Usually when I do these in-depth film reviews I find something much more substantial than what I initially witnessed while watching the game live. Sometimes the emotions of the game get in the way of any sort of unbiased analysis and having the ability to go back and watch the game in a much more controlled manner reveals aspects of a win or loss that weren't immediately apparent.
Against the Bears, I walked away from the film review with the feeling that the Cowboys actually played an overall decent game and were done in by some odd playcalling on defense and some unfortunate mistakes and penalties on defense. I walked away from that film review frustrated but actually feeling a bit positive -- if the Cowboys just corrected these mistakes and played fundamental football, then they could easily be a top three team in the NFL.
That's the trick, however. Fundamentals. The breakdowns throughout the Titans loss were so basic and so numerous, it's amazing that the Cowboys even had a chance to win the game. Make no mistake about it: the Dallas Cowboys are not a bad team. The Dallas Cowboys are insanely talented and it's embarrassingly obvious that this team has the ability to go to the Super Bowl this season if they just focus and get past the idiotic mistakes that are currently plaguing the Dallas Cowboys.
After the jump, some thoughts on the game after re-watching the loss twice. I'll have some specific breakdowns, but right now it doesn't matter much. The Cowboys can make big plays, they can play defense; right now it's much more than just simple production and execution -- it's about the mindset of a team on the ropes.
What is very apparent to me is that the Cowboys are not playing as if they love the game. They approach the game not a completely cohesive team from spots 1 through 53 on the roster, but more as individuals that are trying very, very hard not to screw up. Some are saying the Cowboys are just "selfish" and not interested in playing as a team. I can't disagree with this more. This is a team with players playing tight and who, for whatever reason, aren't able to really think through their actions from play to play.
There were some incredibly frustrating breakdowns on defense in the first half that put the team down 17-3. Yet the Cowboys never really strayed from their gameplan, they stayed committed to establishing the run with Felix Jones and were able to tie the game eventually at 17, then against at 27. The Cowboys showed resiliency and the ability to not panic when things looked near impossible to overcome. Tony Romo was sharp throughout the game, Felix Jones ran with a purpose, Roy Williams and Miles Austin made big plays and the defense eventually settled down.
Ordinarily, these occurrences would be cause for celebration. We would be talking about a team with "heart" who are able to band together when the going got tough and come back against a good Titans team. Yet the mistakes throughout the game are just too much to overlook and for the Cowboys these mistakes were just too much to overcome despite the "heart" they may or may not have displayed during the game.
Yet teams make mistakes all the time. Rarely is there a football team that doesn't commit penalties, that doesn't fumble or throw interceptions. Even the best teams allow big plays on defense at times. For the Cowboys, these mistakes are proving too numerous to overcome while other teams do their best to limit the mistakes that are made. The Cowboys really don't make more mistakes than other teams (while they are penalized more than most teams, the overall mistakes really aren't too different than the majority of the NFL). The problem with the Cowboys this season is when these mistakes are made and how they directly affect the outcome of the game.
In the end, after watching the game I've come to the conclusion that three very specific mistakes are what doomed the Cowboys against the Titans -- and possibly doomed the season as well. There were plenty of mistakes and miscues throughout the game, especially on defense, but it was these individual plays and mistakes that proved to be the difference.
1st Major Mistake
4th Quarter - Trailing 20-17, the Cowboys offense has swiftly moved the ball down the field after a long pass to Jason Witten. Romo and Austin connect on a 3rd and 3 inside the red zone and the Cowboys have 1st and Goal from the 9-yard line. Not the easiest yardage on 1st and Goal, but the Cowboys get a good chunk covered with a six yard run by Felix Jones to the 3. The Cowboys try the same play again, this time for no gain after fullback Scott Chandler fails to open a hole on the left side. The next play, with the Cowboys in shotgun formation from the 3-yard line, Doug Free is called for a false start. It appears that the Cowboys were prepared to run a shotgun draw.
The penalty forces the Cowboys to 3rd and Goal from the 8-yard line and Romo plays it safe with a designed dump off to Felix in the right flat. The Cowboys settle for a field goal and tie the game at 20-20. This one penalty put the Cowboys in a tough situation and while 3rd and Goal from the 8 is certainly not impossible, the Cowboys offense had all the momentum up until that point. A touchdown would likely have sent the Cowboys over the edge towards a win, after completing a full comeback after being down 17-3 earlier in the game.
Instead, the Cowboys commit a penalty at the worst time and have to settle for a field goal.
2nd Major Mistake
Sorry to pick on you, but once again we look at Doug Free.
After the Cowboys have tied the game at 20, the defense holds the Titans' offense and Dallas gets the ball right back. After a four-yard gain by Felix Jones on first down from their own 12, Garrett and the Cowboys call up a designed play for Martellus Bennett. This was the type of play that had worked throughout the game to negate the pass rush that had been so successful in the first half; a quick screen or out to a receiver or tight end with blockers out in front.
