The League - Cowboys and NFL Week Two Thoughts

The art of The Tease. Moving seductively, revealing something, coquettishly concealing something else, and generally transforming your target into a roiling cauldron of frustrated desire. Historians may tell you that every plastic princess that’s ever shaken it at the Spearmint Rhino is but a pale imitation of the Original – the Biblical Salome, who performed the Dance of the Seven Veils for King Herod.

Well, I’m here to tell you that Salome has nothing on Intermittent 3G Signal While Trying To Check NFL Scores On A Mountain Lake. I joined my folks over the weekend on their annual trip to Durango, CO, and I3SWTTCNSOAML was whipping my ass on Sunday. Shortly after we got out on the water the first slate of games kicked off, as did my futile efforts to coax my phone into bringing me any updates. I may or may not have placed a few gentlemanly wagers on last week’s action, and most of them may or may not have been teased with the Packers and Steelers. After close to an hour of fruitless refresh attempts, I finally got a mobile ESPN front page which revealed that:

- The Panthers were leading the Packers, 13-0

- Ben Roethlisberger had just left the Steelers/Seahawks game with a lower leg injury

The combination of these fun facts caused me to react like Doc Brown atop the Clock Tower when he realized that his 1.21 jigawatt-carryin’ cable had been dislodged by a tree branch.

For God’s sake, use a box and one on Steve Smith!

After another maddening hour we headed back to the car. En route to the condo, I had the hilarious idea that I could somehow save myself with DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket App on my phone. This led to the following conversation between me and Winged Deion, Official Evangelist of Sunday Ticket:

Winged Deion

(waves magic wand)

It’s on!

Nobis60

And it’s back off! The only thing on my screen is a frozen image of Kerry Collins – it took me five seconds to realize that he’s not rolling out and that the screen is just stuck. What gives?

Winged Deion

Come on, playa – you in the mountains! Whatcha want me to do – fly back and forth and carry all those data packets to your phone?

Nobis60

Gee, that would actually be a big help! Think you could tackle that, Deion? Oh, sorry – poor choice of words. Think you could HANDLE that?

Winged Deion

Oh, so you gonna sass me now?

Nobis60

You know, I just mentally reviewed all of your career highlights and I think you could have worn those wings for your whole career and they never would have gotten so much as bent!

Winged Deion

Just keep hittin’ refresh, bitch.

(Vanishes)

Ultimately I didn’t make it back in front of a TV until the second quarter of the Cowboys-49ers game. I relay these anecdotes not just because I’ve wanted to work in Winged Deion since the first time I saw one of those commercials, but also to let you know that this week’s thoughts are based on a lot less direct observation than normal.

Cowboys 27, 49ers 24

Atonement. Redemption. Rebounding from a shocking, unthinkable failure by coming through in the clutch, keeping your team out of an 0-2 hole and, for at least one week, keeping the critics at bay.

I’m referring, of course, to Dan Bailey’s 4th quarter and overtime field goals after his hideously shanked chip shot in the first quarter. What were you thinking about?

On a Sunday that was almost universally wild (unless your team had one of the Five Hopeless QBs facing one of the Three Scary Defenses, or had simultaneously transmuted into mice as their clock struck midnight with brutal finality), Cowboys-49ers was no exception. When I finally made it in front of a TV after my aforementioned connectivity fiasco, the 49ers were in the midst of their first touchdown drive. Any blitz-happy defense is doomed to receive the color guy’s clichéd "Live by the sword, die by the sword" pronouncements, and this drive was one of those die-by-the-sword kinda deals. More accurately, it was "Live by the sword, die by repeated thrusts to your unprotected Ball." Few Balls need more protection than the Cowboys’ Alan Ball, who has been summoned from the bench due to injuries to two of Dallas’ top three CBs. Regardless of the pressure bearing down on him, Niners QB Alex Smith was able to convert third down after third down through the simple expedient of throwing it to Ball’s guy, and the drive culminated in a one-yard plunge by Frank Gore (who was later in the game hilariously mis-identified as Al Gore by color guy Brian Billick, who needs to stick to studio analysis only.)

