Monday, September 19, 2011

Redemption: Dal 27, SF 24

Redemption is a beautiful thing. And Dallas grabbed handfuls of it with a 27-24 overtime win in San Francisco to improve to 1-1 this season. Despite a botched field goal, plenty of injuries, question-marked play calls, and facing the pressure of last week's last-game collapse to the Jets, the Cowboys found a way to rally from 1o down in the 4th quarter with everyone getting their own piece of redemption along the way.

Dallas got a crazy comeback win on the road, and it's not the first time Dallas has done so in the Tony Romo era. Buffalo in 2007 and Kansas City in 2009 each come to mind. There was also a game in which Dallas rallied from 10 points down to force overtime in Arizona in 2008, however Dallas lost on a blocked bunt in the extra period. Maybe the Cowboys found a little magic, the same time of magic the Jets used last week against Dallas. Redemption is sweet.

At the top of the list is Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. A week after everyone, myself included, put him as Reason No. 1 for the opening week loss in New York, Romo re-asserted himself as the leader of this football team. The QB led Dallas on a long opening drive that had all the elements a fan could ask for, except points (more on that later). He left the game with sore ribs -- and reports this morning indicate he has a pair of fractured ribs -- but after a pair of Jon Kitna turnovers, Romo forced himself back into the game to lead the Cowboys to a come-from-behind win.

Any thoughts of Kitna leading this team based on last year's second-half success combined with Romo's Week 1 struggles evaporated as Romo toughed out a painful rib injury. And his return to the game came only after the television audience was informed that the Cowboys quarterback would not return to the game. Not only did Dallas need that to save their season (starting 0-2 is a great way to miss to the playoffs unless you're one of the great dynasty teams -- and this isn't one of them), but Romo and other members of the team needed to prove themselves again.

Field goal kicker Dan Bailey also got himself cut and re-earned his roster spot all in the afternoon. Bailey missed a chip shot 22-yard field goal after a long Cowboys opening drive, an extra-point range kick. It's inexcusable to miss those distance kicks in high school games. In the NFL, it can and (unless you finish the game the way Bailey did) should cost you your job. Bailey lined up to kick a 48-yard field goal to force overtime with just enough time left in the game to get the kick away. I'd say my confidence level was on EMPTY. When he kicked the overtime winner from 19 yards, maybe that meter was on a 1/4 tank. When a kicker missed a 22-yard field goal, you aren't expecting him to make the game-tying and game-winning kicks. Baily did. Redemption.

Dallas put itself on the verge of 0-2 and the making of another depressing season. If the Cowboys lose that game -- and they did plenty to try -- where do you start with your frustrations? If not for Doug Free diving on a Miles Austin fumble on the second-to-last play of regulation, Dallas never gets a chance to kick that game-tying 48-yard field goal. I don't necessarily blame Austin for fumbling nearly as much as I question Head Coach Jason Garrett's decision to hand him the ball in the backfield for the first time that afternoon.

In overtime, Romo connected with Jesse Holley for a 77-yard pass that took the Cowboys down to the shadow of the goal line, setting up Bailey's 19-yard game-winning chip shot one play later. Holley is an interesting case. This is the same guy who is in the NFL because Michael Irvin felt like hosting a reality show where a player can earn an invite to an NFL training camp. If Romo has made the most of being an undrafted rookie free agent, Holley appears to be making the most of a reality TV show. And even after his long pass play where he appeared to have just felt the presence of God while the rest of America wasn't as sure he'd set up the winning kick (Bailey already missed from 22, and that kick wouldn't have been good from 19 either, Holley was still a more amicable reality star than anyone from Jersey Shore.

Holley had never caught a pass in the NFL before making three receptions during the crucial moments of the game. So maybe his "just met Jesus" actions on the sidelines after that catch were much more acceptable when you realize he can't exactly "act like he's been there before" because he hasn't. Not even close. The guy just won a football game in the NFL for the Cowboys. But hopefully next time he won't almost lose it. Holley doesn't have breakaway speed, which is why he was caught from behind on the long pass. Right as he was brought down, Holley was extending the football in the air from the eight yard line in. If he fumbles that ball any direction other than out of bounds ahead of the end zone, it's a disastrous play. San Francisco would get to take over on the 20 if the ball rolled out of the end zone. Instead, Holley holds on, and Dallas kicks the game winner. I'm happy for him -- how can you not be after watching how emotional of a play it was for him? -- but he needs to learn from that and NEVER expose the ball like that in the future.

