In my brief time writing for BTB, I have never been accused of being overly positive or, heaven forbid, a Pollyanna. Well, faithful readers, that's about to change. In this here post, a preview of the upcoming game against the Texans, Rabble's pumpin' sunshine.
Why, you ask? One explanation is that I share with Bill Parcells the desire to be a contrarian. You remember Parcells' Monday press conferences, don't you? After a win, he was always doom and gloom, bemoaning the fact that his team had done something--often many things--wrong. After a loss, however, he'd be supportive of his troops, singling out the good performances, talking about what went well. He did this in part to go against the current, to combat the hype that inevitably follows every Cowboys game--the very hype that led a local sports talk radio station to label their Monday afternoon show "overreaction Monday." Indeed, overreaction is a longstanding problem in CowboyLand; the past week has media and fans alike saying that a loss to Houston (and an 0-3 record going into the bye week) effectively ends the season, will surely lead to the firing of Wade Phillips and/ or Jason Garrett, and will prompt other drastic housecleaning measures.
Frankly, this annoys and scares me. The vagaries of a football season are many, and seasons collapse or are turned around with great regularity. We have no idea how good or how bad Dallas' first two opponents are; its possible that we'll see Chicago beat Washington in the NFC championship game. That's the problem: two games offer no real perspective. But hype and perspective can't co-exist. Hype requires a short view; it demands that we don blinders and react to the most immediate input. Even though I tend to do a lot of pacing and yelling DURING Cowboys games, I try hard to adhere to the long view the rest of the time. As a result, I feel compelled to resist whatever narrative the hype machine is selling this week. See why after the jump:
There's more to my sunshine pumping than an aversion to hype. I'm also a firm believer in the "backs to the wall" theory, particularly as it pertains to the Cowboys. In short, this theory holds that desperate teams dig in, rally together and develop more focus than heretofore employed and, as a result, play up to or beyond their previously demonstrated ability. I think this theory is particularly applicable to football, where there are considerably fewer games; the "back to the wall" operational model can only sustain itself for a single contest, thus rendering it almost useless in a sport like baseball, where there is neither sufficient digging in and rallying time nor much value to a one-game win streak.
On the topic of streaks, Wade Phillips' teams have always tended to be streaky. A glance at Wade's coaching record shows that he has endured losing streaks of three and four games (four and two times, respectively) as well as enjoyed winning streaks of three games (four times), four games (5) five games (twice) and, in 2007, the seven-game joyfest culminating with a rousing Thursday night home win over the Packers. A scout once remarked about Phillips that, when his team begins to play well, he relaxes and, as a result, the team also relaxes and tends to lose focus...until the losses come (or pile up) and Wade and Co. regain their collective focus. For those of us who have followed this iteration of the Cowboys with any fervency, such a narrative feels at once accurate and all-too familiar.
The larger point here is that the needle registering the up-and-down nature of Wade's coaching style always returns to "up." Often, desperation is what lubricates this mechanism. This week, he admitted that it was "emergency" time and advised that a 9-1-1 call was in order. In many ways, the situation in which the Cowboys presently find themselves mirrors that of Phillips' promising 1998 Buffalo Bills squad, who opened the season 0-3 and had a date with a Steve Young-led 49ers offensive juggernaut staring them in the face. What happened? His defense dug in, sacked Young five times and corralled four turnovers, the team took a 23-0 lead and won 26-21 to embark upon a season-saving five game win streak.
We have seen similar behavior from recent-vintage Cowboys squads. The '08 team limped into the bye week having lost four out of six games, the last three without the services of a broken-pinkied Tony Romo. The capper was a 35-14 mauling by the Giants in which the Cowboys' other QBs demonstrated that they were not NFL caliber. After the bye, the 'Boys rallied, went to Washington with a still-hurting Romo, and eked out a 14-10 victory over a very game Redskins team. Last year, ugly losses to the Giants and Chargers placed the season on the brink with the undefeated Saints and their rabid fanbase looming. In fact, it was the perfect situation for Phillips and his style. We know the end result: the re-focused Cowboys dominated the line of scrimmage all night long en route to a 24-3 fourth-quarter lead and a "must" win.
Well, here they are again, Wade's intrepid gridiron warriors, with their backs to the wall. This week, a players-only meeting focusing on accountability was followed by practice reports indicating that the coaching staff is working on the little things: technique, placement, going over situational responsibilities for each play. This is good news; it was precisely the "little things" that cost them last week. I had been preparing a review of the Bears game in which I planned to discuss what Mike Martz did to attack the Cowboys defense. I gave up, because it became apparent that he actually didn't do too terribly much that was successful. The Bears couldn't run the ball, and had a great deal of trouble sustaining a consistent passing attack.
What happened then? The Cowboys gave up four big plays, each of which was the result of a blown assignment. Those plays resulted in fourteen points. Add to that the two field goals that were the result of turnovers in Cowboys' territory, and you have 20 of the 27 points Dallas surrendered. If they clean up the little things and stay assignment-sound, I think they'll be okay, even against the Texans' high octane offense. The fact that Houston left tackle Duane Brown won't play Sunday certainly helps out matters; I like the matchup between DeMarcus Ware and Brown's replacement, tackle Rashad Butler.
The Dallas O will face a defense very similar to that of last week's opponent. Like the Bears, the Texans have a quick, disruptive front seven featuring an elite rush end and a rangy MLB who can cover sideline to sideline. Admittedly, a quick, penetrating front seven is not a good matchup for the ponderous Cowboys O-line. That's why last week's keys to victory not only hold, but will be even more imperative: be patient and stick with the gameplan; limit turnovers; keep Mario Williams and Co. off of Romo. In short, the offense doesn't have to win the game; they just have to make sure they don't lose it.
I'm not exactly brimming with confidence that the big boys up front can win the battle at the line of scrimmage; as a result, I see a game much like the '08 home contest against the Giants, in which both quarterbacks took a beating (Romo almost had to leave the game with a back injury; the Cowboys sacked Eli Manning eight times) but a Cowboys team with their backs to the wall ultimately prevailed.
You want sunshine? You got it, Rabblestyle. Let's say Cowboys go into the bye at 1-2 after grinding out a 19-14 win.