Sunday, September 26, 2010

Houston, you have a problem: Dal 27, Hou 13

The Dallas Cowboys were courteous enough to allow their neighbors in Arlington a moment in the sun yesterday as baseball's Texas Rangers clinched their first AL West crown in 11 seasons. But after allowing the metroplex less than 24 hours to celebrate the return of post-season baseball, the Cowboys returned the area's focus to football yet again.

Dallas reduced the Houston Texans to stepchild status in the battle for the Lone Star State with a 27-13 win, giving Dallas its first victory of the season while Houston suffered its first loss. Tony Romo connected with Roy Williams for two TDs, first-year placekicker David Buehler quieted his critics with a pair of long field goals, and the defense snatched its first three takeaways of 2010.

It's more than just the first win of the season. It's the all-around good game the Cowboys needed if they want to fulfill the dream of playing a Super Bowl in their home stadium. Let's be clear, however. Realizing that dream is still a long way away, and with 13 regular season games to go, Dallas is merely a fraction of the way there. Still, returning to the top of the division is a lot easier when you avoid falling to 0-3 to start the season.

It might be easy to get caught up in the return of what was an offseason full of Super Bowl hype surrounding the Cowboys. There will certainly be plenty of talking heads proclaiming the Cowboys to be officially back on track, but it takes more than a Week 3 win to earn a playoff berth. Dallas needs to put the blinders on and ignore that hype, ignore that talk which might be tough considering it will build for two weeks through the bye until the next game on October 10.

The Cowboys have three of their next four games at home and can realistically win all four games to find themselves at 5-2 at the end of October. They could also flounder in those games with only a home date with Jacksonville on Oct. 31 as what you could call a "sure thing" win. (Then again, didn't we think that about the Rams game a few years ago?)

There's a lot of potential for the Cowboys on the road ahead. Today they were fortunate to realize some of that potential while erasing the sour taste left by a pair of losses to Washington and Chicago.

A few thoughts and notes from a must-win game in which the Cowboys came through:

+ Roy Williams has needed a game like this since the trade that brought him to Dallas from Detroit in 2008. The former Longhorn caught five balls for 117 yards -- a personal best since joining the Cowboys -- and a pair of touchdowns, including a 63-yard breakaway that helped put Houston away with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Williams has endured plenty of criticism since joining Dallas and signing a big contract extension with little results. A game like this will hush the talk of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant being the No. 1 and No. 2 receivers for Dallas.

+ While Miles Austin had a quiet afternoon (2 catches for 20 yards), the rookie Dez Bryant continued to cause match up problems for smaller defensive backs. Bryant caught four balls for 50 yards, bringing him to 14 catches and 158 yards through three games. Glass half full, he nearly had a pair of TD catches against Houston except he was called for illegal touching when he was forced out of bounds and came back in on a 37-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter. Bryant came down with another deep ball from Romo but was out of bounds on the front pylon of the end zone when he made the catch. It's two plays where as Bryant become more aware in the NFL, he will be sure not to allow defensive backs to use the sideline as an extra defender. For now, it's still progress for #88.

+ After losing the turnover battle the first two weeks of the season (-1 in Washington, and -3 against Chicago), it looked like Dallas may have to endure another season where the defense can limit its opponents on the scoreboard but can't provide the offense with a short field. The Cowboys took the ball away from the Texans three times to be +3 in turnovers, picking off Matt Schaub twice and forcing a fumble from the NFL's leading rusher Arian Foster. Mike Jenkins made the first INT which helped wipe away the memory of his illegal contact penalty that gave the Texans a fresh set of downs around midfield. It was on an overthrown ball from Schaub, but Jenkins was able to stay with it to ensure the Cowboys kept Houston off the board on that drive.

+ The Cowboys were able to generate 101 yards on the ground this week after running for only 36 against the Bears in Week 2. It's still not enough of a ground game to truly make opponents bite on play fakes. Instead the Cowboys were able to victimize a younger secondary through the air more despite what the ground game was doing rather than as a result of it. For now, that's fine, but perhaps Jason Garrett should pick one running back and let him get some moment as a feature back instead of going with this tricycle.

