Throughout the first few weeks in August, we will carefully review the 2013 season week by week. I do this as a matter of habit during every training camp because the offseason allows too many things to fall from my memory banks and I think as I get older, that issue becomes bigger. But, since I write about this team daily and I forget most of the details, I thought perhaps you would like to take this trip as well. Some of you will, I assume most of you will pass on this endeavor, but the blog space is free so don't say that I didn't offer. Here is Week 1, the home game against the Giants and the very generous Eli Manning:
Takeaways! Takeaways! And more takeaways!
Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli coached it, the players listened, and look, in the season opener, there were more gifts given by the generous New York Giants offense than the Cowboys would normally get in a month!
Is all that glitters really gold? Are the Cowboys now the Chicago and Tampa teams that made this scheme famous for its punishment and its constant theft of the ball? And if all you have to do is emphasize it, what were all those other coaches doing around here? 6 takeaways left Eli Manning shaking his head, Tom Coughlin cussing up a storm, and it greatly assisted the Cowboys finally beating the rivals from New York in the new stadium in their 5th attempt, 36-31.
For one night, no one is goofing about the Kiffin hire and the potential impacts that could be felt in this tight NFC East. If the Cowboys can go from their mark last season of 16 takeaways and move it up to the league average of 25, then doesn't it stand to reason that would be the difference in winning the division after coming up a game short (or a Dez finger-tip short) in 2012?
Well, maybe. Actually, what people don't talk about when they look at takeaways is that the Cowboys have been reasonably close to the NFL average over the last stretch of years, despite perception. In 2012, they were woefully bad in taking the ball away, but replacement-level players at most positions in the 2nd half of 2012 certainly didn't help that figure at all - nor the overall legacy of Rob Ryan. But, a broader look shows that from 2007-2011 in a 5-season stretch, the Cowboys took the ball away 127 times which is under the league average mark of 133, but only by about one takeaway every 13 games.
In a league where the number of turnovers has diminished greatly over the last decade but still decides most games, your average NFL team takes the ball away 25 times a season. And the Cowboys took the ball from the Giants 6 times last night. That number is absurd and puts them on pace for 96. But, if they can get a short field even twice a game in 2013, you will see a dramatic change in fortune for this entire squad, guaranteed.
We assume that Sunday Night was a beautiful confluence of events - some random, some not - that fell in the Cowboys favor. Both teams fumbled multiple times, but the Cowboys recovered their two, and the Giants lost all three of their miscues. That, we have learned from years of following the sport, is random. There is no team that is better or worse at recovering fumbles over a large sample.
But, causing fumbles and interceptions? Ripping the ball away from the carrier like Nick Hayden and Barry Church did that caused David Wilson to have a spot over on the sideline next to his coach? Well, those are not random at all. Those are players deciding that they aren't just trying to stop the ball carrier, they want to rob him, too. And that flair is what any Dallas fan has to be excited about from a defense that is comprised of both star players and unknowns. They attacked last night and showed an energy that was quite impressive. The very optimistic idea that they could "get there with 4" actually happened; the Cowboys front 4 - despite no Jay Ratliff or Anthony Spencer - generated a reasonable amount of pressure on the Giants banged-up OL all night, causing Eli some distress as he threw a giant yardage total - and 3 crucial interceptions.
There is so much more to discuss, but you simply have to lead with your defense shortening your field on a number of occasions and stopping the Giants enough - despite some very gaudy yardage numbers. And if someone like me is going to blow off the idea of lots of yards - like the last meeting between these two teams when Romo and the offense rolled up plenty of yards but were foiled by too many giveaways, well, then we can easily see the parallels between last night and previous Giants' visits.
It was a game that might require multiple visits to fully digest, but maybe the difference in the game came down to a 3rd and 11 for the Cowboys at the Giants' 14 yard line late in the 1st Quarter. It was a play that made many recall other prime-time affairs where Tony Romo and his receivers might not fully be on the same page with a play call or the intended route versus throw. On this occasion, rookie Terrence Williams was receiving his first NFL throw, but he was not looking when the ball arrived. Instead, he thought he was running a slant and go. Romo was throwing for a slant. Williams, thinking it was a fake, never crossed the face of the corner, and Prince Amukamara couldn't believe his good fortune as Romo threw the ball right at him. The ball caromed off Amukamara and right to new safety Ryan Mundy who was off to the races at his own 8 and nothing but turf in front of him and a caravan of blue jerseys. But 92 yards is a long run and despite having a substantial head start on DeMarco Murray - who was running a flair to the right of the play (the opposite side of the field) - was chased down barely at the 1-yard line. Tremendous hustle by Murray that was then capitalized on in the next few snaps as Nick Hayden stuffed a run and George Selvie pulled down Eli for a sack and the Giants had to settle for a field goal - all thanks to DeMarco not giving up on a play.
