As free agency winds down and we all wait for the announcement of the 2013 regular season schedule next week and the NFL Draft later this month, what better time to revisit a very painful time in every Dallas Cowboys fans life: the last game of the 2012 NFL season. Some – SOME – of the sting and disappointment has eased a bit since that Sunday night game on December 30, 2012 against the Washington Redskins. At least, I was finally able to go watch the game again that has been sitting untouched on my DVR since that fateful night.
(Side note: The irony just hit me that the Cowboys opened the 2012 regular season with the very first game of the year on NBC against the Giants and closed the season on NBC with the very last regular season game of the year – the season certainly started better than it ended).
For the second straight year, the Cowboys finished the season on the road against an NFC East division rival with a trip to the playoffs on the line for the winner. All most fans remember is this was what appeared to be another epic big-game meltdown for Tony Romo who threw 3 interceptions. Prior to this game, he had only thrown 3 interceptions in 7 whole games. But, watching this game again it became abundantly clear that his 3 interceptions don’t tell the real story. Let’s review how the game unfolded – brace yourself. The first quarter was like watching a train wreck in slow motion.
The game started well enough with the Redskins going 3 and out and having to burn a time out on the 2nd play of the game. Dwayne Harris received the punt near midfield and broke free down the right sideline being tackled by the punter at the Redskin 27-yard line. The Cowboys were in great shape it appeared. But, after a 2-yard DeMarco Murray run and an incomplete pass to Miles Austin on 2nd down, the ‘Boys faced 3rd and 8. That’s when Romo threw his first interception of the game. It came on the Cowboys’ third offensive play barely two and a half minutes into the game. It cost the team at least 3 points if not more. But, upon further review, this interception does not appear to really be Tony’s fault. The pass was intended for Kevin Ogletree who was lined up at wide out on the left side of the formation. At the snap, he drove hard right underneath Miles Austin’s pattern from the slot and headed for the middle of the field. There was no pressure to speak of on Romo and he threw it where Ogletree was supposed to be. For some inexplicable reason, Ogletree starts to hesitate just as Romo throws the ball which now sails a little high and wide. Ogletree puts one hand up in a half-hearted effort to catch what was still a very reachable ball as it sails past him and into the waiting arms of Richard Crawford, the Redskin defensive back. Worst of all is he appeared to be open and poised to pick up the first down if not more.
After the interception, the Redskins start their 2nd possession on their own 29-yard line and this time move quickly behind the running of Alfred Morris to the Cowboys’ 19-yard line before being stopped on a 3rd and 2 and forcing a field goal attempt. The Kai Forbath kick hits the right upright and bounces out. No good – and no real harm from Romo’s 1st interception. The game is still scoreless.
The Cowboys’ second possession starts on their own 27-yard line this time after the missed field goal. They pick up a first down on 3rd and 14 with a nice back shoulder throw to Dez Bryant for 23 yards. After a 5-yard run by Murray, they face a 2nd and 5 right at the midfield stripe. Miles Austin is split wide left and appears to have single coverage. He runs a stop and go route that does not fool Josh Wilson but right as Romo is setting up to throw the ball – which he typically would put out in front of Austin and let him run under it – Jason Witten of all people is knocked backwards into Tony’s face preventing him from fully stepping into the throw. Predictably, he short arms the throw and the ball is intercepted by Wilson. The Redskin safety is seen running up to the play well after Wilson has been tackled. So, Miles did have single coverage and with adequate protection, this was absolutely the right receiver to target. But, it never made it to the receiver.
Romo’s stat line at this point reads 1/5, 23 yards passing, 2 interceptions and Cowboy fans are collectively knotting the ropes and looking for a sturdy beam to throw it over – me included. But, this pick wasn’t technically Romo’s fault either. Give him adequate protection and this ball is either caught by Austin or is overthrown. But, it goes down in the books as two possessions, two interceptions. And a LOT of frustration for Romo, the Cowboys, and Cowboys fans.
