Allow me to offer a soothing bedtime story, in the Dickensian vein: a plucky protagonist, after a bad start compounded by a fall-in with some rough company, overcomes adversity and, by story's end, emerges triumphant. Indeed, this familiar synopsis aptly describes the Cowboys' narrative trajectory in the past fortnight or so. Borrowing from Dickens, I'll title my story of redemption A Tale of Two Seasons. Unlike Dickens, whose novels were written and distributed in numerous serial installments, I'll tell my Tale all at once, and limit it to four short chapters
First, the Cliffs Notes version: on Sunday, our intrepid heroes got off the early-season schneid with a convincing 27-13 beatdown over their instate rival. There was little indication of the final outcome at the beginning of the contest, which can best be described as shaky. The defense appeared too psyched up or were trying too hard to create positive plays; the offense, seemingly haunted by the butt-kicking they received in the preseason game against these same Texans, played tentatively. Gradually, however, Dallas settled down, began to gain confidence and to create momentum on both sides of the ball. In the second half, in particular, they controlled the line of scrimmage and made big plays, be they significant downfield gains to wideouts or forced turnovers. A game that, going in, seemed destined to be a nailbiter, was wrapped up less than midway through the fourth quarter.
Now the unabridged version:
A Tale of Two Seasons, Chapter One: in which the preseason and regular season contests are examined. The Cowboys' fourth preseason game, which was supposed to be their "rehearsal" for the games that count, was an unmitigated disaster: the Texans whipped the Cowboys on every conceivable front. Dallas' offensive line, in particular, was overwhelmed by the quicker Houston defensive players, and Romo was under constant, immediate pressure. On the other side of the ball, the Cowboys D seemed uninterested in either tackling or covering; the Texans' receivers ran through them like cheetas through dry grass. The starters left the game down 23-0--and left Cowboys Nation looking for answers.
On Sunday, it was apparent the the Cowboys' coaching staff had answers for the myriad problems that plagued them just four short weeks ago. In the rematch, the offensive line maintained their blocks and managed, for the most part, to prevent the Houston front seven from gaining upfield penetration. In the passing game, they were stellar: Romo increasingly had time to survey the field and make throws downfield. The Cowboys' defense, and the secondary in particular, frustrated the Houston receivers. Time and again, Matt Schaub had time to throw, but couldn't find an open man. This leads me to the next chapter:
A Tale of Two Seasons, Chapter Two: in which the Dallas secondary parties like its 2009. At the end of last season, particularly in the season-ending shutouts of the 'Skins and Eagles, secondary coaches Dave Campo and Brett Maxie had their charges playing with tremendous cohesion. Secondary play is a high-risk affair in which trust and communication (as well as elite athletic ability) are paramount. When the opposing offense deploys a bunch formation, for instance, at least three defenders, and possibly more, have to read the route combinatons the same way, interpreting them according to the defensive call, and then quickly close on the man they are assigned to cover. Any slip up or confusion can result in a big play.
Against the Bears, as I noted in a previous post, the Cowboys D generally played stoutly, with the exception of four big plays that contributed directly to 14 of the 27 points surrendered. Each of these was the result of a missed assignment or a miscommunication in coverage, most of them the fault of the secondary. Indeed, these errors sent Campo into an apoplectic frenzy on the sidelines during the game, the residue of which was still evident in interviews with him during the week. Whether because of his frenzy or in spite of it, his unit returned to the form that they enjoyed at the end of last season. Like the 2009 Eagles, the Texans' passing game came into their tilt with the Cowboys flying high--both were at or near the top of the league in passing offense and scoring--and were summarily and unceremoniously grounded. Like McNabb, Schaub often had time to throw, but could not find an open man. Schaub only managed a measly 216 yards passing; of those, 102 were in garbage time, after the Cowboys called off the dogs and went into prevent. Thanks to Campo's unit, an intimidating group of recievers for whom the Colts and Redskins had no answer were rendered a non-factor.
A Tale of Two Seasons, Chapter Three: in which Roy Wiliams finds redemption. For well over a year now, "Roy Uno Uno" has been the object of Cowboys fandom's ire and, as a result, the butt of their jokes--much of it deserved. The primary source of frustration has been his seeming inability to "get on the same page" with Romo, despite the fact that they have spent two offseasons with that as a primary goal. To be on the same page, a receiver and quarterback need to agree on what the defense is running, and what the response should be. The receiver then has to run a precise route which allows him to end up within a yard or so of where the QB expects him to be. This level of agreement has happened only irregularly; more than once, it has appeared that Roy is somewhere other than where Tony expects him to be. In 2009, he he was often late making his breaks, usually because he struggled to get off the line or failed to get any separation.
This week, Wade Phllips somewhat jokingly admitted that it was time to call 9-1-1. We didn't realize he was referring to the Romo-Williams connection--which hummed along to the tune of 5 catches for 117 yards and two scores. More importantly were the kinds of connections that were being made. On both of the touchdowns, for example, Roy quickly got inside position on a corner, gained a small modicum of separation and was hit in stride with a Romo pass. This can only happen if the quarterback knows precisely where a receiver is gong to be. Is this a harbinger of things to come for this duo? Only time will tell; at least, for one day at least--one glorious, shining day--they were on the same page. Alex Barron's infamous holding penalty kept Roy from being the week one hero; had he not, 2010 would be on the verge of becoming the Season of Roy.
A Tale of Two Seasons, Chapter Four: in which the Cowboys rediscover their former identity. In the week leading up to the game, much was made of Dallas' feeble running game. Many pundits declared that the Cowboys weren't racking up enough carries, holding up the sacred run-pass ratio as some kind of magic formula. Others noted that Dallas didn't runn the ball much because, when they did, they were getting stuffed. This bred a rabid philosophical debate: do the Cowboys not run enough because they can't, or because Jason Garrett abandons the running game too early, at the first sign of trouble? As evidence, they pointed to the run-pass ratios from 2007, when the Cowboys offense was humming along at a more balanced rate.
More intelligent observers pointed out that Jason Garret, like Bill Walsh, has always been a guy who used the pass to set up the run. In 2007, for example, his unit typically softened up opposing defenses by mixing passes to T.O. and Jason Witten with occasional runs to Julius Jones. The majority of the team's carries came in the third and fourth quarters, after the passing game had tired the defense and given the 'Boys a lead. The argument could be made that the running game in 2010 hadn't been as effective largely because they hadn't played with a lead all year.
Against Houston, however, the Cowboys finally played with a lead. Watching it, I couldn't help but be reminded of 2007: they mixed passes and runs, but built up that lead principally by throwing the ball downfield. In the fourth quarter, the Cowboys tallied 11 of their 27 rushing attempts; of the nine plays they ran (not including the final kneeldown) after Williams' catch-and-run sealed the game, eight of them were runs, seven by Barber. With the game in hand, what would have seemed a low rushing output (and by, extension, a "poor" run-pass percentage) pushed the needle back toward 50% (the final tab was 47% run/ 53% pass). A well-worn football adage holds that a team must run the ball to win. The Cowboys demonstrated that this is a two-sided coin; the flip side reads: "you must win to run the ball."
An Epilogue: in which the two teams' fortunes are examined: it remains to be seen what this victory might mean for this season' master narrative, but for one Sunday the Cowboys played like we had envisioned they might all offseason long: with precision, power and passion. The Texans? Well, they can remind themselves that they still possess the Governors Cup...
Enjoy the early bye week y'all. Thanks to this early scheduling quirk, we get two weeks to celebrate this one.