Dallas Rushing
M. Barber17553.2112
F. Jones7436.1015
T. Choice242.003
T. Romo1-1-1.000

Felix Jones provided a healthy yards per carry average, and maybe he can be what Julius Jones was not in 2007 when the Cowboys used Julius to start and Marion Barber as primarily at the end of each half to wear down an opponent. If we're not going to see Felix more prominently in the backfield, it'd be nice to see him back on the kick return team as he has already proven he is capable of taking a kick off to the house.

+ Just a funny moment from the referee asking the fans to "excuse me for a minute" when he needed to confirm the numbers of penalized players on the kickoff following Houston's fourth quarter field goal. I've never seen a ref more tempted to say, "Ah, $#@& it," instead of announcing the actual penalties.

+ Speaking of penalties, the Cowboys earned a win despite plenty of ugly penalties. Dallas was fortunate in holding Houston to a fourth quarter field goal which kept the Cowboys out in front by 11 after a Keith Brooking pass interference penalty was offset by a Texans holding penalty. Here is a look at the Cowboys penalties and penalty yards through the first three games:

Week 1@Washington1281
Week 2CHICAGO650
Week 3@Houston849

+ Kicker David Buehler, in his first year as placekicker, made a 49-yard field goal to close the first half and tacked on a 40-yard kick in the fourth quarter. After starting the year 2-for-4 with a pair of misses that changed how the Cowboys approached the end of each of the first two games, Buehler first-half ender was a nice appetizer for later this season when he will be called upon for more important kicks. It was good to see him get this opportunity after the Cowboys passed on long field goal attempts on their opening drive, opting to go for it on fourth down twice.

The Cowboys are 1-2 on the year, and with three of their next four games at home -- and the one road trip at what doesn't look like the intimidating return to the Metrodome in Minnesota that we might have been expecting before the season -- Dallas has a legitimate chance for a 5-2 record. Here's a look at what lies ahead for the Cowboys after next week's bye:

DateOpponentTime (CT)
Oct. 3BYE--
Oct. 10TENNESSEE3:15 pm
Oct. 17@Minnesota3:15 pm
Oct. 25
Nov. 7@Green Bay8:20 pm

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Party like it's 1999!

The Texas Rangers are American League West Champions!


For the only franchise in Major League Baseball that hasn't won a playoff series and has but one post-season victory to their name, Saturday's division-clinching 4-3 win in Oakland put this much maligned franchise back into the postseason for the first in 11 years. Consider that Michael Young was 22-year old prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays system when the Rangers last played October baseball in 1999.

That franchise promote the "Red October" but the Rangers have changed more than the color of their uniforms since that time. Fourth-year manager Ron Washington becomes just the second skipper in franchise history to guide Texas to the postseason, this coming after a tumultuous start to the year with his admission to using cocaine. The Rangers entire franchise was up in the air -- up in bankruptcy court -- in August, but team president Nolan Ryan's group was able to stake their claim to the club, eliminating one more distraction.

In the end, closer Neftali Feliz set a new MLB rookie record for saves with 1.1 innings of work to close out the Athletics after Jorge Cantu, a mid-season acquisition from the Florida Marlins, twice put the Rangers ahead in the clinching game with an RBI single and a solo homer in the eighth inning, his first as a Ranger. Cantu, who hadn't driven in a single run with Texas all season, was becoming more than a question mark in terms of earning a spot on the playoff roster. In fact, this tweet by Rangers TV play-by-play voice Josh Lewin on Friday pretty much sums it up:

"seeing jorge cantu knock in a run as a ranger is getting pretty high on my bucket list- somwhere betw visiting australia&jamming w ben folds"


It's a big win for the Rangers because it gives them the spotlight in the hyper-competitive DFW sports market. The Rangers were fortunate to take care of business while the 0-2 Cowboys still have the area not quite eased into the NFL season. For too long the DFW metroplex turns it attention away from the Rangers with the division still up in the air, but the Cowboys slow start has allowed Arlington's original team the chance to shine.

The playoff rotation has been announced, as Cliff Lee, CJ Wilson and Colby Lewis will start Games 1-3 for Texas. The ALDS series will start Oct. 5 in either Tampa Bay or New York.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Can't Bear it: Chi 27, Dal 20

Another week of mistakes mixed with some bad bounces (well, bad tipped passes) that led to an 0-2 start for the Dallas Cowboys. Chicago nabbed their third takeaway of the game in the fourth quarter when Charles Tillman stripped Roy Williams on a play where his forward progress appeared to be stopped, halting what Cowboys fans thought might be a game-changing drive. The Bears came to Cowboys Stadium and left with a 27-20 win, dropping Dallas harder than the Big D defensive line dropped Jay Cutler in the first quarter.