The next Cowboys’ drive spurred some panic from yours truly as Romo came out looking hesitant, inaccurate and featuring some horrid body language. Little did I know that he had taken a rib shot early in the game that had led to a punctured lung and had to be causing him phenomenal pain – I was afraid that he had gone in the tank. Word out of Dallas this week was that Romo sat with his head in his hands after the Jets meltdown for so long that a couple of the Cowboys’ defensive leaders had to come over and essentially say "Get the F over it", and that things quickly escalated to an unpleasant place. I was terrified that Romo had hit some kind of mental breaking point – I was bizarrely relieved to find out that he was likely looking terrible due to an injury.

Any sense of relief quickly dissipated when I got a look at 2011 Jon Kitna. He executed one fairly crisp TD drive (making liberal use of Co-Game Superstud Miles Austin) but sandwiched it between one poor INT and one outright TIMMAH! of a pick in the endzone – if you throw a ball that Donte Whitner can pick off, you have made a pretty damn poor pass. Kitna’s conservative, good-decision-making performance in 2010 had been in stark contrast to the rest of his risk-taking, gunslinging career, and I think in the absence of a dedicated week of gameplanning for him he reverted to form. Fortunately for the Cowboys’ 2010 season hopes, that second INT spurred Romo back into action and you’ve all probably seen and heard a torrent of coverage on what he did from there. While I’m sure a locker-room conference with James Woods’ character from Any Given Sunday played a big role in pain management, it’s hard to say enough about the drive and guts he displayed to get back out on the field as well as the pinpoint downfield accuracy that makes Good Tony such a tantalizing figure. Romo-Austin became an unstoppable combo for an average set of 49er CBs and Witten embarrassed linebacker and safety alike en route to his second consecutive hundred yard game. If this team can ever get a healthy Romo, Austin, Bryant and Witten on the field at the same time they can keep pace with any passing attack in the league, even in what’s shaping up to be an absurd league-wide airshow in 2011.

The best thing you can say about the run game is that they stuck with it – rushing the ball 22 times when you’re only getting 2 yards a pop at least shows a realization by your OC that you need a commitment to keeping the defense honest. I have to think that approach bore fruit in overtime, as the play action fake that sprung reality superstar Jesse Holley for his game-clinching catch and run had the 49ers safeties biting like Emmitt was in the backfield. You had to expect some struggles in the interior with Derrick Dockery playing his first game as a Cowboy next to undrafted rookie C Kevin Kowalski, but there was no excuse for the beating that Doug Free took at the hands of 49ers DE Justin Smith. Smith may be the best all-around 3-4 end in the game, but if Free is going to stake a claim as one of the league’s elite LTs he can’t get ragdolled like he was through most of the game. Kudos to Felix Jones for apparently playing through a separated shoulder for much of the game, but I think I’ve officially given up hope of ever seeing more than 210 carries in a season from the NFL version of Fozzy Whitaker. China in a bull closet.

The defense did plenty of living by the sword in this game, bagging Alex Smith six times and forcing numerous other rushed throws that could have been defensed by reasonable coverage. DeMarcus Ware turned in his usual stellar performance, and seems to be taking full advantage of rushing from more varied and unpredictable spots in Rob Ryan’s madcap scheme. Another major beneficiary is DE Jason Hatcher – I don’t think he’s an elite pass rusher per se, but he has the one-gap quickness to really eat up the single blocking that many of Ryan’s overloads generate. Jay Ratliff seems more active and energized than last season as well – I’m getting pretty confident that between some of the Boys’ individual pass-rushing talents and Ryan’s scheme, we’ll put as much heat on QBs as any team in the league this year. The run defense has been a pleasant surprise thusfar after an uneven preseason – holding a back like Frank Gore to 47 yards a carry while he’s playing with a lead and running behind road graders like Mike Iupati and Chilo Rachal is no mean feat. While the DL have collectively been strong in holding their ground, the run-game superstar has been LB Sean Lee. He leads the league in tackles after two weeks, and it hasn’t been the product of making tackles six yards downfield while the opponent rushes 40 times a game – he’s been knifing into gaps and blowing up plays like he’s got an ear in the offensive huddle. The Boys have a good one here.

