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The League - Cowboys Thoughts, Week Six

The prescription would seem to be this – embrace the whirlwind and ride the tiger as Romo builds a lead for you striking downfield, and then eeeeaaaassse the game out of his hands and turn it over to the run game to bring it home. That would be an excellent plan if…

…the Cowboys could run the ball worth a shit, which they basically can’t.

- nobis60, Cowboys at the Quarter Pole

Sometimes, being right just blows.

The Cowboys wasted probably the single best defensive effort by any team this season thanks to a hideous performance by the offensive line as they fell to the Patriots, 20-16. Not only was the Boys’ ground game unable to hold the lead, it also failed to hold onto the ball thanks to the Tashard Choice Weekly FuckupTM and was a constant and active detriment in the team’s efforts to overcome the Pats. To understand how the franchise that once featured Hall of Fame rushers like Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith, feared road graders like Rayfield Wright and Larry Allen, and occasional competently blocked draw plays for Felix Jones came to such a pass, you need to understand something about purges.

Now, if Hank Williams Jr. has taught us anything, it’s that you just can’t run around talking about Hitler if you’ve got anything to do with the NFL. Stalin, however, seems to be far less of a hot-button issue for most folks. And if there’s one thing Uncle Joe specialized in, it was a good old-fashioned purge. Arrest, imprisonment, a free ticket to the Siberian countryside or a Tokarev to the nape of the neck were common prizes for anyone who didn’t quite pass political muster in mid-late 30’s Russia, and the officer corps of the Russian military certainly weren’t an exception to that rule. Stalin did a tremendous number on those gents, getting rid of an estimated 84% of the military power structure from the divisional commander level up through the field marshal rank. With all those suspected Trotskyites, Leninists and all-around anti-revolutionaries gone, Stalin was finally satisfied that he had a bunch of committed, trustworthy, new-school Communists giving the marching orders.

The only downside was that a lot of the new guys might not have had quiiiiiite the job qualifications of their predecessors. This didn’t seem to be too big of an issue while beating down hapless Poles, but it became problematic once Operation Barbarossa got rolling and the new guys had a hell of a time figuring out how to kill a hundred German soldiers without losing, say, a thousand of their own troops. Russia was fortunate to have enough natural advantages, cannon fodder and German mis-steps to keep them in the game while the military got its shit together, but there were probably some long nights in ’41 when Stalin wondered if maybe he hadn’t overdone things a bit.

I wonder if Jerry and Jason are thinking something similar.

The Great O-Line Purge of 2011 was righteous in purpose and sweeping in scope. The dismissal of a broken-down Marc Colombo was no surprise (although him immediately landing a starting gig with the Dolphins kind of was, while the fact that they remain winless with him at RT comes back around to no fucking surprise whatsoever). It had also been thought that Leonard Davis’ massive frame and equally massive contract might be on the chopping block, so when that move went down there weren’t THAT many eyebrows raised. When center Andre Gurode got the axe, however, some questions started to fly around. Both Gurode and Davis were older, highly paid (certainly making more than they were earning) and sometimes mistake-prone guys, and these traits served to draw the ire of fans. But they could both still play at a passable level and neither had much in the way of proven talent below him on the depth chart. Some of that depth, backup-and-briefly-starting guard Montrae Holland, was also dismissed for reasons of breadth (Montrae had attacked the Cici’s buffet during the lockout with a fervor he never showed against opposing DTs). The theme at this point was evident – if you were found lacking in your conditioning, consistency or mental approach, then you weren’t an example of Jason Garrett’s newly espoused ‘Cowboy Way’ and would thus be on your way out the door. Each move was individually understandable and defensible, and when taken in aggregate it was certainly an all-in commitment to clearing the way for…something.

But who were they clearing the way for?

Unfortunately, the answer with regards to interior OL seems to be ‘for guys who are absolutely fucking inept at preventing large men from kicking ten shades of shit out of the guy with the ball.’

