Once again, it takes the worst to bring out the best in the Dallas Cowboys.
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We saw this last season when the Cowboys revived their fading playoff hopes with a stunning December upset at New Orleans. Ditto for Sunday. The Cowboys avoided a catastrophic 0-3 start with a 27-13 road victory over the favored and previously unbeaten Houston Texans.
The problems that plagued Dallas in its first two losses — a lack of dynamic plays, poor coaching decisions, shaky kicking and mental errors — didn’t surface. High-profile starters like DeMarcus Ware, Keith Brooking and — I kid you not — Roy Williams made a major impact. The Cowboys actually looked like the franchise that could become the first to host a Super Bowl in its own stadium.
“If we go out and play like that, it’s tough to beat us,” Dallas inside linebacker Bradie James said.
He’s right. But the statement begs this question: Why didn’t Dallas have its act together from the get-go?
This is a talented veteran unit that, by virtue of a Hall of Fame game appearance, had more preseason practice time than any other NFL team. There is continuity on the coaching staff. From team owner Jerry Jones on down, there was a self-confidence — bordering on arrogance — that this is the year the stars on the Cowboys helmet will finally align.
And then came the regular season.
Dallas was underwhelming and ill-prepared against Washington and Chicago. The sky-is-falling hysteria from the public and media that has marked the Wade Phillips era immediately resumed.
“You can’t just think you can step out there and guys are going to lay down for you,” James said. “You have to actually go out with fire, relentlessness.”
The Cowboys began displaying the signs of a desperate bunch last week. There was a players-only meeting. Cornerback Terence Newman alluded to sloppy preparation and practice habits. Quarterback Tony Romo bemoaned problems in the running game. Jones even felt compelled – once again — to give Phillips a public “vote of confidence” amid the renewed public outcry for his firing.
“We were going to be in really bad trouble if we had lost,” Jones said.
He had legitimate reason to fret when the Cowboys opened Sunday’s game in familiar fashion. There were three offensive penalties on Dallas’ first series. Phillips also showed his lack of faith in struggling kicker David Buehler by eschewing a 47-yard field goal and going for it (unsuccessfully) on fourth down.
But just like he did last year against the Saints, Ware provided Dallas with its initial spark. A 10-yard sack of quarterback Matt Schaub moved the Texans out of field-goal range and forced a punt.
Ware finished with three sacks working against Texans replacement left tackle Rashard Butler. By midway through the second quarter, other Cowboys began springing to life. Marion Barber’s 1-yard touchdown run capped a 13-play drive that featured all of the Dallas playmakers. Buehler ended the first half with a 49-yard field goal that spurred Phillips to pump his fist repeatedly in celebration while heading into the locker room.
The second half provided more reason for celebration. The oft-criticized Williams had his best game in two Cowboys seasons with touchdown catches of 15 and 63 yards. Brooking had a key goal-line sack that forced Houston to settle for a field goal when the score was still close. A defense that hadn’t registered a turnover this season forced three while Romo didn’t commit any in a 23-for-30, 284-yard outing.
“It was great because guys came up with big plays when they had to throughout the whole course of the game,” Brooking said.
So will the Cowboys keep this momentum going? The 2009 Cowboys did after topping New Orleans, winning the NFC East and a first-round playoff game before being eliminated. This squad can have even greater success — provided the lessons learned from the 0-2 start aren’t forgotten this time.
“I emphasized that we need to be that ready every game,” Phillips said. “That’s a promise I got from the team that they will be.”
Now let’s see if Cowboys players live up to their word.
“I feel this is the type of football we’ll play moving forward, but we’ve got to go do it,” Cowboys tight end Jason Witten said. “We have to have that same urgency. It’s not just going to happen.
“I really feel this team understands momentum, paying attention to detail and being on at all times. There’s no room for error. But when we do execute, this (performance) is what’s going to happen.”
Maybe so, but it’s still baffling that losing is what it takes to get the Cowboys winning again.