The League - Cowboys Thoughts, Week Seven

If you’re going to write about a team game by game, I think the toughest time to find an interesting angle can be after the Expected Victory. The Unexpected Victory brims with a heady, excited afterglow and is usually accompanied by the rise of a new star or, at least, moments of unexpected greatness from guys you thought you knew. The Unexpected Defeat provides a rich bounty of shock and dismay and the opportunity to curse creatively, the Expected Defeat is attended by a palpable air of bleak pathos and offers the chance to curse sullenly, and the Hard-Fought Victory In a Toss-Up is damn near the foundation of sportswriting. But the dispatch of an overmatched opponent is inherently lacking in the elements of drama, and when guys pretty much do what they’re supposed to do against guys who aren’t supposed to do much it’s hard to escape a kind of ho-hum feel.

But dear Lord - after the first six weeks of this Cowboys season, ho-hum felt really, really good.

And for an Expected Victory, this one wasn’t without its interesting elements. First and foremost was the rising star of rookie runner DeMarco Murray, who outright eviscerated the Rams’ sordid run defense to the tune of 253 yards and the Cowboys’ single-game rushing record. I’m more inclined to believe that Murray’s star is of the shooting variety than one destined to shine brightly in the firmament – that Rams run D is shockingly bad – but it was a damn sight more fun to watch it ascend than to watch Felix Jones getting his ass handed to him three yards deep in the backfield. Murray’s day was highlighted by a weaving 91-yard score (in honor of Dandy Don, let’s call it ‘Ninety one yards and a hayulf!’) that featured good design, solid blocking and plus acceleration – all of which were pretty much making their respective season debuts for the Cowboys’ run game – as well as a couple of half-drunk baseball turns from the Rams’ prized free agent safety Quintin Mikell, who couldn’t be stealing Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s money more brazenly if he was wearing Ben Affleck’s nun mask from The Town. I don’t really like playing the ‘if you take away his best run’ game when evaluating a guy’s day since, hey – he made the damn run, didn’t he? But even if you do subtract that 91-yarder, Murray still managed an impressive 162 yards on his other 24 carries and showed good burst, solid vision, some wiggle and a willingness to take on tacklers and finish runs. These are all good things, but they are the stock in trade of solid NFL running backs. It’s pretty doubtful that we saw the un-earthing of an Adrian Peterson-type transcendent talent, but rather a guy who can make good things happen when he gets good blocking.

Blocking – ah, there’s the rub. Murray certainly saw quite a bit of that on Sunday, but again it’s tough to overstate how poor the Rams have been on run defense – they have given up a league-worst 5.6 yards per carry, and have been allowing opponents 1.3 yards more per carry than they have been averaging otherwise. Still, the Cowboys looked competent and efficient in their run game, with well-executed double teams and combo blocks accompanied by Witten’s first return to the road-grading form he’s shown for most of his career. That’s good work all around by an OL that must have had a rough film session after the Pats game, but a special shout-out is due to prodigal guard Montrae Holland. His return after falling victim to the Great Purge was a footnote at the end of last week’s writeup, and plugging in a possibly league-average guard offered night-and-day contrast to Bill Nagy’s six week fiasco at the position. A couple of points that stuck out to me about this situation:

1) The old ‘chain is only as strong as its weakest link’ analogy is clichéd to be sure, but integrated units like an offensive line or defensive secondary just can’t survive with a non-NFL talent starting. This was as obvious watching Bill Nagy’s struggles against every DT he faced as it was watching Alan Ball’s season-long shitshow at safety in 2010. The fact that gaping roster holes can undercut even the most elite talent at other spots may never fully be appreciated by Jerry, but it’s not because the lesson hasn’t battered him over the head again and again and again.

2) The behavior that led to Holland’s being cut in the first place was worthy of a head-shake or two. In the last year and a half, the concepts of laziness and entitlement have gotten a fair bit of attention on this blog – most often when they are evinced by callow youth or wealthy middle-aged men. In other words, in places where laziness and entitlement could be expected to flourish. You wouldn’t think it would be a problem for a career-backup guy at a hard-working and glamour-less position, making less than a fifth of what a lot of his linemates were making and, in short, barely hanging on in The League. And yet Montrae Holland strolled into training camp like a fat, unmotivated sack of suet and nursed an injury throughout most of the pre-season proceedings. Unemployment is a powerful motivator, but for some folks the prospect isn’t enough and it takes the genuine article to get their ass in shape and their head right with ball. Laziness and entitlement are prevalent and persistent bitches, and those who have to fight against them – both within themselves and within the charges they coach – don’t have it easy.

The Cowboys are still going to need a return to form from Doug Free and better play out of Phil Costa to reach a consistently average level in the run game, but at least we’re seeing some good signs. As for the backs themselves, I’m A) hoping that Murray and Felix Jones can at least synchronize their injuries to the point that at least one of them is available for each game down the stretch and B) proud that I managed to trademark the Tashard Choice Weekly FuckupTM and then got to see him keep his streak alive with yet another ghastly fumble. There’s been a lot of tough talk and tough action from Jason Garrett in the last year about playing up to the standard of the ‘Cowboy Way’, and a lot of that will ring pretty damn hollow if Choice remains on the roster for more than five minutes after Felix Jones is ready to return. Obviously Jones or Murray will soon be injured again, but Philip Tanner looks game as a third back and I’d far rather sign Tiki Barber or Clinton Portis off the street than be subjected to any more of Choice’s rank stupidity.

