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Cowboys @Jets: Sorting Through The Rubble, Picking Up The Pieces

Some game highlights got lost in the overall disappointment of the fourth quarter collapse.
Some game highlights got lost in the overall disappointment of the fourth quarter collapse.

"We had our chances to win it and those are the games you've got to find a way to win in the end. We didn't do that. And it's real disappointing," Jason Witten said after last night's loss to the Jets, mirroring the disappointment felt by many Cowboys fans last night and this morning.

Not many fans had expected a win in the first place. Predictions of a Cowboys win were routinely laughed off as homerism or worse, but once the Cowboys took what looked like a commanding 24-10 lead at the start of the fourth quarter even the most die-hard skeptics started getting their hopes up. Only to have it ripped from them in an epic meltdown of the Dallas Cowboys - never before in franchise history have the Cowboys surrendered a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter. No surprise then that disappointment quickly turned into something much more ugly as fans started venting on this and other boards.

But while blaming Jerry Jones, or Tony Romo, or Garrett, or the officials or special teams (or anybody or anything else for that matter) might feel like the right thing to do on an Overreaction Monday, all that really does is take your focus away from two much more fundamental takeaways from this game. For one thing, there are a lot of positives to be taken away from the game against the Jets, despite the loss. At the same time, the reason the Cowboys lost is all too familiar for Cowboys fans - the Cowboys do not play smart football. 

Here's a short excerpt from Garrett's post-game press conference:

"We didn't handle the situation at the end of the ball game well. We did things that teams that know how to win games don't do: we turned the ball over, we got a punt blocked, we turned it over again. So we gave them great opportunities."

"I thought our guys played with tremendous passion, emotion and enthusiasm. I thought they battled. I thought they played through the successes and adversities of the ball game and just kept competing."

The problem is, that may not be enough. We could have 53 Right Kind Of Guys on the team, but if they don't play smart football, they'll end up losing games. The Cowboys have a distinct tendency to play dumb football, and that is not just a recent thing.

I believe that the Cowboys have been for a long time, and still are, a very talented team. But all that talent still finds ways to shoot itself in the with dumb decisions, critical mistakes and penalties. Collectively, the Cowboys excel at giving the opposing team a second, third and sometimes even fourth chance to get back into the game. Boneheaded plays were the staple of the team last year:

Week 1: The Tashard Choice fumble and the Alex Barron hold in the loss to the Redskins.
Week 5: The 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a touchdown on Marc Colombo that ultimately resulted in a 73-yard kickoff return and a subsequent game-winning TD by the Titans - with four minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Week 6: 4th quarter interception by the Vikings leads to the game winning field goal with four minutes left on the clock.
Week 12: A Roy Williams strip-fumble with three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter results in the game winning Saints TD on the ensuing drive.

I'm sure there are many more examples, but I don't want to delve too deeply into that self-flagellation routine. The examples for boneheaded decisions are plentiful. They are not limited to the QB or to the play calling, they are much more pervasive, and that is the core issue.

The Cowboys as an organization have forgotten how to play smart, game-winning football.

I have no idea how quickly things like that can be fixed, or whether this was just a temporary relapse into old habits. What I do know is that the Cowboys are talented. In principle, they have everything they need to win, and we saw that in the first three quarters against the Jets. But can they be smart enough to win?

Another soundbite from Garrett's presser yesterday:

There were a lot of good things in this ball game. If we play that way, we're going to have a chance to be a good football team.

And among all the teeth-gnashing, doom-saying and scare-mongering, a couple of things stand out from yesterday's game, despite the fourth quarter meltdown.

In addition to his interception, Sean Lee, notched 12 tackles (10 of which were solo, according to ESPN stats), a pass defended and a fumble recovery, and generally seemed to be around the ball a lot. That bodes well for the Cowboys linebacker position, and if Bruce Carter turns out to be equally effective sometime down the line, that would bode well for the Cowboys defense.

The much-maligned Cowboys run-defense held the vaunted Jets running game to 45 rushing yards and a 2.6 rushing average, quite a big improvement from a team that seemed unable to stop the run as recently as this preseason. This must surely be credited in part to Rob Ryan's schemes, which also saw the Cowboys sack Sanchez four times. Ryan's 'Bullies' Jay Ratliff, Marcus Spears, Jason Hatcher and Kenyon Coleman may not have notched a lot of tackles but they dominated the point of attack and provided room for the blitzing linebackers to stop the Jets running game.

And while the pass defense didn't hold up quite as well, I'm not sure whether anything at all should be expected from a secondary that played without its number one, two and three corners for parts of the game and had Spencer and Church playing corner at times.

The offensive line, while far from perfect, at least affords hope for the future, even though it did not get a lot of push in the running game. Hardly a surprise considering the opponent. But for a line that effectively sported three rookies, not bad at all.

And there were more bright spots. For about 50 minutes, the Cowboys played the best football we've seen this team play in a long time, on both sides of the ball. But that simply wasn't enough yesterday.

Overall, the Cowboys lost a heartbreaker to one of the better teams in the league, and they really have nobody to blame but themselves. To win their next games, they'll have to play smarter football. Playing dumb football will not get you championships in the NFL. It won't even get you into the playoffs most of the time.