Last week, I began a series in which I'll count down five key moments in the 2010 season. As I stated in my intros to the previous iterations (#5 is here; # 4 is here; #3 can be found here), the moments I'm interested in examining all either represented or forced a larger philosophical change that ended up having long-term repercussions during the 2010 season, and perhaps into the future. Today's installment looks at the play that probably defined the 2010 campaign: Tony Romo's injury. As you'll see, I make the case that its lasting impact had more to do with the Cowboys' defense than with their offense.
Moment #2: Week 7: Romo Breaks His Collarbone
There are several indelible images from the 2010 season; the one that is seared most permanently in my memory is that of Romo writhing on the Cowboys Stadium carpet after having been driven into it by blitzing Giants linebacker Michael Boley. At that moment, the 12:07 mark of the second quarter, Cowboys Nation held its collective breath and then, after a pause, quietly told itself that the season was over.
At that moment, however, the game was anything but over. To that point, the Cowboys, playing inspired football, had been blessed by the turnover gods. Interceptions by Terrence Newman and Gerald Sensabaugh had twice given the Dallas offense a very short field, and they had cashed in with 10 points; after a New York TD drive, a Brandon Jacobs fumble set Dallas up at the Giants' 43. The first play, a 14-yard completion to Miles Austin, resulted in Romo's injury. Backup QB Jon Kitna came into the game cold, mucked about for a bit, and the Cowboys kicked a field goal. After a Giants three-and-out, Dez Bryant served up an electrifying 93-yard punt return to extend the lead to 20-7.
Then all hell broke loose. We'll look at specifics after the jump:
The five Giants drives after Romo's injury went as follows:
80 yards, seven plays: TD
56 yards, five plays: TD
19 yards, five plays: FG (end of half)
55 yards, five plays: TD
70 yards, six plays: TD
In 20 minutes of game time, New York racked up 280 yards and 31 unanswered points. For the game, they amassed just short of 500 total yards. The Dallas corners were abused; Manning threw 30 passes in the direction of his four wideouts (Hakeem Nicks, Steve Smith, Mario Manningham, and Ramses Barden), netting 22 completions for a staggering 271 yards. To make matters worse, the Giants running game was a hot knife that eased through the Cowboys buttery front seven. The New Yorkers gained an even 200 yards rushing; Ahmad Bradshaw piled up 124 and the loathed Brandon Jacobs added 75, including a back-breaking 30-yard score.
More important than the yardage gained by the Giants' backs was the way they gained it. Repeatedly, they gashed the Cowboys with the same running concept, in which the back, usually Bradshaw, would start out on an inside run and then cut sharply--usually to the right--into a gaping hole awaiting him in the guard-tackle gap. This play worked so well--and so many times--largely because Dallas OLBs Anthony Spencer and, to a lesser degree, DeMarcus Ware were charging straight upfield at the snap. By doing so, they were literally taking themselves out of the play; all the New York tackles had to do was to guide them along an already-chosen path.
Spencer and Ware's behavior smacked of a desperation that infected the first half of the season but became particularly acute the moment Romo went down. As the losses piled up during the putrid denouement of the Wade Phillips administration, Phillips and his defensive staff were clearly trying to find a way to get pressure on opposing passers without abandoning their core values: stop the run, play coverage, limit big plays (that's not to say they were successful in maintaining these). The second Romo went down, Phillips and Co. seemed to lose all perspective; they began to dial up more blitzes--and more blitzers. The percentage of five and six-man blitzes rose steadily in the three games after Romo went down and Phillips was canned.
I can imagine the frenzied mantra being repeated in position meetings during that final, fatal fortnight: get to the QB at all costs! In heeding this mantra, the Cowboys' defensive players made themselves vulnerable to the run. The great irony herein is that all that blitzing didn't improve Dallas' ability to get pressure on the quarterback. In part because Phillips' scheme isn't predicated on disguising who would be coming, blitzers were typically picked up with ease. Consequently, rival QBs were able to stand in the pocket and calmly survey the developing play. If you can stand to watch the debacle against the Packers again, you'll see Aaron Rogers repeatedly making hay against six man blitzes from a clean, tight pocket.
While he's doing so, his cadre of fleet wideouts is getting open against single coverage. We can debate which position group--rushers or coverers--contributes more to a successful pass defense, but for my money, it's the rushers. In the NFL, no cornerback--not even Deion Sanders in his prime--can blanket a quality receiver for five seconds. When asked how good the corners on those Reggie White-lead Eagles defenses of the late 80s and early 90s were, pundits would respond: how can we know? The Eagles pass rush was so fierce that it didn't matter who their coverage guys were; pass patterns never had time to develop.
My point here is that the Cowboys lack of a pass rush made our coverage people a bit nervous; the desperate defensive measures taken after Romo went down made them hollow-eyed and shell-shocked. So, when the coaching braintrust changed the team's defensive philosophy after Phillips was fired, resorting to more four-man rushes and a much higher percentage of zone coverage, it was too late: the damage had been done. Playing defensive back in the NFL is all about confidence. By the time the Garrett administration took over the Valley Ranch oval office, the Dallas DB's confidence was shot, and they never recovered.
When Romo went down for the count, the season did in fact go down with him--but not for the reason most people thought at the time. His replacements, Jon Kitna and Stephen McGee, played respectably--suberbly, even. But his injury set off an already panicking coaching staff, who freaked out, lost themselves and, by abandoning their philosophy, abandoned their players.
Instilling confidence in his defensive backs--particularly Mike Jenkins--will be new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's top priority as we head into the 2011 campaign. A good first step would be to give them a decent pass rush...