The Morning After: Cowboys 20, Texans 17 (4-1)
Sometimes we forget just how we got here.
It can happen, as in sports, the icebergs move slowly and the gradual developments sometimes sneak up on us all. You didn't get in this spot overnight, but sometimes what is true now wasn't true just a month ago.
In this particular case, the story of Tony Romo must be reviewed. The very well-compensated, 34-year old, franchise QB of this era of Dallas Cowboys football had seemingly played his best football in the years when much of the rest of his roster was not built up enough to win. They put massive amounts of leverage on his shoulders, and would ask him to stand in, take a hit, and make a play to make up for the other portions of the organization that had short falls.
But, that takes a toll. And to the close observer in training camp, the toll appeared to have been such that Romo was now a QB with diminished skills. He once was a play-making QB. One who has a highlight reel that can match most of his contemporaries and has won many games. But, that QB, it was written, may not live here anymore. The Cowboys used up his best work with disappointing supporting casts, and now what remains is just a lesser facsimile.
Well, you can hold the phone on that narrative for a bit there. Because for the 3rd consecutive week, this version of Tony Romo appears to be capable of the tricks that put him on the map to begin with. And the particular play that will be discussed all week around these parts, a 43-yard Touchdown pass to Terrance Williams after avoiding a collision with the famous JJ Watt, well, it simply does not get better than that.
And because Romo can still occasionally defy the Xs and Os on a play like that was surely dead, and because he also has a team-mate playing Wide Receiver in Dez Bryant who would equally defy the odds and make a play to win the game, the Cowboys wake up this morning with the 4-1 record, or said differently, the best record in the National Football League.
Otherwise, there were enough frustrating mistakes and wasted opportunities that it is fair to say that the 2013 Cowboys would not have put that game in the win column. In fact, when this particular piece of football magic materialized, the game was in the middle of the 3rd Quarter, and the Houston Texans had just taken the lead on a drive that was almost completely Arian Foster running right and then left. The Texans had electrified their sizable audience with a dominating and physical drive, and now had sent the ball back to Dallas - a team who had 5 drives to that juncture that had resulted: punt, fumble, punt, field goal, punt. It wasn't as if they were useless on this day in Arlington, but they had gone about 2/3rds of the game and had yet to put everything together to get in the end zone.
This 6th drive for the Cowboys started with a hold from Travis Frederick that had put them in a temporary hole, but Romo hit Jason Witten down the seam over midfield on a play they simply had to have. Then, Murray had Leary and Witten pulling again on a shotgun run for 6 yards down to the Houston 43 to set up 2nd and 4.
The Cowboys remain in Shotgun 11 personnel, with double WRs to the Right with Williams wide and Bryant in the slot. Witten is tight on the right tackle, with Devin Street out left by himself. Meanwhile, the Texans are starting to get antsy and are showing a blitz look with 6 across the front, but as they normally do, the LBs drop off at the snap into the shallow zones. The Texans are basically only bringing 3, with a 4th coming on a delayed blitz depending on what the Cowboys do at the snap.
Romo appeared to have some sort of pump and go to the right, but the play appeared destroyed at the snap. To run a pump and go, Romo needs time, but when JJ Watt blew past Tyron Smith at the snap without Tyron barely getting out of his stance, Watt has a chance to drill a QB who has back issues from the blindside. There is no telling what might be the result of a QB who is looking to his right, trusting his All-Pro left tackle to protect his backside, and waiting for a play to develop. Smith had no help, because he never needs help. But, this time he needed it badly.
What happened next was amazing, and yet, if you have watched every Tony Romo snap of his career, you have seen it no less than a dozen times (just not that often recently). Somehow, Romo felt what was about to hit him from behind. If you watch the replay, you will marvel at how Romo knew JJ Watt was bearing down on him. It must have been something he heard, because it is difficult to say it was anything he saw. Regardless, with Watt having a free run at a QB with a bad back, Romo pulled out his text book, blind spin back against the grain to his own end zone and then off to the offensive left. Watt who surely was 100% certain he had the sack got both hands on Romo but rolled past when the QB was able to shake him off. Now, Romo had bought just another second as Danieal Manning was bearing down on him from the delayed blitz. Romo lets a throw go deep down the field where Williams is running a deep post pattern against Kendrick Lewis. The throw hits Williams right in the chest as Romo watches from the ground.
