I live smack dab in the middle of Eagles country (yes, the sound you hear is me spitting after uttering such heresy), so seeing my beloved 'Boys in person isn't as simple as I wish it were (no, I won't attend a Cowboys game in Philadelphia; the
Fecals Iggles fans are simply so hideous when it comes to Dallas that it would ruin any enjoyment of the affair, even were the Cowboys to win big). Nevertheless, seeing them in person is both fun (its great to mix it up with other Cowboys fans) and instructive (I can see a lot of things that the TV cameras don't pick up on). So, my plan the past few years has been to see them play once on the road and once at home each season. For this year's home game, I chose yesterday's tilt against the World Champs (in August, when I bought my tickets, I assumed that this game was likely to a battle royale between two 8-2 teams for NFC supremacy. I got half of that right).
As I taped the game back home and won't be able to review it until I return on Sunday, I thought in the meantime I'd dish out some Thanksgiving leftovers: a few scattered thoughts from my time at the dining table with the big screen hanging overhead.
- I heard in the pregame talk that local ticket vendors were claiming that this was the hardest regular-season ticket in years. Given the Cowboys recent troubles, I wondered at this--then I saw the crowd. I don't know how many Saints fans were in attendance, but it might have been as high as 45% of the assembled masses. It was clear that these already rabid fans, fired by their recent success, are traveling well--and bumped up the market for this game in particular. I sat on the home side of the field, and looked across at a sea of black and gold. There were several times in the middle of the game when the Cowboys were on offense and loud, forceful chants of "defense" filled the air.
- I sat next to an intelligent and informed Saints fan (after hearing that insipid "who dat?" chant all day, I realize that this may sound like an oxymoron) named Chris, and we enjoyed a conversation about the game, our teams, and our respective owners--at least until about 5 minutes left in the game, when it got a little too close for comfort. He travels to a lot of Saints games--he drove to all 19 (!!) games last year, including the Super Bowl--and noted that this was the only stadium in which the stage for the national anthem and the halftime show faced the visitors sideline. I thought this was interesting; given that the ring of honor is on the home sideline, might Jerry want it in the background on these national telecasts, to remind everyone that this is a model franchise? Whatever the reason, I think it's instructive that these moments are choreographed to play to the nation rather than to the hometown/home team fans.
- As has oft been mentioned, this Stadium is not built (or priced) to guarantee a significant homefield advantage, which is a shame, because this team was really into the game, and were trying to get the less-than-rabid crowd to follow suit. In the middle of the fourth quarter, after covering one of David Beuhler's booming touchback kickoffs, Brian McCann and Jessie Holley circled the sideline, trying to stir up the crowd. Later in the quarter, a lot of the other guys were standing on the bench, imploring the fans to get more involved. My section was awfully quiet--as if people were a bit reluctant to get excited about this team just yet. And then, when Dallas grabbed the lead at 27-23, they did let themselves go...only to suffer the disappointment that had informed their reluctance. This Cowboys team has broken some hearts--and, *sniff*, its going to take a while before we're ready to trust again.
- A lot has been said about this team's coming back from the 17-0 first quarter disadvantage, and they deserve a lot of credit for doing so. But they were helped by Sean Payton, who seemed to call off the dogs in the second and into the third quarters. At the beginning of the game, Drew Brees had his way with the Cowboy defense and seemingly could have all game. Once they built that big lead, however, the Saints began to run the ball, especially on first and second downs. They had some success doing so, but the strategic shift seemingly allowed the dazed Cowboys defenders to collect themselves--and telegraphed to Payton's squad that they were in relax mode--with 45 minutes left in the contest. As Cowboys fans, we recognize that this is precisely the kind of thinking that allows weaker teams back into games in which they shouldn't belong.
- At the same time, Jason Garrett and his offensive staff appeared to change their offensive philosophy. After Kitna had been harassed and hassled early in the game, resulting in, among other gaffes, a Will Smith "look what I found" interception, they switched to heavy sets: two or three tight ends, often with two running backs and one wide receiver. This allowed them to stop the bleeding a bit; it also was one reason Jason Witten notched season highs in receptions and yards. They employed the same strategy against the Giants; against both teams, Kitna was able to pass effectively from these formations, often from play action, without getting overwhelmed by the pass rush. Garrett has shown he doesn't trust his offensive line to run the ball effectivley; the problem is that his passing game works best when the threat of a run exists. So, instead of having an actual running threat, he has manufactured one, by deploying heavy formations that force the opposing D to play the run honestly. Yesterday, the Cowboys jumbo packages were instrumental in helping them to right the ship. Once his charges found their feet and Dallas was back in the game, Garrett opened the playbook back up.
- I know this has been discussed already, but the symmetry is just too good to pass up. On two occasions in the past, a Cowboys backup quarterback has been forced into duty on Thanksgiving against a formidable NFC opponent. In 1974, Clint Longely, a rookie who had no expectation of playing, had to sub in for an injured Roger Staubach with the 'Boys down late in the contest against the hated Redskins. He threw two long TD passes, including the game winning 50-yarder to Drew Pearson, with less an a minute remaining. Twenty years later, a certain third-string QB named Jason Garrett, who had to start in place in place of injured back-up Rodney Peete, followed suit, tossing two second-half scoring bombs as the Cowboys rallied from a 17-3 deficit to defeat Green Bay. As Kitna stood tall in the pocket, then found Roy Williams for a glorious 47-yard catch and run, it seemed that the football gods were once again shining upon a Dallas backup who was destined to snatch a shining, stunning victory from the slavering maw of defeat.
Alas, these gods are a mercurial bunch...