On a day when Dez Bryant didn't dress for the game, Holley came up big late in the contest but Miles Austin had the biggest day of all Cowboys, catching nine passes for 143 yards and three touchdowns, including one score coming from Kitna. Austin and tight end Jason Witten (seven catches, 102 yards) led all receivers going over the century mark in yardage.

Witten and running back Felix Jones joined Romo playing hurt in a game that Dallas found a way to come back and win. I'm still not entirely sure how exactly, but I'm relatively certain that if not for a team as young and inexperienced as San Francisco, the Cowboys might not be so fortunate.

After Kitna threw his first interception, a pass into the heart of the end zone after Witten had broken off the route, Cowboys cornerback Alan Ball got the football back with an interception of Alex Smith, the only Cowboys takeaway on the day. Ball's pick set up a Dallas drive starting from the 49ers 18 yard line. Five plays later, Kitna found Austin to tie the game, 14-14, with 6:50 left in the third quarter. Dallas had been down 14-0 until their final drive the first half, where Austin broke free for a 53-yard score with just under two minutes left before intermission.

The Cowboys would again have to rally from a double-digit deficit. It's hard enough to do once in the NFL, but Kitna's second interception on a tipped ball over the middle set up a 49ers TD under a minute left in the 3rd quarter. Kitna tossed a pair of picks in the quarter, and Romo took over on the next Cowboys offensive possession. San Francisco got the ball back at the start of the 4th quarter and drove to the Cowboys 37 yard line where David Akers nailed a 55-yard field goal to make it 24-14. Two score game with 11:12 left on the clock.

The field goal was not without controversy, however, as Dallas' Keith Brooking was flagged for leverage, a 15-yard penalty that could have given the 49ers 1st and 10 on the Dallas 22-yard line. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh decided to keep the points on the board, a decision that seemed like the smart move at the time. You've just got up two scores on Dallas in the 4th quarter, and maybe it's harder to take a 55-yarder off the board compared to a 30-something yard (especially because the 15-yard penalty on a 30-something yarder puts your offense deep in the red zone).

Dallas answered the long kick with an 80-yard drive that culminated in a Romo-to-Austin touchdown to pull the Cowboys within three points, 24-21. But that TD pass came one play after Romo connected with the man who is trying to become the Bob Lilly successor as Mr. Cowboy, Jason Witten, on 4th and 5 from the San Francisco 34. The Cowboys passed on a chance to kick a 51-yard field goal, which seemed like a no-brainer based on Bailey's earlier 22-yard miss and David Buehler's struggles last year. Everyone in the world knew Romo was going to Witten, and the Cowboys still completed the pass.

The Rob Ryan defense stopped San Francisco after five plays, and Dallas got the ball back on their own 33 with 4:03 left in regulation trailing 24-21. Romo's first two passes of the drive went to Jesse Holley, and he dropped other short passes off to Austin and Demarco Murray. From 1st and 10 on the 49ers 36, Romo connected on a seven-yard pass to Austin, but Dallas then ran up the gut with Tashard Choice for one yard, and Austin was given an ill-advised handoff that Free saved with a fumble recovery. The Cowboys may be starting three young pups on the offensive line, and thank goodness Free, not one of the kids, was there to pounce on the ball. The Cowboys let the clock tick down to 0:04 before calling timeout and setting up Bailey's 48 yarder.

All is well in Dallas. Redemption shines down on the Cowboys this week. Monday night the team opens at home against division leader (yeah, that's weird) Washington. So yes, after the disaster in Week 1 and what appeared to be a game destined for a loss in Week 2, the Cowboys (1-1) will play the Redskins (2-1) with a chance to get out in front of the division next week. Still a long way to go this season, but it's much easier to feel good about the team's chances after the final 15 minutes in San Francisco.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Jet-tisoned: Dal 24, NY Jets 27

I forgot just how sickening a feeling football season brings with it. It's not that the Cowboys lost -- I wasn't expecting them to win heading into the game -- but how they pulled off the worst collapse in franchise history. The Dallas Cowboys dropped their prime time season opener for the second straight year, a 27-24 loss to the New York Jets.

