In a word: whew. On Sunday afternoon, the Cowboys offered compelling evidence in support of the old adage that its better to be lucky than good. Somehow, they managed to pull victory from a defeat that they had managed to pull from a victory. In the end, they came out on the positive score of a 27-24 overtime victory for the second time this season. In the body of this post, I'll look at the game by the numbers, many of which aren't pretty. However, the only numbers that really matter are six--the number of victories they have in 2011--and three, the number of consecutive victories they have notched--for the first time since 2009.
Without further ado, lets take a look at the contest that secured a season sweep of the hated
Redskins Deadskins Foreskins:
85, 80: If there was any doubt that the fates were on the Cowboys side during the drive that allowed them to take a 24-17 lead, it was dispelled by the fact that, in consecutive plays, Kevin Ogletree and Martellus Bennett made key plays. Facing a third and 8 from the 14, Romo hit Ogletree for 12 yards and a first down; on the next play, Bennett made a terrific one-handed grab of a tipped pass before scooting out of bounds for a gain of 13. Those plays kept alive a drive that, three plays later, resulted the longest touchdown reception of Jason Witten's career, a 59-yarder. Just as several pundits were tweeting that Romo was only throwing to the receivers he trusted, two consecutive passes went to guys not on that list. It reminded me of the San Francisco game when, in crunch time, Romo started throwing to the likes of Ogletree and Jesse Holley. Spread it around, son, it gives opposing D-coordinators more to plan for...
68.3: The Redskins quarterback rating for the season, coming into the game. On Sunday, it was a whopping 95.2. Part of this certainly can be attributed to the return of Rex Grossman, who is capable of playing good--even great--games, to the starting lineup. Given the degree to which both the Washington O-line and skill positions have been decimated, however, Grossman shouldn't be in position to be "good Rex." He had no running game (the 'Skins averaged a meager 2.5 yards a carry), was missing his two best receiving threats, and was down to his third string running back. Yet the Cowboys secondary made him look like Tom freakin' Brady--eerily so on Washington's final drive in regulation.
32: The Redskins starting position for their first touchdown drive (on the Dallas side of the field), and the distance of the Brandon Banks' punt return that set up their second one. With the Washington offense struggling and their defense beginning to show some holes, both special teams units did all they could to keep the 'Skins in the game. It all began with a 23-yard Matt McBriar punt, which set up the home team a mere 32 yards from paydirt. After a Redskins touchdown was followed by a short Dallas drive, Banks returned the subsequent punt to the Dallas 43. Time and again, the Cowboys' gunner (on Banks' left side) would get a hand on Banks, who would free himself, make a cut and then run free through the right side of the coverage. He later had a 55-yarder. Coincidentally, he averaged--you guessed it--an alarming 32 yards (!) per punt return.
17: On the opening drive of the second half, which resulted in the field goal that made the score 17-10, the Redskins employed some shrewd psychological derring-do. The Cowboys, almost certainly shocked by the first half score, came out of the locker room determined to stop the Redskins. On two consecutive plays, Rex Grossman executed run fakes, the anxious Cowboys overpursued and the Skins managed good gains. On the first, he faked a handoff left and then rolled right, finding open prairie; he was wrapped up by Anthony Spencer after a gain of six. On the next play, the same play fake led to a short pass to TE Fred Davis, who rumbled into Cowboy territory after a 24-yard gain.
14: Number of plays on the third-quarter Cowboys drive that tied the game at 17. The Redskins were dominating the game at that point, but had just missed the field goal that could have made the score 20-10. Perhaps buoyed by the miss, Dallas took over and ground out a drive filled with clutch plays. Particularly clutch were three third and fourth-down conversions. Consider: On 4th and 1 at the Redskins 40, Garrett made a gutsy call, sending Murray off tackle. The rookie runner found no hole, so he bounced it outside, a la Marion Barber. Unlike Barber, he got the edge, powering for a crucial first down. Later in the drive, Romo extended two third down plays by moving out of the pocket, running to this left and finding open receivers. On the first of these, Murray did a great job eluding tacklers to gain a first down; on the second, Robinson ran clear across the end zone and held on to Romo's throw just as he was hit by DeAngelo Hall.
9. Number nine. This just in: Romo is a Jedi. On the next drive, he once again escaped pressure, again rolled to his left and again threw a perfect pass, this time to Jason Witten, who labored down the sideline but couldn't be caught en route to the end zone. Romo does a lot of things really well--his release rivals Dan Marino's--but his escapability is often downright magical. And, he demonstrated that again in what proved to be the play of the game. On 3rd and 15 in overtime, he again wiggled out of the pocket and found Dez Bryant for a 26-yard gain. That's twice in two games that the 9-to-88 connection has dealt the 'Skins a third-and-long dagger en route to a game winning field goal. I like it. I like it a lot.
8:40. The amount of time left on the clock when the Cowboys took possession after Orlando Scandrick's interception, which came on the first play after Witten's long touchdown. This was a spot when Emmitt Smith or even Marion Barber, circa 2007, would run the ball down the defense's throat and either run down the clock or score--or both. Indeed, after gashing the Redskins defense for gains of 7, 7 and 4 yards, DeMarco Murray looked like he was prepared to do the same. But then he was stonewalled at the line and, after a Romo incompletion, suddenly the Cowboys were punting, giving the 'Skins the ball with plenty of time with which to mount a tying touchdown drive.
