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The League - Cowboys Thoughts, Week 3

(Note: Another crazy week contributes to another late posting of this week’s NFL thoughts. Here’s the Cowboys writeup – I’ll update with some more NFL recap and Week 4 thoughts tonight or Saturday).

Cowboys 18, Redskins 16

Hyena laughs have always tripped me out.

I’ve been a huge nature show guy basically since I could walk and talk. I’ve always avidly devoured any kind of animal program I could find on TV, from old-school Wild Kingdom episodes on Channel 13 in Dallas all the way up to the latest and greatest high-definition epics on Discovery. Like most red-blooded American boys I preferred the ones with a lot of red blood, so I gravitated towards the African Serengeti-type episodes above all others. I know I’d heard hyena laughs throughout my youth, but the first time I really remembered being freaked out by them was when watching the National Geographic hyenas-vs-lions epic Eternal Enemies. This was a full 60 minutes of hyenas and lions ripping the ever-loving shit out of each other, and it seemed like half the audio was comprised of those damn laughs.

Of course, "laugh" is kind of a silly and anthropomorphizing appellation to throw on a sound emerging from any animal, let alone a bone-crushing scavenger that is probably among the ten animals on Earth least likely to have a sense of humor (other contenders include the giant squid, the bird-eating tarantula and Billy Packer). It’s such a freaky sound because it seems to mimic hilarity, but is fraught with this undercurrent of dark rage and seething malevolence – it’s like the hyena is so livid at its station in life as a scavenger and wants to kill something SO DAMN BADLY that all he (or she – a fun factoid is that hyena clans are matriarchal!) can do is laugh. Something about that dichotomy has always unnerved me, so you can imagine my surprise when - as Phil Costa’s fourth FUBAR-ed shotgun snap bounced off Tony Romo and onto the turf - I found myself barking out Mama Hyena’s exact damn laugh.

And knowing precisely how she feels.

Tony Romo and the Cowboys – OK, Tony Romo and the defense – pulled off a grinding, frustrating, ugly, two-point win over the rival Redskins that featured one of the highest degrees of difficulty that a team has ever laid upon its starting QB. If Monday night’s contest had been a certain kind of sports movie, it would have featured a plucky cast of rookie linemen and backup receivers digging down deep and putting forth a supreme effort in support of their valiant but wounded leader. Instead, it was more like the game in Any Given Sunday when the entire offense gleefully allowed their opponent kick the shit out of Willie Beamen in a monsoon. This one featured more betrayals than the first season of Game of Thrones, including:

- Doug Free basically wiping his ass with his new contract for a second straight game, playing matador to Brian Orakpo’s charging bull and even allowing Orakpo’s who-dat backup to get in on the Romo-smackin’ action

- Phil Costa’s aforementioned fiasco, which appeared to be a one-man effort to get the Shotgun Snap re-dubbed as the Russian Roulette Snap

- Mindless Martellus Bennett wiping out most of a nice Felix Jones run with an idiotic hold on a DB who he outweighed by 60 pounds and who he should have blasted to the sideline rather than grabbing

- Tashard Choice electing to festoon his already putrid 0.7 YPC performance with an additional glaze of feces by running out of bounds as the Cowboys were trying to milk the clock on their final field goal drive

- Kevin Ogletree acting like he had fed his playbook into a damn log chipper on the first day of training camp as the vagaries of where to line up, what route to run, or what to do as the hot man on a blitz proved endlessly confounding – oh, and coughing up a fumble that gifted the Redskins with points

As an aside, full marks to the Monday Night announcers for quickly pointing out that Ogletree’s complete failure to adjust his route for the blitz that was largely to blame for Romo’s 3rd-quarter INT. It seems increasingly rare that any broadcast crew not featuring Cris Collinsworth or Mike Mayock has enough respect for its’ audience’s football acumen to discuss an X-and-O point as arcane as a ‘hot route’. Of course, it could just be that they had already abandoned the old "Romo as a mistake-prone sadsack" trope to go all-in on the emergent "Romo as a gutty, inspirational leader" storyline and didn’t want to switch memes mid-stream, but it was still most welcome.

