, that is a full 17 seconds that elapsed. INEXCUSABLE! Garrett explained after the game that they couldn’t get the players unpiled and back on the line in time, but the tape shows the entire team standing there with over 10 seconds left waiting for direction.
So, two questions. If you knew you were going to run an inside pattern to Bryant, shouldn’t you have been prepared to burn your time out there? Or, could you have run a different play that utilized the sideline or had all receivers running shorter routes so they could get back on the line of scrimmage? They had plenty of time to work all that out while the penalty was being announced but apparently Garrett didn’t. I think he froze. Instead of trying to pick up a few more yards, he decided Bailey had a good chance of hitting his career long FG in a windy, outdoor stadium. Clearly, he was wrong. Smart guy, just not a good decision maker under pressure. Nor does he learn much from his mistakes based on history.
So, let’s head to Carolina and get back to .500. Simplifying all that Tony Romo has to think about at the line would go a long way toward that objective. Go Cowboys!