Shockingly, a collection of young, unheralded, and in some cases undrafted young linemen weren’t up to the task, and Sunday represented a sickening array of new lows. I would say that Nagy, Costa and Kosier looked like they had skates on for much of the day, but there are plenty of NHL defensemen who can’t skate backwards as quickly as these guys got shoved into the backfield. Vince Wilfork met more resistance at Miami from Nevin Shapiro-purchased escorts than he did from Phil Costa, who also got outright detonated by LB Brandon Spikes on a number of plays. Kyle Kosier has always struggled as a point of attack blocker but was particularly pathetic against the Pats’ fat boys. Bill Nagy, the 7th round rookie from Wisky who has made me reach for actual whiskey a number of times through the first five games, got repeatedly thrashed by Gerard Warren (who the Pats jettisoned in the offseason, btw) before breaking his leg and giving way to the undrafted Kevin Kowalski. Kowalski is a name made to be shouted in anger by a drill sergeant, and Cowboys OL coach Hudson Houck should have plenty of chances to practice his R. Lee Ermey impression if he keeps justifying his draft status as fervently as he did on Sunday.

These Four Horsemen of the No-Blockalypse combined with less inept but flag-filled efforts from tackles Doug Free and Tyron Smith to absolutely murder any chance of a run game. Outside of a late Romo scramble the Cowboys’ rushers managed a paltry 2.6 yards per rush. Then if you factor in multiple holding calls on run plays (in my mind, the worst penalty to take in all of football outside of the Robert Killebrew-style personal foul as you absolutely CANNOT lose ten yards on a called run) you end up with a net average of Fucking Horrible Per Carry. The longest run they generated all day was when my dog fled from me in terror in the fourth quarter.

They were no great shakes in the pass blocking department either, and pressure on Romo led to a missed Dez Bryant throw that got intercepted. I thought Romo played fairly well under the circumstances, although the full-on evisceration of a vulnerable Pats secondary didn’t really come to fruition. Much was made of the late-game decision to give it one more shot with an inept run game rather than let Romo throw to put things on ice (inspiring some CS-style morons to call for Garrett’s ouster for those calls alone) but to my mind this was much more a story of game-long execution failure from the Cowboys’ blockers. That’s not to hold Garrett blameless – I think the OL over-purging was largely his doing and the Cowboys’ red-zone woes need dire attention – but my Lord there are some whiners out there.

It’s sad that such things steal the headlines from a fantastic defensive effort by Rob Ryan’s crew, but such is life. Just as you won’t see a better effort against OSU’s Justin Blackmon than what Carrington Byndom put on last week, you won’t see another team throw nearly this much discord into the Pat’s offensive symphony all season long. Ryan did a masterful job of varying his pressure calls while making things tough for the heretofore-unstoppable Brady-Welker connection, and his guys stepped up by playing tough, smart football all game long. Some folks seem determined to pillory the defense for that final drive, but I don’t begrudge it of them in the least since the Pats should never have even gotten the damn ball back.

Sean Lee and Jay Ratliff were stars against the Patriots’ extremely efficient run game, and Lee chipped in his third INT of the season to boot. Ware and Spencer wore out a stout set of offensive tackles and combined for 2 sacks, 3 TFLs and four hits on Brady. Orlando Scandrick played an outright terrific game in his first action since Week One, and the season’s first appearance of the Full Cowboy Secondary was one to remember. The only real downside was seeing the middle of the defense worked on by Gronkowski and Hernandez, but those two have barely been slowed down all season so you can’t gnash your teeth too much on that score.

When you add together the Yards Per Carry Allowed +/- and Yards Per Attempt Allowed + / -, the Cowboys’ D has the second-best figure in the entire league at a combined -1.4, behind only the Ravens’ ridiculous combined -1.8 and joining the Steelers at -1.0 as the only three defenses in the league to give up a full combined yard less per play than their opponents have averaged. The run defense doesn’t look like a mirage with continued stout play from so many guys in the front seven, and while you probably won’t find a 2011 Pro Bowler in the secondary they are working with a fierce pass rush to effect a near-180 degree turnaround from last year’s pitiful display.

With the Cowboys one game back in the NFC East loss column and the winless and possibly Bradford-less Rams being led to the slaughter this weekend I don’t think it’s time to panic if you’re a Cowboys fan. Defenses that weren’t as good as the Cowboys’ D has looked so far have combined with less explosive passing attacks to make playoff runs and win Super Bowls, but the Cowboys cannot continue to be held completely hostage by their OL.

There is something that I had never known about Stalin’s famous purges – around 30% of the Army officers he dismissed were ultimately allowed back. A hopefully more svelte Montrae Holland got re-signed this week, and I’m starting to wonder if Bigg Leonard is staying close to his phone.