The legend lives on from the NFL on down,
of the good ship they call Dallas Cowboys,
The team it is said, can be given up for dead,
when the skies of December turn gloomy...
-- not Gordon Lightfoot, not The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Cock your head and you can hear it. The calendar turns to December tomorrow, and just as sure as the winter, the howling about the Cowboys' December collapses has begun. The subject has gained a mythic quality; it seems not so much an option as an inevitability: a tough December schedule looms and the good team is doomed. Doomed because its captain, Tony Romo, a sailor born by the sea, loses his compass when the weather turns cold and the pass rushes fierce.
Or so the myth sellers say. Is Romo truly a sunshine sailor? Are the Cowboys at the mercy of his mercurial December play? Grab your coats and your gloves and follow me on some football forensics, as we find out what really has caused the good ship Cowboys to wreck over and over again.
The Cowboys crashes started before Tony Romo, and Wade Phillips, and most of the current players joined the squad. Bill Parcells' bunch gritted and grunted their way through injuries which claimed projected RT Jacob Rogers in Oxnard and LT Flozell Adams after six games. When Dallas beat Detroit on November 20, it was 7-3. On Thanksgiving Day, the Cowboys took a 13-3 Denver team to overtime, but lost when Ron Dayne broke a long, controversial run, which set up a Jason Elam field goal.
This disappointment was the first of many, as Dallas went 2-4 from November 21st to the finale against the Rams. The offensive line surrendered eleven sacks in two painful division losses to the Giants and Redskins. The latter let Washington leapfrog the Cowboys into the playoffs. That line, for those of you who have effectively disavowed it:
Doug Free, for all his uncertainty, would probably star with that bunch. Allen's tread was worn, Rivera broke down after fourteen games and Tucker and Petitti were playing their last months as Cowboys. Bill Parcells and Jeff Ireland never could draft o-linemen in Dallas and it hurt them badly here.
Romosexuals were everywhere. The world was Romolicious. The Romom Empire was in the making. Cowboys Nation was positively giddy over its new star, who replaced Drew Bledsoe after the veteran showed terminal shell-shock in a Giants loss at Texas Stadium.
Romo avenged the defeat with a memorable last-minute bomb to Jason Witten in the Meadowlands, which set up Martin Grammatica's last second winner. Dallas was 8-4 and in control.
But storm clouds were looming. Dallas had spoiled an inspired Romo performance at FedEx Field when the special teams bungled a short field goal attempt in the final seconds. The Redskins Shaun Springs blocked it and when Kyle Kosier was flagged for a facemask penalty while tackling him, Washington got to attempt their own field goal with no time on the clock. The Redskins made it and stole the win (something the 7-6 grousers should recall).
The secondary was also coming unglued. Aaron Glenn started '06 as Dallas' nickel back, but he lost his top end as the season progressed. Anthony Henry had a balky knee that locked up on him at times, but the coaches kept him in the lineup over Jacques Reeves. At safety, Pat Watkins started the season, but was driven to the bench after the Eagles beat him for two deep touchdown passes in their home win. The ever uncertain Keith Davis replaced him. Roy Williams was showing his freelancing tendencies, ones which would hurt the team badly in their playoff loss to Seattle.
In short, the Cowboys secondary was Terence Newman and a couple cases of duct tape. When Romo blasted Tampa Bay for 5 TDs on Thanksgiving Day, I wrote this warning, noting that the Bucs Joey Galloway had run wild through Dallas' secondary. The Giants didn't exploit it the following week but former Cowboys OC Sean Payton did the following week. Drew Brees riddled that secondary, throwing five TD passes in a 42-17 romp. Mike Vick hit them for four more the week after that, and Jon Kitna put four more past them in the season finale.
The secondary gave up 14 touchdown passes that December; the defense gave up 33 points per game in that span. Romo's guys scored a respectable 24 per game, but they knew they had to get to at least 35 points to have a chance. The offense topped that once, in Atlanta. Not suprisingly, it was Dallas' only win.
The broken pass defense shaped Parcells' thinking. He game-planned to avoid a shootout in Seattle, even though the Seahawks secondary was even more injury-depleted than Dallas'. When Romo dropped that late field goal snap, all the December frustration dropped onto his shoulders. The defense, the most culpable part of the team, snuck quietly out of the locker room.