The Bears led 20-17 in the fourth quarter when David Buehler, a second-year player but in his first season as a place-kicker, hooked a 44-yard field goal attempt (we've seen this before in Dallas) that could have tied the game with seven minutes to spare. Instead, Chicago took over at their own 34 and Cutler passed them into the endzone for what would end up being the winning points for Chicago.

My initial thought - especially after in the Cowboys last-ditch drive saw the refs wind the clock on a Martellus Bennett catch where he got out of bounds but his forward progress was in bounds - was that Williams had his forward progress stopped on the fumble, but it's not a challengeable play, and the ball was clearly out before Williams was down. Forward progress or not, Williams has to hold onto the ball, and it's the second straight week a Cowboys player has been stood up as the defense flocked to him to force a fumble. Last week it was Tashard Choice on the ill-advised play to end the first half.

Dallas was the first team to ever reach the Super Bowl after an 0-2 start, reaching the big game in 1993 after Emmitt Smith held out during the first two weeks of the season. That Dallas team was able to overcome the preseason hype of being a Super Bowl team to make it to the Super Bowl. That Dallas team also had (at least) three future Hall of Famers on the offensive side of the ball. The 2010 version should not be confused with that 1993 incarnation until they prove otherwise.

Yes, two of Dallas' turnovers were tipped balls, some of those flukey bounces that happen in the game of football. Sometimes the ball will bounce the other way and into a Cowboys arms for an ill-deserved first down. Other times, like on this Sunday, it falls into the unsuspecting hands of a defensive back, which is how DJ Moore finished the game with two interceptions for the Bears.

For the second straight week, the Cowboys did not take away the football, losing the turnover battle (-3) and the game. And despite what seemed like relentless pressure from the defensive line against Cutler in the first quarter, the Cowboys had only one sack in the game and failed to keep that pressure on him into the second half. Defensively the Cowboys had some flashes of strong plays, but overall they couldn't make the game-changing plays the team desperately needed a close game. Special teams had the big punt-return TD but another season with a shaky kicker is not something a team with Super Bowl aspirations can sit on.

Last season, the Cowboys were 2-2 through the first four weeks, not righting the ship until Miles Austin's breakout game in an overtime victory in Kansas City, a game that started a string of six Cowboys wins in seven games taking them through Thanksgiving. The Cowboys are facing a tougher schedule this season, and are going to need a similar defibrillator-game like the Kansas City game to jump-start this season.

Breaking it down, here's a few notes from the second loss of the season (something that Dallas didn't suffer until Week 15 three years ago):

+ Let's try to get a little glass-half-full to start things off. Two rookies came up with a couple of big plays for the Cowboys, notably the two Dallas TDs. Dez Bryant put the Cowboys on the board in the first quarter with a 62-yard punt return TD, his first career TD, that shaw him burst up the left side and put a nice shake move on the punter to get past him for the final 20 yards. Last season, Patrick Crayton took back a pair of punts for touchdowns while serving as a reliable No. 3 receiver. Through the first two games, it's safe to say Bryant has what it takes to fill that void (not to mention the ability to unseat Roy Williams as the No. 2 receiver if he keeps it up). The first-round pick finished with a pair of catches for 52 yards as well.

Chris Gronkowski, a rookie tight end, introduced himself to Cowboys fans with three catches for 31 yards and a second quarter touchdown that gave the Cowboys a 14-10 lead. Depending on Jason Witten's status after being knocked out of this week's game, Gronkowski might see added responsibilities in upcoming weeks.

+ Speaking of Witten being knocked from the game, as much as it would have been great to see him come back to the game, if the Cowboys are going to recover from an 0-2 start, they will need a healthy and lucid Jason Witten to do so, not a Jason Witten doing a Troy-Aikman-four-concussions-later impersonation. That one doc on the Dallas sideline certainly seemed to take an earful from Witten, but they kept him from returning to the field, which is - big picture - the right move.

