Monday, November 22, 2010

Yes we McCann: Dal 35, Det 19

Channelling my inner Lou Brown from Major League, "That's called a winning streak."

The Dallas Cowboys gunned the engines in the second half and stormed away from the Detroit Lions in a battle of 2-7 teams each playing their backup quarterback. The Jason Garrett era continued to impress, and players who had underachieved throughout the first eight games of the season appeared to hustle (what a novel concept!) throughout the game. Heck, Mike Jenkins even made a hard-hitting tackle in the game.

It's hard to get too excited with a 35-19 win over the lowly Lions, but sadly this was a game between two last place teams, two evenly matched teams, and that's where this Cowboys season is. Now, if they can topple the defending champion Saints on Thanksgiving, then by all means, go crazy Dallas. But the now 3-7 Cowboys are at the point where players must simply maintain the mindset of "I'm playing for my job this week" every week throughout the end of the season.

In 2008, the St. Louis Rams fired their head coach a few weeks into the season and Jim Haslett took over. The previously winless Rams under Haslett won his first two games, beating the Redskins on the road and then beating the Cowboys in St. Louis (and it wasn't pretty by any means). The Rams went on to lose their remaining 10 games, finish 2-14, and they brought in a new coach the next year, blowing up what they had in place and slogging through 2009 before getting top pick Sam Bradford out of OU to help them right the ship this season in 2010.

So this is just a cautionary tail that while the Cowboys under Garrett do have two wins, impressive in many aspects but also faulty in others, it is a weekly battle to prepare and execute and cannot be taken lightly the rest of the way. We saw this team take it lightly through the first eight games, resulting in inexcusable losses at Washington, at home to Tennessee and of course that embarrassing loss to the Jaguars. We've seen the team give up in Green Bay, resulting in Wade Phillips getting fired the next day. If they give up at this point, Garrett isn't getting fired before the end of the season, but he at least has to make the players believe that they could be cut loose or demoted if they don't give at least 100% each week.

This team has made too many strides in the last two weeks under Garrett to regress to the Wade-levels they were at. But in watching the recent success, it's only more maddening to think that had they actually played to their abilities throughout the first half of the season, the now 3-7 Cowboys might be at least 5-5 if not better and still in the hunt for a playoff spot instead of solidly filling the role of spoiler the rest of the way. (And, yes, I realize they aren't mathematically eliminated, but winning out means going 9-7, and there are already six teams in the NFC with at least 7 wins, so let's table any playoff talk until Week 15 or so when we can definitely say if it's still likely at that time.)

What Garrett's new style has done is pushing players to get the best out of them. Plain and simple. The prime example is Jon Kitna. Garrett's offense looks revived, ready to attack, and Kitna leading the way has been more than impressive. When he took over, everyone in DFW held their breath fearing Brad Johnson 2.0, which was so bad that fans were calling for (and briefly got) Brooks Bollinger into a blowout loss against the Giants. Kitna is proving he can still play in this league, and he is more than capable to be a solid backup QB behind Romo in 2011 as well.

Defensively, the Cowboys are becoming ballhawk players, creating a pair of turnovers yesterday that helped solidify the win. Rookies Sean Lee and Bryan McCann, two guys who didn't really get a chance under Wade, are starting to make sure Cowboys fans -- and more importantly for them, the Cowboys front office -- know their names. Lee provided a big forced fumble moments after McCann added another long return TD to his resume. Meanwhile Terence Newman accepted the challenge of taking on Calvin Johnson and other than Detroit's first play from scrimmage in which Newman got tripped up, taking down Johnson through incidental contact, was is no real jeopardy of surrendering the big play throughout the game.

It's a short week until the Super Bowl Saints come marching in, and they'll be looking for payback against the team that ended their undefeated run in 2009 at the Superdome. The fact that these Cowboys of 2010 are not the 2009 Division winners that stormed New Orleans (poor choice of words) won in New Orleans is of little consequence to Drew Brees and company. As Garrett likes to say, they'll be ready at 3:15 on Thursday. Only difference is that, under Jason Garrett, I'm convinced the Cowboys can be as well.

A few other thoughts on Sunday's 2-7 showdown:

+ The Pony Express Rides Again! Bryan McCann's heads up play on Nick Harris's punt changed the momentum of the game. While a later replay shows he might have stepped out of bounds, the tide turned on McCann's second big play in as many weeks. After going 101 yards on a Pick 6 against the Giants last week, he caught a punting going into the end zone that was tipped back out by a Lions special teamer.