Any time Alex Smith gets you for 7.5 an attempt and 2 TDs with a depleted WR corps you can’t pass out a bunch of gold stars to your secondary, but you can’t get too down on them after this game either. The most obvious fact is that they’re severely undermanned at the moment with two of their three top corners injured. Now the fact that you decided to undergo a massive roster purge this offseason and still remain shackled to an aging, overpaid cornerback of Felixian fragility in Terence Newman is a proximate cause of this dilemma, but that’s a post for another day. Mike Jenkins had a solid game (he got beat for a TD to who-dat WR Kyle Williams, but his coverage wasn’t that bad on the play) and Alan Ball actually responded with a third-quarter INT after his first-half roasting as the secondary shifted into more zone looks. The safeties have been near-invisible for the first couple of weeks, and that’s more good than bad after last season’s epic downfield roasting.

And then there’s special teams. Urgh. I can’t believe we compromised Dez Bryant’s health by getting him mixed up in this shitshow. If I’m Jerry, I’m laying down the law just this way:

- There are about 35 guys on the team who we basically can’t cut. We pretty much know who they are.

- Most of the rest of you play quite a bit on special teams.

- Against the Redskins, if we give up a kickoff return past the 35, a punt return of longer than 10 yards, get our kickoff return guy buried at the 17 yard line or make the Redskins’ punt coverage gunners look like two hounds coursing after a hare, the worst offender gets cut at 8:00 AM the following morning.

- Same deal for the Lions in Week 4.

- If any of that shit happens again against the Patriots after our Week 5 bye, I’m getting Joe Avezzano off his couch and firing Joe DeCamilis’ ass, and he’ll be lucky if I don’t drop the damn practice facility on him again.

At least Dan Bailey rebounded from a hideous first-quarter chip shot miss to nail that 48 yarder at the end of regulation and the winner in OT – of course, had he missed either of those he probably realized that Jerry was going to eject him from the team charter DB Cooper-style somewhere over Arizona.

So you’re up, you’re down, you win some, you lose some, and the Cowboys sit at 1-1 after two weeks. Next up is a Monday night tilt with a Redskins team that’s looking more game than gamey thusfar – it’s a pretty uncertain deal at this point, chiefly due to Romo’s health. I’m not going to prognosticate Romo’s availability based on the consistent avalanche of conflicting reports that is endemic to this or any other story of basically any kind. I think we’ve already moved over the watershed line with the Twitter-fueled ‘race to be first’ school of reporting to the point where it actually takes LONGER to be reasonably sure of any fact or situation than it did five years ago. A man with one watch always knows what time it is – a man with two watches is never quite sure. Plan your fantasy lineups accordingly.

(Note: I’m going to give as much coverage as I’m able to the rest of the games each week, with some extra attention given to the Texans because A) a good portion of our readership are Houston fans and B) my big pre-season Vegas bet was on the Texans to win the AFC South, so I’m quite the avid Battle Red fan this year. When the Cowboys and Texans play at the same time I’m watching the Boys, but I try to pay as much attention to the Texans as I can).

Texans 23, Dolphins 13

It wasn’t spectacular, but the Texans logged a workmanlike 23-13 road victory over the Dolphins. Which is actually pretty spectacular if you’re a Texans fan. In the last few seasons, the Texans have had moments of excellence (mainly on the offensive side of the ball) but have largely been characterized by finesse, flash and head-scratching failure to take care of business when the opportunity presents itself. How many Texans wins over the last few seasons would you qualify as ‘workmanlike’? Workmanlike victories are the province of good teams – three or four games a year they just walk out and, with a minimum of flash and without necessarily hitting on all cylinders, dispatch an inferior opponent. Many prior editions of the Texans find a way to cough this game up with some inopportune turnovers or busted coverages. The 2011 Texans are looking like a good team, and did what a good team should do to Henne and the Dolphins.

The Texans’ offense had a solid day against a puzzling Dolphins defense that seems to have a lot of talent at each level but often plays like less than the sum of its parts (the Raiders are turning into the same kind of outfit). Scipio’s running game post should be required reading at least once per annum, and the Texans offered further proof of the basic fungibility of 97% of running backs as Ben Tate again eclipsed 100 yards in relief of a hamstrung Arian Foster. Both are quality runners whose one-cut style fits what Kubiak wants to do, but the top-notch OL and blocking scheme are the real stars here. Schaub turned in an efficient 21-29, 7.9 YPA day, leaning mainly on superstar wideout Andre Johnson with some chip-ins from the always reliable Owen Daniels and the seldom reliable Jacoby Jones. The Dolphins have some stout players in their front seven like NT Paul Soliai, OLBs Cam Wake and Koa Misi and ILBs Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, so the Texans’ O should feel pretty good about their day even if they didn’t approach the video game numbers that Brady laid on the Fins a week ago.

