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Dallas Cowboys Film Review, Part 1: No Romo, No Offense

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This week, in light of such a monumental collapse by nearly every unit on the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night, we're going to break up the film reviews into two parts. I could conceivably create multiple breakdowns of what went wrong with the defense against the New York Giants, but I'm going to work to contain it into one singular post that should run sometime tomorrow.

In the meantime we take a look at the offense and what went wrong there. Of course, the obvious issue is the injury to Tony Romo just a few minutes into the second quarter. While it's tough to determine if a defensive collapse was inevitable even with Romo still in the game, there's no doubting that with Kitna leading the offense in the second and third quarters the Cowboys never had a chance against a very good Giants defense.

But it was so much more than just Kitna under center that spelled doom for the offense. Before Tony Romo was injured there were already signs of the struggles that lied ahead and the same issued that had plagued the Cowboys in the first four games were still rearing their ugly heads when Romo was in the game.

After the jump, I take a look at what exactly went wrong with the offense and I ponder the question on whether the Cowboys will even have a chance to win without Romo in the game...

Before I get into a specific breakdown of the offense (and the special teams), I wanted to make not of just how the feeling in this game changed from the first quarter to the second quarter and beyond.

It was obvious that the Dallas Cowboys were ready to play this game. From the opening kickoff when Sam Hurd completely obliterated the returner, to the multiple interceptions and turnovers forced by the defense, the Cowboys were in complete control of the game. The Giants were back on their heels and were struggling to move forward, while the Cowboys took a very early 10-0 lead. Yet a couple of very key plays changed the course of the game -- and not in the favor of the Cowboys.

Terence Newman was injured on his interception return and was never the same. This affected the Cowboys ability to use him properly in defensive schemes and the Cowboys were forced to back off the pressure coverage they opened the game with. Then came the inexplicable ruling on the Cowboys challenge, when it appeared that Mario Manningham had been tackled well short of the first down; considering that he made the move of his own volition and gave up his forward progress, I'm mystified how this happened.

Combine that with the correct call on a long pass later in the drive, and the Dallas Cowboys were off and running on a complete and total defensive meltdown. Once again, the Cowboys allowed a team a touchdown drive immediately after taking momentum themselves, and the moment was forever lost. Tony Romo was hurt a few minutes later and despite the 20-7 lead, you had this feeling in the back of your mind that the New York Giants were about to seize control of the game.

Onto the review:

  • First, some thoughts on the special teams since there just wasn't enough for a ST breakdown for it's own post.

    Obviously, the big play of the game was Dez Bryant's 93-yard punt return for a touchdown. It was a mammoth punt by Matt Dodge that traveled 69 yards through the air and nearly sailed over Bryant's head. Yet Bryant, with his instincts and athletic ability on full display, was able to track the ball down, catch it over his shoulder (which is insanely tough to do on a punt) and then immediately turn the ball upfield. Watching the play over again, you can see Bryant's eyes tracking upfield as soon as he makes the turn and this was the key moment: he saw a hole, he made his decision and he hit it. This time it was Bryant's incredibly deceptive speed that put him in the end zone, as he raced past blockers and would-be tacklers before anyone had a chance to react. This play was all on Bryant.

    It's unfortunate that the Cowboys lost this game in such embarrassing fashion because for the first time all season Coach D had the specials teams firing on all cylinders. Against a very dangerous return team in the Giants, the Cowboys held the Giants to just 40 yards total on three kickoff returns and 17 yards total on three punt returns. More importantly, David Buehler found his leg again and aside from the opening kickoff (when he fell on his butt), all of his kicks were high and soaring. The Cowboys coverage teams, led by Danny McCray and Sam Hurd, were aggressive and physical and never allowed the Giants any room on returns.

    This play by the special teams should have set the tone for the rest of the team and the rest of the game, yet after Romo's injury the heart and drive was obviously gone from the team. Once again, a positive step for this Cowboys team was completely wasted in a backbreaking loss.
  • I wanted to touch on the "touchback that wasn't" call at the very end of the first quarter. The original call was that Danny McCray had made an outstanding effort to keep the ball out of the end zone and Sean Lee then downed the ball at the one. If this has stood, then despite some earlier troubles the Cowboys had the chance to truly seize momentum, pin their ears back and go after Eli Manning. Yet the Giants challenged, and the play was overturned -- but not for the reasons we originally suspected.

    The reversed call was due to the fact that McCray was the gunner on the play and was "legally checked out of bounds" and was then the first player to touch the ball. As we remember from the Dez Bryant call earlier in the season, a player that is legally checked out of bounds cannot be the first player to touch the ball. Yet the officials never called this during the actual play; in fact, no official even signaled that a player had left the field of play, usually signaled by a hat on the ground. Yet when taking a second look, the official apparently recognized the mistake and reversed the call. I don't know whether this was the correct call to make, as I know that a player going out of bounds and back in is reviewable, but I question the ability of an official to correct their own missed call like that during replay.

    As it was, the Giants turned the ball over a few plays later and Romo was injured on the very next possession.
  • The Cowboys started their first four drives at the Giants 5, the Giants 18, the Cowboys 40 and the Giants 43. Incredibly field position for a supposedly dangerous Cowboys offense and (with Romo in the game) the Cowboys managed just 13 points. The same problems that had caused the Cowboys to not take advantage of opportunities throughout the season were still there; the inability to run the ball effectively, poor blocking and dropped passes at the worst moments. The dropped pass by Mile Austin on second down, on what would have been a 30-yard completion, is what hurt the most. What was a good sign, in a way, was how the Cowboys offense didn't set themselves back with a penalty -- so at least there's progress there.
  • Miles Austin is increasingly having problems as the Cowboys #1 receiver. Despite the explosive games of the first few weeks, the past two games Austin has been a complete non-factor in the Cowboys offense. Perhaps this is attributed to the defenses he's facing and the fact that teams are now regularly double-teaming him on most plays. What is most troubling, however, is that when Austin has had an opportunity to make a play he's fallen well short.

