Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
It was a another disappointing finish to the season for the Dallas Cowboys. Why it happened is actually pretty simple. The Washington Redskins were better at what they did.
There are basically three elements that go into winning a football game. One is the talent each team brings to the game. The second is the scheme the teams use. And the third is how the teams execute the scheme. These are interlocking things, with each affecting the other.
Against the Dallas Cowboys, the Washington Redskins won because they had the advantage in all three. Besides just showing how Washington won the NFC East title, the way they did it shows some areas that the Cowboys need to fix.
First was the talent factor. This was a game where the problems on the offensive line and the long list of injuries fully caught up with Dallas. The team came in badly undermanned in some areas and things just got worse as the receiving corps was all but wiped out, with Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley all suffering injuries before the game was over.
I think a lot of people make a big mistake in the way they compare talent in the NFL. Comparing the same position on each team does not tell you as much as how the talent level of opposing squads match up. Against the Redskins, the Cowboys' defense was clearly outmatched by the Redskins' offense, particularly in the running game which is the hallmark of a Mike Shanahan team. And the Cowboys offense was also a bit shy of matching up with the 'Skins defense, especially when you look at the scheme they used.
This is one area that Dallas should get better in almost by default. Just having most of the players come back off IR will make the team a great deal more effective, especially the banged up defense, and the wide receivers who went down will be able to come back. But there is still a lot of work to do along the offensive line, whether it is by drafting more talent or developing the players the team already has. Hopefully some of both will lead to a better line. If not, we will be in for another long and painful year next season.
Given the personnel situation coming into the game, the Redskins came up with a nearly perfect scheme. They blitzed Tony Romo almost every play, and it took immediate effect, with both the first quarter interceptions likely influenced by the pressure coming at him. They rarely let up, and one example was the first touchdown to Jason Witten when they rushed just three. This play may have been one the officials missed a penalty on, since the play clock looked to have run out a half a second before the ball was snapped, but the officials seemed to be deliberately not calling a lot of things in the game, and it did not seem to really favor either side. On that play, without a mob bearing down on him, Romo was able to be himself and extend the play until Jason Witten worked himself free enough to complete the touchdown pass. Washington learned, however, and it was pretty much all blitz all the time on anything resembling a passing situation for the rest of the game.
Offensively, Alfred Morris simply killed the Cowboys. 200 yards rushing, most of it up the patchwork middle of the Cowboys D. Robert Griffin III added 63 yards on the ground despite his gimpy knee, but it was his superb ball handling skill that really made the rushing game work. Because of a combination of limited players (DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer both fighting injuries) and the general unfamiliarity with the read-option in the NFL, Morris and Griffin were able to consistently gash the Cowboys and extend drives. Once the Redskins took the lead, they had Dallas right where they wanted them and were able to play to their strength, using the passing game sparingly but effectively when needed.
Dallas was unable to adjust. Defensively, that is a bit understandable. It is hard to adjust with players who have only been with the team a few weeks. But the inability to come up with something to slow down the blitz is much more troubling, especially since Jason Garrett has stated that he plans to continue the OC play-calling role next season. Of course, the fact that Tony Romo was also playing some of the game with cracked ribs might have had a little bit to do with it. Still, there did not seem to be much of an attempt to go to quick slants or other quick routes to slow down Washington. As much as I like Garrett as a leader and head coach, it does seem to me that he sticks with his offensive plan whether it is working or not. That needs some fixin'.
But you have to factor in the execution during the game. And there is no doubt that the Redskins had a clear edge in how they carried out their assignments. One of the hardest things to admit for me is that DeAngelo Hall played a great game covering Dez Bryant. The man coverage held up well enough to let the rush disrupt Romo before he could find receivers. The offensive success Washington had was all about the execution. Griffin showed why he is in the Pro Bowl with his sleight of hand and moves when he held on to the ball. On the other side, Romo had a disastrous night. The running game actually worked fairly well for Dallas, but once they got into catch-up mode, that was not as useful. And there were too many missed tackles, by many Dallas defenders. Morris continually broke tackles and piled up yards. Some of that was attributable to the many players who started the season on the street, but I saw Morris Claiborne whiff badly on one tackle as well, and I think I recall Spencer missing one or two. Dallas just had an air of desperation about them that seemed to set in after the two first quarter interceptions. I thought they were settling down after they took the initial lead, but by the third quarter, it seemed to reassert itself.
The Cowboys did, to their credit, fight hard to the very end, and until the last interception, I thought they would still pull it out. Even after that, they had a chance until Jason Hatcher's horribly timed blow to the head penalty. But when everything was considered, it was the better team that won. Washington had the better talent, a far more effective scheme, and they fulfilled their assignments to a greater degree than the Cowboys. Now there is a new top dog to chase in the NFC East. And Dallas has some clear areas to work on to catch up.