+ The offensive line looked dramatically better this week. Perhaps that's because Marc Colombo and Kyle Kosier were back in the fold after missing last week's game. If Alex Barron is on the bench, most Cowboys fans will most likely be happy with that. Colombo did get flagged for a false start in the game, but he's not costing you a game by holding on the last play so I can live with those 5 yards coming back.

+ When the Cowboys needed a well-timed three pointer, Buehler could not connect on a 44-yard field goal attempt to tie the game. He is now 2-for-4 on the season. It's a small sample size, but both misses have been late in games and changed how the Cowboys would have to approach the fourth quarter. Instead of a tied game with the Bears scoring a TD to go up by seven, their touchdown put them up by 10, making it a two-possession game and putting much more pressure on an offense that was able to move the ball but not move it into the endzone when it needed to. And if Cowboys fans aren't already sick of what appears to be the second straight season of "kickergate," Nick Folk made a 49-yarder for the Jets already today. Yes, that Nick Folk. Buehler is an asset for kickoffs as he proved last season when he led the NFL in touchbacks, but when Dallas has already lost a pair of 1-possession games this season, I'd take the reliable place kicker over a long leg on kickoffs every day of the week, and twice on Sundays.

+ Sticking with kicking. Buehler's pop-up kickoff attempt after the first Cowboys TD seemed like a nice gamble in theory, but if you're going to try a surprise onside kick, why not go for a true onside where the kicker drills the ball into the ground for a high bounce instead of a popup that can be fair-caught? Gotta believe that's on the coaches. I don't disagree with the gamble, but there's a reason that late-game onside kicks aren't of the pop-up variety.

+ Dallas looked like they'd be able to run the ball in this game, especially after three straight Marion Barber runs in the first half where the offensive line opened holes large enough that Nate Newton could fit through them. Barber gained 22 yards on those three consecutive first-half runs, which is almost three-quarters of the Cowboys total rushing yards (30) on the day.

+ The Cowboys defense had pressured the Bears early but the turning point seemed to be the first Chicago TD when Cutler found Greg Olson over the middle for a 39-yard touchdown against the Dallas blitz up the middle. After that point, the Cowboys seemed to sit back a bit on defense, giving Cutler the time to go to work.

+ By the way, did anyone get a very awkward feeling watching Joe Buck introduce the broadcast by saying "...and that's Troy Aikman. Old number 8. The old quarterback. Eight-rock. Eight-ball. Just stop me anytime you want." Maybe the teleprompter died, or maybe he just had a stroke. I haven't felt more uncomfortable because of a broadcaster since Bryant Gumble was calling games on the NFL Network.

Cowboys travel to Houston next week in the battle for the Lone Star State. Watching Houston beat Indianapolis in Week 1 and to see them battling the Redskins, and just now blocking a field goal, here in Week 2, this certainly won't be an easy match up for the Cowboys. The Texans are susceptible to deep passes, which means Jason Garrett should have a chance to stretch the field with deep routes to Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. It's tough to have a "must win" game in Week 3, but when you are 0-2 and realize that none of last season's 12 playoff teams began the year 0-2, the Cowboys need to take a win out of Reliant Stadium next week.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I'd be Lion if...

Lots of football fans felt some form of outrage of the perceived injustice in Chicago's 19-14 win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday. Detroit wide out Calvin Johnson hauled in the game-winning touchdown with :24 seconds to spare which would have put Detroit above .500 for the first time since the Nixon Clinton administration. Instead, the referees said that Johnson did not maintain possession through the catch, overturned the touchdown, and the Chicago Bears held on to win.

Sure, it sucks for the people of Detroit who, frankly, have needed a win worse than Cowboys tackle Alex Barron needs anonymity, but the refs got the ruling correct. Furthermore, this is a rule that - despite what many are saying - should not be changed in the offseason.

I know, I know. How can this be?! Clearly Johnson had the ball. Blah Blah. Just hear me out...

The entire purpose of this rule is to provide the clear, undeniable ability of a referee to determine the catch was made. Decisively. Conclusively. With a rule that dictates a receiver must control the ball through the process of the catch, there should be no doubt of if a player made the catch or not. I don't know if Johnson would have held on or not, but I know that the ground contacted the ball after the catch, and the ball came free, and the Johnson got up to celebrate. Perhaps it was a bit of salesmanship on his part, going immediately into the celebration because he knew that the ground was the primarily catalyst for the ball leaving his palm.