It was the best Romo play in a long, long time, and prove positive of his skills being close to full strength. His play of the last 3 weeks is all the proof you need. He is on his way back.
However, there were several instances on Sunday of Romo still bailing out on some throws as he is throwing them. On a few of them, he made fantastic plays, but the fundamentals of his throws are quite unorthodox as he seems to be protecting himself while in his throwing motion.
While the team did win yesterday, this practice did lead to what could have been a painful lesson when the Cowboys had a chance to get space between themselves and their neighbors to the south. Romo followed his magical TD up with a very poor interception as he missed Lewis baiting him to throw a post to Bryant in the red zone early in the 4th Quarter. His head was looking at Dez when the ball left his hands, but quickly goes into a protective mode rather than standing tall and following through. It surely is a natural posture for someone in recovery mode, but it also cannot allow for him to see the whole secondary as well.
After the interception, the defense forced a quick 3 and out, and then Dwayne Harris returned the ensuing punt all the way down to the Texans 30. From there, 3 dominating DeMarco Murray runs put the Cowboys back down at the 2, where Romo used his run/pass option to easily sniff out the naive decision by Romeo Crennel to leave Andre Hal in a man to man situation with Dez on the back shoulder fade. Touchdown, Cowboys, 17-7 with under 10 minutes to play.
Easy win, right?
Not in the NFL this year. No such thing, it appears. The Texans peeled off most of the time on a FG Drive, but the Cowboys held a 17-10 lead with 2:27 left. Perfect spot for a 4-minute drill where Murray gains a 1st down or two, and then the Cowboys take a knee for 4-1.
Well, not so fast. This team, you may be aware, has had a hard time killing off games in recent years. There may be some level of a mental block or just the ability to have their ducks in a row when it comes to decision-making and execution with the chips in the middle. Whatever the case, it certainly didn't look like composure was in great supply when they take a delay of game penalty out of a timeout. That put them well behind the chains and on 3rd and 6, Romo felt the 6-man pressure and opted for another chuck-and-duck toss that was properly flagged for intentional grounding.
The Texans took over in Cowboys territory and then quickly drove the ball against a Dallas defense that looked like it was missing Rolando McClain who had exited stage left earlier with more groin issues. The Arian Foster show really cranked up after his exit and Foster tied the game with :41 left with a plunge into the end zone.
Now, full alerts were on for any tightness in the collective Cowboys' throats, and when Dan Bailey missed his first field goal attempt since September of 2013, well, defeat and disappointment were in the air along with Overtime.
Houston stalled at midfield and the Cowboys took the ball over. Murray had a tremendous 3rd and 1 run for 11 yards, but then the Cowboys faced a 3rd and 9. Again, the Cowboys brought in Shotgun 11 with a 3x1 look, but this time, it was Dez off by himself on the left. And this time, the Texans once again rushed 6. That left DJ Swearinger with a free run at Romo after Murray had to get Brian Cushing on the blitz pickup. Romo had to contort his body to make the throw while falling to avoid the hard-hitting safety, but he put the ball far enough down the field to give Dez a chance on a stop and go route against the very good corner, Johnathan Joseph.
What Dez did next might be his finest catch ever when you consider what was at stake combined with the degree of difficulty. He jumped high enough to get over Joseph, but the corner's arm was right in the middle of the hands of Dez, who somehow held onto the tip off the ball and then pulled it off of Joseph's shoulder as they both hit the turf. If you had to choose between which play was more amazing, the Romo twirl or the Dez catch, you might split the audience 50/50.
3 snaps later, Bailey started a new streak by nailing home a 49-yard game winner, and the Cowboys put another win away.
Was it ugly? 2 answers: Yes and it doesn't matter. I will spare you the usual "no wins are easy" speech today, but at 4-1, it is a matter of stacking them up now because trouble is ahead. Next is Seattle and a huge test given the depleted defense, but they may enjoy the week where there is not a team in the league who is off to a better start than 4-1.
And with that, another week of physical football and running when the opponent wanted to take that away was proven on the field.
Now, the Super Bowl champions await you at their place. In a season of challenges, this one will be the most difficult. There will be no better stage to use as a measuring stick for the Cowboys new-found identity.
But, the takeaway from the first 5 weeks is that until proven otherwise, Romo still has some play-making qualities to add to this bruising offense.
And that makes the potential ceiling of the 2014 Cowboys much higher than originally anticipated.