Heading into the Meadowlands for the NFL season opener, the 2012 Dallas Cowboys seemed destined to struggle versus their division rivals. History was not on their side. In the last three seasons the Cowboys had managed to win only one of the six matchups versus the Giants. Since 2004, when the NFL began opening the season with a home game for the returning Super Bowl Champions, none of those teams ever lost their home opener...an eight year trend. The Giants defense has one of the most recognized pass rushes in the NFL (though not the best pass-rusher) and the Cowboys were entering the game with an offensive line that had yet to see any game day snaps with all five of the starters on the field. And of course in 2011, it was the Giants that ended the Cowboys season, winning the final regular season matchup and earning the division crown and a spot in the playoffs. At first glance, all the pundits and "experts" are almost excused for picking the Cowboys to lose this matchup, well, all but one Hall of Fame wide receiver that picked his ‘Boys to overcome the odds.
Even without the burden of history making a Cowboys victory seem unlikely, the game also began with momentum building for our hated rivals. The fans were hyped after seeing all four of NYG's Lombardi Trophies carried onto the field as they unveiled their 2011 Super Bowl banner. While the Giants and Eli Manning went three and out on their first drive, it really ended when last year's Salsa wonder dropped an easy reception. The Cowboys first drive also ended in a three and out. However, the Cowboys lost yards on their drive which stalled due to Mackenzy Bernadeau and Demarco Murray allowing Tony Romo to be sacked on second down. To make matters worse, the Cowboys starting center re-aggravated his preseason injury. To say things were not looking good for the Cowboys is an understatement.
But this Cowboys team knows about the process. The players recognize the need to give everything to the process to reap the rewards. Every practice, every game, every drive, every play, every moment is a chance for them to strive to be great, and to learn something along the way. While we were thinking things were not looking good for the team, the team was only thinking about the next play and the next man up. And they continued to do so throughout the entirety of the game. Unlike us fans, this team was not thinking about the ghosts of fourth quarter collapses of the past. They simply went about their work like they have been every day, and suddenly, this Cowboys team was better prepared to seize the moment at the end of the game than their opponent.
Much more after the jump...
If prior to the game I had known some of the stats of the first half, I too would have picked the Cowboys to lose. Dallas managed to convert only a single first down in the first quarter. Tony Romo threw an interception before managing to complete the teams second first-down conversion with less than nine minutes left in the second quarter. Their third conversion didn't occur until they neared the two-minute warning. Yet somehow, the Dallas Cowboys managed to take the lead with a minute left to play in the half.
If prior to the game you had told me the Cowboys would be penalized thirteen times and Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten would combine for only ten receptions, I would have told you the Cowboys surely lost the matchup. And yet, the 2012 Dallas Cowboys kept fighting through their mistakes and the Giants fierce pass rush, and left New York with a win. This is not something that a soft team can accomplish. This is not something the 2011, and certainly not the 2010, Dallas Cowboys could overcome. But this is now a team that has become a reflection of their head coach. And Jason Garrett is not only looking to build a team with the right kind of players, he is looking to create the right kind of team. A team that does not cringe in the face of adversity. A team that gets stronger as the game progresses. A team made up of players that never doubt in their ability or the effort of their teammates. A team that is as mentally tough as it is physical strong. A team that can rely on every player on the roster to step in, be held accountable, and - most importantly - do their job.
Consider the following:
We Talkin' About Practice?!
The Cowboys five starting linemen had never had a game day rep together. After Phil Costa went down to injury, Ryan Cook stepped in after being with the team for only a couple of days. The Giants managed to sack Tony only two times. The team fought through their mistakes and Romo did his magic. It's a reflection of good coaching and practices with game-day focus when a group of five guys that haven't played together manage to hold off guys like JPP, Osi, Tuck, and Mathias - none of which recorded a sack. They were clearly not perfect on the night, but they were certainly ready. On a side note, the players on this team, like Josh Brent and Jason Hatcher and Demarcus Ware, also won't call out the refs for not calling any of the holding penalties against them.
