Another Epic Collapse: Thoughts on Cowboys’ Week 14 Loss to Giants
The Cowboys blew a 12-plus point lead for the third time this season after doing so just twice in the 13.8 billion years before this one, and they did so in heartbreaking fashion. You all know I don’t do game recaps, and if you are here to learn about what happened in the game, you probably won’t like my writing anyway. Here are my thoughts and analysis on what happened last night. . .
- Tony Romo shouldn’t receive all of the blame for last night’s loss, but he was really off for the majority of the game. I’m not just talking about the late 3rd and 5 overthrow of Miles Austin, either. Romo was inaccurate throughout the course of the game, and Jason Garrett actually did a nice job of hiding it with the running game. Believe it or not, I thought the Cowboys were right to run as much as they did, and could have even done so a tad more. Yes, I am advocating the run. . .wow.
- Romo’s should-have-been-game-tying-drive at the end of the contest was tremendous, however. It showed me a lot that he was able to lead the troops down the field with just over 40 seconds to play after really playing poorly (in terms of accuracy) during the game. Romo missed a few open receivers and just couldn’t find a rhythm, but he overcame it to put the team in a position for the tie, and he did so just moments after that crushing incompletion to Austin.
- I really, really thought Rob Ryan and the Cowboys should have let the Giants score late in the game. Up by five points with one minute left in the game and just a single timeout, the Cowboys were in a really bad position with New York possessing the ball with a 1st and Goal at the Cowboys’ one-yard line. In almost all cases, the Giants are going to score a touchdown in that situation. Let’s do a little math. . .
- Since the field goal was useless to New York, they would have had four chances to get the ball into the end zone. Teams are successful on two-point rushing attempts 60% of the time, and those take place at the two-yard line. Even if we use that 60% conversion rate in this situation (in reality is is obviously higher), the Giants would score a touchdown in 97.4% of such 1st and Goal situations. . .not great odds for Dallas. The Cowboys were actually “lucky” the Giants scored on the 2nd down play, but the offense could have benefited from an extra timeout. If they had more time to get down the field on that final drive, Dan Bailey’s chances of converting on the game-tying field goal would have improved significantly.
- Overall, Rob Ryan’s defense obviously had a poor game. I’m actually not against the aggressive play-calling late in the contest. Even with five minutes left and a 12-point lead, the defense is not in position to simply play preventative and allow the Giants to march down the field. Ryan gambled on some blitzes, and they simply didn’t work. Other times, they will. The problem I had was the overall blitz rate, as I thought Dallas could have benefited from playing a defense similar to what the Giants did. In my pre-game article for the New York Times, I suggested New York should sit back in a lot of safe coverages. It just so happened that the G-Men played a whole lot of Cover 2 man–way more than I even expected–to take Dez Bryant and Miles Austin out of the game. It worked.
- The sideline reporters covering the game suggested the Giants were playing primarily Cover 2, but that wasn’t technically the case. New York was actually in Cover 2 man under, which is two safeties deep with man coverage underneath. It is a lot safer than traditional Cover 2 and nearly impossible to beat deep, which is why you saw Romo take few deep shots. The only time he threw deep was when the Giants were not in the coverage or when they blew an assignment with it.
- I think Garrett should call far more crossing routes in general, but that was particularly true last night. With man coverage underneath, Dallas could have found success lining up in bunch formations and crossing guys at the line of scrimmage. They didn’t do it, however, and the Giants were able to control the Cowboys’ passing attack for the most part (outside of a couple mental errors).
- Terence Newman is a perfect example of why “regression to the mean” doesn’t always apply. If you read a lot of my stuff, you know I like to use regression as a way to explain a lot of streaky things which tend to happen in the NFL. Red zone performance, interceptions, and even wins are subject to regression to the mean, meaning teams which have performed poorly in a specific category will tend to be better in the future simply because they were under-performing before. Red zone performance, for example, is really an illusion, with teams playing comparable to how they do in other areas of the field over the long-run.
- So how does this relate to Newman? For awhile, I’ve protected Newman as a guy who has had some poor luck with injuries, but possesses the cover skills to become a stud cornerback in the NFL. Those dropped interceptions we have seen, I thought, would eventually be caught and Newman’s interception totals and overall public perception would improve as his play “regressed to the mean” (in this case “the mean” is how “average Newman” would play over the course of 10,000+ games, for example). It is now clear that Newman’s play isn’t going to regress (or progress, really) anywhere because this is just who he is. He drops interceptions and is nearly always a step late because he simply has really poor ball skills. I’m truly convinced Newman is one of the top cover men in the NFL in terms of pre-throw coverage, but he turns into a college-level player once the ball is in the air. That isn’t going to change.
- I thought the Cowboys would be vulnerable on the left side of the line this week, and I was right. Doug Free played really, really poorly once again. In my article “What’s Wrong with Doug Free?”, I argued you will see improvement from Free. I still think that is the case, but maybe it won’t be happening until the 2012 season. Whether Free is injured or not, he got absolutely abused by Jason Pierre-Paul last night.
- We will see Tyron Smith move to left tackle next season due in part to Free’s struggles, but primarily because Smith is a beast. He has improved steadily in pass protection and he’s been the Cowboys’ top run blocker all season. He did an incredible job of finishing blocks last night in particular. In terms of my current man-crushes, Smith is right near the top of the list.
- Something interesting I saw last night, though, was Smith’s movement (or lack thereof) on Phil Costa’s non-snap. When Costa forgot the snap count (again) and failed to snap the ball on time, everyone except he and Smith fired off of the line. I haven’t seen anything on film which suggests Smith isn’t anticipating the snap count and getting off of the line on time, but this is something to watch. If Smith is indeed reacting to the snap of the ball instead of anticipating it, it is actually scary how dominant he could be once he makes this correction.
- Garrett dialed up a few screen passes early, including an awesome throwback screen to John Phillips for the Cowboys’ first touchdown. I don’t know why he got away from the screens later in the game, however. Even with DeMarco Murray out for the season (a point which I am avoiding discussing because I am still bitter), the ‘Boys should still run more screens.
- The Cowboys did run a screen pass on the final drive with time ticking away, but it came as the result of a Romo audible. The check was a really poor one from Tony. Not only did the actual audible cost the Cowboys precious seconds, but they had less than 30 ticks to get the ball into field goal range. Although they eventually made it anyway, I didn’t think a check to a screen was a smart move in that situation.
- The draw play has been a staple of the Cowboys’ offense since Garrett has been in town, but I saw a new wrinkle last night. Romo dropped back and did his usual fake-to-the-slant pump, but the offensive line and running back moved as if the play was a counter. The play took longer to develop than a traditional draw, but the new “counter draw” was successful. It could make a return in the coming weeks.
- Tony Fiammetta’s presence is clearly valuable for whoever is running behind him. Fiammetta has been superb as a lead-blocker all season, and the loss of Murray might not hurt as much if Fiammetta stays healthy and Felix Jones keeps running like he did last night. Jones looked like a different running back, making awesome jump cuts and displaying absolutely incredible vision. The problem with Jones in the past hasn’t been an ability to make plays, however, but rather sustaining that ability. He needs to follow up this performance with another strong one on Thursday in Tampa.
- Sean Lee had the stunning late-game interception which was huge for Dallas at the time, but I thought he played uncharacteristically poor for the game. He missed a bunch of tackles and was overpowered by Brandon Jacobs often. Mike Jenkins, on the other hand, turned in a gutsy performance in which he returned from an obviously painful shoulder injury to play really good football. He has impressed me of late.