Sunday, November 22, 2009

Rival Survival: Dal 7, Was 6

The Cowboys and Redskins have enough history in the NFL's greatest rivalry, which is one excuse for why the Cowboys may have had so much trouble in edging Washington, 7-6, on Sunday. The more likely reason for the struggles lie within an offense than appeared more schizophrenic and sensitive than poised and balanced.

One week after offensive coordinator Jason Garrett was criticized for either an apparent unwillingness to commit to the run, he appeared to begin the game calling plays in an "I'll show you" mode. The Cowboys ran the ball a season-high 33 times against the Redskins, more than twice as many ground attempts at the 14 in Green Bay last week.

Dallas (now 7-3) began this week's game with 11 called runs in the first 14 plays, including the first-quarter drive with six consecutive runs that culminated with a Marion Barber fumble deep in Washington territory. Barber and Felix Jones worked the ground game despite little relief from Tony Romo and the air attack. Not a bad strategy considering the Redskins were 25th in the NFL in rushing defense coming into this week and were without Albert 'head-stomper" Haynesworth this week. If the plan was the run the ball down their throats, then so be it. I would worry, however, that perhaps Garrett's decision to run the ball so frequently could perhaps be in response to the rash of criticism he received over the last week.

But when Garrett turned to the air against Washington, it was Romo who failed to deliver for three and a half quarters. At one point, Cowboys play by play voice Brad Sham said on the broadcast that Romo was showing signs of why he was undrafted -- he simply couldn't hit any targets. It wasn't until the key fourth quarter drive that Romo came alive, and Garrett went back to his roots of passing, passing and passing.

Garrett called nine passes, as Dallas moved 60 yards in 4:25 to score the go-ahead touchdown. On the drive, Romo was 7-for-8 for 60 yards and the TD. Prior to that drive, his stats for the game were an ugly 8-for-19 for 98 yards with an interception. So while there is plenty of blame, frustration and disappointment to be directed at Romo and Garrett for a game that saw the offense again do its best Brad-Johnson-is-under-center impression, they must also receive the praise for dragging the Cowboys into the end zone when it mattered.

The way this game unfolded was very similar to the overtime win in Kansas City that sparked a four-game winning streak. It was a game the Cowboys were expected to win easily. Instead they struggled most of the game but eventually squeaked past an inferior opponent that they didn't necessarily deserve to beat. The emotion at the end of the game in Kansas City was overwhelming for Dallas. They poured off the sidelines and mobbed Miles Austin in the end zone, celebrating his breakout performance.

Perhaps today's win over Washington could mark yet another breakout performance for Dallas. Not for a budding young star, rather for the team's re-emerging quarterback who - based on his final drive - may finally be ready to shine yet again.

More notes on this rivalry review:

+ Cowboys Defense
Lots of disappointment early and often from the Cowboys offense, but on the other side of the ball, the defense played one of its grittiest games of the season, holding Washington to a pair of field goals. The six points allowed was a season-best for the Cowboys defense and fewest since a 34-3 Thanksgiving victory over the Jets in 2007. The defense still has problems of its own - albeit not as glaring as the offensive woes - but the Redskins were unable to consistently capitalize.

Orlando Scandrick seemed to be getting picked on by Skins QB Jason Campbell, and it was working. Scandrick would be a step or two behind his man, and Campbell was able to take advantage for a few yards here and a few yards there in the first half.

Washington players were frequently able to slip tackles and extend plays for extra yardage. Backup running back Rock Cartwright gained 140 total yards from scrimmage on 20 touches. Scary to think what a healthy Clinton Portis from four or five years ago would have been capable of on this day.

Still, it was the defense that came up with important plays when it mattered. They continually put pressure on Jason Campbell, however, he was able to escape several times from sacks. The defensive line did a nice job of leaping up to bat down balls, including a tip that led to the game-clinching interception.

+ Field Goals
Nick Folk missed a 46-yard field goal in a game where an extra three points would have taken some the pressure off the Cowboys late in the game. Then again, maybe the pressure was needed for the Cowboys to prove themselves offensively. Regardless, Folk's miss is disappointing as he no longer seems like the Nifty Nick that was oh so good the last two years. Where is the guy who drilled the 53-yarder (really, two of them) in Buffalo as a rookie to save that game?

Nick Folk's Career Field Goal Stats
SeasonFG AttFGMPct

This season Folk has made 73.7 percent of his field goals. In 2006, the year that saw Mike Vanderjagt and Martin Gramatica serve as place kickers during the season, the Cowboys were 20 for 28 on field goals during the season, for 71.4 percent. Folk is getting dangerously close to those numbers. I'm not saying he's about to get cut, but how would you feel if you were the Redskins today and a pair of misses cost you the game?

The Redskins left a few points on the field thanks to a pair of missed field goals by a one-time Cowboy Shaun Suisham. The Washington kicker missed from 31 and 50 yards on three-pointers that could have put the Skins over the top in this one. His first miss was tough to swallow because of the two hour delay while the refs riddled with replays and the correct line of scrimmage. The second just drifted on him.