Garrett also didn’t do Romo a ton of favors as a play-caller on Monday, particularly in the red zone. Unless you have a running QB in the backfield (which Romo certainly wasn’t going to be with his braised ribs) I cannot STAND running empty sets inside the five yard line – ESPECIALLY when you’ve had an effective run game throughout the night.

*Whew* OK, now that I’ve gotten some venting out of the way, things certainly weren’t all bad on offense. Recent addition Laurent Robinson gets a pass on some of his own alignment issues because of his new-ness, his contribution of several clutch grabs and in recognition of his Purple Heart for getting Lit. The. Fuck. Up. by Redskins’ strong safety LaRon Landry (who I apparently conflated with his brother Dawan Landry in my game preview by dubbing him Lawan Landry). It’s a bad sign for my literary aspirations that we’re three games into the season and I’m already running out of superlatives for Jason Witten’s two-way excellence, but it’s a good sign for the Cowboys that he’ll probably confound me each and every week with another All-Pro performance. Dez Bryant, who still looked fairly hobbled by his thigh contusion, was big early and even bigger late as he hauled in a huge throw on a Romo fourth quarter scramble and in the process heaped deserved humiliation on DeAngelo Hall. (Special shout-out to Hall, who continues to put up as poor a hype-to-bang ratio of any corner since the Falcons’ Tim McKyer and provided special bonus hilarity by blaming DC Jim Haslett after getting fricasseed by Bryant.)

The interior OL gave up some pressure but actually did a reasonable job in run blocking, as did free agent fullback Tony Fiametta. Fiametta helped pave the way for Felix Jones’ first big rushing outburst of the season, as they caused particular havoc on a bendy-counter action play where both took two steps in one direction then veered back to punish the Skins’ over-pursuit. Felix had a tremendous game, mixing his trademark speed with some outstanding body lean to consistently pick up extra yards after contact. He also made a couple of tremendous lateral step-hop moves, one of which so badly befuddled a Redskins linebacker that he blindly launched himself at the spot where he thought Felix was going and ended up blasting poor Fiametta in the back. Inevitably, Felix re-aggravated his shoulder injury late in the game, but he re-affirmed how valuable he can be during his rare healthy interludes. And I’d be tremendously remiss if I forgot to praise rookie kicker Dan Bailey, whose 6-for-6 performance provided every Cowboys’ score and whose kickoffs actually became serviceable as the game wore on.

Am I forgetting anybody? Oh, yeah – the QB. Heaping superlatives on Romo is a pretty obvious storyline, but hey – sometimes storylines are obvious for a reason. It’s pretty rare that you’ll see this much praise heaped on a 7.1 YPA, 0 TD and 1 INT performance – Gruden and Jaws seemed ready to drive Romo’s Kevlar vest up to Canton as soon as they signed off of the broadcast – but even after a few day’s reflection it’s hard not to get caught up in the badass-ness of Romo’s showing. It wasn’t perfect, or even perfectly heroic. He wasn’t always laser-accurate (he was a little off-target on a late seam route that was caught, but could have been a 60-yard redemption run for Ogletree had it been on the money), threw a few balls off his back foot to avoid heavy pressure and while much of the blame for his INT was correctly apportioned to Ogletree, you can’t throw that ball off your back foot over the middle. But the way that he served as a rallying point for the entire team, somehow managed to corral FOUR errant shotgun snaps (and even turn one of them into a gain) and hit on multiple big-time throws while banged up not only earned the Cowboys a much-needed win, but served to cement Romo’s leadership.