Dallas roared into December at 11-1, having beaten Green Bay in Texas Stadium, a game many pundits labeled an NFC title game dress rehearsal. The following week, Romo faced down the Tampa-2 demon. Buffalo had intercepted him five times in week five by doubling his receivers, daring Romo to consistently check down. He lacked the patience then to take the short tosses and forced passes into coverage.
In Detroit, HC Rod Marinelli threw the same game plan at Romo. This time, he played Montana-ball: 27 of Romo's 35 completions went to tight ends and backs. He found Jason Witten fifteen times. Their last completion gave Dallas a comeback 28-27 win.
The following week, Romo threw up a stinker, as Dallas lost 10-6 to the Eagles. Their seven game win steak was snapped and Fox's repeated views of Jessica Simpson brought the Memo Paris/Yoko Romo meme into being. Andre Gurode left the game with a knee injury and the doom-meisters crept into the open. Romo had the offense back on track in Carolina the next week until T.O. rolled his ankle just as Dallas was about to score its second early touchdown. The points slowed to a trickle from that point, though Dallas won 20-13.
Romo and many of the starters were pulled minutes into the Redskins season finale. Washington had the chance of facing Dallas in the playoffs, even if the Cowboys beat them, so the coaches treated this as a preseason game. Dallas finished December 2-2. The starters were 2-1, but when the Cowboys lost to New York in the divisional round, the memory of Romo's bye-week Cancun vacation and Jessica in the pink jersey were within easy reach for those wanting a quick, lazy excuse.
Three secondary players whiffed on Amani Toomer's short-catch, long-run TD and Jacques Reeves was Eli Manning's dartboard as the Giants drove the field in 42 seconds for a critical TD just before half. The Bruce Read special teams also allowed a long punt return to set up New York's last TD, but it didn't matter. Jessica had stolen Tony's mojo and the Cowboys season. Romo had produced a decent December, but everything from global warming to the high price of gas was on the cute couple.
Romo opened December with his career stinker. On a cold night in Pittsburgh, Romo frequently overlooked open receivers in the short and intermediate zones to try passes downfield. When he looked short, Tashard Choice made huge catches and runs. Romo did make one of his patented spin-and-scrambles, and found T.O. for an early 3rd quarter score. Despite Romo's many misreads, Dallas had the ball and a ten point lead with just over eleven minutes left.
Then, the entire team unraveled. The first downs stopped coming. The pass defense loosened and the special teams gave up a long punt return to give the Steelers a very short field. Pittsburgh stunned Dallas with 17 late points. The defense rebounded to crush the Giants, sacking Eli Manning eight times in a 20-8 win, but this unit, which looked Doomsdayesque after the bye, completely lost it against Baltimore, giving up 77 and 82 yard runs on back-to-back plays in a 33-24 loss. The team seemed to give up there. They brought nothing to Philadelphia and were pasted 44-6. The D held for one series, but did nothing after Donovan McNabb found Correll Buckhalter off a scramble that set up Philly's first touchdown.
Dallas went 1-3 down the stretch and though the D gave up 32 points per game in the three losses, Romo again wore the horns. Romo, who ran an offense which had no speed and atrophied muscles in a December when it faced the NFL's 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th ranked scoring defenses. The line played the full season with Cory Proctor at left guard. Flozell Adams didn't miss a start despite a neck stinger which weakened one arm and an extreme finger infection which required antibiotic IV drips to treat it.
Dallas' skill position players dropped away one by one. Felix Jones never returned after his game six hamstring injury. Marion Barber never had great speed and was even slower after tearing ligaments in a pinkie toe. Sam Hurd broke an ankle in Arizona and went on I.R. Miles Austin went on the injured list three different times.
Roy Williams developed plantar fasciitis in a heel after the Thanksgiving Day win and lost his spring: he averaged 15.4 yards per catch in his November starts and 4.6 in his December games. Terrell Owens saw his production ebb. He racked up garbage yards in the second half of the Eagles blowout but averaged 44 yards in the other December games.
The Dallas attack came down to Tashard Choice's legs and Jason Witten's guts. The Senator suffered a broken rib in the Bengals week five win and rolled an ankle later in the season. Still, he soldiered on, and provided Romo's only consistent receiving target. Jason Garrett put Romo in the shotgun to protect him but it provided little respite from the rush; Romo was sacked 7 times in his first nine starts but thirteen times that December.
