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The League – Cowboys and NFL Week One Thoughts

Jets 27, Cowboys 24

Heedless. Mindless. Reckless. Displaying no understanding of context, an inability to grasp the concept of risk vs. reward, and an absurd willingness to court tremendous loss in exchange for the prospect of minimal gain.

I speak, of course, of the Cowboys’ decision to use Dez Bryant as a punt returner and the unfortunate – but in no way unexpected – helmet to the thigh during a first quarter return that reduced him from dominant force of nature to hobbled afterthought for the rest of the game. What were you thinking about?

The hype, hope and heartbreak that have jointly defined Cowboys fandom since Jimmy Johnson’s unceremonious departure were all on display Sunday night in the Meadowlands. The hype that stands attendant to America's Team assured them a place in the NFL's most-watched Week One game, taking on the Jets in New York on the historic anniversary of 9/11. Heartbreak made a tremendous fourth-quarter rally to carry the day, but hope made a strong showing in places both familiar and unexpected before getting curbed American History X-style in the final stanza. In deference to both the flow of Sunday’s game and the fact that those who hold the Cowboys dear could use a dose right now, the hopeful will take the stage first before giving way to the inevitable.

Let’s start out up front. Under some of the most difficult circumstances you could ever hope to draw up, a young and reshuffled OL acquitted itself admirably. The stat line for the Cowboys’ running attack wasn’t the prettiest, but they got effective movement on the Jets on a number of occasions and the blocking on Felix Jones’ jog-it-in TD to start the fourth quarter was tremendous. You absolutely have to factor context in to any kind of evaluation like this, and the key context here is that the Jets’ front seven is outright monstrous against the run. Sione Pouha and Mike Devito are two of the most difficult players to move in the run game that you’ll ever see, and behind them the duo of David Harris and Bart Scott take advantage of the double teams their DL command to play downhill and shoot gaps with authority and violence. Felix Jones didn’t get a ton of daylight, but he got more than I anticipated as the OL got the run game to a level that at least kept the Jets D somewhat honest in their run/pass responsibilities.

That didn’t preclude the Jets from throwing their typical blizzard of blitzes at the Cowboys, and if the OL was acceptable in run blocking they were even stronger in pass pro. Some of the credit goes to Cowboys’ DC Rob Ryan who spent all of training camp sending blitzers from every conceivable spot on the field, thus providing the new-look line with a baptism by fire similar to what they saw on Sunday. They did a great job of picking up blitzers and winning individual battles – the stat line shows four sacks surrendered, but context again matters and for their first time out they gave Romo plenty of opportunities to connect on the deep shots that should have proved decisive. At no point in the game did I ever feel that the offense was being curtailed by shoddy blocking, and that’s a tremendous endorsement of their effort as a whole. I’m going to try and get a film review done to speak more authoritatively on the OL, but Tyron Smith stood out even on the first viewing – by the Cowboys’ Week 5 bye there won’t be a half-dozen better right tackles in the league.

Blessed with reasonable protection, the Cowboys’ skill guys did outstanding work against the Jets’ vaunted D. Witten was his normal Pro Bowl-caliber self and took advantage of blitz-created space and matchups to log a 100-yard day. Despite a tender hamstring that dogged him the last two weeks, Miles Austin gave a game effort that saw him grab five for 90 yards highlighted by a tremendous "I want it more than you" touchdown grab of a 50/50 ball from Antonio Cromartie. Both of those stalwarts paled in comparison, however, to the show that Dez Bryant seemed ready to put on. Several receivers logged hundred-yard performances in Week One, but nobody, nowhere, noway, nohow put up a highlight reel of physical dominance to compare with what Bryant managed in his lone healthy quarter of action. He showed Kenny Britt’s acceleration on his snag-and-go in route, Greg Jennings’ QB/WR mind-meld and body control on his sideline back-shoulder throw – against supercorner Darrelle Revis – and presented a Larry Fitzgerald-sized window on his leaping touchdown grab.

Bryant was on his way to turning Revis Island into his own personal beach party complete with sagging pants for all until he took a helmet in the thigh while returning a punt late in the first. Those Cowboy fans blessed enough to own a Way-Back Machine can hop in and turn the dial allllllllllll the way back to the misty past of 2010 to watch Bryant’s rookie season get curtailed by a broken leg on – you guessed it – a kick return. Quick memo to Garrett and company – big returns are 80% generated by blocking. Bryan Freaking McCann had one last year. Outside of rare talents like Devin Hester (who also happens to be a JAG as a wideout), return men are largely fungible. Single-handedly eviscerating the entire Jets defense on Sunday night on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 is 100% generated by being a 2001 Terrell Owens-caliber physical freak. This talent is not fungible, and it should not be risked on special teams.

Now this topic is starting to drift towards the inevitable darkness that awaits us at the end of this discussion. As I’m still nursing a fragile psyche and a tic in my left eye, let’s forestall that a bit to talk about the hope engendered by the guttiest defensive effort Dallas has given in a long time.