On this play, the Titans disguised a blitz that the Cowboys picked up -- unfortunately, Doug Free allowed defensive end Dave Ball to get a good push, who deflected the pass as it left Romo's hand. The deflection allowed Verner time to react and easily intercept the fluttering pass and return it to the 1-yard line. The Titans took the lead a few plays later and wrestled the momentum back from the Cowboys, who had dominated the game throughout the last half of the 2nd quarter and most of the second half.
Free, for the most part, had a good day from the left side. But with the play designed to go to the left, on a quick throw, he absolutely cannot allow his man to get that sort of push into Romo.
3rd Major Mistake
I know everyone wants to focus on the excessive celebration penalty; how it was called on the Cowboys but not the Titans, how it isn't fair, etc. Whatever happened, it's the NFL rule and the officials called it as such. The best thing for the Cowboys is to just kick the ball, hold off a big return and allow the defense to get the ball back for the Cowboys.
Unfortunately, David Buehler attempted to make up for the penalty all by himself.
I know for a fact that Coach D didn't pull Buehler aside and tell him to kick that ball as hard as he possibly could, since the Cowboys were now kicking from the 15-yard line. In fact, kicking it as hard as he could is the absolute worst thing he could do. Yet that is exactly what happened -- Buehler reared back and kicked a line-drive kick that traveled 70 yards to the Titans returner.
Normally, we'd love this kick. From the 40, that kick would have sailed over the returner's head and out the back of the end zone. Instead, Mariani fielded the kickoff with about 25 yards worth of space in front of him and plenty of room to use his speed to pull off a big return. That Buehler made the tackle was fine, saving a touchdown, yet the facemask just added insult to injury. The Titans needed just three plays to pound the ball in from the 5-yard line to take a touchdown lead with just over three minutes remaining.
Three seemingly inconsequential mistakes that throughout a game and throughout a season will happen. Yet these mistakes occurred at the absolute worst times in the game and were outright catastrophic for the Cowboys and impossible to overcome with added together. All three mistakes came in the fourth quarter of a close game and all three directly led to game-changed plays in favor of the Titans.
The season is far from over, yet these three mistakes could spell the end for the 2010 Dallas Cowboys.
Some other (brief) thoughts from watching film:
- It was great to see Felix Jones finally featured as the Dallas Cowboys running back and there was certainly a difference in how he ran with the ball. He was used on both inside and outside runs and his biggest run of the day came on a designed inside run that he bounced to the outside. He also made several big blocks in pass protection, read the blitz well and showed that he could indeed have success as the main running back for the Cowboys.
One big difference for Felix was that he was no longer having to avoid defenders in the backfield. The Cowboys minimized the amount of slow-developing running plays and instead allowed him to attack the defense behind a fairly straight-forward blocking scheme. The Cowboys were obviously saving Marion Barber for a fourth quarter role, yet were never able to really use him as such.
- I'll say this until I'm blue in the face -- this performance by Romo against the Titans was one of the best of his career. The Titans did a great job of disguising their pass coverage and Romo was masterful in using his arm strength and accuracy to place the ball into spaces where only his receiver could get to it.
The interception in the red zone was a result of Romo putting the ball where his receiver could get it, high and just out of the reach of the underneath defender, yet Bennett was unable to secure the pass and tipped it up for an interception. Some may say the interception was once again the result of Romo not being pinpoint accurate, but there are times when the receiver has to be able to go up and get those balls for his quarterback. This time, Bennett wasn't up to the task.
- Let there now be no mistake: Miles Austin is an elite receiver and one of the very best in the NFL. That Roy Williams is now on the same page with Romo should make the Cowboys near-impossible to stop -- apparently that's just not the case.
- Anyone see Sean Lee not only get into the game but make two big plays in the final minutes of the fourth quarter? Hopefully that's a sign of things to come, because it's painfully obvious that Bradie James and Keith Brooking absolutely cannot be relied upon to make plays in pass coverage throughout the game.
- Let's just hope that Mike Jenkins had an off day, but this is the second game in a row where he has struggled a bit. That Jenkins dropped a wide open interception was a sure sign of just how "off" he was on Sunday. The Cowboys cannot afford a season-long regression by their star cornerback.
- Chris Gronkowski, please get better soon. The Cowboys desperately miss you.
- If the Cowboys defense hadn't been forced to try and stop the Titans twice in a row from inside the five, then I would use this space to talk about how Wade Phillips was able to adjust against the Titans after initially allowing 17 points in the first half. Yet, they were forced to stop the Titans, they failed and now I don't get to cover the adjustments made by Wade. Oh, well.
- Finally, I still don't know what changes need to be made or whether a coaching change would make a difference. Watching that game against the Titans again, not once did I think "if only Jon Gruden were coaching the Cowboys, this wouldn't be happening". Despite all the talent, despite all of the scouting and drafting and developing of great young talent -- you wonder if the only thing to do is to just....start over. If the Cowboys can't win with this amount of talent on the team then there is nothing that can be done, really.