Last week, in a pregame musings post, I offered five characteristics of winning teams that I wanted to see from the Cowboys players in the New Meadowlands last Sunday. I didn't expect all of these things to be manifest on the field; rather, I figured them to be a barometer of progress during week one of the Garrett administration. As we have all read numerous times since then, however, that progress was unexpectedly accelerated--to warp speed: both players and coach acquitted themselves much better than anybody other than the most fervent (make that deranged) Dallas fan might have imagined.
As with my evaluation of Garrett's work last week, I thought it might be useful to compare the players' performances in New York against the rubric I created before the game. So, without further ado, here are some of the things I was looking for from our intrepid heroes on Sunday and how they responded in those categories.
Be a technician: Jason Garrett and his staff clearly want back to the basics; they simplified the offensive and defensive gameplans in order that the players could focus on doing everything they were asked to do as well as they could. The thinking here seemed to be that it would be better to execute five plays perfectly than to have 90% execution on ten plays. And, indeed, we saw tremendous improvement in terms of execution. Execution is the result of proper technique; I saw much better technique on the part of Dallas' offensive and defensive linemen. On offense, the big uglies showcased sound hand placement, and used their feet well; they blocked in space well for the first time all year. On defense, the down linemen were getting moved by the Giants O-line too easily and too often, but I saw many instances where they used good hand technique to get penetration. Also, the outside linebackers maintained the edge against the run instead of getting gashed by off-tackle runs after rushing upfield. There is still much work to do in this area; nevertheless, a return to the basics allowed the Cowboys' players to play with greater confidence. Confident players can play to their talent level (even if that level is declining).
Play to the whistle: On offense, the line seemed to find a saltiness that had been lacking since the first week of training camp. The clock-grinding final drive was a thing of beauty that left me in a nostalgic reverie (for the 90s as well as for 2007). I had written that I wanted to see players swarm to the ball on defense, particularly on screens and swing passes--and on occasion, I did see this happening. Gang tackling is a byproduct of player confidence. With a greater sense of confidence, the game slows down. A slower game creates faster players. Faster players fly to the ball, as if they are reacting before rather than after things happen on the field. I saw a faster team on Sunday--but still think there are significant steps to be taken in this direction. And it will start with increased confidence--in the scheme, in the coaching staff, in the other players.
Defense: believe and compete: Before the game, I felt strongly that a greater sense of belief by the defense in the other units on the team would help the Cowboys to stay in the game longer. What I meant by this is that they needed to develop a gameplan that assumed the offense was going to do its job. As such, the defense wouldn't have to play with such a high degree of desperation ("the only way we can win is to shut down the other team, force five turnovers and get eight sacks"), which is a high-risk (and, thus far, a low-reward) proposition. Rather, they needed to keep the game close by delimiting the Giants' big plays. For the most part, they were successful in this, holding a potent offense to twenty points. Most importantly, in the final quarter or so of the game, when the offense began to struggle, the defense dug deep and found an impressive level of resolve. This required that a physically overmatched bunch compete, one play at a time, and trust teammates to do the same. And they did.
Clarity of purpose: This was perhaps the area in which the Cowboys showed the greatest gain. Other than the dustup between Terence Newman and Gerald Sensebaugh, the players seemed to be consistently on the same page. Not only were the eleven guys on the field thinking with one mind more than we had seen at any point this year, but all 45 guys seemed to possess a shared sense of purpose. If you have a chance to watch the game again, take a look at the Dallas sidelines; these guys were into the game, regardless of which unit was on the field.
Show some depth: How long has it been since we have seen Dallas' backup players step up and help out the team? Going into the game, we knew that the Cowboys would be without Tony Romo and Marcus Spears; as the game progresses, however, both starting corners came up gimpy. As a result, the likes of Orlando Scandrick and Bryan McCann saw significant playing time. Although both of them took their lumps, they also made plays--none bigger, of course, than McCann's record-setting 101-yard pick six. These dudes certainly played well, but the key when backups are in the game is that the starters TRUST them to step up, so that they can just go about their jobs instead of overcompensating for a perceived dropoff, thus getting out of position, etc. The veteran players trusted the newbies to do their jobs, everybody held together, and Dallas eked out a huge road victory.
More than anything else, I felt that this group of players played as a TEAM for the first time this season. In his post-game presser, Jason Garrett stated that it took: "guys fighting for each other, playing for each other; different guys getting involved--guys who've been here, newer guys in different roles," and concluded by saying, "I think everybody stepped up." Indeed they did. Let's hope it was the beginning of a trend.