I fully expected the emotion of the day, being the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, to help the Jets romp over the Cowboys, but somehow Dallas was not only able to stay close but managed to open up a 14-point lead. My, how things unraveled over the final 15 minutes of the game. And as much as I'd like to look at so many of the positives of this game (and there are plenty of positives), the end result was a blooper-filled loss that marred the first three quarters of great football. It was the first time in franchise history Dallas dropped a game they led in the 4th quarter by 14 points, a 248-game sample size.

By comparison, the Carolina Panthers and rookie quarterback Cam Newton dropped their season-opener to the Arizona Cardinals, 28-21, and everyone is talking about how it was almost like a win for the Panthers. Newton set a rookie passing record (422 yards), and Carolina did not appear to be the hapless bunch of misfits people might have been expecting. The difference is a team that went 2-14 last season and is starting a rookie under center (or really, primarily in the shotgun) is allowed to have moral victories. The team that blows a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter isn't afforded the same luxury.

And that is how the Cowboys began their season, with a 24-10 lead seconds into the fourth quarter only to give up 17 unanswered points, two critical turnovers, and a blocked punt. It almost makes me wish the lockout lasted a little longer.

Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was turnover free for the first 48 minutes of the game but went on to fumble inside the Jets five yard line and throw an interception to Darrelle Revis that set up New York's game-winning field goal. The field goal was a 50-yard dose of irony as former Cowboys kicker Nick Folk buried the ball between the uprights with seconds to go to give the Jets the lead for the first time all game.

There were so many potential positives for the Cowboys in a game that no one was expecting them to win, and that's what makes this so disappointing. Not that they lost, but how they lost. The Cowboys hung with one of the top teams in the NFL, a team that has come within one game of the Super Bowl each of the past two seasons, and had a chance to beat them. If not for three abominations on fourth quarter drives (fumble, blocked punt, interception), Dallas would have left the Meadowlands (Metlife Stadium?) with a 1-0 record and plenty of healthy momentum. Instead this team will travel to the other side of the country next week for a game against San Francisco in what -- in an incredibly unhealthy way -- is somehow already being deemed a must-win game for Dallas.

What a sickening football feeling that loss forced upon Cowboys fans. I'd almost prefer, no, I would absolutely prefer to lose decisively than to hold a 14-point lead only to see it evaporate in the face of one of the most embarrassing statistics every to be displayed across the TV screen. In the 50-year history of the Cowboys franchise, Dallas was 246-0-1 when leading by 14 points or more in the fourth quarter. After last night, make it 246-1-1.

Thoughts on last night's game:
+ If the Cowboys had to lose last night, which I had been expecting just not in that fashion, good for the Jets for sticking to the script of the day. To think that it's been 10 years since September 11, 2001, and to still remember the details of that day so clearly brings with it a chilling effect. Everyone knows exactly where they were, and everyone has a story to tell even if they were thousands of miles away from New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania. The memorial held at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan was amazing, and it's definitely something I want to visit at some point in the future, if for nothing more than to pay respects.

The morning carried such a somber mood (an inevitable effect of what we were remembering) having to reflect on and in many ways relive that day through the images and memorials. I honestly felt guilty changing the channel on my TV from the news networks carrying the memorial to NFL football. Part of me couldn't quite balance whether I should be able to derive so much enjoyment from watching this game on a day where so many people can't help but grieve. And as a result of that feeling, I gained a true understanding of just how important football -- sports in general -- are for our society.

Watching the Bears/Falcons game begin on FOX at 1pm, members of the armed services began unfurling the American Flag across the entire field, and suddenly the crowd erupted into cheers as members of both football teams walked to the edge of the flag to hold on to it, to connect themselves with the flag, with this country, and all that the Stars and Stripes represents. And when the National Anthem began, fans erupted again in cheers, using the Star Spangled Banner as a rallying point. Soldier Field didn't appear to have any empty seats, yet in that moment not one of them was occupied by a Bears fan or a Falcons fan, only Americans united. We needed football yesterday, especially yesterday, to not only help ease the pains and wounds of September 11, but our stadiums personified the unity of our nation rather than highlighting hostilities between people based on something as trivial as being a Redskins fan or a Giants fan.

