They could have folded. They didn't. At least not until the very end after coming back from a 20-3 deficit right before the half.
The Cowboys had Thanksgiving dinner spoiled by defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans, 30-27. Roy Williams will catch plenty of flack for his role in the loss, and rightfully so, but the Cowboys also caught plenty of breaks from the Saints. It was tough to tell if New Orleans took their foot off the gas in the third quarter or if Dallas simply ramped up their efforts, or perhaps some combination of the two, but after slogging through the first 29 minutes and 17 seconds of the game, the Cowboys finally showed some signs of life.
Interim head coach Jason Garrett missed out on starting his tenure 3-0, and while his first victory can be attributed to the emotional swell of his first week on the job, and his second win can be attributed to playing the Detroit Lions, this game would have been by far the most impressive victory he could have added to his resume in his personal quest to retain the job on a permanent basis next season.
Dallas drops now to 3-8 on the 2010 season and that should stop any hallucinating talk of a massive table run into the playoffs. After the loss, Jason Garrett spoke of how there are no moral wins. Can you imagine what we would have heard from Coach Wade after something like this. Yes, there were some strong efforts to praise, but Dallas also caught a few breaks down the stretch as well.
A few thoughts on a crazy game that appeared to breathe live back into the Cowboys just as quickly as it then fumbled that life away:
+ Watching Jason Garrett wind up and chuck a pair of first-quarter challenge flags was certainly entertaining, however it left the Cowboys in a tough spot the rest of the way. In both instances, the officials made questionable calls that Garrett correctly challenged and won. The problem there was that the officials had demonstrated that they were having an "off" day, so to speak, and so why should the Cowboys be limited to only having one more challenge the rest of the game?
The first play challenged was 1st and 10 from the Dallas 28, and the Saints threw a pass over the middle that Devry Henderson corralled as Terence Newman rolled over him. The referees allowed the play to continue instead of making the blatantly obvious call that Henderson was touched down, and the receiver got up and flailed into the end zone for a Saints score. Now even though the Saints scored one play after a challenge ruled Henderson down by contact at the six yard line, the onus should not be on the Cowboys to have to waste one of at the most only three challenges to correct the officials.
Ever since the Ed Hocculli blown call between the Chargers and Broncos that cost San Diego a game when a play was whistled dead too soon, the NFL has encouraged its officials to err on the side of letting a play continue. The problem, however, is that referees now have the "out" that if they aren't sure about a call, a team can challenge it. That's not okay. The ref should be confident in what he saw, even if he's wrong, and make his call firmly. If he saw a receiver touched down, blow the whistle and don't allow the play to continue because, oh what the heck, it can just be challenged.
After the Saints scored on that possession to take a 17-0 first quarter lead, Jon Kitna threw a quick strike to Miles Austin for six yards which was ruled a fumble on the field. Replay clearly showed Austin down, and Garrett slung his second red challenge flag onto the field. The call was overturned, and Dallas retained possession. Still, the Cowboys shouldn't have been in the position of being out of challenges in the first quarter. Garrett was right to challenge. The officials were wrong for allowing the plays to continue when the right calls could have been made if not for the league's guideline to allow plays to continue if there is any doubt.
+ Okay, I had to get all that challenge stuff out of the way because going into this next topic was going to make my brain hurt. How Roy Williams didn't hold onto the ball is criminal for a football player. No, not football-criminal like O.J., but still pretty heinous for on-field actions. Williams said as much that he "lost the ballgame" for the team with his fumble, but apologies don't make up for costing the team what would have been the team's biggest home win of the season.
With a little more than 3 minutes left in the game and the Cowboys facing 3rd and 6 from their own 42 yard line, Kitna found Roy Williams on a quick slant. The cornerback slipped and Williams broke into the open field for a big 47-yard gain. He saw a defender on his right and switched the ball into his left arm where Malcolm Jenkins came from behind to take down Williams while ripping the ball out of the receiver's arm.
Roy has had his moments with the Cowboys, and he was strong early in 2010 for Dallas, but this might be his lowest moment with a star on his helmet. Immediate reaction toward Williams is going to continue to be hostile among Cowboys fans. Some could argue that many, many other plays factored into the Cowboys loss: not kicking a field on an early 4th down that went unconverted when 3 points would have been the difference in the game, deciding to punt in Saints territory in the second half, Buehler connecting on a 59-yard kick, or Reggie Bush not dropping a pass over the middle that he could have taken into the end zone (instead the Saints settled for a field goal). There were lots of plays in the game where things shoulda/coulda/woulda/mighta turned, but Roy's fumble was the moment that the game was lost.
