It was a remarkable game. The team hit milestones and Tony Romo set a franchise mark. Even the most optimistic, Kool Aid drinking fan couldn't foresee what they saw on the field when the Dallas Cowboys thumped the Buffalo Bills 44-7. While Buffalo is a team that is trending downward, it did come into the game in a three way tie for the lead in the AFC East, so this was no pushover team.
Yesterday was a day of celebration and triumph, and a lot of discussion about how the team is finally coming together. Dave has already written a post on how productive the Cowboys offseason and early season personnel moves have been. I like it because it takes a look at how the success against the Bills was built over months.
I think it goes back a little further. This was Jason Garrett's seventeenth game. He had exactly one full NFL season under his belt as head coach going into it. Is it mere coincidence that his first game after completing that one year period was the most dominating offensive performance of the last decade for the Cowboys?
Spoiler alert: I seldom write stuff about mere coincidences.
My explanation after the jump.
Early this season, a lot of people (writer speak for "me, first of all") were feeling a lot of frustration over what we saw as the play calling in certain situations. There was the great argument over how much blame for the Detroit meltdown went to Tony trying to do too much or Jason Garrett calling the wrong plays. There was frustration over not being able to punch the ball in from a couple of yards out. We fans looked at this team and saw so much potential, and we rent our garments and gnashed our teeth . . . er, we complained loudly about it not being realized.
On November 13th, 2011, we saw it realized in full. The team opened the game with four consecutive touchdown drives (well, three drives and one deep strike pass). Two of them included red zone possessions, and the team scored on both of those, one of them with a very gratifying one yard run from DeMarco Murray. After that, you could almost see Jason Garrett fold up his play calling chart and back off of things. After all, there wasn't much need. He turned it over to the defense to hold the Bills down while the offense went conservative (only three passes in the second half) and burn the clock. And Rob's Mob obliged, taking the ball away four times in the second half on turnovers and once on a fourth down hold, and putting up seven points of their own. For the offense, the second half was largely a chance to get Murray, Phillip Tanner, and Dan Bailey some practice.
But that first half was as perfectly called as any thirty minutes of offensive football I can recall seeing. Everything worked. In the first three drives, the Cowboys only faced three third downs. Interestingly, in the fourth touchdown drive, they faced three third downs, but you could already see that Garrett was using a more conservative play selection, going with short completions to convert on third downs rather than trying for the home run balls that he had already used twice to reach the end zone. And then in the second half, he just ran the ball down the Bills' throats, content to settle for field goals that just stretched a lead that was becoming insurmountable as the clock ran down. Tony Romo only threw the ball seven times in the third quarter, and not once on an eleven-play, time-eating field goal drive in the fourth. And Dallas still scored the most points in four years, and put up the biggest margin of victory in over a decade.
So I went to bed Sunday night thinking that Jason Garrett had finally gotten the knack of calling the right plays. And woke up Monday thinking that Jason Garrett knew what he was doing all along, but he just finally has the weapons to execute the game plan he has been trying to run.
My thoughts seemed to make even more sense after I read Brandon's Observations article on the game. He covered what has happened since the start of the season. Look at what Garrett has to work with that he did not have at the beginning of this season:
- Tony Romo was injured in the second game of the season. The Bills game was the first game since then that he has been 100% - and if ever the eyeball test tells the tale, it was this game. Watching him spin out of pressure, or step up to deliver the deep ball, was like turning the clock back to that 2006 season when he emerged and we started to realize what this kid out of Eastern Illinois could do. And although his renewed mobility plays a part, you also have to give credit to the play of those guys up front, which means:
- The grand experiment with the offensive line is just now coming into shape. Remember that we have a rookie at right tackle and a second year UDFA at center. We knew that there would be growing pains. What no one could have imagined was that the biggest painkiller turned out to be the return of Lumpy. Montrae Holland laid down some killer blocks against the Bills. Cutting him in preseason was the right move for the team. It also turned out to be the right move for him. He should have come into camp in shape in the first place, but being there, lighter and more focused, when Bill Nagy went down was exactly what the team needed. Now the starting five are getting used to each other and getting it down at just the time to unleash the healed Tony and:
- The suddenly explosive running game. Going into the season, the top two running backs were Felix Jones and Tashard Choice, and the fullback position was vacant. Felix is injured and on the bench, Tashard is on someone else's bench, DeMarco Murray is the hottest running back in the NFL over the past four weeks, Phillip Tanner is providing some insurance, and Tony Fiammetta needs a nickname referring to some large, ill-tempered herbivore. The timing here is particularly noteworthy, because DeMarco and the other Tony pretty much emerged at the same time, and that was also when Lumpy stepped back into the guard position. It is an excellent illustration of how dependent football is on team play and having all the parts working. I for one am optimistic that because of the other pieces in place, this running attack may get even better when the Cat comes back to play. And just as the right running backs have stepped up:
- The Cowboys might have the NFL's most valuable free agent signing this year in Laurent Robinson. With both Miles Austin and Dez Bryant having injury issues, and Dez giving some uneven performances, Laurent has been almost invaluable. He apparently got on the same page with Tony Romo about 81 minutes after he joined the team, and he is nestled nicely between Miles and Dez in the receiving stats. He allows the team to have a day like they did against Buffalo with Miles out, and gives the opposing defenses massive migraines thinking about when all three will be healthy, especially if Dez plays more like he did on Sunday. As a matter of fact, when you look at the team now as compared to the team that started the season, the only thing constant through it all is:
- The best tight end playing in the NFL today, and one of the all time greats ever, Jason Witten. It was so appropriate that he moved to number three on the all time receptions list during the Buffalo game, since he has been such a major part of this offense for so long. He is the leading receiver for the team in catches, yards gained, and catches for a first down, and remains that dependable security blanket for Tony.
A lot has been done since the beginning of the season to put the pieces in place. This could have been done faster, except for this little thing that happened earlier this year called the Lockout (which I may, on occasion, have described as sucking, but I'm not sure). Remember the time lost, and think about what the team may have known about itself if all those OTAs and minicamps had not been missed.
It's like Jason Garrett has been trying to draw the right poker hand, and now he suddenly has all the cards he needs. The game against Buffalo was not him calling the game right for the first time. It was calling the game the way he has all season and having the players on the field ready to go and able to execute. You saw it in the first half against the Jets. And the Lions. And the Patriots. He had enough to hit hard in those games, but he couldn't close it out. His hand was not full. Now those cards are in place, and he has a lot of aces to throw down.
Jason Garrett has been calling things consistently, with the exception of the Philadelphia meltdown. It has been the results that were inconsistent. He has been building this team to utilize these strengths. He knew what he had in Tony Romo, he knew he had three dangerous receivers in Austin, Witten and Bryant. He knew he needed a better running game. We didn't understand that third round pick, but he did. He knew he needed a better, more mobile offensive line. On that one, we got the idea from the start. And once the season got started, he had to add some more pieces and make some adjustments to get it to all work.
Now, it has finally come together. Most of the team is healthy, and Miles and Felix are on their way back. All along, people like me were wondering why Jason Garrett was making so many coaching mistakes. And all along, I think he just was trying to make his overall offensive scheme work with malfunctioning parts. He has the parts assembled and tuned now. As long as they hang together (always the big unknown in the NFL), this offense is likely to be pretty scary.
To everyone else. The BTB community is loving it. Me, I'm still grinning.