Oh, what could have been.
That is my early nominee for the phrase best summing up the Dallas Cowboys' 2012 season. Twice in the past three weeks, the team has "won" in many phases of the game, and yet come up short on the scoreboard. Just as we wondered what would have happened if the clock had been better managed at the end of the Baltimore Ravens game, or if Dan Bailey had been just a smidgen to the right with his kick, we will also be asking what could have happened against the New York Giants. If the team had not virtually gift-wrapped 20 points for the Giants, which could easily have been 28 except for a strong performance throughout the game by the Dallas defense, Tony Romo's 437 yards passing might have been enough to win. If the team had found a running game (they had 19 miserable yards total on the ground), they would almost certainly have been able to win. If a couple, or maybe just one turnover had been avoided, they might have won. If Dez Bryant's hand had landed an inch closer to his body . . .
It is enough to drive one to madness. (The drinking was reached a long time ago.) I keep looking for answers with this team, and all I see are more and more questions. These are some I have in my head.
Can Tony Romo have enough good games to bring success to the team?
It is a question that I used to think I knew the answer to, but now I am starting to doubt it. Romo had a marvelous stretch in the middle of the game, but in the beginning his play was terrible. I know, some of the interceptions were partly the receivers' fault, but I don't see anyone but Tony involved in the Jason Pierre-Paul pick six. And after a while, I find the discussions about bad routes a bit specious. Maybe he should be looking for receivers who are more open?
OK, that is likely not entirely fair, but Romo has to take some of the responsibility for the enormous hole the team found itself in. He did have help. He also made at least one seven-point mistake pretty much on his own.
When are players going to be held accountable?
There were two absolutely maddening mistakes in the game, and both involved a certain sense of deja vu. They were the over-the-shoulder bobble on the punt return by Dez Bryant, and the fumble while running into his own man by Felix Jones.
Both were plays that almost exactly duplicated previous errors by the same players. Dez made the same mistake in a previous game, trying to track down a punt he was too shallow to take, and he promised he would not do that again. Felix had the same kind of a fumble to start off the Seattle Seahawks debacle.
One mistake should not be something you punish a player for. Make almost identical errors repeatedly - somebody needs to lose a job. Bryant should never go back on a punt return again this season. And he should have it explained, very loudly, why not. And Jones needs to see Phillip Tanner and/or Lance Dunbar move ahead of him on the depth chart. It's not like he is tearing up the stats sheet with his fantastic production, anyway. There comes a point when "putting your best player out there" has to take into account whether said player is likely to, say, hand the ball over to the opponent at a critical time.
Is there an issue with Jason Garrett's play calling?
This is one of the easiest things to second guess as a fan, and also one of the easiest to be absolutely wrong at. I'm going to do it anyway.
1:23 left in the game. The Cowboys are down five points. They have second and one at their own nineteen, and all three timeouts left. And they go for three passes in a row. I know, the running game was not doing all that well - but they had found one thing that seemed to work very well when you absolutely, positively needed a yard, and that was rolling Tony Romo out to his right. One time, he got a touchdown with his legs, and the next he got a touchdown with his arm. Why did the team not go for something that seemed likely to get that one yard, especially on third and one when the pass attempt to Ogletree was looking for all the marbles?
Maybe the three plays called all normally have a 40% success rate, which meant one of them should have worked, just on the odds. But that crucial failure is enough to raise some doubts.
Why are the Cowboys so hot and cold?
This is the one that really drives me crazy. For the first twenty minutes or so of the game, the Cowboys offense looked like a bunch of scrubs signed off the street that morning. They then mounted a 24-point run that was a thing of beauty, mostly, and almost pulled out the win despite a couple of more offensive breakdowns in the second half. There does not seem to be much of a happy medium with the offense. They are either very good or really bad.
How good is the Dallas defense?
This is one question I ask to put something positive in here, because it is something I am starting to feel very good about. The team comes in without Sean Lee, then his replacement, Dan Connor, goes down. And all they are able to do is hold Eli Manning and company to one offensive touchdown, repeatedly holding them out of the end zone when they have very short fields to work with. And there were no salsa dances. Rob Ryan is putting together a pretty good defense, even when he does have to work with guys signed off the street - Ernie Sims had three tackles and a quarterback hit, and Eric Frampton was credited with a tackle for loss along with his special team work (according to ESPN's stats).
What are the real chances for the Cowboys to go to the playoffs?
Things got harder, when they could have gotten easier. Yet watching this team, you see that they may have a chance against the Atlanta Falcons if they can just eliminate the mistakes, especially ones that come in groups. And the second half of the season may be a lot easier, outside the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. But time is running out. They are three losses away from being eliminated, I'd say. The margin for error is shrinking rapidly. Right now, I am not really hopeful, and only a win against the Falcons will likely revive any hope.
It just hurts how close they came against the Giants, despite so many mistakes.