If Johnson had simply held onto the ball, it's an easy touchdown. He either A. felt the need to get up and celebrate early before ensuring he controlled the ball, or B. knew the ball was coming loose and tried to "sell" the play to the best of his abilities.

The NFL has these rules to ensure conclusiveness on these calls. It's the reason that the "force out" rule no longer applies and a receive MUST land both feet in bounds. It's to take away from the judgement of a referee that a receive "would have landed in bounds if" the defensive back hadn't pushed him out. That word "if" is the big problem. By taking out that "if" and making everything cut-and-dried, there is less controversy over these calls.

It's like baseball. A player is either safe or out. There is no tie (except for an All-Star Game Bud Selig would like to forget). It's either a catch or incomplete.

The purpose of the rule is to remove the gray area. It's black or white. Either or, but not both. And in Week 1, the Lions couldn't catch a break. Well, they could have, had they possessed it throughout the catch. Instead, their attempt to start the season 1-0 fell incomplete.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hold everything: Dal 7, Was 13

I sat on the floor against the wall, staring to the left of the television, replays of a blatant holding call in my periphery. And Chris Collinsworth said it best, noting that referees hate to have to throw a flag on the last play of a game, but there was no gray area on that play. Tony Romo's touchdown pass to Roy Williams with no time on the clock, a play that would have tied the game and set up a game-winning extra point, was nullified.

The Dallas Cowboys suffered through a rash of penalties and still had a chance to win in the game's final moments. Instead, Washington emerged with a deep exhale and the 13-7 win.

As for Dallas, they are 0-1.

The offensive tackle who that offensive tackle of a hold, Alex Barron, was highlighted throughout the NBC broadcast as the most penalized player in the NFL in recent seasons, even more so than former Cowboys tackle Flozell Adams. And while Adams may now be a Pittsburgh Steeler, even he wouldn't have made that costly play to negate the game-winning touchdown (but perhaps only because the play is blown dead and reset on a false start, and Barron committed a holding penalty).

Washington's season-opening win will be remembered as the "glorious beginning" of the Donovan McNabb and Mike Shanahan era, but for Dallas it's a gut punch loss to begin a season of Super Bowl aspirations.

Dallas has no one to blame but themselves, and it starts - as always - at the top. Yes, Mr. Fix It had his defense ready to play, limiting the Redskins to three field goals, one of which Shanahan took off the board after the Cowboys jumped offsides on the made kick. While the Cowboys only had one sack on McNabb, the secondary came through on multiple occasions, specifically Mike Jenkins who combatted consecutive throws to the end zone to keep Washington down.

But Wade Phillips, offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, and the rest of the Cowboys coaches have to be responsible for a team that not only commits 12 penalties for nearly 100 years, but also for calling plays that put the team in a position to fail. Getting the ball back before the half, the Cowboys did have a legitimate chance to get into field goal range, and in a 3-0 game, it's understandable the Cowboys would want to get points on the board before the half.

But on 1st and 10 from nearly midfield, a Barron holding penalty -- if only they we knew then what we know now, right? -- pushed Dallas back to their own 36 with :04 seconds left in the half. At that point, a 60-yard bomb to the end zone isn't really necessary and the three point deficit at he half isn't as big a deal. Now you just take a knee and go to the locker room, unless you're playing Madden, and the Cowboys were.

Romo drops back, gets flushed out of the pocket, flips to Tashard Choice who gets stood up by the defense and stripped by Dante Hall, who picks up the loose ball and takes it 32 yards the other way for Washington's only TD of the day. Whose fault is it? You can blame Romo for not just sliding when he knew the play wouldn't result in anything or blame Choice for not falling down with the ball after Romo's pitch. But the more appropriate culprit are the coaches that told the competitors on the field to "swing for the fences" when there was no need to even step to the plate.

The Cowboys had the opportunity to win the game. And when it came to the end of each half, with no time on the clock, the Cowboys made two of the biggest blunders this side of Leon Lett.

It's not my place to say whether Barron should or shouldn't have a job by Week 2. Coaches and an owner who places winning above all else will decide his fate. But the line du jour came from Collinsworth in the moments immediately following his game-losing holding call.

Mark Colombo, get well soon.

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