If ever there was a day America needed football, needed sport, we can be thankful for yesterday's NFL and Major League Baseball games as significant outlets of positivity. If only that unity, that positivity could be easily restored at the end of each game, win or lose. It's hard to be bitter, to be upset with your team losing -- I was and I am -- but it's not something I hold against a Jets fan after yesterday's Cowboys loss. Jets fans, like myself, are Americans, and I hope that moving forward fans can look to yesterday as an example of how we can root against each other during the game inside the stadium or at local bars or gathered around TVs at a buddy's house just so long as we arrive united as Americans and leave the same way.

+ After tying all of the above, which I wasn't really expecting myself to get into (yall know I typically keep it pretty light-hearted), I'm not quite sure the best way to transition into breaking down football. So let's go with this stat: Dallas is now 0-2 when former President George W. Bush flips the coin before a Cowboys game against a New York team (the Giants beat the Cowboys at the opening game at Cowboys Stadium in 2009). Also, did anyone notice the look President Bush gave the Cowboys captains after Dallas one the toss. It was almost like, "Hey, yall see what I did there? I got your back. Now go win this for Texas!" If only it worked like that.

+ The Rob Ryan defense impressed last night, especially when in theory he was facing a team coached by the one guy who would be better equipped to understand what Rob would try to do. His twin brother Rex Ryan, head coach of the Jets, ended up getting the better of the match up on the scoreboard, but Rob can probably take a little solace in the fact that it wasn't his defense that cost the Cowboys the game. In fact, the defense overcame a vastly depleted secondary with a combination of tremendous pressure up front from DeMarcus Ware and company and what can only be described as a scrap-heap secondary squeezing every ounce of talent and ability out of themselves.

The team's top cornerback Terence Newman missed last night's game, and Orlando Scandrick missed pretty much the final three quarters with a high ankle sprain. Mike Jenkins was in and out of the ball game with injuries. The Cowboys top three corners were hobbled, and seeing guys like Alan Ball and Danny McCray step up was a very good sign for Dallas.

+ Tony Romo .... ugh. I wanted to lead with this, but I didn't want to get so negative so quickly. Might as well dive headfirst into that pool now. Dallas didn't turn the ball over until Romo fumbled inside the five yard line in the fourth quarter. It was play that Romo of 2006 and 2007 would have probably made. At the very least, those were the last two seasons I remember thinking that whenever Romo drops back good things will happen. Now when Romo drops back, I slink into a ball of mush on my couch, cringing what I fear might happen. Lo and behold, Romo goes diving toward the goal line with the ball in his right arm away from his body. Fumble. Jets football. Momentum: New York. At the very least, protect the football. A loss of a yard or two is okay. Throwing the ball away is perfectly fine. A fumble when you're up by seven with a chance to at least tack on a field goal (which would have made it 27-17) is unacceptable.

Meanwhile the Cowboys defense hung on to force a fumble on the ensuing Jets drive, giving Dallas the ball, 1st and 10 from the Jets 47 yard line. At that point, Dallas still led 24-17 on the right side of midfield with six minutes to play and a chance to ice the game. Instead the stout New York defense forced a 3-and-out. Mat McBriar came on to punt, but a breakdown in protect allowed Joe McKnight to go up the gut untouched to block the kick, which was scooped up and returned 18 yards for the tying touchdown with five minutes to play.

The teams traded punts leaving Dallas with the ball in a tied game, 24-24, with a minute to play. The Cowboys had a timeout to work with and the ball on their own 41 yard line, only 35 yards away from a realistic field goal attempt. At the very least, Dallas would wind up in overtime. Instead, on the first play of the drive, Romo let loose a dud toward the sideline where Dez Bryant was in bracket coverage. Revis intercepted, setting up the Nick Folk game-winning field goal from 50 yards out. Game. Over.

Again, it's not that they lost, but how they lost caused this morning's football ulcer.

+ Speaking of Dez Bryant, the funniest tweet of the night came early in the first half when Bryant got off to a hot start against the Jets all-everything cornerback. "Dez Bryant just set up a beach chair on Revis Island." Too bad that a stay on Revis Island will take a lot out of you, and by the fourth quarter Dez was gassed, he was gimpy, and he wasn't going to beat Revis. For Romo to target him on that final interception was even more ridiculous when you consider how Bryant had slipped over the course of the game. Bryant is a big, physical beast of a wide receiver. If he stays healthy not only through the season (or at the very least through the course of an entire game), Dallas has one great offensive weapon wearing No. 88.