The Texans’ D played pretty well – hard to grade anything less than a B when you only give up 13 points and hold the opposing QB to a 40% completion day. The Dolphins aren’t an elite air attack but they managed quite a day against the Patriots and have a top-10 WR in Brandon Marshall, so Houston fans should feel good about the work that their pass defense put in. Providing a coming-out party for heretofore disappointing rookie RB Daniel Thomas isn’t a positive, but I’m afraid the Texans are going to struggle in run defense for most of the season. I just don’t see many ‘built to play in a 3-4’ defenders in the front seven (though DeMeco Ryans can probably thrive anywhere if healthy, JJ Watt has shown some good things and Mario Williams should be able to manage his run responsibilities through sheer freakishness) – I’d love some feedback from Texans fans who have had more eyes on this bunch as to how some of the individuals seem to be executing their run responsibilities.

Houston has a stout test this week as they face the Saints in the Superdome. I actually feel pretty good about the Texans’ chances in this one, primarily because their tackles should be able to handle the Saints’ pass rush and the quality of the Texans’ guards and centers should let them keep Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers reasonably contained while getting to the second level against the Saint’s sub-par group of LBs. I see no reason Tate can’t keep his hundred yard streak going in this one, and it’ll probably take 130 on the ground and 300 through the air to keep pace with a Saint’s offense that’s firing on all cylinders even with stud rookie RB Mark Ingram yet to get on track. The Texans’ best defensive matchup is Mario Williams against LT Jermon Bushrod – if Williams is able to make Bushrod’s life hell and force a timely fumble or INT from Brees, I think the Texans can get to 3-0.

(Some quick scattershot thoughts on selected games from Week 2)

Lions 48, Chiefs 3

The clock has struck midnight, the carriage that bore the Chiefs to their improbable division crown has reverted to pumpkinhood, and unfortunately Jamaal Charles’ ACL got caught in the crossfire. Two weeks into the season, the Chiefs are looking like strong contenders in the Suck for Luck Sweepstakes with two outright humiliations in the books and the vengeance-minded Chargers primed to lay on a third. Ever since busting a rib in the preseason it has looked like All-Pro Quarterback Matt Goddamn Cassel hasn’t really had a stomach for the fight, and he certainly didn’t have much appetite for standing in against House of Spears and the rest of Detroit’s front four. Quick bailouts and check-downs abounded which, combined with the loss of Charles on what looked to be like a freak injury going out of bounds, neutered the Chiefs’ offensive potential and led to a pitiful three point output.

Stafford, despite a fatface that makes Colts LB Gary Brackett look like Dick Gregory, has been dealing since the preseason and continued on Sunday, finding Calvin ‘Megatron’ Johnson for a pair of TDs and also making considerable use of Nate ‘Starscream’ Burleson, Jahvid ‘Ravage’ Best, Titus ‘Laserbeak’ Young and Tony ‘SlowWhiteBot’ Scheffler. Detroit’s DL likes to penetrate and cause havoc Manny Diaz-style, but they are now backed up by a pair of Steve Edmond-style block-shedding run pluggers in Stephen Tulloch and Justin Durant. Detroit was such a chic preseason playoff pick that it finally became chic to find reasons not to like them, but this team looks like it has something.

Patriots 35, Chargers 21

I’m not going to say Mike Tolbert ran soft on his game-changing 4th and goal attempt, but Project Runway’s Tim Gunn from that Expedia commercial sent Tolbert a text after the game telling him to ‘Butch up, you queen!’ That play took a key scoring chance away from the Chargers and took some of the wind out of their sails, but it may not have mattered because Tom Brady has the Pats offense operating on a whole ‘nother level so far this season. It is just an amazing feat that the Patriots took stock of an effective but not otherworldly Randy Moss/Wes Welker-led passing attack in 2009, decided to re-tool the offense around two rookie tight ends in 2010 and IMMEDIATELY returned to the league’s most efficient air show. The first two games of 2011 have seen Brady operating on a near-ethereal plane, but it will be interesting to see if the Pats’ air attack suffers any hitches should Aaron Hernandez miss extended time with his MCL sprain.

