It took me a moment during the Dallas Cowboys' victory over the Tennessee Titans. I thought I must be hearing things. As the first half wound down and the always reliable Dan Bailey came out to effortlessly boot a routine 51-yard field goal and extend the lead to 16-0, Troy Aikman complimented the Dallas coaches - on how well they managed the clock.
The fact that he complimented the coaches was not at all inappropriate. Here is the situation:
With 1:02 remaining, Tennessee received the ball after Dallas kicked off following the previous routine 44-yard Dan Bailey split 'em special. The returner made the mistake of trying to bring the ball out from five yards deep and the Titans wound up with the ball on their own 13. The first play was an incomplete pass (sound familiar?), leaving 0:53 on the clock. The next play was the two-yard sack by Kyle Wilber and Henry Melton. The bench immediately called time out (they had all three remaining), stopping the clock at 0:46. Jake Locker completed the next pass, but only got ten of the twelve yards he needed. Another timeout by Dallas gave them 0:37, with Tennessee punting from their own 21.
Dwayne Harris executed a nifty, reverse field punt return for 15 yards, setting the Cowboys up at the Tennessee 48. Tony Romo would complete one pass for 15 yards to Jason Witten. The last Dallas timeout was used, and after one more very careful incomplete pass to the sideline, Bailey did Bailey things and racked up another three points.
No, the compliment was quite well deserved. The coaches did a very good job of squeezing another three points out of the situation. What was so hard to comprehend was that this was the Dallas coaching staff getting the compliment. You know, the one led by Jason "Ice your own kicker" Garrett? Instead of the mockery and disdain so often directed towards the Dallas operation, Aikman was pointing out how they had done something right.
In all the excitement over a defense that may be better than we had hoped and DeMarco Murray leading the league in rushing yards, something like how well the coaches handled a shrinking clock is easy to overlook. But Garrett has taken more than a few spears to the chest over his poor game management skills. This could be an indication that he has corrected some of his own issues. Given how Dallas has been balanced on that 8-8 knife's edge for three years, just one extra victory wrung out of the season by good game management could be very big.
There was another example of a different kind of good clock management at the end of the game. Allow me to present it as an excruciatingly bad joke:
What goes run, run, run, run, run, run (penalty), run, run, run, run, run, run?
Scott Linehan protecting a 16 point lead with 6:22 on the clock.
How many games last season were we screaming at our televisions "RUN THE BALL!" as games wound down, only to see the Cowboys throw the ball for an incompletion, save clock, and give the ball back to the opponent who would then use the precious time left, score, and wind up winning the game? It seemed like it happened almost weekly, which is clearly an overstatement (they did win half the games, after all), but the impression remains. Now, Linehan, whose reputation is as a passing guru, has come in and shown a willingness to ride the running backs behind that big offensive line. And why not?
I mean… look at this hole… pic.twitter.com/SdPmlQeKkA— RoLandon McCoolain (@McCoolBTB) September 16, 2014
But this was beyond just being a little smarter. When was the last time you saw the Dallas Cowboys call a running play and stick with it on twelve consecutive snaps? Even with a five yard penalty thrown in to make it 1st and 15 (they converted, with Lance Dunbar coming in to relieve Murray)? It may be a first time ever. It certainly has not happened in recent memory. This was an ironclad commitment to shoving the ball down Tennessee's throat. By the time Dallas finally ran out of steam and punted, the Titans had all of 0:23 left, and Dallas had the first win of the season.
It looks like a relatively small thing. It was so obvious anyone should see it. But too often, the staff didn't see it last year, or the team just was not able to execute the run well enough. In a week of positives for fans of the Cowboys, this is another. And it may mean more than most realize as the season goes on.