Frankly, it would have been a sweet play regardless of if it had gone for a TD or was stopped at the 50ish, or wherever he went out of bounds. Reason being that the Lions had already had two punts downed inside the 20, or to be more specific, one at the 4-yd line and another at the 7-yd line. Dallas was in jeopardy of starting this drive at the 3 when McCann snatched the rebound and took off. The young corner might not have the ability to cover as well as Newman, Jenkin or even Orlando Scandrick, but he's at the very least earning his stripes as a valuable member of this team. To some degree, he's becoming the Kenny Gant of the current Cowboys.

+ Speaking of Kitna, his 29-yard touchdown run was longer than any TD run by a Cowboys quarterback that I could remember. There's a good reason for that. The last Cowboy QB to run for a TD that long was Roger Staubach, and it happened 39 years ago. Of all the things the Lions were thinking might happen on that 4th and 1, a naked bootleg for Kitna to keep was somewhere down the list between Emmitt Smith comes out of Jerry's suite to take the handoff and Aliens land outside the stadium. It wasn't even considered. Doug Free got out in front, ran over the safety, and Kitna went untouched into the end zone to seal the game.

+ A quick note about Emmitt, seeing him get his Hall of Fame ring at halftime was special. Reminiscing back to the 1990s Cowboys and seeing all the highlights on the mega-videoboard, oooh, those were fun times to be a Cowboys fan. Smith ran his way into the record books and football immortality as a member of the Cowboys from 1990 through 2002, and when the Cowboys aren't winning a la this season, it's fun to have a reason to reflect on those good times from the past. Hearing Jerry speak from the heart toward Emmitt, and hearing the tailback's attempt to motivate the fans to motivate the Cowboys, it was almost fun to be a Cowboys fan again this season. The stadium got rocking, and even though the Cowboys went 3-and-out to open the second half, and took a safety on their second possession on a holding call in the end zone. McCann quickly rectified that when Detroit punted on their ensuing possession.

+ McCann's game-saver early in the third quarter helped erase the memory of an ugly end to the first half that gave the Lions a 10-7 lead going into the locker room. Leading 7-3 with less than a minute left in the second half, the Lions punted away to the Cowboys and downed the ball on the 4-yard line. Dallas didn't have much room to take a knee, and with 48 seconds and Detroit with only two timeouts, they probably could have squeezed in a couple of kneel downs and then a drive play to a running back. Either way, a dive play would have been necessary. First and 10, the Cowboys hand the ball off to Felix Jones from the 4-yard line. It's pretty much the end of the half just so long as he doesn't fumble. Yup, he fumbles.

The Lions take over at the Dallas 14-yard line and three plays later find the end zone for a 10-7 halftime advantage. It was the Cowboys only turnover of the game, but it could have been incredibly costly. Looks, it's always bad to fumble, but when you're inside your own 5-yard line to start a drive with :48 seconds left in the half, clearly you're not going for a touchdown when a running play is called. You're trying to end the half. So while you always want to protect the football, this is the one case where protecting the football is more important than gaining yardage. You can afford to not have this drive go anywhere, but giving the ball back could have been catastrophic without McCann's spark in the 3rd quarter.

+ With Dallas ahead 14-12 thanks to McCann's return, Detroit took over at their own 10-yard line. Two plays into the drive Lee jars the ball out of the grasp of Jerome Felton, and Jason Hatcher pounced on it at the Lions 19-yard line. Four plays later, Kitna found Miles Austin for a 21-12 lead. The game was by no means out of reach, considering the Lions drove right back down the field and scored.

+ What did put the game out of reach was the Cowboys ability to take the ball and work long, drawn out drives. After the Lions scored to put the game within one possession, 21-19, Dallas took over with 4:10 left in the third quarter and went 71 yards in 16 plays, spanning nearly eight minutes (7:57). It's been a while since the Cowboys had a long drive like this, let alone two in a game. The Cowboys first drive of the game was a 13-play, 98-yard drive that took 7:16. Kitna methodically marched down the field and put them right into the end zone.

+ The Lions did get screwed on the hair-tackle/horse-collar call when Marion Barber was yanked down by his dreadlocks. As a Cowboys fan who has seen the horse-collar rule from its humble beginning with Roy Williams (the last one) yanking down TO and several others and snapping their ankles, I've been a fan of the league implementing the rule and protecting its players. However I've also seen the rule completely butchered in its implementation.

A player cannot get inside the shoulder pads or the jersey and immediately yank a receiver/runner down from behind. But they can be pulled sideways and they can grab on to a players hair. I couldn't hear the announcement from the ref if it was a face mask call or horse-collar call at the time, but Suh did seem to get a finger on the face mask. Meanwhile, if he dragged MB3 down by his dreads, it's a legal tackle, and if long-haired offensive players don't like it, they can go with a crewcut next time.

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