The offensive injuries meant the team was going as far as the defense could carry them and when the secondary again faltered, another season went down the drain.
What can we conclude from these shipwrecks of Decembers past?
- The December drops predate Romo. He was carrying a clipboard in '05 when the o-line sprung three leaks and Drew Bledsoe followed them to the bottom.
- Romo is good for one big December stinker. Christmas day '06 vs. the Eagles, the 12-6 dud versus the same Eagles in '07 and last year's Steelers abomination fall to Romo. If history offers any guide, one '09 dud remains. (This year's schedule has a surprisingly mild slate of scoring defenses: the 13th rated Eagles and Saints, the 15th rated Chargers and the 24th rated Giants. If you want some prime suspects, look to the Eagles, who cuffed Romo in '06 and '07, and the 7th rated Redskins, who held Dallas to a touchdown two games ago. Dallas has not topped 10 points in its three games against scoring defenses ranked in the top 10)
- The biggest December villain has been the defense, primarily the secondary. They flooded touchdown passes in '06 and long TD runs and passes in '08. They gave up the big pass plays that kept New York in the game during the '07 playoff loss. The offense line played a part in '05 and last year. The special teams also bear some blame. The punt coverage teams figured in the '07 playoff loss and the Steelers loss last year.
What, if anything is different on November 30, 2009?
Let's begin with the special teams, which have improved under Joe DeCamillis. They still can't return kickoffs effectively, but every other unit is better. The kick coverage groups spearhead this unit, so the fears of a new back-breaking return are slim.
On offense, the skill positions look healthy. Witten has again rolled an ankle, but he's probably the worst injured Cowboys this year. The receivers are healthy. Miles Austin has replaced T.O. with '07 Owen- level production. Roy Williams still hasn't found his sea legs, but he's better than his '08 self.
The backs are nicked up, but as healthy or healthier than last year. The line has suffered one serious setback, losing Marc Colombo to a broken fibula. Doug Free has been steady in his two starts.
The pass protection remains a concern. Romo has already been sacked 25 times this year. He went down 20 times in 13 starts last year. This year, at least, Romo has a better running game and far more targets to throw to when he scrambles. Overall, this unit rates a wash. It has averaged just half a point more than last year's crippled squad.
Two September Games Can Mess Up Your Whole Profile
This means December and January, should it come, again depends on the defense. And this bunch offers real reason for hope. Ken Hamlin is out at the moment but should return soon, meaning all eleven of the opening day starters are healthy, as are the key nickel players Orlando Scandrick, Bobby Carpenter and Alan Ball.
Wade 3.0 has finally played up to his reputation. Those of us who praised the defense in camp had embarrassed looks on our faces when they face-planted in September. Tampa ran over them for 174 yards and Eli Manning, Steve Smith and Mario Manningham passed over them for 330 yards the next week. The D ranked 30th after those games, with these horrifying numbers:
438 yards per game; 135 rush yards. per game; 303 pass yards per game
Those stats have polluted the defense's stat lines all year. Look at the team's overall stat lines and rankings, and the averages from the last nine games:
|Games||Yards/Gm.||Rank||Rush YPG||Rank||Pass YPG||Rank||Points PG||Rank|
*Rank shows where the team would rank in the overall standings with these numbers
Since week three, the defense has played at a top level. The yardage numbers for that nine-game stretch are comparable to Wade's '07 and '08 units. The big jump has come in scoring: the '09 Cowboys have been a stingy bunch. Their 16.5 average is almost a touchdown per game better than last year's defense, which allowed 22.8 points per game.
That 16.5 remains in peril. Where last year's December meant navigating four of the top five scoring defenses, this year's schedule brings four of the NFL's top scoring offenses:
- 1st. New Orleans
- 5th San Diego
- 7th Philadelphia
- 10th N.Y. Giants
The Cowboys have contained the three top-10 scoring offenses they've faced since the Giants loss. They held Green Bay to 17, the Eagles to 16 and Atlanta to 21. The Falcons are the only opponent to top 20 points since week two.
When you see the "Perils of December" stories, and some are already around, know that the quarterback may get the attention, but it's the defense which will either navigate the rocky waters at last, or wreck the Cowboys ship again.
Captain Romo, hand the wheel to Captain Ware.