    His drop on the goal line on third down was a killer; it prevented the Cowboys from taking a 14-0 lead just minutes into the game and it allowed the Giants to have some semblance of momentum go back their way. Right after that drop, the Giants marched down the field and what should have been at least a 14-7 lead was now just a three point lead in a suddenly close game. The very next drive, Austin was wide open across the middle and Romo hit him with a near-perfect strike while on the move; some claim the pass was too high but on replay it was obvious that Romo was having to place the ball over a defender. It shouldn't have mattered, as Austin has made that catch time and time again over the past 16 games.

    If Austin doesn't push off and get flagged for a pass interference penalty against Minnesota, then perhaps we're talking differently about it today. Instead, we're questioning his focus and whether he has the ability to maintain his status as a supposedly elite receiver in the NFL. 
  • Before Tony Romo's injury, the offensive line was performing alright. The run blocking was once again ineffective, especially in the red zone and and both Leonard Davis and Montrae Holland struggled in getting out of their stance, firing off the ball and opening up running lanes for the backs. Once Holland was hurt and Phil Costa was in the game, the wheels completely came off for the offensive line and Jon Kitna never had a chance.

    The Giants didn't resort to their more inventive blitzes until Kitna was in the game, yet it was the one blitz that the Cowboys struggle with the most that effectively doomed the season. The Cowboys have always had trouble with a delayed inside blitz and this time it came from Michael Boley. Chris Gronkowski, who left for his route much too early, is getting the majority of the blame for the blown assignment. If Gronkowski had stayed home just a split second more, he would have easily stopped Boley and Romo would have had time to make the throw.

    With Kitna in the game, the Giants took off the training wheels, pinned their ears back and went after the rusty quarterback. The used delayed and disguised blitzes to keep the offensive line off balance and would overload the right side of the line -- Davis and Colombo - knowing that that was where the weakest part of the line resided. One play stands out: the Giants have just two down linemen, with a group of linebackers standing around in an organized cluster. On the snap of the ball, some fall back in coverage and the rest rush the right edge -- getting to Kitna before he could release the ball.

    Once again, the Cowboys struggled in the running game with a speedy defense. The Cowboys offensive failed to block anywhere near effectively on the inside and any attempt to run outside was futile; the Cowboys just didn't have the ability to get to the edge in time to allow Felix Jones any space to run. The result: 41 total yards rushing on 13 attempts.
  • Jason Garrett, while effectively limited by a rusty quarterback in the second and third quarter, fell into an old and dangerous habit. With the Giants having zero issues against the rushing attack of the Cowboys, Garrett would call for a first down run followed by a second down pass. Throughout the game, this usually resulted in a rush for no gain followed by an incomplete pass on second down, and a very lengthy third down attempt. As such, the Cowboys failed to convert a single third down in the entire game.

    So what was Garrett to do? Tough to say, as he still needed to try to establish the run. But the Cowboys obviously have a pattern right now and that makes it easy for opposing defenses to counter. The Cowboys attempted some screens and some smoke screens to negate the strong rush of the Giants, but none of it was working. Some games, you have to just rely on your ability to to out-execute the opposition and against the Giants (and especially without Romo) this wasn't to be the case.
  • So what happened with the Cowboys offense in the second and third quarters, while the defense was falling to pieces? Jon Kitna happened.

    It's been nearly two years since Kitna took a snap in a regular season game and it was obvious he was rusty. Going up against a very aggressive Giants defense, with the pressures of keeping the offense on track square on his back, Kitna was struggling to get through his reads and just complete a simple pass. Two of his first four attempts were blocked at the line of scrimmage, a sign that he was telegraphing his throws and not working to pull the defense off what he was planning to do. That's the sign of an inexperienced quarterback who is trying to just get the ball downfield, and one that Kitna gradually pulled away from as the game progressed.

    It was apparent that his "internal clock" was also a bit off, but Kitna has never been one to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible. He missed several open receivers, missed a slant pass on third down and the Cowboys were completely incapable of gaining a first down after Romo left the game. Total yards on offense for the Cowboys through three quarters: 56.

    Yet something clicked for Kitna later in the game. While the Giants certainly took their foot off the throats of the Cowboys, Kitna found a rhythm and showed that perhaps not every ounce of hope is gone with him under center. It's apparent that Kitna still has a strong arm and that while his accuracy is nowhere near Romo's, he is not the second coming of Brad Johnson.

    Given a week of practicing with the Cowboys first team, it's hopeful that the offense won't be completely ineffective with Kitna under center. Given the struggles of the running game and how the defense is falling apart before our very eyes, Kitna is going to have to be much more than just a "bus driver for this team to have any hopes of success.

    While the chances of coming out of this season in a positive manner are till slim, the reality is the Cowboys are just trying to save face. A finish of 8-8 would be momentous and it's likely the Cowboys are just a five-win team at this point. Perhaps, if Kitna can still move the Cowboys offense downfield, the games won't be completely out of hand and there will still be a chance at winning these upcoming games.

    In 2008, without Romo, the Cowboys fell apart. Brad Johnson provided zero enthusiasm that the offense could be effective -- at all. Yet with Kitna, the hope is that he's not too far gone that he's incapable of utilizing the weapons at his disposal, specifically Dez Bryant, Roy Williams and Miles Austin.