Maybe a long playoff run.
During the bye week, I looked at the woeful run Cowboys run defense and concluded that if any glory was left in the '08 Cowboys, it would be Romo-inspired:
"It will not win the way the '92 team did and it will not win the way the '07 Giants did. They got their turnovers under control and rode the defense -- Eli's guys scored 20, 21, 23 and 17 points in their title run. Nobody will ever compare that offense with the '80s 49ers or the '90s Cowboys.
I'm sure the team knows this. Get ready for the return of down-the-field passing, to T.O. and Roy Williams. Get ready for heavier doses of Felix. Get ready for Tony Romo to do his Joe Namath impersonation. Get ready for Jason Garrett to channel his inner Sid Gillman. He's calling deep and Romo will throw deep -- a lot.
This is how it has to be. Expecting the Cowboys to win any other way will bend your mind out of shape."
-- Don't Curb Your Enthusiasm, Adapt It, BSR, November 6th
I have have been a wee bit hasty. At least I hope so.
Terence Newman's return created a different defensive animal Sunday night. One with the confidence to play swaggering defense, against the pass and, at long last, against the run. What's a blue chip corner worth? Maybe the defense's soul.
-- Newman was assigned Santana Moss, anywhere he lined up, on nearly every single down. Newman has taken matchup responsibility before. He's slowed Steve Smith down a few times in recent years and Jeremy Shockey in key situations when the tight end was a Giant Roy Williams killer. Dallas has lacked the confidence in any of its other CBs to play this game. Anthony Henry lacks the 6th gear Newman possesses and has again by slowed by nagging leg injuries. Mike Jenkins is too green and Adam Jones was just getting re-acquainted with NFL football when he checked out again.
The thin and the gimpy corner ranks had a detrimental effect on the Dallas safeties. If you have the tape -- and the stomach -- watch some of the Rams fiasco. Or review some of the first Redskins game, where the herniated Newman was being torched by Moss. the Dallas corners needed deep support, so Phillips backed his safeties off, playing both in cover-two shells twelve yards deep.
The inside linebackers also played more passively, pursuing laterally. Teams like the Rams attacked the Dallas front seven with stretch plays. They got guards, tight ends and fullbacks out in space on the Cowboys' backers. They locked them up and kept them blocked. The safeties could rush the line but, by starting so deep, they met the running backs five to seven yards on Dallas' side of the line.
Look now at Sunday's game. Wade Phillips had faith in his corners -- and in a stiff Maryland wind -- to limit Washington's vertical game. He walked Keith Davis up to the line, frequently playing him just five to seven yards deep this time.
When the Redskins tried running laterally, the inside backers attacked the line, standing up the Washington fullbacks and tight ends; they established the point of attack at the line of scrimmage or in Washington's backfield. Davis was then able to zoom in and clean up.
Davis has a well-earned reputation for lousy coverage. In '05 and '06, he was the worst-rated coverage free safety in football. Coverage isn't Keith's game. He simply can't track passes in the air.
But he wasn't given that task Sunday night. He was given a job which most closely resemble his punt and kickoff responsibilities: dash up-field, wind your way through traffic, and then blow up the guy with the football.
Davis does this very well. And he tracked Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts with equal success. Phillips even let Ken Hamlin get on the fun, calling zero coverages (no deep safeties) more than once.
Watch the Redskins' opening 3rd quarter drive and you'll see what I mean. On a 2nd-and-9 from his own 29, Jason Campbell looked up and saw Dallas deploy in its version of the 46, with Bradie James next to Greg Ellis. Just before the snap Hamlin walked to within five yards of the line. Davis played "deep" middle at a mere seven yards off the ball. Wade Phillips figured his rush would deny Campbell the the chance to drop deep and throw long, so he called for his guys to overplay the short routes.
At the snap, Dallas rushed all six men on the line and MLB Zach Thomas joned them on a delayed blitz. Campbell took a three step drop and hurried a throw to the right flat ahead of Jay Ratliff's inside push.
Campbell completed the pass but Newman belted Moss immediately, dropping him after a two yard gain.
The Cowboys will need more consistency from the defensive line before the Parcells-strength anointing oil comes out of the cabinet, but Newman appears to be leading the charge from the back, invigorating every level of the defense. He's not only bolstered the coverage but has given the run defense the eighth defender it needs to bottle up runners.
Now, if he can just stay healthy...