There really aren’t multiple volumes of this article – but there certainly could be. I could fill a set of encyclopedias if I listed all the missed chances so far this season. But, let’s just focus on the latest bitter, disappointing loss to the Falcons.
First, let me pause to congratulate Jason Witten for passing “The Playmaker”, Michael Irvin to set the team record for career receptions. Witten is an absolute warrior missing only a single game in his illustrious career so far. Way to go Jason! Keep up the good work. Let’s hope we can get you a ring before you hang up the cleats for good.
So, now let’s list a few of my favorite missed opportunities from just the first half Sunday night:
Miss 1. The Cowboys started the game strong like a team whose backs were against the wall. The defense forced a 3 and out and then Dwayne Harris delivered an outstanding 37-yard punt return to give the Cowboys great starting field position at the Atlanta 32. The offense then marched to the Falcon 5 where Romo rolled left evading the rush and seemed to have a clear shot at running it in if he had gone for the corner. Instead, he pulls up and tries to dump a pass into the corner to the 5’11″ Cole Beasley. Incomplete. Dan Bailey FG. The Cowboys were rolling and could have – should have – jumped to a 7-0 lead.
Miss 2. On the third play of the Falcons second possession, Matt Ryan tries to dump a short pass off to Michael Turner. It’s a little high but it volleyballs into the air off his hands and floats to the turf at the feet of three Cowboys. It seems like almost any other team gets to that ball or has it bounce to them, but not this team. A strong start could have become insurmountable if the Cowboys had picked off that pass. Instead, the very next play Ryan connects with Julio Jones for 36 yards despite interference from Mo Claiborne (who by the way had a fairly awful game all around – lots of room for improvement in this rookie’s game). This drive ended in a missed FG as the defense stuffed the Falcons on 3rd and 1 keeping the momentum solidly behind the Cowboys. The drive ended in no points, but an interception inside Falcons territory would have been meaningful.
Miss 3. On the ensuing possession, the Cowboys strike for a 65-yard completion to Kevin Ogletree (yes, he is still on this team) on a 3rd and 20 from their own 17-yard line. He is well behind the defense but has to wait for the ball which drops in slightly behind him and to his right. (Call this Miss 3a). He stumbles after making the catch and is touched down at the Atlanta 18. Had he caught it in stride, this is an easy touchdown. The Cowboys followed up that play with a dropped pass by Lance Dunbar that would have been a first down and then a tipped pass that Romo was lucky was not intercepted. Instead of cashing in on the long Ogletree catch, the Cowboys settle for another FG and a 6-point lead. With the defense playing the way they were, I believe a 14-0 or even a 10-o lead might at this point have been more than the Falcons could overcome. But, that wasn’t to be and the quarter ends instead with the Cowboys up 6-0.
Miss 4. After a Falcons FG to cut it to 6-3, the Cowboys offense is back on the field and drives to the Atlanta 44. There, Tony Romo throws an interception that is nullified by a penalty on Atlanta. The next play, he throws long to an open Dez Bryant who has gotten behind the secondary. At the last second, Asante Samuel swoops in and almost intercepts the ball before dropping it in the end zone. I can’t blame Dez too much on this play because Samuel seemed to come out of nowhere, but with Dez’s size he certainly could have gone up after the ball instead of waiting for it to drop to him (like he went after the ball on the last play against the Giants coming within a couple of fingers of victory). On third down of this same drive, Kevin Ogletree drops a ball that would have kept the drive alive. Instead, Dan Bailey tries and misses a 54-yard FG. It could have been as much as 17-3 or 21-3 at this point.
