Don't call it blame. Call it assigning responsibility. (And I'm going to go counter prevailing wisdom for the last-minute disaster, an opinion that is wholly my own).
They had the game all but won. Dick Stockton and Brian Billick were blithely nattering on about the Cowboys being 5-3 and the Lions dropping to 4-4, like they had never seen a team with a quarterback like Matthew Stafford and a receiving weapon like Calvin Johnson put together a touchdown drive with 1:02. Especially with a receiver like that. For crying out loud, do they not realize why his nickname is Megatron? And given the way Johnson had abused the Dallas defense, how could they not at least acknowledge the chance that he might just come up with a couple of key catches and get them into the endzone?
But that is just a desire to take the messenger and deliver a Dan Bailey style kick to the family jewels. Because my real frustration is with what happened just before Detroit got the ball with what turned out to be plenty of time to take the game away from the Cowboys.
Up until a bit past halfway through the fourth quarter, Dallas had managed to neutralize a team that was clearly outplaying them. They did it on the strength of four turnovers. Simply put, Dallas didn't make many plays during the game, but Detroit was the team with the really big mistakes. The Cowboys offense, behind a very shaky performance by Tony Romo for most of the game, was ineffective. And the running game was just not really a factor. The defense let Johnson and Reggie Bush gash them too many times. Yet there the Cowboys were, after Romo finally found his wide receivers for two quick touchdowns, with a 10 point lead. All they had to do was hang on to it for 6:45. They just needed to manage the clock.
And totally failed to do so. Detroit came back with a fast touchdown drive of their own. Then Dallas sputtered after getting one first down on an interference call. The defense came up with its best stand of the day, forcing the Lions to turn the ball over on downs on their own 31 yard line. 1:24 on the clock, and a 3 point lead.
What happened then . . . well, I'll let someone else state it, since I am again having a hard time keeping my vocabulary appropriate.
How do you sign Tony Romo to that deal in the offseason and then put this game in the hands of a depleted running game? Just flummoxing.— Jeff Sullivan (@SullyBaldHead) October 27, 2013
That is the $108 million question. From that point, this was a game played by a scared team. And I think that the fear was on the part of Jason Garrett and Bill Callahan.
The team was down its number one running back, and guard Brian Waters had gone out with injury. Mackenzy Bernadeau was filling in. Romo had shown on two plays just minutes earlier that the team could strike fast and hard. And Dez Bryant was apparently begging, sometimes almost violently, to get the ball and let him do what he had done once already in the game. Get a touchdown from that field position, or a first down, even, and you salt the game away.
Instead, they went with what KD Drummond referred to "give up" running plays. With Detroit absolutely ready for them, they lost four yards on two handoffs to Joseph Randle. Detroit burned its last two time outs to conserve as much time as they could, and then disaster happened. On a third down run, Tyron Smith got flagged for holding, and gifted Detroit with 40 seconds of game time.
Still, it should not have come to that. One first down and the clock would have been burned away with victory formations. One catch was really all it would have taken. And at the crucial moment, with the quarterback who was signed to lead this team to better things, the coaching staff blinked and took the ball out of his hands.
I don't know if Romo had other plays he could have audibled to. I don't know whether he was on board with the decision or not. But why did the team not call a play action on first or second down? With Bryant, Jason Witten, and Cole Beasley, I personally like the odds there.
But they did not. Perhaps I am off base here, but the runs just seemed like they were too predictable. Too cautious. Too Garrett. And far too willing to put more pressure on a defense that clearly could not get consistent stops against Stafford and company.
That was not the last thing they did wrong. After Dan Bailey had kicked the field goal to make it a 6 point lead, Detroit marched rapidly down the field, and the defense stopped Calvin Johnson inside the 1-yard line. And Dallas still had time outs. There was still a chance for Dallas to get to a field goal at that point, but by the time Stafford got down and pulled his dive for the touchdown, the clock was down to 12 seconds. Had Dallas preserved an extra ten seconds or so, they might well have gotten in position for Dan Bailey to try another field goal.
In my mind, however, it was taking the ball out of Romo's hands. Yes, if they had lost, then the blame would have descended on his shoulders. But to me, when they went with the three running plays from the Detroit 31, they took the cautious, conservative way out. And it came back to bite them. Hugely.
As I said, this is just my take on things, and admittedly written with a lot of heat. The Cowboys are still alone leading the division, even if it is with a .500 record. Yet that is a slender thread to hang onto to hope to get into the postseason. They do have some games coming up that they should be able to win, but they also have at least one, against the New Orleans Saints, that looks to be a near certain loss now (and will likely drop them back to .500). It would not take much of a run from one of the division rivals to overtake them. This was a lost opportunity, and lost in a manner that just seems too typical of this team. I don't see that the problem is the players, because they almost pulled this off. I just see that they were put in an impossible situation at the end. And that was because of what the offensive coordinator and his boss decided. From my viewpoint, at least.