As a perfect game would be a bit too much to expect from the Boys, the passing game never quite got in sync against the Rams. There wasn’t much need for it with the ground game clicking and the defense laughing at A.J. Feeley’s pitiful efforts, but Romo and the boys seemed rather subdued against a secondary lacking its top three corners. Romo may be going through a period of overcaution/adjustment just as he seemed to after the Giants game in 2009, but he’ll need to be ready and willing to open it up against the Eagles on Sunday night.

The defense did good work against a very overmatched Rams unit that wasn’t scoring even when Bradford was healthy. Outside of one forty-yard burst by Steven Jackson the run defense was in its usual solid form, and the pass defense performed similarly well in limiting the Rams to less than six yards at attempt. It wasn’t a banner day in the pass rushing department, but Feeley had no interest in holding the ball for more than about two seconds.

All in all it was a solid, workmanlike victory – one that was particularly welcome given the pure chaos that has been the Cowboys’ season so far, and given the fact that it was the first game in over a dozen to be decided by more than a TD. Intrigue doesn’t figure to be in short supply for long, however, as the hated Eagles loom on Sunday night. And with that, here’s a few quick thoughts on wagering action for Week 8:

GAMES I LOVE

Lions (-3.5) at Broncos: The Broncos are just a bad football team. Tebow is hilariously inaccurate, their OL outside of Ryan Clady ranges from bad to outright awful, they’re missing their most effective runner in McGahee and their best pass rushing DL in Dumervil and their secondary has been leaky as always. For their part the Lions aren’t world-beaters as Matthew Stafford has been secretly so-so or worse since about Game Four this yea. However, they still have the D-line to absolutely ransack the Bronco’s offense and the ability to score at least 24 against Denver’s shoddy secondary, which should be about 10 points more than they need to cover. This game also has intrigue as it could see the crowning of the NFL’s first Suh-pervillain in a long time if Ndamukong lays one of his quickly-becoming-patented cheap shots on God’s QB.

Dolphins at Giants (-10): The Broncos are just a bad football team. And the Dolphins lost to them AT HOME. Matt Moore is a trainwreck of a QB facing a Giants defense with its full complement of pass rushers finally healthy while depending on Marc Colombo as his right tackle. That part of the game could get ugly early. The Dolphins also boast one of the league’s worst secondaries and are missing starting corner Vontae Davis. That’s not a good recipe against a Giants passing attack that I’ve got ranked fourth in the league in adjusted passing - any or all of the Giants’ top three receivers could go outright bananas in this game. This feels like the blowout of the week.

Bengals at Seahawks U38: I’d be pretty surprised if the total in this game got to 28. It’s not clear if the Seahawks will be starting the hideous Charlie Whitehurst or a possibly rusty, possibly still hindered and also hideous Tarvaris Jackson at QB, but the fact that this line has been on the board all week despite that uncertainty tells you how little it matters which of the two takes the helm on Sunday. This matchup of the league’s top two run defenses will render both offenses one-dimensional, and while a more passing-oriented game can hurt an under play with all the clock stoppages I don’t see either of these teams being overly effective through the air. I just don’t see Seattle scoring more than ten points without turnovers, and the Bengals are averaging just one a contest. Dalton-to-Green could do some damage against a depleted Seahawks secondary, but there just won’t be a ton of sustained drives. I also feel good about the Bengals to cover the three because of Seattle’s offensive ineptitude, and you might take both plays to cover yourself if Cincy gets a rout going with a decent chance of cashing them both.

GAMES I LIKE

Cowboys (+3.5) at Eagles: The Cowboys are just a better team with fewer holes than the Eagles. A competent DC could have done some solid work in fixing the Eagles’ problems on that side of the ball over the bye, but Juan Castillo is not a competent DC and their outright lack of talent at LB and safety won’t go away. The Cowboys’ pass game is as explosive or more than Philly’s and its defense is much, much more solid. The Eagles have an advantage when it comes to comparing run games, but their soft run defense and the Cowboys’ stout one means they aren’t likely to get that much of an advantage from McCoy and Vick on the ground. You’re welcome to worry about Romo’s turnover propensity, but Vick is no paragon of ball security himself and the Cowboys have done far better at forcing turnovers. Of course, feel free to discount all of the above as rank homerism if you choose.

Cardinals (Under any team total 13.5 or more) at Ravens; Game Total u43: This is a Ravens defense that may well be the best in the league on a regular day and is seething with rage after seeing the Jags slip past them for a win. On the other side is Kevin Kolb, likely without Beanie Wells at running back and certainly with Levi Jones protecting him from Tarrell Suggs. I’m sickened enough by Joe Flacco’s performance and concerned enough about the Cards’ run defense to not feel overly confident about the -13.5 line for the Ravens, but the Cards aren’t scoring two TDs in this game.

Vikings at Panthers (-3.5): The Vikes’ secondary is banged up significantly while the Panthers’ O is firing on all cylinders. The Panthers have a quality LT in Jordan Gross who can keep Jared Allen from going nuts, and Newton can escape even if Brian Robison is beating up rookie RT Byron Bell. Christian Ponder won’t get any such respite as both of his shoddy tackles should get worn out by DEs Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. With Percy Harvin ailing as well, all the Vikes’ hopes will be riding on Adrian Peterson. He’s certainly capable of going for 150 and 2 TDs singlehandedly against a poor Carolina run D, but since they should be able to bring a safety down in the box with impunity I can’t see AP doing enough to lead the Vikes to victory here.

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