It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was a tale of two halves for the Dallas Cowboys at home versus the undefeated Detroit Lions. Tony Romo threw three interceptions in the second half as the Cowboys lost the game after leading 27-3. Tony Romo looked sharp in the first half with two incredibly placed touchdown passes to Dez Bryant, but continued to be a gunslinger though the team had a large lead. While Romo will rightfully face considerable criticism this week, he was not the only one at fault for the loss.
Calvin Johnson certainly deserves a considerable amount of the credit with two fourth-quarter touchdowns which were virtually indefensible. Calvin made a great leaping catch in both instances, once in triple coverage. They were the only offensive touchdowns for the Lions. But even then, the performances of Romo and Calvin are simply not enough to justify the difference between that dominant first half and ensuing nightmare after halftime.
For the second time this season the Cowboys lost a game they were dominating in the first half. For the second time, Tony Romo and interceptions were the catalyst to the collapse. So it begs the question, is Jason Garrett also guilty?
Let's take a closer look...
Wrangling the Gunslinger
Yes, Tony Romo needs to take better care of the football. While the fourth-quarter interception was the correct read deep to Jason Witten with no safety overtop (but underthrown while under duress), that situation and the two third-quarter interceptions were cases of a gunslinger trusting too much in his abilities. Romo has had issues with turnovers in the past, and most of the interceptions and fumbles were a case of Tony Romo believing he could get it done even in the face of great adversity. It is a quality that every great quarterback in the NFL relies on when the game is on the line. In the clutch, great quarterbacks make tough throws in tiny windows and touch passes over extended hands.
But a great quarterback is also careful with the football. Sometimes the difficult throw to take the lead in the final moments of a game is the worst decision when your team has a four-possession lead. Jason Garrett knows Tony well, and he must understand the same great qualities - confidence, swagger, competitive streak - that make Romo a good quarterback can become a detriment if mismanaged. Coach Garrett must discuss such things with Romo during games and practices, but most importantly, he must assist with the play-calling.
Romo was hot coming out of halftime having completed 79% of his passes (19/24 which includes one spike to stop the clock) including two great touchdowns. The Cowboys led 20-3 and received the kickoff at the start of the second half. Sean Lissemore showed some 3-4 defensive ends have legitimate speed (though he did more than that Sunday) and returned a botched kickoff 38 yards into Lions territory. The Cowboys had the lead, momentum, and just about everything on their side as Romo led the offense onto the field. The opening drive of the second half is an opportunity for the team to make a statement and just about cripple the Lions with a touchdown, so I can understand why Garrett would keep the offense aggressive...and they did just that taking a 27-3 lead. With a short field, the Cowboys ran twice for a total of seven yards and Romo went 4-for-4 with a touchdown. The Lions offense then took the field and Rob Ryan and the Dallas defense again got it done, forcing the Lions to punt for a fifth time. This is the situation great coaches strive to achieve with their game plan. Take control of the game in the first half, put it out of reach early in the second, and finish off the opponent for a dominating victory. At this point, with ten minutes to go in the third quarter and the Cowboys leading by 24 points, the Cowboys were in firm control of the game.
Tony Romo takes the field for the second drive in the third-quarter with a four-possession lead and feeling like Superman after throwing three touchdowns and completing 23 of 28 attempts for an astonishing 82% completion percentage. Jason Garrett should know better than to let a gunslinger who feels on top of the world throw on first-down with only one short route. Everyone will blame Tony Romo for forcing the first-down pass to Dez Bryant for the pick-six. With three interceptions leading to the heartbreaking loss, critics now have much more ammunition, and everyone should question the decisions made by Romo. But it must also be asked - Is Jason Garrett equally responsible?
At this point in the game, with a 24-point lead, Jason Garrett needs to make better play-calling decisions...especially if his quarterback has shown some problems controlling his gunslinger mentality. It may sound strange that the very fact that the quarterback is playing great is the reason for the coach to pull back the reins, but considering Romo's "immaturity" when the gunslinger feels he can make every throw, the coach must know better than to ask Romo to throw on first-down. The play-action pass in this situation is a great call if Garrett wants the offense to remain aggressive up 27-3. But why ask Romo to be aggressive when you know he feels invincible at that point in the game?
The heavy-set (two tight-ends and another playing fullback) play-action had only three routes and two of them were past the first down marker. John Phillips came out of the backfield as the only short route and was wide open, but Romo tried to make the tough throw in tight coverage. Not only was Dez tightly covered by the corner (not that such a thing mattered on his touchdown receptions) but former Cowboy Bobby Carpenter was in position in underneath coverage to make the difficult interception. Tony Romo did not have to make the tough throw instead of the dump off pass, but he did. Knowing his quarterback, should Garrett have put him in that position?
In the first half, the Cowboys rushed 14 times for 65 yards showing commitment to the running game and finding some success. Excluding the final drive of the half, the Cowboys were an even 50/50 split on run/pass attempts on first-downs (7/7, though 8/10 including the two-minute drive). If you include the opening second-half drive, the Cowboys run/pass ratio on first-downs was 9/12.
In the second half, while holding a large lead for most of the game, the Cowboys called as many pass plays on first-downs as they had in the first half. Seven first-down throws not including the three in the final drive in an attempt to regain the lead. Two of them were intercepted. Coach Garrett must question why he would remain so aggressive when the Cowboys held the lead until after the two-minute warning in the fourth-quarter. The Cowboys rushed more times in the first half than the second! Yes, it was only one less rushing attempt, but that is still incredible considering the Cowboys had the lead in the game for all but a minute and a half. The Cowboys rushed ten times in the third quarter, but managed to run the ball only three times in the fourth quarter on three drives prior to losing the lead. In those three drives (two three-and-outs and one interception) Romo threw on first-down twice, including the interception! The Cowboys averaged over four yards a carry against the Lions. It wasn't spectacular, but it was working. Yet (still excluding the final come-back drive and even the first drive of the second-half) Jason Garrett called more passing than rushing plays leading 27-3. This is suspect even without having to wrangle the gunslinger.
While Jason Garrett admitted the Cowboys should have run more, he seems to ignore a few things.
"Should we have run it more?" Garrett said, repeating a question. "Yeah, in hindsight some of the plays that went the other way, you say, ‘Boy I wish I had run it there.'
"But you always have to call the game. We got out to an early lead in the game. We came out in the second half and scored another touchdown and with 25 minutes to go in the game you don't want to say, ‘Let's just run it three times and punt it.' You still want to play football.
"You still want to make sure you give the quarterback a lot of good answers to be smart with the football in everything that you do call and allow him to make the decisions. And unfortunately, a few of those decisions went the wrong way and they made the plays and we didn't."
Absolutely. You do not just want to run three times and punt when you have the lead. But there is nothing wrong with running it and gaining first-downs while you have the lead. The Cowboys were doing just that in the third quarter before Tony Romo threw his second interception returned for a touchdown...on 3rd & 2 after gaining 25 yards on five carries that drive. There is nothing wrong with hedging the risk of having a confident gunslinger by providing him less temptations and opportunities to help him avoid "a few of those decisions [that go] the wrong way".
Sometimes, a coach must wrangle the gunslinger and turn him into a bus driver. It is one lesson Jason Garrett will hopefully learn from the loss to the Lions.