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.

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