Morning After: Plays Were Simply Not Made When Needed
Sometimes, despite our inclination to complicate things, football is not complicated. We want to talk about strategy and tactics and ideas. We want to point at the men who make decisions on the sidelines or in the executive boxes. We want answers for whoever decided that this plan was a good plan.
But, sometimes, like Sunday, it isn't complicated. It is a matter of players just catching a football that is thrown at them. It is a matter of one man tackling another when given the opportunity. Or, one man just being faster than the man asked to defend him. The higher powers in a football organization assemble the best talent for days like this, and sometimes the best talent that you have was not good enough to leave with a victory.
In other words, you guys got beat. And any effort to make it bigger than that, absolves highly-compensated and highly-celebrated athletes of their only real job. When the moment comes, the team is counting on you to make a play.
And on Sunday, in San Diego, the Cowboys lost because the players that they deployed to handle a Chargers side, that was certainly not highly regarded across the league, simply did not do their jobs.
Certainly, blaming the players does not satisfy the enjoyable urge to put everything on the two most popular targets for Cowboys' anger - the coach and the owner. In both cases, they have earned and received their share of criticism, but to place what happened on Sunday at their feet is a stretch of the highest order. And that likely applies to the other popular piñata, quarterback Tony Romo. On this day, Romo's biggest mistake might have been assuming a sack was coming and bailing to the ground a moment before he had to. Otherwise, his throws were strong and on the mark for the entire afternoon. San Diego dared him to beat the coverage, and Romo put the ball in a spot where a catch has to be made. And too often, the ball hit the ground on 3rd Downs.
When catchable balls are not secured on 3rd Downs in this league, you lose. It is just that simple. And whether it was Dwayne Harris, Jason Witten, or the unstoppable Dez Bryant, they all took turns allowing balls to hit the ground on catches we have seen them make. All 3 turned into drive stopping moments, and when you only get a few drives because your defense is allowing the Chargers to stay on the field the entire game, well, you understand how the Cowboys took a double-digit lead just before halftime and turned it into a 2-score loss.
It was a full demonstration of the team aspect of the sport, and the idea that blame should not be reserved for only the easy targets. Because, in this particular case, sometimes, the easy targets are not the proper targets.
In many ways, the game did mirror the Kansas City game of Week 2. In the first half, Tony Romo and Dez Bryant were able to make the opponents' efforts to contain them appear comedic. Bryant dominated a jump ball fade in the end zone and then cut across the field on an equally impressive deep-in route that seemed to place the Cowboys in a spot where they would have questions that the Chargers simply would not be able to answer. But, when that 2nd Bryant score occurred with 2:35 left in the 2nd Quarter, who would have guessed that would be the final time the offense would score a single point on the afternoon?
After Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee provided a deflected interception for a score, the Cowboys found themselves with a commanding lead. They now had a cushion to operate with and enough success on offense to believe that this game could be had.
But, that is where the plays stopped. The defense could not get off the field the rest of the day. And the offense failed to mount a meaningful drive that did not implode at the end. The combination of both units falling on their face at the key juncture of a tight matchup was impossible to over-come. In Kansas City, the defense held tight for most of the game and tried to keep the offense afloat in the 2nd half. This time, both units were just being defeated with regularity.
Defensively, it was a Philip Rivers clinic. It seemed to be a formula of simply asking the Cowboys to defend the whole field. Short gains were accepted and any time the Cowboys thought they had someone to run with Danny Woodhead, the Chargers were happy to watch the speedy match-up run right by Bruce Carter. Then, as Carter was taken off the field for Ernie Sims, they moved over to a man-to-man matchup of Sean Lee trying to run with Antonio Gates. Gates, of course, ran past Lee and 56 yards into the end zone for a fantastic job of offensive strategy.
It was, quite simply, to find the match-ups that most appealed to the Chargers game plan (Woodhead-Carter, Gates-Lee, the shallow zones underneath Morris Claiborne, the deep zones over the LBs and in front of the very deep safeties) and expose it repeatedly. It can only be exposed if it is recognized and then executed, and the Chargers hit on enough of those to reap the points that your preparations all week set up.
And that should start to alert us in a disconcerting way. It seemed that much of the rhetoric about the scheme change defensively was based around the idea of building a defense that best showcased the ability of the two young linebackers, Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. The idea, as you may recall, was to show that they could duplicate the Lance Briggs/Brian Urlacher partnership in Chicago or the Shelton Quarles/Derrick Brooks duo in Tampa Bay. Instead, through one month of the season, we have seen several occasions where the opponents are seeming to target those two in coverage. Sometimes in zone, and sometimes in man to man, it sure seems that the middle is a high-traffic place where the QBs know they can accomplish some things against Dallas.
