What a difference a week and a win can make! Sitting at 3-5 and losers of 2 straight games and 4 of their last 5, the NFL had pretty much written off the Dallas Cowboys. The Giants had already been crowned as NFC East champs. Fans and pundits alike wondered aloud if Jason Garrett would be able to keep his job. Tony Romo was once again just the overhyped QB of the Dallas Cowboys and leading the league in turnovers.
A week later after soundly beating the Philadelphia Eagles 38-23, the tone has completely changed. Suddenly, all the sports shows are saying the Cowboys are poised to make a run as the most favorable part of their schedule kicks in. The Giants are now reeling after 2 straight losses and lackluster offensive performances out of “elite” Eli. Jerry Jones is now “fired up” about Jason Garrett and is no longer entertaining speculation on Holmgren or others.
This is definitely a very strange year in the NFL. Teams have looked unbeatable one week and awful the next. Go no further than last Monday night’s game between the Steelers and the Chiefs. No one gave the Chiefs any chance and only wondered how big the spread would be. Nasty weather and one injury to Big Ben later, the Steelers end up winning in overtime but look very beatable doing it. So, is all this sudden exuberance for the Cowboys warranted? Maybe. But, maybe not.
What the Cowboys accomplished on Sunday in Philadelphia was great. There is no doubt about that. Anytime you can get a division road win, that is a good thing. But, let’s be realistic for a moment. It may be the Eagles, but this is a team that is reeling. They’ve now lost 5 straight games and are likely headed for more. Their coach, Andy Reid most agree, is on his way out and has likely lost the team’s attention. Their inconsistent but dangerous QB Michael Vick went out early with a concussion leaving the offense in the hands of a rookie who prior to that time had not taken a regular-season snap in an NFL game. Their defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles, was in his third game after Juan Castillo was unceremoniously fired going into the Eagles week 7 bye.
If we’re completely honest, trailing the Eagles 17-10 about halfway through the 3rd quarter and not doing anything offensively, we were collectively feeling like we were watching our own season circle the drain again. But, then the heavens opened and Romo somehow engineered a scoring drive to tie the game and the defense and special teams took over from there. I’d forgotten what a punt return of more than 3 yards even looked like in silver and blue. Dwayne Harris delivered a 78-yard kick in the gut to the Eagles chances. It only got worse for them when our $50 million dollar cornerback, Brandon Carr, snatched a ricochet out of the air and returned it 47 yards for his first interception and first touchdown as a Cowboy.
Even at that point, no Cowboy fan could truly relax. I certainly didn’t. When the Eagles drove down and scored to pull within 8 points with just under 2 minutes remaining, visions of onsides kicks and overtime began lurking in the back of our collective heads. Only when Jason Hatcher recovered the fumble in the end zone with 52 seconds remaining did the realization sink in that not even the bad luck Cowboys could find a way this time to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory this time.
Only time will tell if this was actually a turning point in the season or another shameful, cruel tease. There is plenty to still give us cause for concern. I’m not one to typically focus on the negative, but having my heart ripped out of me over and over again by this team in the last 17 seasons since their last Super Bowl run, has made me a little cautious. Here are just a couple of things that still keep the Cowboy fan in me up at night:
1. Browns/Redskins/Eagles - Most conversations I’m hearing right now about the Cowboys seem to imply that winning 4 straight games is now almost a forgone conclusion. No doubt, this is a favorable part of the schedule with 3 straight winnable home games. But, since when has Jason Garrett shown he is capable of getting this team ready to play and take advantage of the situation? More often than not, we seem to play down to the level of our competition. And, as crazy as this season has been, there are no sure things. I’m also betting the Browns will have a thing or two to say about it before Sunday’s game is over. This has classic “just show up and win” attitude written all over it. After that, we have a short week and then face the Redskins on Thanksgiving. That is always a tough game for us and they have a very dangerous QB now in RGIII. The Redskins may be 3-6 but are completely capable of beating the Cowboys at home. Then, it is a rematch with an Eagles team that up until midway through the 3rd quarter looked capable of beating us. Will we get the same lucky bounces in the next game? As high as the league is on the Cowboys suddenly, we could just as easily be staring at 4-8, 5-7, or 6-6. Getting to 7-5 changes everything and I desperately want to see the Cowboys fulfill their expectations. But even then, the never-friendly month of December awaits with road games against Cincinnati and Washington and home contests against Pittsburgh and a suddenly resurgent New Orleans.
2. Penalties – Wow. One of the ways I evaluate a coach is the discipline of the team. The discipline of the team often drives the number of stupid penalties they get. What we saw on Sunday in Philadelphia was an embarrassment. I can’t recall ever seeing a cornerback called for offsides, but Mo Claiborne accomplished it twice – along with a handful of defensive holding and pass interference penalties – helping the defense register a total of 6 offside penalties in the game – most of which delivered a first down and kept them from getting off the field. How many times do you allow the QB to trick you with the “hard count” before you stay in your stance? In total, the Cowboys had 13 penalties and zero consequences for the offenders. Garrett has to get his team’s attention and do more than just talk about how they need to address it. Undisciplined, poorly coached teams make the kind of mental mistakes we continue to see week after week.
3. Injuries – As of right now, it looks like DeMarco Murray will miss yet another game. The Cowboys are being cautious with him but at some point you no longer have anything to save him for. Put him on IR if the injury is that serious or get him on the field – even if it is a lighter than normal work load. We are a different team when we can run the ball and as well as Felix and company have done at times, we need Murray. Don’t downplay the Kenyon Coleman injury either. We have capable defensive lineman, but our run defense is noticeably better when Coleman is in there. The others will now need to step up their game. Never thought I’d say it, but we missed Mike Jenkins last week and based on the up and down play of Claiborne and lately Scandrick, we need him.
4. Offensive Line – This ragtag group at midseason still appears to be a work in progress. At times against the Eagles it didn’t look like any of them actually tried to block anyone. If not for the feet and athletic ability of Tony Romo, they might have given up double digit sacks. We need Phil Costa back at center - as inconsistent as he can be at times, this group is better with him in the lineup. The Browns have 20 sacks on the year – tied for 16th in the NFL (Cowboys have 18 sacks by comparison) so they will be able to pressure Romo. And, controlling the pass rush often starts with opening holes for the running game – something our line just doesn’t seem to be 100% committed to doing.
5. Play Calling – Jason Garrett continues to amaze and disappoint me at times. Against Philadelphia, we had actually been running the ball fairly effectively. So, nursing a 10-7 lead and getting the ball first in the 3rd quarter, what does Garrett do to start the 2nd half? Of course, call 3 straight passing plays resulting in a 3 and out. The Eagles take a 14-10 lead on the next possession. Garrett continually seems to outsmart himself. It appears to me that he clearly doesn’t trust this team to continue to do something well and assumes that the opponent will be able to take it away from them by making adjustments. Sometimes, Jason, it is okay to keep doing what seems to be working (56 yards rushing in the first quarter alone and 81 total in the first half).
So, time will tell what we really have here. Can the Cowboys take advantage of the opportunity that is before them? It starts Sunday with the Cleveland Browns. Let’s hope so. Go Cowboys!