Our ninth most exciting Cowboys regular season game takes us to the second week of the 2008 season, with Dallas hosting Philadelphia on Monday Night Football. The Eagles were coming off a disappointing 2007 in which they had rallied to finish 8-8, which put them last in the NFC East. In 2008, they looked to be much more formidable; Philly had started season with 38-3 demolition of the Rams in which they piled up 522 yards of offense, with 414 coming through the air.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, were coming off a glorious campaign in which they had finished 13-3 before stumbling in the playoffs. Since that embarrassment, they had amassed an array of talented players (Pacman Jones, Felix Jones, Mike Jenkins, et al) in an attempt at another Super Bowl run. In fact, they were the commentariat’s prohibitive preseason favorite—a prediction that looked good after Dallas’ almost effortless beatdown of Cleveland in week one.
Because expectations were so high, tremendous excitement surrounded the team, and the Texas Stadium crowd was one of the loudest and most frenzied I have ever heard—in fact, the vast majority stood for the duration of the contest. One of the reasons for this was that the game itself was awesome; not only was it a high scoring affair (the third most first-half points in MNF history) featuring seven lead changes, but it was played at a post-season intensity level. Commentator Tony Kornheiser marveled that everyone was running around as if his "hair was on fire."
More on this barnburner after the jump...As the score would indicate, one of the game’s dominant storylines was the number of big plays. Another was the Cowboys inability, until very late in the contest, to corral Donovan McNabb. For long stretches, Dallas’s pass rush was getting to Number 5 only to bounce off of him or see him escape and extend drives by running for good gains or finding an open man downfield. On a night in which Bryan Westbrook rushed for just over three yards a carry, McNabb kept Philadelphia in the game.
If this game were a book, it would have four exciting chapters. Lets take a closer look at each of these:
Chapter One: Exchanging Threes for Sevens
Philly set the offensive tone early; Dallas was unable to stop them from moving the ball briskly down the field—seemingly at will. Each of their first two drives stalled, however--the first after a catch and fumble (recovered by the Eagles in the endzone) by rookie wideout DeSean Jackson was ruled incomplete. The Cowboys answered both of these with long touchdowns: a 72-yard Romo-to-Owens bomb for their first score and a 98 yard kick return by Felix Jones after the Eagles’ second field goal.
Philadelphia went three-and-out on their next possession, thanks to a terrific third-down play wherein Mike Jenkins tipped away a long pass intended for Greg Lewis at the last possible instant. After the punt, the Cowboys took over at their own 27 with a chance to add to their 14-6 lead and take command of the game.
Chapter Two: All Hell Breaks Loose
On the second play of the drive, Romo deftly escaped pressure only to throw a pick. Asante Samuel’s interception gave the Eagles the ball at the Cowboys 28. On the following play—the last of the quarter—a pass interference call against Anthony Henry set Philly up at the Dallas one-yard line. After an offsides, Westbrook scored on 6 yard pass, which was essentially a run). On next possession, a kick return to the five(!) and an offsides penalty set them up at their own three, Romo fumbled in the end zone after being hit by Brian Dawkins. Chris Gocong recovered, and suddenly, after giving up two touchdowns in fourteen seconds, the Cowboys were down 20-14.
Chapter Three: Back-and-Forth
The second and third quarters were a ping-pong match, with furious scoring exchanges. The Cowboys regained the lead after an eight-play drive was capped by a 4-yard TD pass to Owens—which would prove to be his last catch of the game. Philly answered with a five-play drive highlighted by a 61-yard bomb to Jackson, who foolishly spiked the ball on the one, thus giving the TD to Westbrook. After a Cowboys three and out, McNabb engineered a long drive to brink of end zone, but the Dallas defense held, forcing a short field goal. Deep in their own territory, with fewer than 20 seconds left in the half, Romo found Witten down the seam for a 42-yard gain, setting up a Nick Folk FG to make halftime score 30-24.
After a pair of stalled drives to start the second half, Romo orchestrated a pretty series of plays. On third down from the Eagles’ 17, Philadelphia sent the house, and Romo had to get rid of the ball quickly. He brilliantly arced the ball to the left corner of the end zone, where it fell into the waiting hands of Marion Barber for the score. It was now 31-30, Cowboys. The Eagles roared back, regaining the lead on the second play of the fourth quarter, Westbrook’ s third touchdown run of the game. Dallas responded, starting off the subsequent drive with a nifty 25-yard screen pass to Barber, but stalled inside the Eagles’ 35. A second Folk field goal made the score 37-34.
Chapter Four: The Defense Rises
Desperately needing to stop Philadelphia and get the ball back, Dallas’ special teams gave up a 47-yard Quentin Demps kick return, putting the Eagles in excellent shape at the Dallas 45. But in a weird (some might say miraculous) play, McNabb double-clutched a handoff to Westbrook, who never secured the ball and fumbled, with Jay Ratliff recovering. Given new life, the Cowboys moved downfield quickly, largely due to another deep seam pass from Romo to Witten, this time for 32 yards. After a pass interference on TO in the end zone, Barber ran it in from the one, and the Cowboys found themselves with a 41-37 lead with 4:35 remaining in the game—surely enough time for one or two more scores, given the furious pace at which the game had been played thus far.
But that would prove to be the final score. For the first time in the game, the Dallas defense rose up. On third and eight, a McNabb pass intended for Westbrook was tipped by Bobby Carpenter (I know, right?), and the Eagles had to punt. Needing one first down to run out the clock, the Cowboys handed the ball to Barber twice and faced a third and three. The Eagles sent an all-out blitz and Romo, under intense pressure, got off a pass to a wide open (and I mean WIDE OPEN) Barber…but it was off target and the Cowboys gave the Eagles and McNabb one last opportunity.
Philly took over at their own 22 with 2:35 left on the clock—an eternity. Thanks to a facemask penalty, they moved the ball to midfield by the two-minute warning. Then—at last—the Cowboys’ pass rush began to get to McNabb. On first down, Greg Ellis brought him down for a three-yard loss. After an incompletion, a determined Demarcus Ware chased McNabb across the field, finally catching him at the Dallas sideline.
On fourth down, the Eagles tried a "Stanford Band" play involving a series of laterals—Jackson to Hank Baskett to Westbrook—to no avail. Dallas ran out the clock with a couple of kneel-downs. As this happened, I sat on my couch, stupefied; for some reason, this one left me more emotionally drained than any other regular-season Cowboys game I have ever watched. Just recollecting it makes me weak!
Video highlights can be found here and here. Boxscore here.
The Cowboys went up to Green Bay the following week and manhandled the Packers to go 3-0—and then the wheels fell off the season: horrible losses to Washington and Arizona, Romo’s injury, the debacle against the Rams. In some ways this game, in its furious back-and-forth, was emblematic of the 2008 season in which terrific games (the rousing stand against the Giants) were followed by abysmal failures, none more so than the season-ending 44-6 drubbing in Philadelphia, a game that will live in infamy.
But in week two, we couldn’t know all of that. Blissfully ignorant, we rode the highs and lows of this rollercoaster contest—one which will always be known by me as the "hair on fire" game.