Marion Barber was the problem child of the '05 draft. The early fourth round pick was wound tight and had the type of learning curve all teachers understand and dread: he would make every mistake at least once before he got the lesson down.
It was clear Barber had talent. He had good hands. He was the best blocker in camp and splattered at least one blitzing linebacker or safety a day. But for every good run, he would drop a pass. For every good block, he would fumble. On a team loaded with running back talent, Barber fell to fourth on the depth chart. His sloppy play prompted whispers that he might be the bust of this year's stellar crop.
Barber had company in his misery. Nobody drew more open criticism at Oxnard than third year tackle Torrin Tucker. When he was embarrassed in a long forgotten team scrimmage by a long-shot nose tackle named Thomas Johnson, the regular mediots claimed he was not long for the team. When this mediot watched him take a withering verbal lashing for Parcells, then observed him joking with the coach the next day, I wrote that he was probably too dumb to understand his predicament.
What did we know?
Both slow learners were prepared when injuries thrust them into play. Both had strong games Sunday, helping Dallas pull away from Arizona 34 to 13. Tucker squared off against sack maven Bert Berry and stalemated him for much of the afternoon. Barber put his well rounded game on full display, becoming the first Cowboys back to top 100 yards this season. Of equal importance was his blocking, which put Drew Bledsoe's game back on track. Bledsoe regained his September form, throwing accurately and judiciously. For the first time since the Eagles blowout, he avoided the bad throw.
These three were joined by the rest of the offense, which had its best performance in three weeks. The offensive line went four quarters without a penalty. The receivers and backs held onto the ball.
The defense continued its high level of play. The front seven kept the anemic Cardinals rushing attack in check. This allowed it to harass and then finally subdue a game Josh McCown. Though Anquan Boldin beat Anthony Henry for one deep score, the defense prevented any more big passes.
The Cowboys now enter their bye week at 5-3, half a game out of first place. They leapfrogged the Redskins and Eagles, who both suffered brutal road defeats.
The Cowboys let McCown know he had little margin for error on the game's opening drive. McCown converted two third and long passes for first downs, but was hit hard on both throws. A blitzing Roy Williams rattled McCown on his second successful pass. He was slow to get up and failed to convert on the Cardinals next set of downs. Neil Rackers hit a long field goal to give Arizona a 3-0 lead.
Dallas took only three plays from scrimmage to seize the lead. Cardinals DC Clancy Pendergast, a former Cowboys assistant, set up his defense in a funky 5-2-4 formation. He lined up five linemen across from the Cowboys linemen, hoping for force both tackles and center Al Johnson into constant one-on-one situations. He walked strong safety Adrian Wilson up to the line, giving his team a 5-3 look. He clearly intended to take the Cowboys running game away, blitz Bledsoe and force him to win the ball throwing down the field -- if he got the time.
Cowboys OC Sean Payton's calls made it appear that he had stolen Pendergast's call sheet. On first down, Arizona looped its left end inside on a blitz. Dallas was running wide to that side, which made it easy for RT Rob Petitti to seal the end. When center Al Johnson pulled and got a block on MLB Karlos Dansby, Barber had a huge lane outside. He ran for 18 yards.
On second down, the Cardinals again stunted their ends inside. Dallas lined up two tight ends right. Dan Campbell released downfield. Jason Witten dropped back, faked a block, and then took a screen pass 34 yards to the Arizona 28. On the next play Arizona blitzed Wilson and Dansby inside from the Cowboys left. Dallas was running a stretch play right. When fullback Lousaka Polite cleaned up Dansby, Barber was free. He slashed to the five, where he was finally grabbed by a Cards defender. He spun free and dove into the end zone. The drive had covered 80 yards in only a minute and seven seconds.
The defense forced a three and out on Arizona's subsequent possession. Greg Ellis drew an intentional grounding call, forcing Scott Player to punt out of his end zone. Dallas took to the air and raced into Arizona's red zone. An eleven yard pass to Witten, a 20 yard pass to Terry Glenn and a twelve yard slant to Keyshawn Johnson on third and seven gave the Cowboys a first down on the Arizona eleven. Two Barber runs sandwiched around a flat pass to Polite gained nine yards. Parcells here took the points. Rookie Shaun Suisham made his first NFL field goal and Dallas had a 10-3 lead.
