There are injured players. The schedule set up poorly. The NFL made the Cowboys start camp later than anyone, but then they had to play the first game of the season. The replacement refs missed calls. So many guys missed portions of camp. The game in New York is the toughest game on the schedule. The team doesn’t play well in prime time. The Super Bowl Champions always win their opener. The offensive line did not take a single snap together in the preseason. The Giants have the Cowboys’ number. Phil Costa was injured on the third play of the game. It sure is tough to open with two games on the road. It is tough to be in good shape for Week 1. This is a long season. It is only one loss. Nobody is going to go undefeated.
So many narratives that write themselves on the day after the first game of the season. The Cowboys had lots of comfy cliches and excuses they could have eased home on Thursday morning as they returned to Dallas. Nobody was going to blame them for losing to the Super Bowl Champions.
Instead, they returned home with a win.
There are so many talking points about the Week 1 victory over the New York Giants when you look back at this game. The one that pops quickly to mind is that this is not the type of game that these Cowboys usually find a way to win. And yet, when they did, when they popped adversity right in the kisser last night, it made you wonder what these guys might be capable of.
This game was anything but a masterpiece of precision. Mistakes all over the field. Many of them caused by an offensive line that could not stop taking penalties. Presnap call after presnap call. False starts because of jumping linemen. Delay of games, because the QB cannot get the new center to snap the ball. An interception that was thrown into coverage. A holding penalty on Jason Witten that certainly could have cost the team the game.
But, each time the Cowboys had something go wrong, they dug in and worked their way out of the mess. Tony Romo, who looks as bound and determined as he ever has, played a magnificent game. He stood tall under pressure and made the Giants secondary pay for any small mistake. It was a thing of absolute beauty for those who follow this team.
When was the last time this happened? The last time this team was a major under-dog in a game that they had to go to someone’s hostile environment and get a win? I submit to you that the 2009 win in New Orleans is the last time, since the 2010 win in New York was merely a 1-7 team that played the role of the blind squirrel finding a nut. But, this was not a sneak attack. This was bitter rivals squaring off with the football world watching after months of barbs and insults. This was the high-stakes main event.
And for the Cowboys to emerge with a victory, many things had to go right when experience with this crew says something always sabotages that hope. Let’s detail a few:
* Phil Costa is lost for the night after the third snap of the game. He had been battling back problems in all of the preseason, and after the third play, he grabbed his back and hobbled to the bench. Losing any starter hurts, but to lose the guy who is there to make your line calls, understand QB instructions, and anchor the entire group on the first possession of the game? That is just a cruel nightmare. Keep in mind that the Cowboys had been rolling with David Arkin as their center throughout the preseason, a player that had such little regard for that he was inactive last night and the team made a deadline trade to replace Arkin with Miami’s third string center, Ryan Cook, who was about to be cut. Cook hardly had time to meet his team-mates, let alone understand the Cowboys offense. But, surely it wouldn’t make a difference, because he wasn’t going to play much, right? Wrong. He would play 54 of the 57 snaps and aside from some snap count issues in a loud stadium, showed himself to be pretty solid. It makes one wonder if he is now the starting center of the Dallas Cowboys moving forward. I cannot remember a player saving the day in the face of disaster, quite like Cook did last night under those circumstances.
* The defense dug in all-night long, but the best example came after the best penalty of Tyron Smith’s career. His illegal tackle that horse-collared Michael Boley after Romo’s interception made the Giants punch it in from the 1-yard line. However, the Giants goal-line offense ran into a stubborn Cowboys’ front and kept losing yards. The Cowboys defense made the Giants deal with physicality – not usually a Dallas defense calling card – at crucial times last night, and when the Giants could only pull three points out of what appeared to be a Pick-6 situation, there was a key momentum change for all to see. The defense showcased 3 new starters last night, and Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, and Bruce Carter all looked the part of a faster, more capable unit. This allowed many other members of the defense to be able to accomplish their job more effectively as the chain reaction had the best-case scenario results that Jerry was hoping for when he invested in his corners. We certainly want to see this play out for a much bigger sample size before we declare the defense much-improved and intimidating, but given that they did something no Cowboys defense has done in a long time – slow down Eli Manning – one would have to like the early returns.