The turnaround in team psyche, chutzpah, derring-do and the like that attended Jason Garrett’s mid-season elevation to the head job last year never quite reached the defense, which continued to get torched throughout most of 2010’s back half. The chutzpah and derring-do tanks seem to be filled now, along with some heaping helpings of gung-ho, never-say-die and I-will-gouge-out-your-eye-and-skullfuck-you courtesy of madman DC Rob Ryan. Going into the game, it looked like the Cowboys D was in for a pretty painful night. The Jets’ top-three OL and propensity to ground and pound seemed a poor match for a defense that was repeatedly gashed by the run in the preseason, and the lack of Terence Newman and gimpy status of Mike Jenkins presaged ill things for the pass defense.

A mixture of scheme, strong individual performances and a renewed set of balls, however, enabled the Cowboys’ D to deliver a strong showing in the face of some absurd adversity. I’m not sure how well they will hold up when Rob Ryan has to take his inevitable maternity leave to deliver that set of twins he’s carrying, but for right now I like what I’m seeing.

The entire Cowboys front did yeoman’s work against the run, especially when one again considers context. The Jets OL features two worthy Pro Bowlers in LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson and C Nick Mangold and two very capable guards in Matt Slauson and Brandon Moore – RT Wayne Hunter is the only weak link. Rex Ryan’s plan was undoubtedly to bludgeon the Cowboys with this blunt instrument and 230-pound hammer Shonn Greene, but the Boys were having none of it. Again, film review is needed to give a comprehensive look at all the interior goings-on, but Kenyon Coleman in particular looked to be a bigtime run-game upgrade over 2010 sluggard Igor Olshansky. On the edges, Demarcus Ware turned in his usual strong show against the run while chipping in a pair of sacks – one of which absolutely humiliated Hunter. Anthony Spencer also enjoyed a strong game, and his awareness and hustle on a sack of Sanchez was in contrast to his self-admitted lack of effort in stretches last season.

You’re not going to see many contests in which Bart Scott isn’t the most active and instinctive linebacker on the field, but you saw one last night. Sean Lee played an absolutely tremendous game – his athletic drop into space and interception of The Sanchize will draw the most applause but his work against the run was as good as I’ve seen from a Cowboys ILB. He consistently knifed into gaps to chop Greene down before he could get a head of steam, and his high work rate also gifted him with a fumble recovery on a McCray strip-sack.

The secondary did get worked for an ugly-on-the-surface 335 yards passing and two TDs, but again our old pal context suggest that there was a good deal to like about some of the performances out there. Ostensible nickel corner Orlando Scandrick went out in the first half with an ankle injury, and during various stretches where Mike Jenkins battled cramps and injury from a vicious de-cleating block from Plaxico Burress the Cowboys found themselves with their fourth, fifth and sixth-string options lining up at CB. That is just not tenable in the NFL for any stretch of time – even against a QB who flirts with adequacy like Sanchez – and some one-sided matchups like Burress vs. Bryan McCann led to scores.

But even this group showed fight and heart. Jenkins, often mocked for his aversion to physical play, came back in the game and basically revenge-body-slammed the massive Burress on a short pass attempt and then looked like he was about to apply a standing figure-four leglock to Burress’ bullet-riddled thighs. Alan Ball made several strong breaks on throws and one of them could have yielded a game-changing pick late in the fourth. There were some easy completions due to both personnel and the unfamiliarity of a new scheme, and one easy TD toss to TE Dustin Keller dredged up therapeutically-surpressed memories of Roy ‘Thong’ Williams’ work in red zone coverage, but Sunday night was a positive step for a lot of these guys.

The bottom line is that while the scoreboard said 27 points, the defense was victimized by an absurd punt-block TD, gave up the deciding 3 on a two-yard drive after Romo’s brainlock INT and scored a touchdown of its own. I’ll take ten net points, on the road, missing half your damn secondary and facing a two-time AFC Championship Game participant every single day of the week.

Well, I have now spun straw into gold and forestalled for as long as I can – the discussion of the heartbreak is upon us. There were four main factors in my mind that brought woe to Cowboys’ nation, sabotaged a terrific team effort and caused my dog to hide behind the guest bathroom toilet in abject terror. The first I’ve touched on – the failure of the Cowboys’ brain trust to understand the parable of the Golden Goose and thus heedlessly risk a superweapon wideout in the return game.

