Sunday, December 26, 2010

How the Cards stole Christmas: Dal 26, Arz 27

Twas the night of Christmas out in Glendale,
A game between teams whose records showed fail.
WIth seconds to go, and a win oh so close,
Once again Dallas lost by a nose.

With no shot at the playoff, and McGee under center,
I don't see this team getting much better.
But if this was bad, Cowboys fans may shriek,
When they check the schedule and see Philly next week.

Ugh, what a brutal game. The Cowboys once again had a chance to lock up a win and failed to make the necessary plays. All too typical of a sub-.500 team. It's easy to go "glass half full" in a three-point loss to New Orleans, but when it's the 4-10, now 5-10 Arizona Cardinals, the pessimism oozes. The Dallas Cowboys used a collection of early catastrophes and late blunders to gift-wrap a Christmas win for the Arizona Cardinals, a 27-26 loss at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale on Saturday night.

Before all the oozing pessimism begins, let me just say it was nice to see Stephen McGee play efficiently and - frankly - at "back up quarterback" levels, not at the inept level of the typical third-string quarterback. Kitna has played so well this year as Romo's backup, and he should retain the job for 2011 (if there is a 2011 season, *gulp*), but McGee is certainly an asset. Maybe with a little more development, another team might want to trade for him to be their current backup and QB of the future. At the very least, when the 38-year-old Kitna retires - presumably soon - McGee would seem to be fit to slide into the backup role. Granted, all this is based on half of a football game's performance.

Last nugget of positivity before I get into the kicked-in-the-groin-ness of the game. Coming back from a 14-0 first quarter deficit, not to mention a 21-10 halftime deficit, showed a lot of resolve in this team. Only thing that hurt then was the NFL rule book that states a football game is 60 minutes, not 58 and a half.

Jon Kitna tossed a pair of interceptions for touchdowns in the first quarter, both could arguably be blamed on his receiving targets Miles Austin and Roy Williams. On the first possession, Austin slipped as the ball squirted into the awaiting arms of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie who ran 32 yards for the opening score. Cardinals kick off, Cowboys start to drive, but another interception on a ball behind Williams gets batted up in the air and snagged by Greg Toler. After a 66-yard jog, it's 14-0 Cardinals. I'm not sure if the NFL keeps stats on this sort of thing or not - they probably do (the NFL keeps stats on everything) - but I've got to believe the 2010 Cowboys lead the NFL in tipped-ball interceptions. Jon Kitna might be setting some sort of NFL record by a backup QB for that particular category in the second half of this season. Then again, when you're a 5-10 team like the Cowboys are, you just don't get the gratuitous bounces of the 10-5 teams.

Frankly, the Cowboys dodged a bullet not going down 17-0 when Jay Feely missed on a long field goal attempt. If only that particular trend repeated itself. Unfortunately the Cardinals kicker made a pair of long fourth quarter field goals to win the game for Arizona.

It's a difficult balance, losing these games with the prospects of a higher draft pick hanging the balance doesn't make falling in the final seconds to stinkin Arizona that much more of an attractive option. Give me the win. Every. Single. Time.

Now is not the time to get into whether or not the Cowboys front office would wisely use that pick 4-6 spots higher based on one win like this could have been. But recent history outside of Dez Bryant isn't on their side. And when the head coach is trying to get an interim tag removed, these are games you cannot lose. Dropping a game to New Orleans on Thanksgiving when a big-money wide receiver fumbles away what should have been the game-clinching drive is one thing. That's a playoff-bound opponent and a fluky play. Losing a game to woefully bad Arizona and having a repeat of early-season gaffes like Marion Barber taking his helmet off to celebrate resulting in a 15-yard penalty is unacceptable.

Off with his Head Helmet
I'm more disturbed by Barber's blatant defiance of the rules, slinging his helmet off after a score while still on the field and costing his team 15 yards, than I am with David Buehler missing a crucial extra point with less than two minutes to go. I'll get into the reasons why I think Buehler should keep his job -- even though immediately after the game I was convinced he should be and would be released before Week 17 arrived. But first, Marion Barber.

With the Cowboys trailing 21-13 in the third quarter, Barber broke what certainly seems like his longest run of the season, a 24-yard hammer off defenders and into the end zone, putting the Cowboys on the verge of tying the game had they elected to go for two (we'll get to that as well). Barber, perhaps disillusioned from not having seen the end zone much at all this season, removed his helmet to survey the foreign surroundings. There are two distinct reasons you can tell these aren't the 90s Cowboys, three rings notwithstanding: 1. the running back removing his helmet after a score will never get to Canton without buying a visitors day pass, and 2. the present-day NFL will hit you with a 15-yard penalty for such an act.

How big was Barber's 15-yard penalty? It probably cost the Cowboys the game just as much as Buehler's extra point. And while a kicker should be 100% on extra points for his career, the Cowboys have already had two incredibly STUPID celebration penalties this season. Granted, one of them on Marc Colombo falling down was more accidental, but when your team has been out of playoff contention since your bye in Week 4 (certainly felt that way, at least), there isn't much to celebrate. MB3 knew it would be a 15-yard penalty. Every NFL player does. He didn't care. And the fact that the Cowboys coaches didn't nail his ass to the bench after the fact is another distressing sign that even though Wade Phillips might be gone, his legacy is clearly alive and well on the Cowboys sideline.