We should absolutely expect an adjustment period and growing pains, but this presents us with a few things we did know when this was announced back in January. 1) That the Cowboys were trying to run a scheme that some people think went out of style in the last decade because teams learned how to attack it and find favorable match-ups all day long. The simple cliche that you might here is that NFL offenses are simply too good to not flood the middle of the field and attack the attackers. And 2) That the Cowboys were trying to run a defense that relied heavily on a duo of safeties, despite not having that as a position of strength.
This leads me back to something I was told at camp by a scout, "the last thing you need to worry about is Lee and Carter. They will be fine." And I am sure they will be, but after seeing Eli Manning, Alex Smith, and now Philip Rivers repeatedly find a way to isolate Carter and Lee to a point where Carter is being taken off the field so the pain stops, you can understand the trepidation before Peyton Manning comes to town.
Then, back to the offense where they were only going to get a few chances to regain control of the afternoon in the 2nd half. After the Woodhead wheel-route TD, it was Dallas 21, San Diego 20 and the Cowboys took the ball for the first time in 44 minutes of real time and 23 straight plays from scrimmage for the Chargers. I don't know if the long layoff caused Dez Bryant to drop a 3rd and 11 play that was thrown into his hands on the sideline, but a catch there puts the team near FG range. He can make that catch in his sleep, but on this occasion, he didn't and the drive ended.
The Chargers then began the 4th Quarter with another drive that stalled at the 7 yard line, but took the lead on a chip-shot field goal and were up 23-21.
This required another drive from the Cowboys and a real chance for them to lose patience with their play-calling. Yet, on this occasion, they didn't. They stayed "under center" and balanced and moved the ball out to midfield with a series involving Murray and Bryant. But, the drive-killer occurred when Ron Leary pulled down Corey Liuget from behind and a gainer to Cole Beasley was negated and required a 3rd and 8 from the Chargers 44 to keep the drive going. On this occasion, the Chargers locked Eric Weddle up on a seam route with Jason Witten, and Witten had the advantage as the two battled for a lofted pass that appeared to hit Witten right in the 8 on his chest. It was a very difficult play, but one that Witten has made dozens of times. But on this occasion, he didn't and another drive ended.
A few minutes later, the Chargers found their Hall of Fame tight end in a 1-on-1 seam route as well, but the play was executed by Rivers and Gates to perfection and all Sean Lee could do is a desperation dive in the end. He missed and the Touchdown put the Chargers now up 30-21. One side made a play and the other side came close, but didn't. The story of the afternoon.
The Cowboys kept battling, including a 3rd and 8 conversion when Romo just tucked and ran for the 1st Down inside the Chargers 10, but 2 plays later, rookie Terrance Williams caught a shallow cross and tried to hold the ball out over the goal-line in a very reckless and naive fashion, was hit, and the ball rolled to a Chargers defender in the end-zone ending the afternoon for Dallas. It was a play he could have and should have made, but on this occasion, he didn't and another drive ended.
Sure, there are moments where you can 2nd guess the coach (the long FG try comes to mind), moments where Romo might have put a better pass out there (although he played one of his better games with quality throws all day), and issues that do go all the way to the top with Jerry Jones (as always), but to arrive at a conclusion other than placing this one on many reliable members of the roster would be stretching the truth.
Bryant, Witten, Lee, Carter, Ware (let's not forget a horrid offsides) and the entire gang share in this loss, which brings the narratives back about .500 football and updates the statistics of 285 games (regular season and playoffs) since Super Bowl 30 when Aikman and company won their last Super Bowl. The win-loss tally since that day in Tempe? 142-143.
They are a team that has many positive attributes, but it is days like this that retard that growth and self-belief about what the potential of this team truly is. And what put them here? In some ways, the inability to make the plays that they are capable of making when it matters most.
The Cowboys had a wonderful chance to shake their critics and show that the 2013 version is different than those teams that secured this reputation. Unfortunately, for them, they did the same thing they did in Kansas City earlier in the month. They had their moments, but overall, failed to execute at a level that puts wins away against beatable opponents.
Next, they can hear all week how they have no chance to beat Denver at home. In some ways, it might be just the type of week that might be perfect for them. But, at some point, talk and hype are worthless. There will be a moment or five during the game where they can either make that play or not.
Yesterday, they didn't make the plays that they had to make. And for that, they got what they deserved.
Another painful defeat.