Even if he connects on both of those, the Dallas defense could have given up a total of 12 points in this game. Granted, the offense has been out to lunch the last two weeks, and I realize it was against Washington, but a 12-point defense goes a long way in the NFL.

+ Reviewing after a delay of game

UPDATE (Nov. 24, 2:18pm):
Turns out that this play shouldn't have even been reviewable. The Redskins got to kick their field goal attempt from 10 yards closer than they would have had to if the officials had properly not reviewed the play. I get that Suisham still missed it, but that's a lot of extra yardage to give a kicker who could have added enough points to cost the Cowboys a win on an officiating blunder. If the Cowboys had lost, 9-7, to Washington instead of edging out the 7-6 win, there would be heads rolling not only here in Dallas, but also at the league office in New York.

For two weeks in a row, the Cowboys have had trouble with officials not knowing how or when reviews and challenges can occur. It's nice that the Cowboys are always featured with the No. 1 broadcast crews of FOX or CBS or whomever, but how about getting a No. 1 officiating crew at a Cowboys game at some point.

This game saw an awkward issue with instant replay (the second-straight week for the Cowboys) in the second quarter. On 2nd and 1 from the Dallas 21, Redsksins QB Jason Campbell was originally called out of bounds at the 26 before throwing the ball away. With Campbell under center on 3rd and 6 on the 26, the Skins were flagged for delay of game and moved back five yards. As they tried to get a field goal in, which almost saw a second delay of game called, the refs blew the whistle and announced a review of the Jason Campbell play.

While the correct call was made, overturning the Campbell run out of bounds as an incomplete pass, the refs tried to then enforce the delay of game on the would-be 3rd and 1 before some random guy in a blue NFL outfit came in on a cell phone to talk to the refs. They then announced that because of the replay that just took place, the delay of game basically didn't happen. Suisham missed a field goal after all the hoopla.

I realize that plays are reviewable until the next play begins and the ball in snapped, but something seems wrong about being able to take dead ball penalties (like false start and delay of game) where they would not count as plays, thus giving the refs or even challenge-happy coaches a chance to take another look at something. Shouldn't that delay of game attempt at running a play count as something and therefore the previous play would be unreviewable. As it stands now, no, but I wonder if this will get looked at in the offseason.

+ Wide Receivers
The Cowboys wide receivers were not to be found until the final play of the third quarter when Romo hooked up with Miles Austin for 23 yards. The completion brought a somewhat excited and somewhat sarcastic cheer from the fans at Cowboys Stadium. Austin finished with 4 catches for 47 yards. Patrick Crayton hauled in a touchdown on his lone grab, a 10-yarder. As for Roy Williams, he was held without a catch for the first time since his first game as a Cowboy - the debacle against the Rams, dude, in October 2008 with Brad Johnson under center. I don't know whether or not that stat shocks me. Not because Williams was held without a catch today, but more shocking that it really hasn't happened more often.

A breakdown of where Romo was throwing the ball:
Dallas Receiving
M. Austin44711.80237
J. Witten5438.60137
M. Bennett34314.30213
P. Crayton11010.01102
M. Barber188.0081
F. Jones177.0071
J. Phillips000.0001
R. Williams000.0004

A look at where Romo was throwing it by position:
Tight Ends
Jason Witten
Martellus Bennett
John Phillips





Wide Receivers
Miles Austin
Patrick Crayton
Roy Williams





Running Backs
Marion Barber
Felix Jones





This is not supposed to be an indictment on the receivers. Some of the passes to Williams were out in front of him, too tall, or simply a case of Romo hanging him out to dry and get his ribs broken. (What's that? He already did that? Moving on...)

The Cowboys didn't have any dynamic elements in the passing game other than the reliability of Jason Witten. It's great to have a world class tight end. Every quarterback in the NFL would love to have a Jason Witten to be able to get the ball to when there are no other options and the pocket is collapsing all around you. But when is the last time an NFL offense ran through its tight end? As much as I loved Jay Novacek, he wasn't the star of the 90s.

+ NFC East
Dallas730.7004-1-03-2-02-1-06-2-0231175+56Won 1
Philadelphia640.6003-2-03-2-02-1-05-2-0266204+62Won 1
NY Giants640.6003-2-03-2-02-1-04-3-0266235+31Won 1
Washington370.3003-2-00-5-00-3-02-6-0146178-32Lost 1

Dallas currently has a one-game lead in the NFC East with three division games still left on the schedule - two of which are on the road in December which hasn't been great for the Cowboys the last few years. The Cowboys have a chance to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the division with a Thanksgiving win over the Raiders, while New York must play in Denver in the Turkey Day nightcap, and Philly heads to Atlanta next Sunday.

The Cowboys have the easiest opponent and are at home on a short week that they deal with every year while the two closest foes in the division face challenging road tests next week. If ever there was a chance for Dallas to make a push for the division, this is that time.

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