Dallas could have been cozily in Saints territory with a clock that would have wound to under 3 minutes with a four point lead. Instead, the Saints took over, drove down the field, found the end zone, and took the turkey out of the Cowboys mouth. Ouch.
+ Kicker David Buehler had his own chance to be the hero in the Thanksgiving Day classic, but his 59-yard field goal try with under a minute left in the game fluttered wide left to preserve the Saints victory. The second-year kicker had the opportunity to silence his own critics - and at least stun Roy's - but was unable to convert. There is a reason 59-yard attempts aren't seen regularly. It's tough to hit from that distance. Buehler has the leg to do it. While he won't receive as much scrutiny for missing from that range, it is still another missed kick that could have changed the outcome of this game.
Buehler did have a strong 53 yarder in a similar situation in the first half. Cowboys in a hurry up offense mode with less than a minute to go, just trying to get down the field and somehow cut into the Saints 20-3 lead. Buehler was true from 53 yards as the first half clock expired. A solid kick, but Dallas could have used a second fifty-yarder. His penchant for touchbacks seemed to return on Thursday, one of the reasons the Cowboys carried the extra leg in 2009. Buehler boomed four kickoffs for touchbacks, starting the Saints on their own 20 instead of allowing what has been a shaky Dallas kick cover unit a chance to get gashed.
+ It wasn't all Dallas self-destruction however. The Saints tried to chip in their own failings. Specifically, Reggie Bush. After missing a chunk of the season with injury, Bush returned to the field and the thousands of Saints fans in Cowboys Stadium echoed the chant of "REG-GIE, REG-GIE, REG-GIE" as he set up to return punts. On 4th and 16 from the Dallas 26 yard line, Mat McBriar boomed a 64-yard punt to the Saints return man. Bush cut right and met reality-tryout-star-turned-special-teamer Jesse Holley, who forced a fumble that the Cowboys recovered deep in Saints territory.
Not only was it a great play by Holley, who is quickly establishing himself as more than a novelty on the field but actually a useful special teamer, but Cowboys Stadium then exploded into a sarcastic chant of "REG-GIE, REG-GIE, REG-GIE!" Six plays later, MB3 plunged into the end zone for what was hard to believe to be only his third rushing TD of the season. The previous drive, Bush dropped a pass on 3rd and 7 from the Cowboys 10 yard line that could have resulted in a Saints' TD. Instead, they settled for a field goal, and the four fewer points gave Dallas an opportunity to surge ahead.
+ By the way, how scary is that stat. Marion Barber took 12 weeks of the NFL season to get three TDs. This guy was in the Pro Bowl just a few years ago. Now he has barely been able to help the Cowboys, let alone even fantasy football owners. The days of "Marion the Barbarian" are far, far behind us. And yet he still stomps the ground with each seven yard gain -- which are coming fewer and farther between.
The Cowboys running game was bad. The stats say Dallas rushed 32 times for 144 yards (4.5 yards per carry). That seems efficient, but 60 yards of that were on the one end around run by Miles Austin to open the second half strong for Dallas. Then subtract another 20 yards on five scrambles by Jon Kitna, and you realize that the Cowboys only gave the ball to their running backs a total of 24 times for 64 yards, an average of 2.67 yards per carry. Thank you, JV squad.
It's tough to evaluate Tashard Choice as he was limited to just one carry from the one yard line, but he took advantage and squeezed into the end zone. With Marion Barber suffering a left calf strain in the Saints game, perhaps Choice will get a real chance to showcase his talents against the Indianapolis Colts next week. It's about time the Cowboys find out what they truly have in Choice, the same way they are finding out if Jason Garrett is truly head coaching material and not just a once-hot coordinator who may or may not get that "guru"-type of status back.
Dallas has to figure out its ground game. The offensive line seems to be doing better in recent weeks, but that still hasn't translated to success running the ball. I don't know if it's the backs, the plays being called, or some combination, but this is a problem that must be fixed before the Cowboys contend for Division titles again.
+ The Cowboys may have lost to the Saints on Thursday, but they had a chance to win at the end because they were fortunate enough to survive five fumbles that preceded the death blow drop by Roy Williams in the fourth quarter. Here's the five fumbles you probably forgot about (not counting the Miles Austin fumble that was overturned on Jason Garrett's second challenge):
1. 1Q, 3rd and 6, Dal 24 -- From the shotgun, Andre Gurode and Jon Kitna aren't on the same page as the snap goes past the unsuspecting QB. Kitna retreats back to the 7-yard line and dives on the ball. Instead of potentially converting and at the very least making the Saints cover more ground on their ensuing drive, Dallas punts the ball away on 4th and 23, and New Orleans started with a shorter field. New Orleans did end up driving 58 yards for a TD. The fumble certainly didn't help, and it only could have been worse had, I guess, the Saints scored sooner.