Certainly, I would have loved for to see this team resembling the 90s Cowboys, who brutalized their opponents when they had a fourth-quarter lead. But with that much left in the game, it appeared to be much too early to milk the clock--which it seemed that Garret and Co. decided to do. The downside was that they would have to punt and rely on their defense to preserve the lead. To my mind, this strategy played right into Shanahan's hands. As much as folks have been on Romo's jock for the Jets and Lions losses earlier in the season, those games (and the Patriots loss) all featured fourth-quarter defensive el foldos when a stop would have won the game. Given this history, plus the fact that Dallas had full possession of the momentum and the Washington "D" was gassed, it seemed imperative to try to score. Because they didn't, the Cowboys almost turned a victory into a loss, and probably deserved to.
3. The number of sacks accumulated by Ryan's troops. This number is deceiving, as one sack came on Washington's final offensive play, when Rex Grossman feebly rolled out and, instead of throwing the ball away, got tangled up with Victor Butler a yard behind the line of scrimmage, and another came on a first and 20. On 3rd down, when stressing the quarterback is most important, the Cowboys generated little pressure--the lone exception being a beautiful Jason Hatcher sack-and-strip on a second quarter 3rd and 2.
For some time now, I have been anxious about the Dallas pass rush; particularly nerve-wracking is the fact that DeMarcus Ware has proven to be the only Cowboys defender capable of generating any consistent pass rush. What happens, I have wondered, when he has an off day or is effectively negated? On Sunday, we found out: Washington OT Trent Williams did a masterful job against number 94--he often had help from a back or a tight end--thus effectively negating Dallas' pressure package. Unless Ryan dials up exotic blitz packages, like the overloads he crafted against Buffalo, the Cowboys struggle to get to opposing signal-callers.
3. The number of pass rushers sent by Dallas defensive coordinator Ryan for what felt like the majority of the game. Contributing to the lack of pressure was the fact that Captain Caveman opted to play coverage for a preponderant number of snaps. Often, this resulted in Ware and either Spencer or Butler working against offensive tackles Williams and Jamaal Brown (often, as I noted above, with help from backs and TEs). The Dallas end rushers were getting upfield, causing Grossman to step up into a pocket. The problem? That pocket had nary a dent, as Jay Ratliff was often fighting all three interior linemen. I've asked this before, and I'll ask it again: which Dallas defender, other than Ware, can Ryan rely on consistently to win one-on-one battles?
You're going to hear a lot of post-game analysis that bemoans the Cowboys' secondary play. To my mind, however, this looked distinctly like a recurrence of the problems that we saw in 2010, which had little to do with the back seven and a lot to do with an anemic pass rush. Simply put, its really hard to cover professional receivers (and, yes, I realize that its difficult to attach that label to the likes of Donte Stallworth and Jabbar Gaffney) for more than about 2.5 seconds. With no pass rush, even with eight in coverage, guys are going to get open. Until the defense can generate more pressure, and more consistent pressure, we're going to see receivers running open in the Cowboys secondary. On Sunday, I wondered whether Ryan's opting to play coverage so often was an indication that he knows as much.
2.8, 9. Dallas average yards per carry, and their longest run from scrimmage. Coming into the game, the dominant meme in Cowboyland was the rise of DeMarco Murray, who had been chewing up yardage at the rate of 150 yards a game. Against Washington, he came back down to earth; although he ran hard, he rarely had much room in which to operate and had a lot of trouble getting past the first level, in no small part because the Redskins were stacking the box. Of the Cowboys 30 rushing attempts by running backs, almost half (14) went for two or fewer yards. This brings up some lingering questions: was this drop-off a result of Tony Fiammetta's absence? A byproduct of the Washington defense (number 56, Perry Riley, who replaced an underachieving Rocky McIntosh at ILB ths week, played his rear end off)? There are critical questions that won't be answered for at least another week or two. But the success--or lack thereof--of the Cowboys 2011 season hangs in the balance.
1.8. Average yards per play for Redskins in the first 20 minutes of playing time. At that point, the only first down they had managed against Ryan's defense came via penalty. Then Rex Grossman hit Jabbar Gaffney, working against Dallas safety Gerald Sensabaugh, for 17 yards and a first down, and the 'Skins were off to the proverbial races. And that wasn't the first time the Shanahans sought to isolate Gaffney on number 43. Sensi gave up Washington's second touchdown to Gaffney, drawing Ryan's ire because he wandered outside when he had inside responsibility. On the Redskins opening drive of the second half, the Cowboys strong safety yielded another big gainer to Gaffney, a 28 yarder on 2nd and 11.
1. Number of millimeters that Dan Bailey's winning kick was inside the crossbar. Like the rest of the game, Bailey's winning kick wasn't pretty. Against the Redskins, on the road, however, we can't afford to style point; what was important was to come away with the "W." NFL seasons are long, and there are myriad narrative twists and turns. Almost every team endures heartbreaking losses and blown leads. But winning teams can only suffer so many of these, and Dallas has already used up all of theirs; another fourth quarter collapse would have spelled disaster.
That's why today's watchword is "whew." Disaster averted, so lets go get a Thanksgiving win to go with our turkey and gravy!