For a while Wednesday night, Jerry Jones’ offseason moves to improve the Cowboys were about to blow up in his face.
Jones focused on improving the cornerback position after watching his team blow fourth quarter leads five times last season. The Giants were the main beneficiaries of Dallas’ fourth-quarter generosity last season, and it was the Giants who were the first test of Jones’ strategy in the primetime NFL opener.
Jones gave free agent cornerback Brandon Carr a boatload of money to be the Cowboys’ new shutdown corner. He traded up in the draft to take LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne.
In doing so, he passed up a chance to significantly bolster the other glaring area of need: the interior offensive line.
No high-priced free agents were signed to strengthen the guards and center between tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free. No moves in the draft to take one of the elite O-line prospects.
When the game kicked off in New Jersey, it became apparent right away that the Cowboys were unable to block one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL.
Quarterback Tony Romo was running for his life from the start, while running back DeMarco Murray was running nowhere.
To make matters worse, starting center Phil Costa went down with an injury. Ryan Cook, just acquired from the Dolphins, was snapping to Romo in a game after just three practices with the team.
But then a funny thing happened just before halftime. The Cowboys realized if they would use some quick drops that didn’t expose Romo to pressure, they could take advantage of a Giants secondary that was as leaky as the Cowboys’ was last season.
They worked the Giants’ beleaguered DB’s for a late first-half score, with Kevin Ogletree catching the first of his two touchdowns.
As it turns out, one of the biggest moves Jones didn’t make in the offseason proved to be one of his best moves. The Cowboys let third receiver Laurent Robinson walk away in free agency over the summer.
While Robinson clearly had a connection with Romo, the Jaguars offered way more money than the Cowboys could sensibly spend on a third wideout. The biggest question mark of training camp was whether the Cowboys could find a suitable third receiver.
After four preseason games, that question never really got answered, at least by Robinson standards. Ogletree had a couple of nice moments in the preseason, but so did others vying for the job.
When the lights turned on for real, Ogletree grabbed the spotlight. He caught a team-leading eight passes for 114 yards and converted several big downs.
And as Romo and Ogletree were exploiting the secondary, with some big play contributions from Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, the Giants’ front seven began to soften.
Murray began churning out big gains, and at just the right time. Ogletree’s second TD catch gave the Cowboys a 14-3 lead in the third quarter and a strong ground game – Murray finished with 131 yards – would keep Romo from taking risks.
Then the fourth quarter came and the Cowboys had a 17-10 lead to protect. Cowboys fans buckled in, because this is when their team had failed previously against the Giants.
But there was no Manning magic this time. The Cowboys secondary didn’t give up big plays to lose the game.
Instead, it was Romo who found Austin for a huge, 34-yard touchdown with 5:54 to play. That made it 24-10, but there was still enough time for disaster to strike.
The Giants managed one more score to pull within a touchdown, to former Cowboy Martellus Bennett of all people, but there was no collapse by the Dallas defense.
The Cowboys knocked off the Super Bowl champs, 24-17, but afterwards there was no knocking the smile off Jones’ face.