And that is certainly not all Murray did last night by any stretch. 20 carries of hard running and 10 more targets from Romo in the passing game means that Murray wakes up a man with plenty of bruises. But he also gave plenty of bruises out and ran with that style that makes you think he is the real deal. I would take issue with those that suggest the run game was unproductive. 23 carries for 87 yards is not ideal, but it isn't horrid. It also dominates time of possession, keeps your defense fresh, and displays a physicality that the Cowboys have lacked for a few seasons.
Which leads us to the offensive line. I look forward to breaking things down much further as the week goes on and the coach's film becomes available, but my first impressions were quite passable. I found the pass protection generally very solid, starting with Tyron Smith doing well against a banged up Jason Pierre Paul or whoever took him on. But inside, with new left guard Ronald Leary and rookie center Travis Frederick, one would have to suggest that both played incredibly well. Leary, in particular, has a ways to go to handle everything and everyone that is thrown at him from week to week, but the strength and battle that both of those guys appear to have is the most welcome of additions to this offensive group.
With no Brian Waters available for the opener, Mackenzy Bernadeau had to play at right guard, and Linval Joseph abused him on the way to a Romo sack late in the game, and Doug Free will get largely blamed for the play that might have broken a few ribs of Romo's in the 2nd Quarter - although I don't know if he is to blame at all.
Free was in pass protection and had Mathias Kiwanuka blocked pretty well, as linebacker Jacquian Williams blitzed on a rare occasion. But, instead of running at Romo and being picked up by a waiting DeMarco Murray, he ran away from the QB and right at Doug Free in a unique stunt idea. Free was knocked off his feet - as any tackle would be if blindsided by a sprinting linebacker while trying to block someone in a different direction and that left Murray to try to sort out what was happening and to pick up Kiwanuka which did not work out well. Kiwanuka pushed Murray aside and then put his helmet/shoulder pads right into Romo's ribs and looked like he did some considerable damage. You never see a WLB and a LDE stunt to that extent and there is no question that the element of surprise is what made that stunt work so well. They never blitz, and they definitely never blitz/stunt. Sometimes their scheme gets you, and they almost took out Romo in the process (medical exams pending).
But, credit the Cowboys. Credit them for playing with a lead for most of the night. In fact, they led for 28:21 of the game, which may not be a number that impresses you until you hear this next stat. In all of 2012, in all 8 home games, they led their opponent for a total of 36:36. Trust me, last night was a rarity to lead for that long.
At different times, Romo, Dez Bryant, and Morris Claiborne all laid on the turf and appeared to be injured. We don't know if any are serious, but Romo and Bryant both looked pretty serious when they happened, and so we are quickly reminded how physical this sport is when the regular season hits start happening. Bryant, with 8 targets for 4 receptions and 22 yards, had a quiet night, but he will have plenty to say about this season as it goes. For now, he is starting to see that teams like the Giants are going to hang a safety over his corner all night long and take their chances with making Miles Austin and the running game.
It was a fantastic win overall. It was a divisional home game on a Sunday Night, so it felt bigger than 1 out of 16, because it is. This team needs confidence and results quickly. And with September maybe the easiest of the 4 months in terms of opponents and strength of schedule, it is vital to get out of the gates on a dead sprint. Sure, the Giants were generous, but you must take advantage of that generosity, and that wasn't happening early in the game.
We knew there were going to be issues in the secondary, and the corner blitz by Orlando Scandrick that ended up with a 70-yard Touchdown to Victor Cruz demonstrated that quite clearly. That growth will need to continue against what we assume will be lesser passing attacks until Denver comes to town.
But, when you withstand the weapons of New York, get a divisional win under your belt, and make key plays at key moments, you try to let yourself enjoy a win for a few moments before you worry about what lies ahead. This team has a fan base that is excellent at seeing the cup half empty, but I would argue that there was plenty to like about last night and it starts with the overall swarming energy that the squad had for much of the night. From Dwayne Harris and JJ Wilcox covering kicks and punts like madmen to previously out-of-work defensive linemen playing like they are not going to waste this golden opportunity. I saw plenty to clean up, but after being reminded again yesterday how close the teams in this league are, there is never cause for excess negativity following a tough win like that over a hated foe.
Things need to continue to develop and the injuries obviously need to be avoided, but overall, that was exactly what the Cowboys needed last night.