Arizona equalized with its only touchdown drive of the day. McCown mixed short passes and Marcel Shipp runs to stay out of third and long. He converted three consecutive third and short situations, staying one step ahead of constant pressure. The defense seemed to break McCown's rhythm when Arizona crossed the Dallas 40. Chris Canty threw Shipp for a three yard loss on first down. LT Leonard Davis was flagged for motion on the next snap.
Facing second and 18 at the Dallas 44, McCown sent Boldin on a fly route down the left sideline and let fly. Boldin jammed his hand in Anthony Henry's shoulder, creating an arms length of separation and knocking the Cowboys' corner off balance. Boldin did it so effortlessly in the course of his stride that the refs never noticed. It's the type of stealth shove that Jerry Rice perfected in his prime. Boldin pulled away from the stumbling Henry and snagged McCown's throw for a score.
Arizona had momentum and stopped Dallas cold when a blitzing Wilson flew past Barber and sacked Bledsoe on first down. The Cowboys had to punt, but the defense forced Arizona into a three and out, smothering Larry Fitzgerald on a third and long pass.
Dallas took over at its own 25 and used Barber's hands to grind past midfield. Facing third and one on its 34, Dallas kept two tight ends and Barber in to block as Bledsoe looked for Terry Glenn, who was running a deep post. Pressure forced Bledsoe to check down to Barber, who had released late over the middle. He gained four. Four plays later, on second and ten from the Arizona 48, Dallas ran one of its rare five receiver plays. The Cowboys had been keeping a tight end or back in around two thirds of the time to help tackles Tucker and Petitti. The Cards expected Dallas to do the same and dropped their linebackers deep to help cover Jason Witten and the Dallas receivers. When Barber released out of the backfield, there was no linebacker within five yards of him. He gained eleven yards to the 37.
On the next play, Bledsoe hit Glenn running a skinny post to the Arizona five. After a Barber run gained one, Bledsoe threw a stop fade to Keyshawn on the left sideline. He snagged the ball before CB David Macklin could find it, giving Dallas a 17-10 lead.
Another Arizona three and out gave Dallas the ball with 2:03 left. A thirteen yard pass moved Dallas to Arizona's 46. A pass interference penalty moved the ball to the 40. From there, Barber's legs did the rest. He gained eleven off right tackle, then nine running behind RG Marco Rivera. A facemask penalty added ten yards to the play. On second and goal, Barber followed TE Jason Witten left on a draw. He cut sharply to his right, away from two blitzing Cardinals linebackers and dove in for his second score. Suisham's PAT sent Dallas to the intermission with a 24-10 lead.
Arizona got an early second half break when Bledsoe and Al Johnson bungled an exchange. Bert Berry recovered at the Dallas 39. The defense squelched those hopes by throwing McCown for a one yard loss on third and one. Rackers field goal made the score 24-13, but the Cardinals were hoping for a touchdown.
The Cowboys played keep away for most of the third quarter, responding with a 13 play, 8:10 second drive that ended with Suisham's second short field goal of the day. Dallas again had a fourteen point lead and Arizona had just over 15 minutes to respond.
The defense put the exclamation point on the win early in the fourth quarter. After the teams had exchanged punts, Anthony Henry intercepted a deep out intended for Fitzgerald and weaved 58 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown. Suishams's PAT put Dallas ahead 34-13, closing the day's scoring.
-- How do you protect two green tackles on pass plays? Dallas alternated between three, four and five man routes all day. On 24 attempts, Torrin Tucker got solo help on three plays. Petitti got solo help seven times. On six plays, Dallas gave both of them help. Dallas ran five man routes on eight passes, or 33% of its calls.
-- A work on progress: Centers are usually the helpers of the line, sliding to assist guards on pass plays, or getting help themselves if nose tackles line up across from them. Arizona's five man line meant Al Johnson had no help the entire game. He held his own. More impressive was his pulling on several long Marion Barber runs. Pulling centers are a rarity, and Johnson was effective.
His game still has warts, however. He again bungled a third quarter snap that was recovered by Arizona. Later, his man bull-rushed him backwards and swatted the ball from Bledsoe's hands. Johnson took a step forward overall, but he still needs work at a position that calls for zero tolerance on snap mistakes.
-- Check the status on DT Jay Ratliff's injury. The radio announcers suggested he injured his knee. To my eyes he appeared to injure his ankle. In any event, a serious injury would diminish the d-line rotation.
-- Competition is good. Barber's play is sure to prod Julius Jones, which can only help the Cowboys' running game.
-- The light seems to have come on for good in Bradie James' head. Today is the fourth strong game for the ILB since his dreadful performance in Oakland.