The Redskins take over on their own 14-yard line so in many ways this interception was like a punt. The ‘Skins get a couple of first downs on this drive and get to the Cowboys’ 44 before punting the ball back. So, two interceptions by Romo in two possessions but still no points on the board for either team.
The Cowboys start the next drive on their own 11 and move to the Redskin 41 before Miles Austin goes down with an ankle sprain that would limit his play for the rest of the night. But, the drive ends with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Jason Witten from a scrambling Romo. The Cowboys have a 7-0 lead despite Romo’s two interceptions.
Unfortunately, the Redskins answer back on the next possession and Albert Morris ties the score with a 17-yard run capping off a total of 60 yards rushing in this drive alone and a 92-yard first half. The half ends at 7-7 but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The Cowboys’ defense had given up 124 yards rushing in the first half. Very hard to win any game when you are giving up chunks of yardage like that. Defensively, things did not improve much in the second half.
Neither team scored on their first possessions of the 2nd half, but the Redskins got moving on their 2nd possession and a one-legged RGIII scored on a 10-yard run to give the Redskins a lead they would not relinquish. The Cowboys got a 48-yard Dan Bailey field goal early in the 4th quarter to bring it to 14-10 but Washington scored another touchdown on a 27-yard Albert Morris run to build an 11-point lead at 21-10.
With a little over 8 and a half minutes left in the game, Dez Bryant hurt his back and his night was over. But, another good punt return by Dwayne Harris set the Cowboys up with a first down at the ‘Skins 16-yard line with just over 6:30 remaining. Despite a now depleted receiving crew (including Cole Beasley who came up limping after one incompletion), Romo managed to throw a touchdown pass to Ogletree and the 2-point conversion to Harris made it a 3-point game with 5:50 remaining.
At this point, the injury depleted defense rose up and got a rare stop forcing Washington to punt the ball back to the Cowboys with about 3:40 remaining in the game. That is when disaster struck for Romo and the Cowboys. No hiding from this one and no excuse. His third interception was a back breaker. After one quick first down, the Cowboys come to the line and Romo is seen giving DeMarco Murray instructions. It appears fairly obviously that he is telling Murray to run a swing pattern in the flat. Washington linebacker Rob Jackson sees it too. He starts to rush and then peels off to cover Murray. Romo never sees it and never looks at another receiver floating the ball out into the flat. Murray never has a chance to even try to catch it and Jackson gets Romo’s third and final pick of the evening. And, Cowboy fan’s hearts and heads were heard exploding all over America.
It wasn’t over yet though. Despite the short field, if the defense could somehow hold the Redskins to a field goal, Dallas would still have a chance. On 3rd and 7, the Cowboys get an incomplete pass forcing what should have been a much needed field goal attempt. But Jason Hatcher inadvertently hits RGIII in the head with his hand and the roughing-the-passer penalty seals the Cowboys fate.
We all know the rest. The Redskins score and get a 28-18 win, the NFC East division title, and a trip to the playoffs. Romo gets to add another notch in his “debacle belt” and heads into a long, cold off season with nothing to ponder but what might have been. And, he gets to endure all the criticism.
I’ve been as critical as anyone – wondering aloud and in print if Romo is one of those talented athletes that is good but not great. Is he another Danny White who played well but could not get his Cowboy teams over the hump? I’m still somewhat in that camp with Romo until he proves differently. But, going back and looking at the game again it is pretty clear that the 2012 team was done in at the end more by a very weak, injury-depleted defense. Romo’s final interception was a huge mistake at a critical time – no arguing there. But, had the defense been able to hold the Redskins under 200 yards rushing, that interception might not have happened or might not have been as important as it was.
I know – it’s all conjecture and what happened is what happened. But, those fans who still hold Romo and his 3 interceptions responsible for last season’s difficult loss to the hated Redskins, need to go back and take another look. Give this guy some decent protection and a line that can produce some semblance of a running game, and he can be a special player. Let’s hope all of the changes the team is making will deliver that. Go Cowboys!