The Chargers traded punches with an elite Patriots team for most of the game, but missing out on Tolbert’s TD chance combined with two INTs from Philip Rivers and some shoddy play from the Chargers’ safeties was too much to overcome. This game goes in the ‘Belichick can take away what you like to do most’ archive as the Pats held one of the all-time great QB-TE connections without a single catch, making numerous fantasy owners wonder why they drafted Antonio Gates in the fourth round rather than scooping up Rob Gronkowski in the 9th. Vincent Jackson ran wild in the process, but if you hold the Chargers to 21 you have to give a thumbs-up to your defensive effort.

Titans 26, Ravens 13

The normally well-coached and business-oriented Ravens hung the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner after their Week One victory over the hated Steelers and, in clear defiance of Denzel Washington’s advice, forgot about the Titans. Tennessee served up a hell of a reminder and laid a 13-point beating on the defending Week One champs. This was one of those games that makes you wonder about the idea of the ‘trap game’. Sure, we can all understand that one team may overlook its upcoming opponent because of a ‘victory hangover’ from the week before, a lack of respect or what have you. But how long into a game when it’s clear that your overlooked opponent is ready and willing to beat your ass does it take you to flip the switch? Does one possibly lackadaisical week of practice completely rob you of your ability to perform anywhere close to your normal level?

The Ravens would have been better off with the kid who played Michael Oher in The Blind Side at RT as opposed to the actual Michael Oher in this game, and would also have been better off having Josh Wilson covering an en fuego Kenny Britt rather than covering…Andre Roberts while wearing a Redskins uniform because the Ravens stupidly let him walk in the offseason rather than paying him mid-level corner money.

The Titans seem to have something cooking with the Hasselbeck-Britt connection so far, and while the running game has yet to hit its stride new head coach Mike Munchak has apparently convinced the Titans OL to at least show some pride in their pass blocking after last season’s embarrassing showing.

Browns 27, Colts 19

I wept for the QB who had no receivers, until I met the receivers who had no QB. A nearly-weaponless Colt McCoy was able to overcome a weapon-rich but ability-poor Kerry Collins to spoil the Colts’ home opener. Any win is a good win for a young Browns team, but the Colts are also contenders in the Suck for Luck sweepstakes. I really hope this happens just to watch the 2012 season unfold, where a Peyton Manning/Andrew Luck relationship would make Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers look like Yoda and Luke by comparison.

Unicorn Watch: Peyton Hillis is now 849 yards away from making White Lightning strike twice by recording a second consecutive 1000-yard season. He’ll need to overcome the Madden Curse, the ghost of Jimmy the Greek and borderline traitorous play from OLs Oniel Cousins and Artis Hicks to make it happen.

Falcons 35, Eagles 31

The Falcons rebounded from Week One’s most disappointing performance by a contender to outlast the Eagles in the Georgia Dome. It was a wild game full of big plays, turnovers and injuries that saw Matt Ryan overcome a scary-looking tackle that nearly made his pelvis into a wishbone and Mike Vick get knocked out by a mild concussion and damn near biting his own tongue off. The ‘Dream Team’ Eagles put their ‘Donut D’ on display for what won’t be the last time this year – their linebackers and safeties are WAY below par and were exploited a creaky Tony Gonzalez and Michael ‘The Plodder’ Turner for multiple big gains. This group escaped embarrassment in Week One due to Steven Jackson’s first-quarter injury and multiple drops by the Rams’ Lance Kendricks, but teams with elusive running backs and good receiving TEs will march on the Eagles. Matt Ryan did a hell of a job manufacturing a win in the face of heavy pressure and tight coverage on his WRs, while Vick also performed at a high level until his injury and absolutely wore out the Falcons’ D with Jeremy Maclin.

Giants 28, Rams 16

One of these weeks, the Rams will stop serving up 50+ yard TDs to the opposing defense via idiotic fumbles and botched laterals and it will go a long way towards helping them notch their first win. Of course they are still fighting an uphill battle vs. the trainer’s room with RB Steven Jackson and slot impresario Danny Amendola out injured in addition to the loss of CB Ron Bartell for the season. The aforementioned idiot lateral, combined with a horror show from rookie WR Greg Salas (a fumbled punt that gifted the Giants with their first TD, some key drops and a general failure to remotely resemble Danny Amendola) and some early red zone woes were too much for the Rams to overcome despite facing a very beatable Giants team with a banged-up defense and a QB that looked on the verge of slipping into full-on mopey Eeyore mode for much of the night.

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