Sunday, October 12, 2008

Dal 24, Ari 30 (OT): Not-so-special teams

Gut-wrenching may be too cliche. Disastrous seems little overblown. Heartbreaker is too Pat Benatar. But whatever you want to call the Cowboys overtime loss in Arizona on Sunday, chances are you can find traces of that negative emotion throughout the game.

No one played even remotely near the level at which this team needs to be to advance in January - and that's the name of the game. Every aspect of this game for Dallas was not without its faults.

Offensively, Tony Romo could not protect the ball when he faced pressure, fumbling three times. Marion Barber had a pedestrian day running the ball, and if you take away his big touchdown on the dump-off pass, it was a forgettable afternoon for MB3. As for Fast Felix? Three carries for 22 yards and a strained left hamstring. The offensive line played up to its name. It was offensive to watch as a Cowboys fan.

Defensively, things were better, but not by much. The boys up front kept pressure on the former MVP QB Kurt Warner, and the Cardinals could not run the ball against Dallas. The Cowboys took the ball away three times, winning the turnover battle, 3-1, which is usually good enough to win the football game. But when all else is even, the deciding factor can often come down to that third element of football: special teams.

The Cardinals dominated this aspect of the game from literally the games first play to its last. From the opening kickoff return for a touchdown to the game-ending touchdown off a blocked punt, the Cowboys missed assignments all afternoon. Nick Folk did hit a clutch 52-yard field goal to force overtime, which shows his resiliency after his 37-yard miss earlier. The missed field goal was Folk's first miss of 2008, and rarely does a kicker make 100% of his field goals in a season. I'm not here to call for special teams coach Bruce Read's head - there are plenty of other Cowboys fans doing that today - but I'm inclined to agree with Patrick Crayton's assessment that someone needs there a** chewed out.

game recap: Dallas 24, Arizona 30 (OT)

A few other thoughts:
+ I'm surprised it wasn't brought up more during the game, but I don't think the Adam 'Pacman' Jones hotel fight drama was a factor in this loss. Don't even bring it up. The cornerback did his part to make it a non-issue for Dallas. The Cowboys were in this game, and while their focus was lacking, I don't think that can be pinned on Pacman's off-the-field issues. Once the game kicks off, none of that matters.

+ When Nick Folk lined up for his field goal attempt for send the game into overtime, I along with every other Cowboys fan had a flashback to him drilling two 53-yard field goals to give the Cowboys a win in Buffalo last season. The guy is clutch. For all the years the Cowboys went with the bargain option at kicker, it's nice to see their investment of a draft pick so nicely rewarded.

+ Seeing Mat McBriar's punt blocked to end the game was bad, but seeing him stay down was equally as crushing for the Cowboys. McBriar is a Pro Bowl caliber punter, and in a game where field position is so vital, the Cowboys are far better off with him than without him. Considering how bad the coverage and returning and blocking of special teams was, the only bright spots are the two guys who kick for the Cowboys.

+ I'm sure a lot will be made of T.O.'s sideline scene with Andre Gurode after Romo lost a fumble, and perhaps T.O. could have handled things in a more diplomatic way, but in watching the play live and seeing the replays, what was Gurode paying attention to? The ball was right in front of the Cowboy center, and he flat out did not see it.

+ Speaking of guys not seeing things, how many times did Romo get hit from the blind side today? Usually big Flozell Adams has his back (no pun intended) and keeps pass rushers away. Today, the Cards sped past the Pro Bowl left tackle, and when they weren't stripping the ball or sacking Romo, they were forcing him to move in the pocket and disrupting his rhythm.

+ It's amazing to think that Kurt Warner is in a small group of NFL stars who have won two MVP awards. Those "Greatest Show on Turf" days seem like a while ago, but Warner continued to get up after getting knocked down time and time again. The Cardinals will go as far as Warner will take them in 2008. How far can they go? Well, right now their four wins equals the numbers of combined wins of the three other teams in their division.

+ When Romo had time to throw, he was spreading the ball around well. Barber, Crayton and Miles Austin finished with touchdown receptions in this game. While Owens was again limited in his production, his frustrations better result more from the loss than his role in the offense.

+ Next week's game will provide a true test of the Cowboys character. The Rams won an emotional game on the last play against the Redskins to give them their first victory of 2008. They can either revel in their win and allow Dallas to stomp them next week, or they can use this as motivation to play in front of a crowd in St. Louis that finally has a reason to show signs of life - hey, as long as the team is doing it. Dallas has a great opportunity to announce their presence with authority. Dallas should dominate the "Sacrificial Rams" in the Ed Jones Dome on Oct. 19, but it will take a complete game to do so. If they put that game together, they can put these recent three sloppy games behind them and move on with their season. Another win like the one against the Bengals or a result like Sunday, and the Cowboys will fade fast in the NFC East.

