Its starting to look a lot like 2005...
In the week leading up to the 49ers game, a litany of media outlets offered up retrospectives on the great 90s Cowboys-Niners rivalry, with special attention given to the three NFC Championship games in which those two teams squared off. Watching the game yesterday, I was indeed reminded of a Dallas-San Francisco game from the past, but it wasn't a game from the 90s. Rather, what I kept seeing in my mind's eye was the last time the Cowboys visited the City by the Bay. That, too, was a sun-dappled, early-season contest, the third game of the 2005 campaign.
That game, you may recall, featured an epic comeback by the Bill Parcell-coached 'Boys, who fell behind 21-6 before clawing back to take thier first lead on a 14-yard Drew Bledsoe to Keyshawn Johnson pass in the same corner of the same endzone into which Miles Austin leapt to complete a 25-yard TD yesterday. With the win, the 2005 Cowboys raised their record to 2-1 a week after a disastrous prime-time meltdown on a Monday night against the Redskins, in which a pair of fourth-quarter Santana Moss bombs ruined the night the triplets were inducted into the Ring of Honor. The following week, at Oakland, would go down to the final play, a forced Bledsoe pass to Terry Glenn on a play in which Jason Witten was comparatively wide open.
This three-week roller coaster characterized the entire 2005 season. Eleven Dallas games that year were decided by a touchdown or less; all of them were still in question late in the fourth quarter.
A look at 2005's close contests after the jump...
- Game 1: Dallas 28, San Diego 24. The game was decided on the final play, an Aaron Glenn end zone pick.
- Game 2: Washington 14, Dallas 13. 'Nuff said
- Game 3: Dallas 34, San Francisco 31. Great comeback by Bledsoe and Co.
- Game 4: Oakland 19, Dallas 13. See above.
- Game 6: NY Giants 13, Dallas 16. Cowboys surrender 13-0 lead, kick overtime field goal to win
- Game 7: Dallas 10, Seattle 13. Dallas defense meltdown, Bledsoe pick help Seattle comeback
- Game 9: Dallas 21, Philly 20: Roy Williams pick-six seals epic comeback.
- Game 11: Denver 24, Dallas 21: Denver wins close, hard-fought game with long Ron Dayne run, field goal in OT
- Game 12: Dallas 10, NY Giants 17: Game not as close as score, but Cowboys in it until final gun.
- Game 13: Kansas City 28, Dallas 31: Cowboys win see-saw game after Chiefs miss FG on game's final play.
- Game 15: Dallas 24, Carolina 20: Julius Jones' 200 rushing yards help Cowboys win back-n-forth battle.
Thus far in 2011, the Cowboys' two games could fit nicely on this list. Not only have they been close contests, but they have featured significant comebacks and radical swings of momentum. I don't know about you, but if this continues, I'm not sure I can survive. That 2005 squad was a heart attack in a bottle.
One of the reasons those Cowbnoys were so cardiac was that they were mighty inconsistent. Not only did Bledsoe run notoriously hot and cold, but the talent distribution on the team had some curiously uneven patches. They were loaded at some positions (wide receivers) and wafer-thin at others (offensive line). This was most apparent at offensive tackle, the one position where the 2005 team couldn't afford an injury. But Flozell Adams hurt his knee in the first Giants game and was lost for the season. As a result, the Cowboys went the rest of the way with UDFA Torrin Tucker and seventh-rounder Rob Petitti as their starting tackles. With the immobile Bledsoe at the helm, this meant that the Cowboys were essentially doomed to surrender as many big plays as they made.
Going into this season, at what positions would you have said the Cowboys could least afford to sustain an injury? My response would have been at wideout and corner. Lo and behold, those are precisely the positions where multiple players have been hurt and their depth--or lack thereof--has been tested. In the overtime period on Sunday, Dallas' one offensive play featured a heavy set, with Jesse Holley and Kevin Ogletree at receiver; on the 'Niners' final play, Tedd Ginn was covered (more or less) by recent pick up and roster basement-dweller Frank Walker.
Let me be clear: I don't think that the injuries at these positions will doom the 2011 season in the way that Flozell's did the 2005 campaign. Terence Newman and Orlando Scandrick will be back by week 5, as, presumably, will Dez Bryant and Miles Austin. Until the Cowboys get back to full strength, however, they will often--if not almost always--be overmatched at those positions, and will thus struggle to mount or to maintain leads equivalent with their ability in the passing game, which is where teams get, and prevent other teams from getting, leads.
And teams that fail to pile up sizeable leads lose more games. In a league characterized by parity, most teams win roughly the same percentage of close games. The best teams are better because they play fewer close games, due to the fact that they notch more 10+ point wins. As exhibit A, lets turn to the 2005 Cowboys, who went 6-5 in the 11 close games they played. In addition, they went 3-2 in "blowout" games, finishing at 9-7 and outside of the playoffs. If they could have extended leads in either of the games they lost after Flozell went down (Seattle would have been the most obvious example), they would have qualified for what Parcells called "the tournament."
Another unfortunate similarity between these two teams is instability at kicker. One reason the Cowboys lost the Monday Night tilt against the Redskins was that Dallas kicker Jose Cortez missed a chippie field goal that would have extended their lead to three scores; he also missed an extra point against the 'Niners. In 2005, the Cowboys cycled through three kickers (Cortez, Billy Cundiff and Shaun Suisham); although Dan Bailey hit a couple of clutch kicks, the position remains unsettled. And teams that are almost certain to play close games need stability at kicker if they expect to win more of them than they lose.
And there's more: suddenly, an early season that, in May, seemed a cinch, is beginning to resemble a minefield. The Cowboys' next two opponents, Washington and Detroit, are undefeated and appear to be considerably more formidable than we might have previously imagined. The early returns indicate that Buffalo is no longer a pushover. In short, until the Cowboys can operate at full strength, I wouldn't be surprised to see more contests like the two 27-24 nailbiters we have agonized over thus far. And, if that prediction proves true, the 2011 edition of the Cowboys, like their counterparts from Ware's rookie season, are likely to alternate winning with losing, hovering around .500.
Better stock up on Pepto. We might be in for another wild ride...