2. 1Q, 2nd and 10, NO 30 -- On the final play of the first quarter, Kitna hands off to Dez Bryant on an end around. Bryant drops the ball but it bounces right back into his hands six yards behind the line of scrimmage. Bryant picked it up and was able to get back to the line of scrimmage for no gain. Two plays later, Marion Barber was snuffed on 4th and 1 from the Saints 21-yard line.
The Cowboys forced a 3-and-out on the Saints ensuring possession.
A side note on that 4th and 1 from the Saints 21: It was early in the game and Dallas was already down 17-0. If it's late in the game, and you're trying to "make a statement" because you know the game is over, then sure, what the heck. But this early in the game, you "settle" for the 38-yard field goal try. It's easy to see a 3-point loss at the end of the game and look back to this point as an opportunity to get those missing points to tie the game.
You never know how NFL games are going to unfold which is why it's important to take the points in a situation like that. If you're on the goal line or the 3 yard line on 4th and 1 with room for a first down and four more tries to get into the end zone, I can understand going for it. But in this case, the Cowboys still had another 20 yards to go to get into the end zone, or else they'd have to settle for the field goal anyway if they don't end up converting on a potential 3rd and long in the next set of downs. This is one of those early head coaching lessons for Jason Garrett to learn. Take the points in that situation. Next time Dallas has a 4th and short in makable field goal range (under 40 yards), look for Dallas to kick, especially if it's early in the game.
An example of Jason Garrett learning this coming very, very soon in this blog.
3. 2Q, 2nd and 7, NO 9 -- A crucial red zone fumble that does damage the Cowboys chances to get back into the game at the time. Kitna is under center but the snap from Gurode is fumbled. Kitna falls on the ball, losing two yards and the Cowboys are unable to move the ball forward in the red zone. The next play is an 8-yard pick up down to the Saints 3-yard line. Those eight yards would have resulted in a touchdown from the Saints seven without that fumble. Instead the Cowboys settled for the points, kicking a 21-yard field goal on 4th and 1.
Cowboys might have retained possession of the football, but this center-quarterback exchange cost the Cowboys four points in a three-point loss on Thanksgiving.
4. 3Q, 1st and 10, Dal 35 -- The Cowboys have just stopped New Orleans on a 4th and 5 attempt, taking the ball away on downs. On the first play of the Cowboys drive, Kitna find Felix Jones over the middle for 13 yards before Sedrick Ellis jars the ball loose just shy of midfield. Jones falls on the ball, and the Cowboys drive continues instead of giving the Saints the ball back in Dallas territory. This was probably the closest of these five fumbles to being recovered by New Orleans.
5. 4Q, 4th and 4, NO 35 -- Dallas opts to punt and play defense instead of attempting what would have been a 52-yard field goal. Dallas is trailing 23-20 at this point with most of the 4th quarter still to play. Punter Mat McBriar bobbled the long snap and, feeling the rush of the Saints special teams, toe poked the ball down to the 14-yard line. What appeared to be a nice impromptu punt on a broken play turned out to be an illegal kick penalty. Rather than giving a former Pro Bowl punter a chance to re-kick and pin the Saints deeper, Sean Payton declined the penalty. The Saints started with the ball on their own 14 instead of recovering the fumble near midfield (remember punters stand about 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage, which was the 35). Three plays into the drive, Drew Brees threw deep and was picked off by Gerald Sensabaugh, setting up a 39-yard TD drive by the Cowboys.
Five opportunities for the Saints to regain possession with the ball on the turf. Five times the Cowboys regained control. At this point, you can almost argue that Roy Williams losing the ball on that fatal fourth quarter fumble was simply the odds stacking up against the Cowboys and the laws of probability. You can't put the ball on the turf that many times and not lose it once. And the Saints proved that by taking away the clincher from Williams.
What an emotionally painful game for Cowboys fans. On a Thursday where there was enough black and gold in the stands to make you think it could be a neutral site game, Dallas was on the verge of a signature win for their interim head coach. Instead their efforts to win go unfulfilled, and the team fell to 2-1 under "Garrett-top" after three games.
Next up, Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. Something tells me the Colts probably remember their trip to Texas Stadium in 2006 where a mid-season replacement QB Tony Romo and the Cowboys stopped the Colts undefeated season to week before Thanksgiving. Now Dallas is traveling to Lucas Oil Stadium. It's a down year for Indy, but if it's only a 'down' year for them, then the Cowboys are stuck in Death Valley. Even though these aren't the AFC frontrunner Colts of years past, a road win against Manning Almighty would still qualify as a "signature win" for the Garrett-era Cowboys.