In the Star Wars movie franchise, whenever the going gets particularly tough for one of our intrepid heroes, he or she invariably offers the same response: "I've got a bad feeling about this." I begin with this foray into geekdom because it describes exactly the emotional state in which I currently find myself as we crest the hill on Redskins week.
Why, you ask? Sure, I'm not in love with the offense's lack of production in the preseason, particularly against San Diego and Houston. Yes, the defense, which looked damn near impenetrable for the best part of the first two games, was pushed around thereafter. Okay, there have been injuries to key veterans, many of whom might not be back in time for Sunday night's tilt. But even had none of these problems arisen, even if the 'Boys were completely healthy, even if the O-Line had been blowing open massive holes as the offense drove relentlessly to paydirt before taking a preseason powder, I suspect I'd still be approaching opening night with great trepidation.
To explain why, I ask you to consider the most frustrating Cowboy losses over the last two seasons. For me, the losses that ended each of the past two seasons were less frustrating than freeing. In each, a version of the Peter Principle was at work: it was clear that this team had risen as high as it could and was now fighting out of its class. Certainly, the Arizona loss in '08 sucked eggs, on multiple levels. But no, the ones that still smart are three particular road losses: Pittsburgh in '08, and last year's defeats at the hands of the Broncos and Packers.
Any Cowboy fan will instantly recognize that these games share a common narrative: Cowboys' offense looks terrific early and Dallas jumps out to an early lead but then, as the game progresses, begins to have trouble. The opponent scratches back into the game. A gallant defense begins to tire, an offensive miscue or a special teams blunder leads to an easy score, the offense can't respond, and the gig is up.
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect these losses share is the degree to which the offense--and specifically the offensive line--became increasingly over-matched as the game went on. The indelible images of these games are running backs being met at the line of scrimmage, Romo under intense pressure from multiple angles and untimely turnovers, typically caused by an unblocked blitzer. In the latter stages of the aforementioned '09 losses, the offensive line seemed to be in utter chaos, resulting in pre-snap penalties and missed assignments.
Of course, all three of these defeats were to teams that employ a 3-4 defense.
The NFL is all about matchups. In recent history, the Cowboys have demonstrated that they do not match up well with 3-4 defenses that have the ability to send a variety of rushers. The Cowboys' O-line is strong at the point of attack when they can get their hands on opponents; however, some of them (I'm talking to you Andre and Leonard) tend to no move their feet well and thus have difficulty latching on to moving targets. Given that the 3-4 defenses rush a lot of linebackers and some defensive backs, the Cowboys' linemen particularly struggle to get their hands on them.
Moreover, as the NFL Network's Brian Baldinger noted recently, the Dallas O-line is not a particularly cerebral bunch. They are slow to recognize stunts, dogs and other blitz games. Typically, the center makes all the line calls; Gurode, however, has always had a hard time doing this, so Kyle Kosier has taken over this responsibility. One problem: Kosier won't play on Sunday.
The various problems presented by 3-4 defenses are exacerbated when the Cowboys are on the road, especially when the hometown fans begin to sense that there is chum in the water. Well, here we are: a season opener against a 3-4 team on the road. To compound the anxiety this matchup produces, two of the Cowboys O-linemen, including Kosier, the one interior lineman who actually does move his feet and get to the second level well, are almost certain to miss the contest.
In the week following the previously discussed debacles, Jason Garrett has been the recipient of a great deal of Cowboy fandom's collective vitriol: he abandoned the run; he didn't throw to Witten enough; he called too many plays designed to go to Roy WIlliams. Blah blah blah. While it is probably true that Garrett tends to panic a bit when the Dallas O-line is getting whipped (the '08 home loss to Washington joins these games in that category), one must still wonder: what is an offensive coordinator supposed to call when the big uglies are having their backsides handed to them play after play? The special package that doesn't require blocking? Punt and hope the returner fumbles?
In the various Star Wars films, the good guys tend to get out of unfavorable matchups--those situations that give them bad feelings--by relying on and trusting in The Force. When the bad guys have you surrounded, sometimes that's what you have to do. Given recent history, and the current state of the Dallas O-line, a trip to FedEx Field is looking like a trip to Cloud City: it could go either way. I suggest Garrett will need to pack his light saber; to get to 1-0, the Cowboys are definitely going to need him to get his Jedi on.