The Dallas Cowboys get a chance to redeem themselves this week after the terrible game they had against the Philadelphia Eagles on Thanksgiving. The rematch in Lincoln Financial Field will help answer questions about whether the first meeting was an aberration on the part of Dallas, or a real indication of the difference between the two teams. Cowboys fans are, of course, really, really hoping that it was an out of character day, because having to live with clear evidence that the Eagles are that much better than the Cowboys is too horrible to contemplate.
In trying to figure this out, the strange schedule that Dallas played around Thanksgiving has been pointed to by many as a major factor. They played the Sunday night game at the New York Giants four days before. Of course, the Eagles also played on Sunday, although in an earlier game and at home. For the Cowboys, having to board an airplane, fly back to Dallas, go home in the wee hours of Monday morning, and then come in that afternoon is believed to have left the team too tired to recover by Thursday, and playing tired against an Eagles team that seeks to maintain the fastest pace in the NFL is not a good formula for success.
Other people feel this is just an excuse. It is the NFL, the Eagles only had a few more hours to prepare, and everybody gets screwed over at some point by the NFL's scheduling, which despite talk about player safety and fair competition is concerned first and foremost with maximizing the profits of the team owners. But there may be an element of this that has been largely left out of the discussion, and that bolsters the chances that it was really the schedule that put the Cowboys at a disadvantage.
I can't take credit for this. It comes from a reader here, who exchanged a series of e-mails with me. He has asked that I don't use his name, since he is not a medical professional, but his profession does give him some insights into this that most of us may not have - and that, as I will explain, really ring true to me. Here is the original e-mail, in its entirety.
I have been so surprised--although I shouldn't be--that writers haven't really trotted out what I believe is the primary factor for the Cowboys' being blown out by the Eagles on Thanksgiving day: departing KLGA in New York (or was it KEWR) at 0200 and landing in Dallas at 0500 local. I'm a pilot (I learned to fly while I was in the military) and due to equipment issues, weather delays, or ATC issues have suffered the indignities of such flights.
It's not generally known to the flying public that an eastbound flight that results in time advancement of 2.5 hours can result in physical and cognitive deficits. Dallas is located slightly east of the midpoint of the CST so in effect they experienced time advancement of about 1.5 hours--which is not that bad but consider these guys live by the clock preparing for games. The combined effect of the eastbound time advancement and departing the New York area at two in the morning and deplaning at about five would have had a significant effect on their circadian cycles. I've been there before having a few days off and you can forget about doing anything that first day. You don't even snap out of the mental fog until 10:00 or 11:00 at night. By then you're feeling fairly sharp and the thought of going back to bed in an hour or two to be up at 7:00 a.m. the next morning to take the kids to school or to make a doctor's appointment doesn't get you into bed. If you're lucky you might fall asleep at two or three a.m. Now these guys would be back at Valley Ranch on rubber legs to sit in Ice tubs, whirlpools, get massages, etc; exec; etc; ad infinitum.
You CAN NOT underestimate the advantage the Eagles had by being in bed while Garrett was giving the Cowboys his post game pep talk. For Philly, Monday would have been business as usual while the Cowboys would have been experiencing sleep dep Monday AND Tuesday. Been there. Done that. Even slight sleep deprivation can cause disturbances in memory retention, other cognitive skills, and balance. Once slightly sleep deprived I was asked to submit to a mock field sobriety test and had a difficult time standing on one leg.
The real hope for the Cowboys is that the Eagles are banking on Dallas playing better solely because they didn't have time to put in the practice time and skull work. The best possible illusion they could labor under (if you're a Cowboy fan) is that they are a more physical team and believe they were under a similar disadvantage playing back after four days. Again, you cannot underestimate the edge the Eagles had being in their own racks at midnight on the Sunday before.
I suppose we'll see if my theory is right soon enough.
This hit me as being very sound, for a couple of reasons. First, it focuses mainly on the mental effects of the strange schedule that week. In looking at how Dallas played against the Eagles, there were glaring mental mistakes during the game, particularly on defense. Over and over, the Cowboys failed to set the edge against the running game and generally did not stick with their assignments, and they paid for it dearly. Offensively, Tony Romo just seemed way off. Even the uncharacteristic struggles of the offensive line could have been due as much to some fogginess in the brain as any lingering tiredness.
The other reason it hit home was that I know exactly what he means, for similar reasons. I am not a pilot, but I did have a military career, and for years worked in a couple positions that played absolute havoc with my sleep cycle. I have worked 12 on, 12 off, 12 on shifts that could start at 6 AM or 6 PM, 24 hour long alerts, rotating flight duty that on any given day could require launching at 6 AM, 2 PM, or 10 PM, sometimes on sequential days, and for several miserable months, the worst schedule I had involved working 8 hours on and 8 hours off for a 40 hour stretch. You don't ever really adjust to those things. You just learn to function at a lower level of efficiency.
And just as physical sluggishness becomes a bigger issue against the relentless pace Chip Kelly uses, mentally dragging is also going to be more of a problem against fast play. Besides, it really drains the competitive fire from you. When you are dealing with this kind of sleep deprivation and disrupted circadian rhythms, you simply do not care as much.
I also discussed this with a couple of other FPW, and OCC mentioned that the staff probably should have planned to stay in New York overnight after the game, then fly back. As usual, he comes up with a great idea. The team probably did not think of this just because it is a bit out of the box, and the late night Sunday to Thursday schedule almost never is imposed on teams. After other Sunday night away games, the team is back on a normal schedule long enough to ameliorate the issues. The team likely just went with what they were used to, since they didn't have any experience with this particular situation.
My anonymous contributor also pointed me to a couple of sources that bring up this issue in light of a related problem the NFL is dealing with, and that is the possible misuse of medications in the NFL. In an article directly dealing with the issues of sleep deprivation and dangers associated with prescription sleep aids, a medical professional weighs in on this issue.
"Restorative rest is the definitive factor in who wins and who loses in sports". says David Dubin, MD, medical director of the Sleep Recovery Centers, Inc (Dr. Dubin is presently working with pro NFL players using neurofeedback for injuries related to multiple concussions).
In another article pointed out to me, columnist Mike Wise of the Washington Post also looks at the sleep issue from the perspective of how potentially harmful it is, and picks the Cowboys as his example.
Goodell and the owners can preach safety all they want, but it looks like hypocrisy when an 18-game regular season is pushed for, along with regular transcontinental flights to London.
How many Cowboys needed Ambien to sleep on the plane and a stimulant once they landed at Heathrow to get themselves going again? Who knows what Tony Romo's fractured back needed to make that flight and play that game? Really, what Dallas fan even wants to know?
The point of this is not the issue of Ambien or other sleep aids being misused. It is that the disruption of normal sleep cycles is a real problem with real effects. Cowboys fans who point to this as the big difference between the first and second game against the Eagles are not just grasping at straws. Coming in as a team with three days extra rest as well as being back on a normal daily schedule should made a difference for Dallas, and it may be a very large one. As OCC also told me, he likes the conclusion implied in the e-mail that started all this: "Boy, are the Eagles in for a surprise."
Let's hope so. And this time, that hope looks to have a pretty solid basis behind it.