Miss 5. The Falcons take over on their own 44 after the missed FG and on the second play, DeMarcus Ware is left unblocked and simply crushes Matt Ryan who fumbles the ball. The ball bounces forward where Josh Brent sticks out a paw and misses and two Falcons eventually fall on the ball. This is another clear piece of evidence of the curse that is on this team. Having just watched the Giants-Steelers game, I am absolutely convinced that had it been the Giants, the ball would not only have been recovered by them, but probably would have bounced straight up in the air and lodged in a Giant player’s facemask before running it back for a TD. If the Giants are indeed the luckiest team in the NFL (and I believe they get every possible call and bounce their way), then the Cowboys are one of the unluckiest. Recover this ball with almost 9 minutes left in the half and the Cowboys offense is starting at midfield and has a chance to add to their lead. The defense stiffened and forced a punt after one more first down but the Cowboys started their next possession at their own 3 instead of somewhere near midfield.
Miss 6. The offense gets two first downs and faces a 2nd and 9 at their own 49. Cole Beasley catches a pass and appears to get enough for the first down. But, a terrible spot by the referee sets up a 3rd and 1. It was not yet under 2 minutes left in the half so the Cowboys could have challenged the spot. Instead, they lined up with an extra tackle and promptly got stuffed for no gain. Why wasn’t someone in Garrett’s ear advising him to challenge the play? Instead the Cowboys punt and with 1:03 left in the half, the Falcons start from their own 12. They get one first down and move to their own 37 calling their second time out to stop the clock with 29 seconds left in the half. Ryan then is forced to scramble and slides down with 17 seconds left. He would have either had to clock the ball using up more time to get everyone back at the line of scrimmage or call his last timeout. Unfortunately, Jay Ratliff is hurt on the play and clock is stopped. The clock is stopped again after a 12-yard completion with 9 seconds left when Brandon Carr is called for defensive holding on the play. That allows the Falcons to run one more play – a 15-yard completion – calling their as yet unused third timeout and setting up a game-tying FG as the time expired in the half.
The half ends 6-6 but we still have a ball game. That is only the first half. In the second half, the defense started to tire and some huge mistakes were made at bad times by Orlando Scandrick – missing a tackle and then extending a drive with a penalty. The offense which had been able to move the ball suddenly decided it was time to establish the run. Romo was clearly frustrated when with 14 minutes to go in the game facing a 2nd and 10, Garrett calls a running play that loses 3 yards creating a tough 3rd and 13 situation. Romo completes a pass to Miles Austin (who also had a bad drop in this game) for 10 yards, but it leaves them 3 yards short and forces a punt.
The very next possession after giving up another FG and being down 16-6, Garrett finally realizes that the strength of this team right now is the passing game. It is what brought us back against the Giants last week and it is what produced our only touchdown of this game. The Cowboys drove 75 yards in 6 plays scoring on a 21-yard pass to Ogletree and closing to 16-13. Was that really so hard to figure out? The Cowboys went no-huddle and threw the ball. That may not be how you want to approach every game, but right now it is all the Cowboys really have. A good coach or offensive coordinator adapts the plays to his personnel. But, not Garrett – at least not often enough or early enough.
In the end, the tired defense could not get off the field and the offense only had :17 left when they got the ball back. We then got to enjoy them throwing 5 yard passes with 80 yards to go in 17 seconds. Kind of pointless. Like this season is quickly becoming. And yet, Jerry continues to grin and talk about “heading in the right direction” while Garrett continues to talk about “the great challenge X team represents”. More and more of the same.
The biggest missed opportunities are represented by what the rest of the NFC East has done the last 2 weeks. Last week, the Cowboys had a golden opportunity to pick up an entire game on the rest of the division. Instead, it was the Giants who got it done. This week, once again the Giants, the Eagles, and Redskins lost. Get a win, and they close the gap they now have with the runaway Giants. But, once again we see that close doesn’t count for much.
The Cowboys have come through the toughest part of their schedule. The defense is playing really well. If we can get the offense to contribute scoring touchdowns instead of field goals and avoiding turnovers, the Cowboys have every possibility to still make a run at a playoff spot. But, any margin of error they might have had is gone. They likely will need to win at least 7 of the next 8 games to have a shot. Can they do it? Mathematically, yes. Will they??? Go Cowboys!