I write as I'm watching the post-game coverage of the Giants' victory over the Cowboys. It seems I should be more bitter. Last year the season ended with a meaningless victory against Philadelphia. The season before that ended with a disgraceful play-off defeat against the Vikings. Both times the feeling was unsatisfactory, but I don't hate those teams nearly as much as the G-men. The other teams I follow have also been non-achievers: The Cleveland Indians blew a long division lead to give the Tigers the Central Division. The OSU Buckeyes have given themselves an epic black eye by disqualifying themselves from the post-season in football. Their basketball team has been a complete let-down year after year. But that is irrelevant. When it comes to winning or losing big, the Cowboys have never disappointed. Since that fateful defeat on January 5, 1997 against the Carolina Panthers, Dallas has lost a magic spark, and that has obviously lacked in the years since. Even a victory this week would have opened up room for more questions next week.
The Final Countdown
I had a foreboding feeling long before the final seconds ticked off the clock at MetLife Stadium/The New Meadowlands. The week before, I was able to catch the tail end of the shameful home defeat against the Eagles. At that point, I saw that this team was forgettable without our team leader, Tony Romo. And even with him, they don't seem to rise to the occasion. Even good throws by him get dropped. This will end up being my only post from this season. Last season I was ripped for criticizing Romo, even suggesting that a certain former Titans quarterback would be a good replacement for him.
Let it be clear that this wasn't meant to be another pillory of Romo as a quarterback. In fact, that season he wasn't even able to participate for a good part of the season due to a crushing injury. But the people who filled in for Romo, Stephen McGee and John Kitna, were obviously not good replacements. This year Romo participated the whole year, made some very gutsy performances, and undeniably also cost the Cowboys key games. The conclusion that I would reach, and anyone is free to disagree, is that Tony Romo is a great statistical quarterback, a very convincing offensive leader, and even the heart and soul of our massive fan base. But what he is not is a marquee quarterback. Because that category features players who have been able to cross that stream into greatness. Those names are Brady, Brees, Roethlisberger, Manning and Rodgers. No one can rightfull include Tony Romo in those ranks. Even with his accomplishments, many commentators refuse to include Eli Manning in them.
I feel that for next season Tony Romo will continue to be the leader of our offense. Unfortunately, I don't know that he is deserving of the trust of this great franchise, and maybe the time has come for Jerry Jones, Jason Garrett, or whoever will be in charge, to begin tutoring the next Dallas franchise quarterback. There are plenty of examples of teams that stuck with great passers for years, and in the end had to face the music. Not long ago the Eagles traded Donovan McNabb to Washington, the Broncos just allowed Kyle Orton to be picked up by Kansas City. Those who will reply to this post must answer this question: Divest your emotion from this issue and let's take another team with a great talented passer: The San Diego Chargers. Do you see Philip Rivers guiding them to a title in the future? Because Rivers, for all of his past success, simply has the same scarlet letter spread across his back as Romo. For the sake of all of us, I hope that Tony Romo surprises me, shocks the world, and improves the stature of this team.
Marginal people crush the center
To blame a player who overcame three key injuries this season, faced down media witchhunts, and has survived yet one more season as the starter for a team with a pressure cooker atmosphere would be merciless, and more so incorrect. Tony Romo was not to blame for this loss, although he did play key roles in other ones. Unfortunately, the Cowboys pass rush once again was inconsequential in slowing down a dynamic offense led by Eli Manning. Their coverage of his receivers was for the second time a complete failure. The personnel we have is capable of fulfilling those needs, but they don't have the motivation nor the coaching to do that. I can't judge whether Rob Ryan will in the end be able to actualize that potential, and no one knows if he will be given that chance. The Dallas defense possesses playmakers on the line and at linebacker in DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff, and Sean Lee. Others were once capable of evoking fear in enemy offenses, such as Keith Brooking and Bradie James. But in the secondary they only have a barely adequate group in Terence Newman, Orlando Scandrick, Gerald Sensabaugh, Alan Ball et al. Both of these units must be infused in the future with players who cause opposing offensive coaches to cross off options in their playbook.
On offense, the Cowboys have a group of receivers that could be the envy of the league in Miles Austin, Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, and Laurent Robinson. Their running game also possesses two or three solid players in Felix Jones, DeMarco Murray, and Sammy Morris. At quarterback, Romo can still produce great results. However, the backup position could benifit if they had a player more in the style of Michael Vick or Cam Newton. These guys are dangerous as rushers and are physical enough to withstand the pass rush. Obviously that would entail shifting the style of the Cowboys. Other teams have struggled by trying to fit inadequate personnel into ambitious schemes. Just look at the Browns and Rams who have failed miserably at integrating Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford into the West Coast Offense. As long as Tony Romo is quarterback, the Cowboys should not alter their game plan. But if he won't be able to play at some point next season due to injury or whatever reason, a contingency has to be prepared. That is how the Broncos reached the play-offs this year. That's how Brett Favre took a wishy-washy Vikings offense and turned them into the second seed in the NFC two seasons ago. The example of last week's pathetic cave-in against Philadelphia cannot be accepted as the norm. Teams that can't win with their back-ups don't have the character to succeed with their starters. This isn't a blue print to reaching the Super Bowl or even being good from season to season, but is a key reason why a team that is otherwise great couldn't close out the NFC East in four of their last five games.
The saving grace of this season was the always welcome sweep of the hated Redskins. This should never be taken for granted; after all the divisional games are the deciding games in the season. The Week 3 effort to protect the home field was the most nail-biting game I have ever experienced. The game was in limbo from play to play as the Cowboys seemed bound for disintegration. I felt the same way in the middle of the third quarter when my brother called to tell me our mom was in the hospital. As ridiculous as it sounds, the improbable win on eight field goals helped sustain me in the weeks that followed.