So, how big was Barber's penalty? The Cowboys, after kicking the extra point to pull within one, 21-20, kicked off from their own 15-yard line. David Buehler thunderlegged the ball all the way to the Cardinals 9-yard line, where Andre Roberts returned it 32 yards to the Cardinals' 41 yard line, 1st & 10 Arizona. Had the Cowboys kicked off from the 30 instead of the 15, the 76-yard kickoff would have been received by Roberts six yards deep in his own end zone, resulting in a kneel down and the Cardinals taking over 1st & 10 from their own 20, not their own 41. The Cowboys defense held the Cardinals to a three-and-out, forcing them to punt from their own 49-yard line to the Cowboys 10, where Bryan McCann called for a fair catch. On the following drive, the Cowboys eventually face a 4th & 20 from their own 37 and send Mat McBriar on to punt. Had Barber not cost the Cowboys with his penalty, the Cowboys would be 21-yards closer and could have been in position to send David Buehler on to attempt a long field goal. And while 4th & 20 isn't incredibly appetizing anywhere on the field, the preceding 3rd & 9 wouldn't have been as much of a desperation attempt from the shotgun for McGee to convert on. The Cowboys would have been at the Arizona 31-yard line on that 3rd & 9 and McGee would have known he could have thrown the ball away and preserved a chance for the Cowboys to come away with three points. It didn't happen, and it all started with Marion Barber removing his helmet. When former Cowboys coach Bill Parcells spoke of "hidden yardage" these are the types of things he meant.

Kick Me With Your Best Shot
As far as the kicking situation, Buehler has certainly has his demons to work out this season, and there are clearly more that need to be exorcised. He struggled earlier in the season, going 6-for-9 (.667 pct) through the first four games. Since that time, he has gone 18-for-22 (.818 pct). He has four field goals of 50 yards or more on the season. And this is his first year on the job as the field goal kicker. If the Cowboys were a contender, he would have already been replaced, just as Nick Folk was last season, and that was after the Cowboys even switched holders from McBriar to Tony Romo to assuage Folk. But with the Cowboys clearly in a rebuilding state - last night's loss made that abundantly clear to everyone hopefully including Jerry Jones - and as a result, I'm changing my tune. The Cowboys should continue to develop Buehler. They might be pleasantly surprised. Dallas drafted Nick Folk in 2007, but the WIN NOW Cowboys of 2009 couldn't count on Folk. The 2010 Cowboys are anything but WIN NOW, and as a result, Buehler will be granted a stay of execution.

Last season, the Cowboys carried three legs on the 45-man game day roster, a punter (Mat McBriar), a field goal kicker (Nick Folk/Shaun Suisham), and a kickoff specialist (David Buehler). This season, Buehler has handled the dual role of kickoffs and field goals, freeing up another roster spot for the Cowboys on their game-day roster. Unlike Folk, Buehler has the ability to boom the ball out the back of the end zone resulting in touchbacks and opponents starting from the 20 (which, as we just discovered in the Marion Barber helmet discussion, can be a big deal). He also has demonstrated that he can bang home the long field goals as well. Other teams have in the past had to trot out their punter for a rare field goal attempt late in games because he has "the big leg" on the team despite being less accurate than the regular place kicker. Dallas has its "big leg" already in the role of field goal kicker. The Cowboys have a chance to develop something special in Buehler. As much as I hate David Akers of the Eagles, he has been one of the tougher kickers in the league over the last decade. Buehler has the potential to be that for the Cowboys, a franchise kicker who does it all. After his first year in that role, it should come easier to him in following seasons. And while, yes, missing an extra point is inexcusable, it does happen. Adam Vinatieri has missed 10 in his career.

The Cowboys don't historically give kickers much leeway. Folk was replaced last year despite being a mid-round draft pick in 2007 and a Pro Bowler. And the only reason Folk was drafted was because the Cowboys had gone into the 2006 season with high-priced free agent kicker Mike "Modesty" Vanderjagt, who kicked his way out of favor with Bill Parcells and was replaced by Martin Gramatica, who I'm still convinced could have at least tried to block on the bobbled hold in Seattle which could have given the Cowboys a playoff victory under Parcells and perhaps kept this franchise on a more stable path. Instead, Wade Phillips, 13-3 but bounced by New York, 44-6 in Philly, a playoff win to save his job in '09, and fired midway through 2010. Talk about the butterfly effect all from the kicking position.

Miss ya, Dez
How much does this offense miss Dez Bryant late this season? The rookie was having an outstanding campaign not only offensively, but also as a punter returner. His injury has made way for Sam Hurd, Kevin Ogletree and something called a Manny Johnson to see much more time on the field than Cowboys fans should be comfortable with. Even Jesse Holly came in last night in a 3-wide set when Miles Austin limped off the field for a play or two. Yuck.

Bryant was a man among boys even as a rookie. It might be his mindset of running over the defender that gets him banged up, but it's also that attitude that Cowboys fans love. Seeing No. 88 with the ball this season brought back amazing memories of other No. 88s doing similar things with the football. Does anyone remember or care if carries pads anymore? Just saying.

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