There was a moment when I was bracing myself to give up on this season for the Dallas Cowboys. It was in the third quarter. Dallas had gone three-and-out on their first possession, and the Philadelphia Eagles has scored a touchdown, aided by one of the interminable Dallas penalties. It was especially frustrating since rookie Nick Foles was filling in for Michael Vick, who had gotten beaten like dog and gone out with a likely concussion. Then Dallas almost lost the ball on the ensuing kickoff, saved by Eric Frampton's alert recovery, only to go three-and-out again. The Eagles got a field goal on a drive that saw both teams make key penalties, and Dallas trailed 17-10. I could swear I could feel the game, and the year, slipping away for the Cowboys.
Then came a series of key turning points for the Cowboys. Tony Romo pulled one of his patented escape acts, Dallas got a little help from the refs on a touchdown pass (that would have been first and goal thanks to a penalty if it had been overturned), the special teams got their first touchdown return of the season. The defense finished things off with two scores, one on the first pick six of the season (and Brandon Carr's first interception as a Cowboy) and a strip sack by Anthony Spencer that Jason Hatcher pounced on in the end zone for the final 38-23 margin.
Instead of watching the last bit of hope to salvage the season go down the drain, we saw the Cowboys put a stake into the chances for the Eagles, and probably into Andy Reid's tenure as head coach as well. It was exhilarating and ugly, and was against a wounded opponent. It keeps the door open for Dallas, especially with the rather impotent performance by the New York Giants in their loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Amazingly, the Cowboys are now one game behind the Giants in the loss column.
There were some very good things about the game for Cowboys fans. First off, Tony Romo had an excellent game when he was able to stay on his feet, posting a 122.1 rating. Most importantly, he had two touchdowns and no interceptions. That's two consecutive games Dallas has not turned the ball over.
And it was a game where the defense emphatically won the "takeover" battle, with the two instant scores. That, plus the first special teams touchdown, were the biggest changes in the game compared to the previous eight. Over half the points scored came from the defense and special teams, something that has been sorely missed so far this season. It remains to be seen if this is a breakthrough or just a momentary blip, but if there is anything behind the idea of regression to the mean, Dallas was way overdue and may be able to hope for some more of this for the rest of the year. They may need it, since offense was only able to muster 17 points.
The running game put in an appearance, with 101 total yards. Most importantly, the team averaged 4.0 yards a carry, which is just enough to make the running game effective. It allowed the team to stick with the run and utilize the full playbook. Felix Jones had his best game of the year by far, with some key runs in the first drive, capped by an 11-yard touchdown reception. His 93 yards of total offense was crucial as the team awaits the return of DeMarco Murray.
But there were some very bad things. Dallas had some major breakdowns defensively. With a rookie quarterback seeing his first playing time in the league, the Eagles scored their last two touchdowns too easily. Morris Claiborne had a particularly bad game, so bad he apologized to his teammates after the game. He was flagged multiple times.
And so was the rest of the team. For the fourth time this year, the Cowboys drew 13 flags. They gave the Eagles six first downs on penalties. This is simply unacceptable. This is one of the most mystifying things about the team. How can they be offsides six times in one game? And yet they overcame this. This is the fourth time this season the Cowboys have gotten 13 penalties - and they are 3-1 in those games, games conventional wisdom says they should never be able to win.
This was also one of those times Dallas repeatedly has where another team's weakness magically morphed into a strength. The Eagles came into the game with a patchwork offensive line which should have allowed DeMarcus Ware and company to feast, but the were only able to muster two sacks, albeit the last one was big. Dallas did get five hits on the quarterbacks, and knocked Micheal Vick out of the game, but the Eagles did a pretty good job of opening holes for LeSean McCoy. Philadelphia has also had a hard time mustering much of a pass rush this year, yet they were all over Romo, sacking him three times, and would have had more if he was not so phenomenally good at avoiding rushers.
Dallas has given us hope, but certainly no confidence. They have shown they can beat a team that has at least as many problems as they have, but many problems still remain for them. They need to build on the good things, like the sudden emergence of a return game and defensive scoring, while continuing to try and fix things like the excessive penalties and the ongoing drama that is the offensive line. There is a lot of football left to play, and likely a lot of good and bad to come from the Cowboys. Hopefully, the good can continue to exceed the bad the way it did in Philadelphia.