+ On the other side of the formation, Miles Austin showed by we can't automatically pass the torch of No. 1 WR to Dez just yet. Austin took away an interception with a simultaneous catch in the end zone for a touchdown. He finished with five catches, 90 yards, and a score, leading all Cowboys options not named Jason Witten.

+ How great was Sean Lee? The second-year linebacker had a monster game, proving that even the blind squirrel that has overseen recent Cowboys drafts is capable of finding a nut. Lee picked off a Mark Sanchez pass that he returned to the red zone, and he recovered the fourth quarter Sanchez fumble on the defense's last stand. Lee also led the team with 12 tackles. On a team that last season favored seniority when determining playing time, it was great to see No. 50 on the field for the majority of the game with elder statesmen Bradie James and Keith Brooking rotating in.

+ Center Phil Costas premature snap during the Cowboys last-ditch final drive made me miss Andre Gurode, who Dallas cut in training camp this season. Granted, Gurode also used to suffer from premature snapulation, but during the broadcast I saw several commercials for pills that are supposed to help you with that. Just say Jimmy Johnson.

+ For a team that struggled so heavily in past seasons in goal-to-go situations, it was nice to see Felix Jones punch the ball into the end zone in short-distance situation. Marion Barber handled those goal line situations in past seasons, but again, it's out with the old and in with guys who we will threaten to cut unless you play to a level we deem fit. Jones didn't have a spectacular game, but few do against the Jets run defense. It was good to see him succeed in this situation, especially with how often Barber failed to get the 3rd-and-short, 4th-and-short yardage over the last few seasons.

+ This loss reminded me of a 2008 defeat in Pittsburgh late in the season. Not because it's a game that Dallas should have won (based on the first three quarters, not pre-game predictions), but because the guys that lost this game for Dallas were the guys who you wouldn't expect to be the ones to burn you. Romo and Witten cost Dallas on a December day at Heinz Field in 2008. Romo again hurt Dallas in this game. Moreso than last year's season opener, which could be blamed on Tashard Choice's fumble on an ill-advised before the half and Alex Barron's game-ending holding penalty, this game was lost by the team's franchise quarterback.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Jason Witten: Cowboy for life

By all accounts, today's contract extension for Cowboys tight end Jason Witten is intended on making him a "Cowboy for life." Jerry Jones inked Witten to a five year, $37 million extension to keep a star on his helmet through 2017. In an era of free agency and no loyalty, this signing can provide a link to what the legendary Cowboys have in common: they spent the entirety of their careers in Dallas.

Emmitt's two years in Arizona notwithstanding, virtually every current member of the Ring of Honor was a Cowboy for life. No one in that group is thought of as anything other than a Dallas Cowboy. Seriously, who honestly even remembers where Tony Dorsett finished his career? (And if you say Denver, then you looked it up.)

Witten was a rookie with Dallas in Bill Parcell's first season as head coach in Dallas. Thank goodness. I'd hate to think what might have happened if he'd been subjected to even one season of the Campo regime. He has an opportunity not only eventually become to Cowboys all-time pass catcher but possibly the best tight end of all time (although Shannon Sharpe's three rings put him atop my list over Tony Gonzalez as it currently stands).

Not many guys on the current Cowboys roster have the making of "Ring of Honor" potential. If Demarcus Ware remains one of the top defenders in the league for another five seasons, sure. If Tony Romo wins a Super Bowl to put him past the "Danny White" level of Cowboys quarterback, of course. But other than Witten (and I suppose punter Mat McBriar), who else on this roster has excelled so consistently over the last decade?

Jason Witten may not ever win a ring, but he became a Cowboys immortal figure when he ran without a helmet down inside the Eagles five yard line back in 2007 during the Cowboys 13-3 season. He wasn't the reason the team lost to the Giants in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. He will one day go into the Ring of Honor in Cowboys Stadium as the first of this generations Cowboys -- perhaps the only representative of this generation's Cowboys barring magnificent success still to come.

A lot of times I worry when a player gets a big contract extension. How will it affect their on-field performance. It didn't seem to affect Romo (only his ability to stay healthy). But Witten represents a rare instance where I'm not concerned. I don't see him kicking his feet up because he's been paid. As a Cowboys fan, I look forward to seeing Witten play the entirety of his career with Dallas. Not because he's a "good guy," a great representative of this franchise, which he is, but because he's a damn good football player.

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