The Cowboys defense put in its third strong effort of the season (I’m largely giving them a pass for allowing chunks of passing yards to the Jets given their decimated secondary in that game) and while there are kudos for just about everyone, two players stood out. DeMarcus Ware was an outright pass-rushing terror against the Redskins front – ProFootballFocus had him with nine quarterback pressures in addition to one sack (and another sack that was taken away by an outright tackle by Trent Williams, a distinguished alumnus of Bob Stoops’ Grab and Clutch Finishing School). It was close but no cigar for Ware a lot of the night due to Williams’ WWE tactics, but as soon as he flipped sides in the fourth quarter he annihilated RT Jamaal Brown (whose holding technique has obviously degraded due to his longer absence from OU) and dropped Grossman. Another word about Monday Night’s hold-fest in conjunction with the offensive explosion we’ve seen the first few weeks of this season – the great Rafael Vela of notes that through four weeks of the 2010 season there were 191 offensive holding calls, and through the first three weeks of 2011 there have only been 35. I’ll defer to Huck on the statistical significance of that sample, but there’s decent reason to believe that a Big XII-in-2008 holdfest is getting encouraged by the league office to ensure some ‘pretty, fan-pleasing’ football in the wake of the lockout. Bet the overs this week accordingly.

The other defensive stud was Sean Lee, whose 2011 campaign I’ll sum up thusly. I’ve worn my Cowboys Authentic Jay Novacek jersey while attending or watching every Cowboys game since I got it for Christmas in 1992 (#2 Best Christmas Present Ever, narrowly edged out of the top spot by the 1980 Star Wars AT-AT mainly because I never bathed with the Novacek jersey). It is actually in contention with my #60 Texas jersey for the garment I’m most likely to be buried in. And it may soon find itself in a time share with a brand new #50 Lee jersey after Lee turned in a third straight game of brilliant, beautiful ball. His instincts are absolutely off the charts, whether it’s diagnosing run plays and shooting gaps or performing a lightning-fast hip flip while reading the QB’s eyes to nab his second INT in three games. The decline of old warrior Keith Brooking and fast-fading Bradie James is far more noticeable when contrasted with Lee’s lightning-in-a-bottle act than it was when they played next to each other last season.

The contract year discussion that I assume someone had with Anthony Spencer this off-season continues to pay dividends as he turned in another good two-way effort that was highlighted by his game-ending strip sack of a scrambling Grossman. The speed at which Spencer was moving his 260-pound frame on that play was most impressive, and flashes what he’s capable of if he’s able to keep the ‘Almost Anthony’ act in the rear view.

I liked what I saw from the defensive line, particularly ex-Brown Kenyon Coleman’s work against the run. Losing Jason Hatcher to a calf injury was a blow (and will be even more of one if he can’t go against the Lions) but active nights from Jay Ratliff and Coleman helped keep things in check. Redskins guard Chris Chester likely didn’t enjoy Tuesday’s film session one damn bit.

The secondary turned in yet another game effort despite some missing pieces. Terence Newman exceeded all my expectations in his first game back – he didn’t draw Moss as often as I thought (and feared) he might, but he didn’t appear to give up more than one or two short grabs. Unfortunately, Jerry said postgame that he might have suffered ‘some concussion’ as he missed some action late, but there’s been no word of him being limited going into the Lions game. Mike Jenkins angered me by playing waaaaay too far off and outside during a blitz and handing Moss a big gainer on a crossing catch and run (why some DBs give the opposing quarterback a free out against a big blitz I’ll never understand) but had a fine game outside of that miscue. Street free agent Frank Walker turned in a second consecutive good showing, and both safeties managed to be active against the run and keep everything in front of them. There haven’t been many superstar moments for Elam or Sensabaugh thusfar this year, but the fact that the Cowboys have yet to be really burned by a deep shot despite all their blitzing speaks to the tandem work these guys are doing in centerfield.

For all its frustrating aspects, this was a solid win against a solid team under trying circumstances and so the lack of style points are very easily forgiven. It was also close to a must-have given what’s on the near horizon for Dallas – a dynamic Lions team that’s 3-0 for the first time since the Carter administration with a Patriots air assault waiting on the other side of the bye week. I’m having trouble generating a ton of optimism for this Lions matchup (especially given Dez’s highly questionable availability as of Friday afternoon, but I promise I’m not going to talk about the punt return any more), but if Ware & Co can terrorize the Lions’ sad-sack tackles and cause a couple of turnovers then 3-1 heading into the bye week is achievable. And win or lose, I’m getting a pretty good vibe for what this team can accomplish once they come out of the bye fully healthy and ready to roll.