The second was one long, agonizing stretch in the fourth quarter that began the instant Jason Witten forgot that he had fifty pounds on Jets safety Jim Leonhard during his long catch-and-run from Romo and allowed himself to be bullied out of bounds at the 4. After a tough 2-yard run on first down, the Cowboys lined up in the shotgun on second- and third-and-goal. My certainty that we’d win the game as Witten was rumbling downfield completed its transition to abject terror at this moment. I was alternating screams of "They have to honor your run – why the fuck are you giving away your run threat?" and "A field goal wins the game!" and my dog was hauling ass down the hallway. Second down yielded a terrifying short out pass that Cromartie could have taken back 103 yards, and third down completed the nightmare. Third down gets even more discussion in a moment, but I thought Jason Garrett did the Jets a tremendous favor by allowing them to play 100% pass in the tight confines of the red zone.

The third was one of the most pitiful punt protection jobs I have ever seen, serving the Jets the tying TD on a silver platter. A six-foot chasm opened up in the dead damn center of the protection wall and Joe McKnight was gifted with a block that half the posters on this board could have made. Whether that was a player brainlock or a schematic deficiency I’m not certain, but in Season 3 of the Joe DeCamillis Experience I have yet to see ANYTHING that makes me think we’re getting a reasonable performance from our special teams.

The fourth and final heartbreak is, as you can well imagine, to be laid at the feet of one Antonio Romero Romo. In my Cowboys Offensive Prospectus I mentioned the incredible diversity of opinion that Romo engenders, and that diversity is courtesy of his enduring hope/heartbreak, ecstasy/agony, Harvey Dent/Two-Face act that was displayed in flawless miniature on Sunday. Through three quarters, Romo was delivering one of the week’s best QB performances. He put the ball on the money time and again – exploiting Bryant’s first-quarter beast mode and hooking up with an 80% healthy Miles Austin as well as Witten on numerous downfield shots. He stood strong in the pocket, displayed mobility and escapability when required, and basically worked a proud defense for over 9 yards per pass attempt.

And then, the scarred side of the coin came up. As he started to move on third and goal, I launched an auctioneer-like incantation of "AFIELDGOALWINSTHEGAMEAFIELDGOALWINSTHEGAMEAFIELDGOALWINSTHEGAME" until, in a moment that somehow combined stark shock and bleak inevitability, he dove forward with the ball held up near his armpit and his elbow out like a chicken wing and had it knocked out by the Jets’ DeVito.

Context matters. An understanding of when to take risks and when to dial it back was an area where I thought I'd seen a big turnaround following that 2009 Giants game, but this was the sort of moment that really makes one re-evaluate his stance on such matters.

But not quite as much as the next one did.

Less than 24 hours later, the scene has already been set and discussed by everyone with even a passing interest in the NFL. Sitting at the 40 yard line with a minute to go, the Cowboys looked to be a few quick passes away from a solid shot at the game winning field goal. Despite having a hobbled, gimpy, no-longer-effective Dez Bryant. Dez’s condition became clear to the average TV viewer by midway through the second quarter, and presumably the folks at field level as well, but the last person remotely connected to the game who realized it was Tony Romo. On FIRST DOWN, he rolled right, saw Bryant moving at half speed and still bracketed by Jets defenders, and unleashed The Indefensible, Massively Moronic Awkward Heave (or, for fans of South Park, the TIMMAH!) directly at one of the Jets’ DBs. Guy named Revis. Stop me if you’ve heard of him.

The TIMMAH! swiftly crippled the Cowboys’ hopes as Revis returned it to the Cowboys’ 35. The defense put up one last valiant stand and held the Jets to two yards, but Nick Folk played Anton Chigurh to the Cowboys’ roadside motorist and drilled a 50-yarder between our eyes to end it. (Special shout-out to Folk, who consistently shit the bed, walls and ceiling on 33-yarders during his last season with the Cowboys and has now morphed into a cold-blooded Jersey hitman. Thanks, buddy.)

Context matters, Tony. You threw at a wounded WR who was covered – well – by one of the league’s most feared INT men, on first down, when you would still have had three downs and fifty-plus seconds to move 30 yards for the win had you thrown it away.

It’s the maddening, opinion-splitting, talk radio segment-filling nature of Romo. He CAN read defenses. He CAN work through progressions, make good decisions, and rifle downfield strikes on the absolute money in a way that’s really only bettered by Rodgers and Rivers. But then come the TIMMAH! moments – vile, inexplicable decisions that don’t seem like they were engendered by the same brain. It doesn’t even seem like it’s a bad outcome of the normal decision-making process – it’s like Romo just screams "TIMMAH!" and launches the ball or tucks and runs with absolutely zero awareness of anything that’s taking place around him.

When he’s good, he can stand toe to toe with any passer in the league. When he’s bad, he’s…

Heedless. Mindless. Reckless. Displaying no understanding of context, an inability to grasp the concept of risk vs. reward, and an absurd willingness to court tremendous loss in exchange for the prospect of minimal gain.

Seems like I’ve heard this somewhere before.

NOTE: Check back later as I’m going to update with some quicker thoughts on the rest of the league’s action as well as some Week 2 gambling advice, which you should strenuously ignore based on my hideous Week 1 performance.