If the Cowboys think they faced a tough week from the media after a win against Cincinnati, it's not going to be any better following a loss to Arizona. Here's what else is being said after a disappointing loss...

Kevin Sherrington wants to know who the new guy is under center...

His right hand packed in ice afterward, Tony Romo hid the famous dimples behind a mask.

Nothing to smile about anyway, right?

Not after you lose a sloppy overtime game to the Cardinals, 30-24, in front of a schizoid crowd of 64,389, half Cards, half Cowboys, polar opposites forced by wayward allegiances to sit side by side, cheek to cheek.

And if that scene wasn't weird enough, you witnessed the Cowboys quarterback's continued retreat into a shell.

The numbers say he completed 61 percent of his passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns in a 30-24 overtime loss to Arizona.

The body language? This is not the quarterback we thought we knew.

When he's feeling it, Romo wears his heart on his sleeve. He's an infectious presence on a team that has thrived on his enthusiasm. When he's happy, he chest bumps, he arm pumps, he bounces. A few times in his short, intense tenure, he's looked as if he might leap into an official's arms.

Question: Does that description sound anything like the Cowboys quarterback you've seen the last few weeks?

"Sporadic," is how Wade Phillips described Romo's play Sunday.

Jerry Jones said Romo "looks like a guy trying to compete and figure it out.

"The defense is throwing a lot at him."

The Cardinals' plan for the Cowboys sounds simple enough, of course, unless you're standing in the hot breath of it.

Still, for the most part, Arizona rushed four linemen as the rest of the defense dropped into coverage. As Romo bounced on the balls of his feet, looking for someone, anyone, to get open, the Cards' defensive front rapidly encircled him.

Result: They came at him from behind, where he's not feeling the pressure and consequently unable to squirt out of the rush's grasp, normally a strong point. They sacked him three times. Not only that, they blindsided him, forcing three official fumbles and one that didn't count because of a premature whistle.

Romo doesn't do a good job of protecting the ball as it is, and that was before he sprained a pinky in overtime. When he doesn't see the rush coming, he's particularly vulnerable.

And that's what he's looked like lately: a once-confident quarterback suddenly vulnerable.

Maybe he's thinking too much. Maybe he's worried what T.O. thinks.

Maybe he's overcompensating for turnovers. The most overblown stat of the season was his NFL-leading interception streak going into the Arizona game. Well, he didn't throw one Sunday. So much for that stat.

A sports culture primer on Romo: Like Don Meredith, a kindred spirit, he's the type of QB who's going to throw interceptions. He has to compensate by throwing touchdowns. For better or worse, he has to play like his idol, Brett Favre. Cut loose, let it rip, have a little fun.

Otherwise, he plays as if he's lost his confidence. And a QB with no confidence is lost.

For the record, Jerry doesn't believe in body language. He says he used to get critical letters about Troy Aikman's look, and he never paid them any mind.

But Aikman and Romo are two different kinds of quarterbacks. Aikman – stoic, aloof, cold-blooded – ran a highly efficient offense that needed his precision, not his personality.

These Cowboys make too many mistakes on offense to grind the ball down the field. They need big plays. They need big plays from their quarterback.

They need Tony Romo, the happy gunslinger who captured a fandom's hearts. Whoever this new guy is, it's not working out.

Mosley thinks the Cowboys are more lost in the desert than the Jews leaving Egypt...

For a few frantic moments Sunday, the Cowboys made you forget how pedestrian they've become. Marion Barber's mad dash to the end zone and a 52-yard field goal by Nick Folk at the end of regulation temporarily covered up another unimpressive effort.

But with one blocked punt return for a touchdown, the Cardinals delivered a jolt of reality. Arizona won the game 30-24, and any other result would've been a crime after watching the Cardinals dominate the second half.

The Cowboys probably should've turned the ball over four times in the first half, but they only had one. The aerial assault on what had been rumored to be an outmanned Cardinals secondary never materialized, and Tony Romo spent most of the day checking down to Barber.

Romo somehow always ends up with 300 yards and three touchdowns, but don't be fooled by those numbers -- or his 113.3 passer rating. He fumbled the ball three times, and was fortunate to lose only one. The only thing that prevented him from giving up a touchdown in the first half was the tuck rule, which makes less sense every time I see it called.

In fairness to Romo, his Pro Bowl-laden offensive line was dominated by the Cardinals' defensive line. Left tackle Flozell Adams offered little resistance as defensive ends Bertrand Berry and Antonio Smith raced past him. I've documented almost every Romo start since 2006, and I've never seen him take that much punishment. People want to ask where all the enthusiasm and child-like joy has gone. Well, getting hit in the mouth every other play isn't a particularly enjoyable experience.

