It was the Titans who looked like they were coming off a bye week. It was the Titans who appeared to have had extra time to game plan. It was the Titans who seemed more rested, more prepared, more confident and more eager.
That, fellow sufferers, is a scathing indictment of our 'Boys. Because Dallas had every advantage heading into Sunday's 34-27 loss to Tennessee, a loss that drops the Cowboys to 1-3 and the bottom of the NFC East. Dallas had the extra week. Dallas had the home field. Dallas had some momentum coming off that Week Three win over the Texans, while the Titans had to rebound physically and emotionally from a home loss to Denver.
Cowboys lose despite rolling up 511 in Total O. Cowboys lose despite having a 400-yard passer and a 100-yard rusher in the same game for the first time in franchise history. That is not easily achieved. It requires some real creativity--like committing 12 penalties, throwing three picks, giving up six sacks, frequently turning Titan receivers scot-free and getting an excessive celebration penalty that led directly to a special teams disaster and the winning Tennessee touchdown. The Cowboys had to reach down deep to lose that one, but ultimately proved equal to the challenge.
Perhaps a team brain scan is in order. Mike Jenkins flat-lined. As did--among others-- Orlando Scandrick, Leonard Davis, and, yes, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Wade got schooled by the Titans' under-rated and under-appreciated O.C. Mike Heimerdinger. Last week leading up to the game I questioned the wisdom of blitzing Vince Young and the Titan offense. My thinking was to zone VY. Contain him with a basic four-man rush, make him read defenses, make him throw into seams and keep linebackers and DBs facing the line of scrimmage to negate Young's scrambling ability. Instead, the Cowboys opened with a blitz-happy package that proved immediately disastrous. Jenkins' two quick PI penalties didn't help, but Vince rocked the Cowboys by finding the singled-up receiver in man coverage behind the blitzes.
Phillips did switch to a zone immediately following the Titans' opening six-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Problem is, the Cowboys are not a good zone team, and the Dallas DBs clearly don't like playing zone. Yes, I was surprised (and impressed) by Young's ability to instantly recognize and exploit the switch. It was also as if Heimerdinger had anticipated being able to chase Phillips into a zone. Young led his team to a field goal and a 10-0 lead by using "climb" routes to get the likes of Kenny Britt and Damian Williams into gaping holes in front of the Dallas safeties.
Up ten, the Titan defense (which was tied for the NFL: lead in sacks heading into the game) was free to tee off on Tony Romo. After going ten quarters without surrendering a sack, the Cowboys gave up five in the first half, including three on Romo's first ten pass attempts. Jason Garrett did adjust, going to a three-step "quick" game that featured Miles Austin on the slant. Still, it was 17-3 Titans in the second before Romo found his groove. Roy Williams turned in an amazing play as he stayed inbounds against the Titans' Cover Two and took a huge hit from safety Cortland Finnegan for 27 yards and a first and goal at the Tennessee six. Roy then gathered in a nicely placed end zone streak from Romo to close the halftime gap to 17-10.
After going 10-11 in the second quarter, Romo continued his roll in the third, hitting Austin for that 69-yard sudden six--the longest TD reception in Miles' career--and tying the game at 17. But the first of three Romo interceptions, this one by Michael Griffin, swung the advantage back to Tennssee. Mike Jenkins turned Kenny Britt loose (again) for 52 yards, setting up a Rob Bironas field goal that put the Titans up 20-17.
David Buehler, after earlier hitting from 51 and missing wide right from 45, connected on a 26-yarder to again square the game at 20. But Dallas absorbed a 1-2 punch from UCLA alums Dave Ball and Alterraun Verner, who combined on a deflected interception that set the Titans up for a gimme one-play, one-yard TD drive and a 27-20 lead midway through the fourth.
Romo wasn't through, first converting a fourth and two on a slant to Austin, and then completing an 18-yard TD pass to Jason Witten to knot it at 27 with four and a half minutes left. Excessive celebration by Witten and Marc Colombo? Certainly expensive celebration, with 15-yards assessed on the ensuing kickoff. With Buehler now kicking from the 15, Titans' return man Mark Mariani took it back 73 yards to set up what proved to be the winning touchdown.
My questions: Is it possible that the Cowboy offensive line is simply bad, and--given advancing age and chronic injuries--more likely to get worse rather than better? What has happened to Mike Jenkins, who after last season's breakout is now in a deep and unsettling slump? If Jenkins is no longer a "lockdown" corner, Dallas can't employ its full blitz package. No blitzes, no consistent pressure.
Cowboy players indicated in postgame interviews that the team was not adequately prepared for the Titans. Not prepared? After a bye week? Alarming.
The Titans were more ready, more eager, and more adaptive.
1-3. Dead last in the NFC East. Vikings next. Can we all stop acting like everything's fine?