Jason Garrett even remarked about the conditioning of his team and how they appeared stronger at the end of the game. Again, this is a testament to the strength and conditioning program and the pace and structure of practices. The Giants were missing tackles to rotate into their defense, and the Cowboys offensive-line and rushing attack chipped away at them throughout the game, getting stronger as their opponents were wore down. Kevin Ogletree did his job (with some surprising consistency) and Romo found the openings in the Giants banged up secondary to help his #3 have a career game. With structured and precision oriented practices comes precision of execution on game day. And Jason Garrett is creating such a team.
Everyone Is Ready to Contribute
Eli Manning was sacked three times and his net passing was less than 200 yards. The Giants didn't even manage three hundred net yards of offense and succeeded in converting only 33% of their third-downs. Meanwhile, the Dallas Cowboys had FOUR first-time starters on their defense - Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, Bruce Carter, and Josh Brent. And yet, this Ryan defense was both tough against the run and the pass. It was sound in every aspect of the game and had defenders swarming to the ball. There weren't repetitive blown coverage assignments. Guys weren't giving up containment on running plays. Coverage linebackers like Bruce Carter played great against the run, and defensive backs knew when to attack the ball (albeit unsuccessfully on this day) when they had help over-top.
In one memorable moment, Mario Bulter was brought in to play as the fourth corner. You could see the youngster speaking with his teammate on the outside of the coverage when the Giants again bunched their two receivers on the outside. While I was worried Butler was scrambling to find out what he had to do (as nightmares of past defenses danced in my head), it turns out he remembered the Giants' play from earlier in the game (when he wasn't even on the field). He knew to not get mixed up when the outside receiver went in and the inside receiver went out and communicated with his teammate to make sure they were both on the same page. They were not in press coverage so the pick play did not work, and Mario was in the receivers hip pocket as he ran the shallow crossing route. Did I mention this particular play was in the fourth quarter on a third and short with Eli feeling the pressure? Did I mention Eli stepped up but wasn't able to get rid of the ball for an easy quick completion to his crossing receiver - the one Mario was covering? In the end, Eli couldn't escape the pressure (like he had done so many times in '11) and was sacked by Jason Hatcher. I couldn't help but grin about all the discussions we have had on BTB on the inseparable relationship of pass pressure and pass coverage.
Adapt, Overcome, and Seal the Victory
No team is perfect. No team wins every matchup on the field, and no team will have a completely mistake free game. But a strong team will be able to overcome their mistakes and won't get bogged down and frustrated. With all the penalties, there were certainly glimpses of the undisciplined teams of the past, the ones that would make mental mistakes that cost them points and victories. But this year, when the Cowboys reached the Giants fourteen yard-line in the fourth quarter but then forced themselves out of the redzone to face a 1st and 30 due to penalties, they managed to overcome their mistakes and score a touchdown. It would help the team increase their lead to fourteen points. These kinds of mistakes led to too many fourth quarter losses in 2011, but this Cowboys team seemed stronger willed.
Any strong team will also be able to lock up their victory in the fourth quarter. During the preseason, Coach Garrett emphasized the importance of the Cowboys playing better in the fourth quarter. With a chance to seal the game nearing the two-minute warning, the Cowboys again cost themselves yards and turned a converted third and two back into a third and long. But this Cowboys team would not let themselves falter in the face of greater adversity, and they managed to convert the third and ten so they could start lining up in the victory formation. While many fans were having nightmares of seasons past, Jason Garrett's team simply concentrated on the next play and took care of business.
We have been seeing signs for almost two years now. Jason Garrett has clearly been changing the culture of the Dallas Cowboys. He has been implementing his philosophy to coaching, practicing, acquisitioning players, and the opening game of 2012 was a clear sign that this team is officially the Red Headed Genius'. He has filled it with the right kind of guys that go about things the right king of way. And the lesson every fan should take away from the season opening victory against the hated Giants is that Jason Garrett's 2012 Cowboys are now the right kind of team.