Romo showed up to his news conference with a heavily bandaged right throwing hand. According to the Cowboys, he sprained his right pinky finger. And considering the punishment he took Sunday, he may have gotten off easy. Romo made an interesting statement when asked about the constant pressure he faced.

"I think there's a couple of things we've got to do to counteract ... one of our formations I think some of the teams are kind of getting a bead on," said Romo. "We'll rectify that this week and hopefully learn from it."

(Surely Romo's not suggesting that teams have figured out what the Cowboys' $3 million offensive coordinator is doing? After all, Jason Garrett was the hottest name in coaching last season.)

For a half, the Cowboys' defense returned the favor, hitting 37-year-old Kurt Warner almost every time he dropped back. The strategy of using press coverage on the Cardinals' dangerous wide receivers paid off, because it forced Warner to hold the ball longer than he wanted. Safety Ken Hamlin became the first defensive back to get an interception this season when Warner was slammed to the ground as he delivered a pass late in the first quarter.

The Cowboys opened the second half exactly as they did against the Redskins two weeks ago. Romo led the team on a 12-play, 77-yard touchdown drive that put the Cowboys up 14-7. But this team barely put the Bengals away the previous Sunday. On a play that a lot of people will forget about because of the wild finish, the Cardinals had a third-and-17 at their 33. Warner completed a short pass to rookie Tim Hightower in the left flat and he bulled his way down the sideline for 17 yards. It was an effort play that breathed life into the Cardinals' offense.

Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Todd Haley, who has done a remarkable job playing to Warner's strengths this season, wanted to go after Adam "Pacman" Jones, and that's who Larry Fitzgerald beat on a two-yard touchdown pass to tie the score. Haley was the passing game coordinator in Dallas when Romo replaced Drew Bledsoe in 2006, and he has an intimate knowledge of the Cowboys' personnel.

After the game, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones insisted that Pacman's fistfight with his team-hired bodyguard earlier in the week didn't serve as a distraction. I approached the cornerback as he slipped on some sunglasses (it's always bright in the visiting locker room), but he said, "I ain't saying anything."

My gut's telling me that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will suspend Pacman for at least next Sunday's game against the upstart Rams, but I didn't mention that to Jerry. He was busy justifying Sunday's loss. Asked if this team had met expectations, Jones said, "Yes. Absolutely. I wouldn't have thought we'd be sitting here 6-0."

In fact, Jerry even made the point that some early losses might be the way to go. Perhaps the Cowboys breezed through the 2007 season without enough hardships. Maybe you need an occasional bathroom brawl and a loss to the Cardinals to keep you honest.

"This kind of disappointment might prepare us better for the playoffs," he said. "No one's gonna fall on their sword over this game."

Maybe not. But if they can't clean up this mess against the Rams on Sunday, I'd at least have a sword or two handy. And if the owner comes to Arizona and handles a loss so graciously, maybe it's time to lower our expectations for this team. I know I have. Honestly, it was sort of refreshing to hear wide receiver Patrick Crayton showing a little frustration.

"Maybe we need our a---- chewed out or something," Crayton said. "You never know. Sometimes that jump starts something. We need to step up and play ball."

Crayton went on to say that the team "bops around" during practice and that the Redskins loss should've been a wakeup call.

"We hit the snooze button," he said.

With all due respect to Wade Phillips, the rear-chewers now reside in South Florida. The Cowboys embraced Wade's touchy-feely approach, so it's interesting to hear a player yearn for discipline.

Maybe this team needed a dose of reality. I remember at least two players talking about how they wished they could flash forward to the playoffs. Based on Sunday's performance, that seems like wishful thinking.

Stay tuned as Tuesday will bring my report from the cheap seats at Dodger Stadium and Sunday's NLCS playoff.  I thought Raiders fans or Eagles fans were bad, but when it comes to baseball, the Dodger faithful can get pretty darn ruthless.


Jessica said...

Two words: 1998 Playoffs.

Additionally, to comment on Dodger fans being ruthless: Raider fans are the worst. They make ruthless Dodger fans look like women arguing while having a tea party in Martha's Vineyard, Connecticut. At least we don't bust out the shanks and start stabbing each other. That's all I hear from Phillies fans that Dodger fans in their own house are out of order. Just grow a pair and deal with it - LIKE A MAN!!!

Josh said...

@ jessica:

Yeah, Raiders fans would scare me. But yesterday seeing a fan throw beer on a woman in a phillies shirt trying to take a picture with her friend was messed up.

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