Its a sad, now-familiar tale. Once again, the Cowboys teased us by making scads of scintillating plays, but managed in the end to make just enough poor ones to ensure that the loss, unlike their other two this season, was a gut-wrencher. As was noted extensively in the off-season, Jason Garrett's head coaching tenure has been marked by a preponderance of close games. To be exact, 17 of the 29 games he's coached have been decided by a touchdown or less; fourteen of those have featured a difference of four or fewer points. As might be expected, the Cowboys' record in those games is 9-8, and 7-7 in those decided by four or fewer points.
The takeaway here is that, although the final half-minute of the game will be endlessly dissected in the coming week, there are many, many plays in the game that could have spelled the difference between victory and defeat. Although it is small consolation, Dallas dominated the Ravens in almost every meaningful statistical category - except, of course the most important, the final score. Until this team is good enough to establish comfortable margins with any consistency, they will continue to fall prey to the nasty beastie that NFL parity has wrought: close, hard-fought games are won on a single bad call or lucky bounce. In other words, for middling teams like the Cowboys, who find themselves in a lot of close contests, winning and losing becomes largely a matter of luck.
Here are some numbers from the game, in descending order:
227: The Cowboys total rushing yards, the most ever given up by the Ravens defense and most for the Cowboys since DeMarco Murray led a 294-yard explosion against the Rams last October. After struggling so mightily to run all season (yes, including the opening night victory against the Giants), the fact that the Cowboys were able to rack up this kind of yardage, even against a Baltimore run defense that is a hollow shell of its ultra-stout predecessors, is good news.Both DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones found room to run, and each enjoyed the kind of "explosive" runs that make defenses respect a team's running game.
Moreover Tony Romo was largely the beneficiary of a clean pocket - with a couple of painful exceptions. The upshot is that for the first time all season, Dallas was able to run its offense. In my season preview, I noted that the story of the season would be the progress or lack thereof, of the offensive line, and opined that they should start to improve around the bye week. If they can continue to mark this kind of improvement, a lot of the problems that have plagued the team in the first month will magically disappear, and the Cowboys can hang in the race for the NFC East crown.
93: Anthony Spencer's number. For the second consecutive game, Dallas' starting SOLB was on the sideline. I don't think its any accident that those are the two games in which the Cowboys have given up 260+ passing yards (although I also recognize that Barry Church has also been AWOL in those two contests). Since the beginning of the 2009 season, when he assumed the starting role, Spencer had started 50 of a possible 51 games. Now that he has been absent from the lineup for the first time in years, the dropoff is noticeable.
Most galling was what happened to the Dallas defense on third downs. The Ravens converted 60 percent of their ten third downs (two third-and-long situations were the most painful: Ray Rice's 43-yard dump pass on third-and-7 Anquan Boldin's 20 yard gainer on third-and-9). I'm not sure that Spencer would have prevented either of these, but in a close game in which one stop could have made a difference, it would have been nice to see him in there. I don't know what the equivalent to Bill James' "wins above replacement" numbers are for a guy like Spencer, but I'd assume they are high. Even though several defensive starters returned on Sunday, Rob Ryan clearly remains handcuffed without Spencer (and Church) in the lineup.
26: Number of seconds left in the game after Kevin Ogletree drew a pass interference penalty to get the Cowboys to the Ravens 34-yard line. What ensued will be oft-recounted in the coming days - and will almost certainly be a key part of any offseason "key plays in the Cowboys 2012 campaign" type posts. Perhaps most infuriating to Cowboys fans is the fact that it felt so much like the end of regulation in last season's game at Arizona. Indeed, I saw many similarities. But I think they are different than those being commonly reiterated. After the game yesterday, I saw a tweet from the mothership's Rob Phillips that I felt was spot on:
Purely playing devil's advocate here: if you're JG, would YOU trust your offense to avoid a pre-snap penalty and keep Bailey in FG range?— Rob Phillips (@robphillips3) October 14, 2012
When the Cowboys allowed the clock to run down against the Cardinals last December, I thought that what went un-discussed was the fact that the Cowboys were getting dominated on the line of scrimmage (and only drove into field goal range due to a superhuman effort by Romo and a terrific play by Dez Bryant), and thus were more likely to lose yardage (and thus be pushed back out of FG range) than they were to gain yards. Yesterday, the situation was the same, albeit for different reasons: the Cowboys were probably more likely to suffer a penalty than they were to achieve a significant enough gain to make the attempt any easier for Dan Bailey.
In both games, what we witnessed was an offensive coordinator who didn't trust certain of his personnel not to screw up. While it can be argued that he should be aggressive or implicitly trust his guys, the bald truth is that such trust must be earned, and too many offensive players have done nothing to earn it - or to lead us to believe that they won't endanger our franchise quarterback. In 2007 and 2009, when he had more trustworthy players, Garrett was one of the NFL's most aggressive play-callers. Once this generation of players earns a similar level of trust, I expect him to become similarly aggressive. Which leads me to:
21: Number of Cowboys on the 2012 roster who were there at the end of the 2010 season. In two offseasons, Garrett has worked to - here it comes - rebuild the roster. Although Jerry Jones will never admit it (his job, after all is to sell tickets, which is hard to do when one declares publicly that the team is rebuilding), but this team is in rebuilding mode. I bring this up now largely because I was so struck by the rightness of ESPN NFC East blogger Dan Graziano's recent take on the Cowboys situation. Among other things, he notes:
...this season isn't the central focus of the people running the Cowboys right now. What they're looking for is growth and improvement, and they saw plenty of it Sunday.
Because Garrett inherited several established stars from the Wade Phillips administration, the popular line of thinking is that they are enough for this team to win now. But they're not - nor should they be. Sure, Garrett inherited a handful of superstars. But he also inherited a mess, one almost as nasty as that Bill Parcells inherited when he took the reigns from Dave Campo. Think about it: the 2010 squad had an aging and ineffective offensive line, severe depth problems across the roster, a bloated payroll, which was soon to choke the salary cap with a lot of dead money, a moribund front seven, with particular weak spots at defensive end and inside linebacker, and a wafer-thin defensive backfield, where the only returning player was the over-the-hill Terence Newman.
Moreover they were entitled, lazy and practiced poorly. So, even though for us, as fans, losses like yesterday's feel the same as Pittsburgh in 2008 or San Diego in 2009 or Washington in 2010, know that they are actually very different, largely because of the way the needle is pointing. Phillips oversaw veteran squads whose practice and preparation habits were already ingrained. In other words, they weren't going to get any better - and, as they aged, they were likely to get worse. By contrast, his team, as Graziano rightly points out, consists mostly of young players who have been taught how to practice and how to conduct themselves, and must now learn how to win.
I know its no fun to wait, and its easier to levy blame on individuals or specific position groups, but we must be patient. There are no moral victories in today's NFL. That said, in a couple of years, we might just look at this game as one of those losses wherein a young team learns a lot about itself and applies those lessons as they get better.
Until then, we suffer...