After the frustrating and somewhat embarrassing loss to Washington on Monday Night Football (giving them their most highly rated game in years, by the way), Dallas Cowboys fans could be expected to look for silver linings to give them hope for turning this around. There were some good things that should carry on into the future, such as DeMarco Murray getting his eighth consecutive 100+ yard rushing game, Dez Bryant making an absolutely brilliant catch for a touchdown, and the defense finally getting multiple sacks in a game. They even saw backup quarterback Brandon Weeden acquit himself well while Tony Romo was getting his back tended to.
But oddly, the greatest reason for some optimism looking forward is just how many things the Cowboys got wrong in this game, and still had multiple chances to win in regulation and took it to overtime. (In fairness, Dallas also dodged several bullets in regulation as well, but the point is that the game was still very close.) If the team can be that bad and still almost pull it out, this situation is very fixable.
- Romo was pressured and sacked all night as Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett kept throwing blitzes at him. Not only was the blocking not picking up the blitz, but there did not seem to be a hot receiver for Romo to get rid of the ball to on most of the blitzes. That was highly puzzling. It was apparently a failure by Scott Linehan to counter what the team had to know was coming. With the endless worries about Romo's back, this was almost impossible to grasp. Travis Frederick, in his post game comments, alluded to the fact that the problem was more about scheme than bad play on the part of the line: "There were some different things but things that we were prepared for and things we should have picked up," he said. "I think it comes down to the whole system. There is not one guy who is really responsible for it. It's a group thing and we just have to get better. That's an issue we have to look at tomorrow and see if we come up with it."
- Related to that, Romo was also as inaccurate as he has been since the opening game against the 49ers. This probably is an effect of the way Washington was bearing down on him, but he certainly missed a lot of passes that he has been making in the past few games.
- Linehan's errors did not stop with how he left his quarterback exposed and eventually lying on the field in pain. Inexplicably, he reverted to the same mistakes the Cowboys repeatedly made last season, giving up on the run in situations where the leagues first 1,000 yard rusher of the season could probably have delivered, instead throwing the ball and getting too many incompletions. Earlier, our Dave Halprin put it succinctly in his article about this: "Just run the ball, Dallas."
- Fumbles. If you want to go beat your head against a wall at this point, feel free. Just stop before you do yourself permanent damage.
- Missed tackles. This was the defense's big contribution to this mess. After using a swarming, aggressive approach to compensate for their own deficiencies, the Cowboys' defenders suddenly were taking horrible angles and not wrapping people up. Barry Church openly admitted to this: "I missed two wide-open tackles out there, and there were just a lot of missed tackles on the defensive side of the ball," Church said. "If we want to win and be the defense we want to be, we just can't let that happen."
This was a collection of things that, except for the fumbling, was very unlike the way Dallas played during the six game winning streak. I thought Jason Garrett would have kept the team focused on playing their best against the opponent, and I am not sure that he failed in that. The team seemed almost too tense about this game, like they had overthought things and gotten away from what they were doing so well. Linehan just flat had a terrible plan and failed to adjust at halftime. To his credit, his postgame comments indicate he is well aware of the mistakes he made and plans to not make them again.
The Cowboys get an immediate chance to fix much of this against the Arizona Cardinals, who also are known to throw a few blitzes at opponents. And despite the loss, Dallas is still in first place in the NFC East by half a game, and tied with the Cardinals and the Lions for the most wins in the NFC. They can go forward from this and get better. On Sunday, we will see how the coaching staff and the team respond to adversity.