The only other moment I witnessed personally that gave me any encouragement was the Week 15 excursion to Tampa when the TV crew remarked many times that the stands were coloured with a majority Cowboys crowd. It is ironic to see that despite a dearth of success over more than a decade and a half, the Cowboy faithful remains strong in contrast to the 49ers and Dolphins national fan bases that in the past were a roaring throng and today are invisible.
Daggers in the heart
I didn't witness all of these, but the meltdowns in New York, Arizona, and against Detroit called into question why I feel this team is so special. It is outrageous defeats like these that are harder to swallow than even the pathetic showings against Philly or the nailbiting loss at New England. I often shouted at the screen: "Can these guys cover anyone?"
I'll close with observations of the moments I felt were overlooked as defining 2011 in the NFL:
- On Monday Halloween Night the Chargers visited Arrowhead Stadium and were in position to seize a commanding lead of the AFC West. They were able to drive deep into KC territory with 48 seconds left and the score knotted at 20. Philip Rivers took the snap in order to bring the next play closer into the center of the field and into optimal field goal formation. Instead he fumbled the snap with a closed hand and the Chiefs recovered. They would eventually win by three in overtime. In the end, both teams seasons would be ruined, as Matt Cassel would be injured, Todd Haley fired, and San Diego eliminated later. Norv Turner may have just coached his final game for the Chargers, and I have no doubt that the Week 8 head shaker had a key role in that.
- One week earlier, Indianapolis visited the Superdome for a rematch of Super Bowl XLIV with the Saints.This game was far less rivetting than the Chargers-Chiefs matchup. In fact it was pretty much decided within one quarter as the Saints romped with almost no resistance. The visions that stayed with me were of the proud Colts D-Line who stood in formation for play after play in their backward march toward futility, and of a once excellent quarterback, Kerry Collins, who had no chance in hell of filling Peyton Manning's shoes.
- In Week 9, the Baltimore Ravens visited Heinz Field. This would be a far more important display of their grit than their Week 1 blowout win over the Steelers. Despite being down by four in the closing minutes of the 4th quarter, Joe Flacco led the Ravens on a late drive immortalized by an end zone throw to Torrey Smith. After eight more weeks, both teams would have equal records, but as a result of this improbable drive, the Ravens remained with the edge, and I believe they are up to whatever challenge awaits them in the play-offs.
- Much has been written about the current crop of young QB's. These include Matt Stafford, Mark Sanchez, Cam Newton, and Tim Tebow. But only one those four will be playing in the playoffs next week. Unless we include a young play caller from Texas Christian University who was considered at season's start cannon fodder. I'm talking about Andy Dalton, a red-headed rookie who is one of only five first-year QB's to have thrown for at least 20 touchdowns (Newton is also on that list). But Dalton's accomplishments are ever more remarkable given the Cincinnatti Bengals' miserable expectations in September. They had just experienced the one-man player strike of Carson Palmer and the abominable conduct of owner Mike Brown in that saga, the trade of number one weapon Chad Ochocinco to New England. There were few positive markers in that mix. He wouldn't be the hero in Week 1 against the Browns; that honor belonged to his back-up Bruce Gradkowski. But in Week 4 he stunned the Bills at home, and he and favourite target AJ Green haven't been fazed since then. No one has crowned the Bengals as future ring wearers, but with Dalton's prediction-defying performance, and similar late heroics from Houstons TJ Yates, we shouldn't be quick to judge young QB's as dead men walking. On the other side of the fence, we witnessed his fellow rookies or 2nd-year men Curtis Painter, Sam Bradford, Christian Ponder, and Colt McCoy eating turf week after week. So the bottom line is that a young eager QB can truly be a game changer, but they can just as well be irrelevant roster fillers.
- The final moment was easily forgotten for several reasons, not the least of which was because it happened in Week 2 and no one at the time was conscious of what was truly going on with either team involved. For the third consecutive regular season the Atlanta Falcons played the Philadelphia Eagles in a game hyped by a match between Michael Vick and his old team. Vick was the back-up in 2009 to Donovan McNabb, who defeated Atlanta, and in 2010 Kevin Kolb earned one of his last victories as the Eagle starter while Vick once again was a mere sideshow. Each of the previous two games served as question marks as to whether Matt Ryan was really equal to the task of filling Vick's shoes and running the Falcons to a greater destiny, even as they qualified for the play-offs both times. Furthermore, the Falcons preceded the meeting with dizzying losses in preseason to Miami, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Jacksonville. In their season opener, Ryan and the Falcons were tossed casually aside by a thundering Bears team led by Brian Urlacher and Jay Cutler.
But the actual game would leave no doubt that the Falcons' destiny is no longer a captive of Vick's sordid past and his quest for redemption. Down 17-7 at the half, the Falcons bounced back against Philly after Vick was injured and booed off the field (why, I don't know) and he pointed at the scoreboard in defiance. It turned out that Vick would be showed up by his successor who would throw for four touchdowns. One can't help but admire the resilience of the disgraced No. 7 in green who will not be bowed in shame forever. But the final story of that night would be the sense of closure for Ryan, Mike Smith, and the Atlanta community who may have finally earned a real identity despite their play-off stumbles and their second-place status to the rival Saints. The next years should promise more entertainment in the NFC South with three teams featuring heart-wrenching playmakers, and Matt Ryan gives the Falcons reason not to feel disadvantaged.
To all of my fellow Lone-Star fans from Arlington to here in Ohio, have a happier New Year than the one that has just passed. And here's my order of preference of who I want to win it all:
Everyone else can just suck it.