* Third wide receiver was another position on this team that has caused a fair level of consternation, and perhaps we learned another lesson in patience. For it was in the fourth-year of Miles Austin (2009) that he finally contributed large amounts to the cause. And last night, in the fourth season of Kevin Ogletree, when many had declared that we had seen enough to know what he was all about, that he was the focal point of a Cowboys aerial attack that finally decided to do what elite offenses do in the NFL: Attack without mercy any weak links on the opposition. How many times have we spent the day after a game wondering why the Cowboys do not punish teams for playing reserves like the Saints, Colts, and Patriots do? Surely, you remember Pete Hunter lining up for Seattle in a playoff game just days after working in an office in Dallas. And did the Cowboys attack Hunter in that 2006 affair? Hardly. But, this time, with corners named Michael Coe and Justin Tryon looking unsure on the Giants’ flanks, Romo decided to go right at them. And Ogletree was the main beneficiary, with 11 targets and 8 catches for 114 yards and 2 touchdowns. He got his big opportunity and never let any of the other third WR candidates get a sniff. He kept them on the sideline from early in the game and caught almost every ball thrown at him, with the majority coming on simple slant patterns that were rather easy conversions. Then, when they sat on the slant, he ran a stutter-and-go route for a huge touchdown down the sideline against the Giants best corner, Corey Webster.
* Perhaps last, and not least, was the way the Cowboys conducted themselves with a 7-point lead and the ball with 2:31 to go in the game. The Giants had 2 timeouts and the 2-minute warning, so they knew that they were likely to get the ball back with a full 2 minutes left if they simply stopped the Cowboys offense one time. For those of us who follow Dallas closely, we could only remember last year’s attempts at the 4-minute drill (the sequence at the end of the game where you have the ball and the lead. Killing the clock is your objective, knowing 1 1st down likely kills the game). The 2 attempts at proper 4-minute drill that were top of mind from 2011 were at New England and home against these same Giants. In both cases, the Cowboys had the ball and the lead. A simple 1st down and the game ends. But, in New England, they played scared and tentative – not wanting to risk an interception, so three feeble runs and a punt left the game in Tom Brady’s hands. Patriots win. Then, we have that fateful night in Arlington last December, when the Cowboys had the NFC East with a first down, but a third down pass to Austin fell incomplete and Eli Manning made them pay dearly.
So, could they run a proper four-minute drill? Would Jason Garrett play the percentages and run three times and punt? Well, on 3rd and 2, it looked like his star running back, DeMarco Murray had the game won. But, Jason Witten was caught holding Antrel Rolle. So, they were walked back and facing a 3rd and 10, Garrett was going to have his conviction tested. Does he trust his QB who is playing an unbelievably strong game or would he play the percentages, call a draw play, and depend on his defense to bring home the game? He gave Romo one throw to win the game, and Romo hits Ogletree on yet another slant. Move the chains. Game over.
I saw many things I liked last night. Strong debuts from new Cowboys. A very strong effort from the defense. Great response to adversity when it hit on the first drive of the night.
But, more than anything, I absolutely loved how Jason Garrett realized that his best way to win on the road is to attack. Seek out the weak links of the Giants defense and expose them all night long. Don’t act like you have a QB who is inexperienced or incapable. Act like you have a playmaker who has been around the block long enough and a guy who can get you out of trouble. Trust your QB. And make the opposition beat you. Too many times in 2011, the Cowboys played conservative and close to the vest. They took the ball away from Romo and asked their defense to stop Brady or Eli. They got so scared of a few turnovers, that they ignored the fact that he threw 31 touchdowns.
Last night, they asked the Giants to stop their offense. And the Giants were ill-equipped to do so. In fact, the Giants last stop of the game came with about five minutes to go in the second quarter. After that, they did not stop the Cowboys offense on a single drive.
That is a show of strength that we haven’t seen in a few years. And that is with Witten barely playing, Austin just returning, and Ogletree making the first big contribution of his career. DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant both have star qualities that can make this offense pretty special if they can figure things out. And the new offensive line interior of Nate Livings, Ryan Cook, and Mackenzy Bernadeau might actually be three large veterans who can bring this whole thing together.
Yes, it is just one game. One game that pretty much everyone had in the loss column.
But, now, it makes you wonder if the coach and QB fully realize what they might be capable of.