For the second game in a row, the watchword was "whew!" Again, the Cowboys muddled about against a seemingly inferior team only to put the game on Tony Romo's back in the final frames, pulling out a victory. Against Washington, the Cowboys appeared to be the better team; on Thursday, the Dolphins were the better squad. If not for a gift touchdown at the end of the first half, after DeMarcus Ware recovered an arrant shotgun snap, Dallas might not have been close enough for Romo's heroics to matter much.
Speaking of Romo, the Cowboys must now put the highest premium on his health. His backup, Jon Kitna, suffering from a mysterious back injury sustained in practice, is reported to be out for the rest of the season, leaving only the unseasoned (and, frankly, unimpressive) Stephen McGee to hold forth should number 9 get dinged. Given that Romo has been the difference between victory and defeat on four occasions this season, I shudder to think what his absence from the lineup might portend.
Along these lines (and I realize this is the kind of speculative thinking that occurs when looking back at a draft and saying "well, the Cowboys screwed up, XXX was available; they should have picked him"), I found myself wishing on multiple occasions Thursday that the Cowboys hadn't gotten cute in 2007 and tried to stash Matt Moore on the practice squad after he had drawn raves all training camp. I, for one, would sleep more soundly knowing Romo is backed up by Moore, who showed tenacity, command, and had a nice touch on passes to all levels. Sigh.
A look at the numbers after the jump...
19: The yardage gained on Dez Bryant's punt return. For about a month now, commentators have been pointing out the anemic quality of the Cowboys' return game. Going into Thursday's contest, Dallas was 25th in the league in punt return yardage and, in the Washington game, where Brandon Banks had made several big returns, had just witnessed how much an electric returner can contribute. In an effort to boost kickoff returns, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah had been replaced by Felix Jones; with the game on the line, after a key defensive three-and-out, the Cwboys coaching staff sent Bryant out to return a punt. Bryant was still buckling on his chinstrap as he ran back to catch the punt, then proceeded to wriggle and juke for nineteen yards (I thought for a millisecond he was going to break it), gaining nineteen yards and setting the tone for the Cowboys' final, game-winning drive. With Miles Austin tentatively due to return Dec. 4th against Arizona, I'd expect--nay, I'd hope and pray--that Bryant will be back on all returns. He's just too electric not to, injury concerns be damned.
11: The season-high number of penalties the Cowboys amassed, for 69 yards. Left tackle Doug Free was the biggest contributor, with a false-start trifecta (for one game, the resemblance to Flozell Adams, the man he replaced, was eerie). But the killer was the somewhat questionable pass interference penalty called on Abram Elam, which negated a crucial Ware sack on a third-and-six in Miami territory. Buoyed by the gift, the Dolphins drove down to kick the field goal that left the score 19-17wiht just over seven minutes remaining.
10: the number of times Romo targeted Laurent Robinson. By comparison, Bryant was targeted six times.This imbalance is due in no small part to the fact that Bryant is receiving much tighter coverage, and Garrett's offense is predicated on going to the open man. But mostly, its all Robinson. Not only is Robinson getting open, he's making other teams pay with clutch plays. Nobody's talking about Robinson's first TD, but it rivals Jason Avant's oft-played fingertip grab on Sunday night: he scooped up a low Romo throw off the Cowboys Stadium carpet.
9: Tony Romo.Yes, he'll make some mistakes; on Thursday, he threw a couple of early picks (although Robinson was quick to point out that Romo's second interception was his fault). But the man is a magician; as Dolphins coach Tony Sporano said, he has "eyes in the back of his head." He has an uncanny ability to sense pressure and make subtle moves in the pocket or--and he has done this much more in the last two weeks--spin out of the pocket, finding an open receiver and hitting him on the run. Last night, we saw Jedi football at its best. Check out these plays, all from the drive that spanned the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth quarters:
- After the Dolphins have just scored their lone touchdown to take a 16-10 lead, the Cowboys face a 2nd and 8 at their 25. Romo is in shotgun, gets pressure up the middle, and, while in the grasp, throws a duck to a covered Jason Witten, who makes the catch for nine yards and a first down.
- On the next play, another called pass, a Dolphins defender comes off the edge, untouched. Romo takes the shotgun snap, immediately spins and, caught around the ankles, somehow makes a throw to DeMarco Murray as he falling to the turf. Murray catches the ball in stride and rumbles down the left sideline for a 17-yard gain. Romo couldn't have seen Murray until he spun away from the blitzing defender; to have the wherewithal to process that information while spinning, being tackled and falling is extraordinary.
- On the first play of the fourth quarter, Dallas faces a 3rd and 3 at the Dolphins 23. Romo is in the shotgun and again gets pressure instantly, from a blitzing inside linebacker. Romo has time to look off his first option and then, as he's being hit, somehow finds his second, Jason Witten, who makes a nice catch of Romo's wobbly pass at the sticks and then get a couple more for good measure. Again, the calm processing of information while under duress is impressive.
- On the next play, another pass, nobody's open. Sensing pressure from a collapsing Miami left end, Romo escapes outside, to his left, buying time for Robinson to come open as he literally runs across the length of the end zone. Robinson makes a nice catch in the corner, tying the game.
That's four ridiculous plays on a single, go-ahead drive, in which he was 7-7 while under considerable duress. Its no accident that we have seen more of this kind of play since Romo stopped taking pain injections and wearing the Kevlar vest. He's now fully mobile and, I think, able to make plays that ask him to take hits that he had to avoid when he was injured. Frankly, he couldn't have picked a better time to get healthy.
7. Dallas points off of Miami turnovers--all on a single, huge play at the end of the first half, wherein a Ware recovery of a bad shotgun snap was immediately followed by Romo's first TD pass to Robinson. On the other hand, thanks to some Cowboys defensive heroics, the Dolphins tallied a mere three points from Romo's two early interceptions; the 4-point differential in points from turnovers was the difference in the game.
4: The number of field goals Miami scored in four trips into the redzone. Speaking of defensive heroics, Rob Ryans troops were stellar when the Dolphins got close to the goal line. Earlier in the week, Rob Ryan declared that his defense's biggest failing was in the red zone. On Thursday, they were beaten up and down the field, but were salty inside the 20. Miami ran 13 plays inside the 20, but couldn't punch it in.
4: Also the number of 30+ yard passes the Dolphins completed, with another 24-yarder to Davone Bess thrown in for good measure. This was a season high, eclipsing the high of two, notched against the Jets and Seahawks. In the last two games in particular, the Dallas pass defense has begun to yield bigger chunks of yardage--and more frequently. Given that neither opponent features a passing attack that's feared league-wide, there should be genuine cause for concern, especially with the Giants and Eagles on the horizon.
But that's in the distant future. For now, lets enjoy the Cowboys' fourth consecutive win. I suggest celebrating with a turkey sandwich...Thanksgiving leftovers, Mmmmmmm