That was...rather unexpected. There were a lot of predictions made about how exactly our beloved 'Boys would do opening the 2014 season, ranging from unbridled optimism that our offense would rain destruction down upon San Fransisco to Lovecraftian levels of despair that our defense would never force a stop, give up 500 plus yards rushing, and ultimately force Sean Lee to perform seppuku midfield to atone for the disgrace. What no one ever predicted was that last night we would be watching a preseason game.
The idea came to me somewhere between the eighth or ninth turnover and third or fourth drink, (I might have those backwards). Think about it. By the time the score was 21 to 3 it became almost impossible to objectively judge anything anymore. Everything became predicated on game situation. Was Romo forcing throws because of the scoreboard, or will this season turn into "Tony Romo: The Curse of Jake Delhomme"? By and large I thought the run defense looked pretty good, but was that because we knew San Francisco would be trying to run out the clock with such a big league and were selling out to stop the run?
The point is this, with about 4 minutes left in the first quarter the game had already gotten away from the Cowboys, and everything they did after that point was dictated by the game situation and may not be an accurate portrayal of who or what they really are. So instead of trying to take away any "big picture" views from this game I'm going to focus on the micro and look at five players or units that really stuck out for good or bad.
Tony Romo's Touch: Put aside the three interceptions and forced throws for a moment. Those things happen; historically Romo has one really bad game at least once a year, (as all quarterbacks do). I'm chalking up most of last night as a combination of an off game and rust.
No, what scared me most about Romo last night was that his passes kept sailing high. That puzzled me; I didn't think it was back related because why would a bad back cause him to overthrow passes? So I took to twitter for answers and got this reply from our very own Birddog
@neithan2000 No, it is that touch pass over under zone coverage that is not there. He will be talking with Steve Young again this week— Birddog26 (@Birddog26) September 7, 2014
That's both worrying and reassuring. Worrying for two reasons; if I noticed it, you better believe opposing coaches will to, and they will scheme coverages to exploit this problem. Also as Romo ages and his arm loses some of it's power, (which may already be happening), those touch passes should become his bread and butter. If he's not able to adapt to them, it will shorten his playing career.
What's reassuring is that Romo is being proactive about it. If he had already scheduled a meeting with Steve Young then he already knew it was a problem and was taking steps to fix it. Birddog went on to explain that Young used special mechanics to develop his touch and drop the ball in those zone spots, and that Romo was reaching out to learn those mechanics.
We can liken what we're seeing with Romo to a golfer adapting his golf swing. There can be some initial struggles. Tiger famously changed his swing before winning the "Tiger Slam". Of course he also famously tinkered with his swing right before and during his current decline in play. Let's hope that Romo is on course for the former not the latter.
Linebackers (mostly) Shine: With the caveat that I haven't re-watched the tape yet, I'm going to go out on a limb and state that our linebackers were easily the best defensive unit on the field for either team. Bruce Carter looked very natural at SAM, and they blitzed him to great effect, (he collected the 'Boys first sack for the season). Rolando McClain overran a few tackles, but was always around the ball, hit hard and did an excellent job filling run gaps. Justin Durant struggled some in coverage, but tied with McClain for a team high eight tackles. In fact, our three starting linebackers were the top three in tackles. After a year in which Barry Church, a safety, led the team, that's a pretty huge accomplishment.
Cornerbacks (mostly) Stink: Unfortunately our cornerbacks, who many thought would be a strength for this team, played pretty poorly. On San Francisco's first scoring drive it looked like Brandon Carr gave up a number of big plays, and Morris Claiborne was consistently abused by Anquan Boldin on third down.
It wasn't all bad. After a rough start Carr settled down and played reasonably well, and we held Michael Crabtree to two catches. But Boldin was a Cowboy killer especially on third down. Both Carr and Claiborne have struggled with bigger receivers, going back to last year. That pair really need to step up their game; in terms of draft picks and free agency investment cornerback is where the Cowboys have the most capital invested under the Garrett regime. It's safe to say they are not receiving a good return on investment.
Running to Freedom: Looking past the stat sheet for a second, there were two great things about the running game today. First we can officially retire the "Cowboys win if Murray gets 20 touches" meme. Murray had 22 carries and it did not magically turn the tide of the game and result in a Cowboys win. We didn't earn bonus points, the score was not revised. Let's all say it together, 20 runs does not equal a win.
(Of course if you're reading this you already knew that. BTB members are smart that way).
The second good things is, despite falling behind big and early, Linehan did not panic and stayed committed to the run. Murray had 22 runs in the game, and 16 of them came after we had already fallen behind 21-3. I'm going to talk more about coaching in a column tomorrow, but it's fair enough to say that what we saw today was a sign of good things.
Let's talk about Murray for a moment. There's no doubt that Dez is the 'Boys most explosive player, but today Murray put in a pretty solid bid for the "best" title. He ran with power, speed, and at one point even had Troy Aikman compare him to Barry Sanders after breaking numerous tackles in the backfield. In addition to his 22 carries for 118 yards and a touchdown, he caught four passes for another 25 yards. No doubt about it, Murray is the real deal.
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly: It's hard to judge the wide receivers when the quarterback is playing poorly. But by golly that doesn't mean we're not going to try!
Dez Bryant did Dez Bryant things. Today lacked the "wow" play that Dez usually provides, but we saw all the things that make us love him; Dez never went down on first contact, was constantly fighting for extra yards, (both a positive and a negative), and provided his normal passion. He also provided a real "heads up" moment. With the Cowboys about to run the play clock down to zero and apparently this happened:
Dez called time out— jim scott (@realdirkg) September 7, 2014
That's right, it was Dez Bryant who was head's up enough to notice the play clock slipping away and call a time out. Dez Bryant, star wide receiver on the field, assistant coach off the field.
The stats say Terrance Williams had a good day. My eyes say otherwise. Williams was okay, but really, really has to stop making body catches.
This just in: Cole Beasley is Beastley. The man is a first-down machine. But did you see the hit in the fourth quarter on the two yard line? That's why Beasley will probably never be an every down player, I was worried that hit killed him.
What's It All Mean: Truthfully? No clue. Today was opposite day; the offense stunk it up, the defensive line got good pressure and the run defense was darn good. I knew that today was going to be one of those days when, on third down, Tyrone Crawford pressured Colin Kaepernick into throwing an interception, only for us to fumble the ball right back thus giving the 49er's first and ten (even though the interception was eventually reversed). Think about it; we had to challenge an interception, that we produced. Sometimes the football gods just decree you aren't going to win.
On the micro level though, we can begin to see a few things. I think it's safe to say that our defensive front four is not going to be as bad as advertised, and might even be pretty good. Despite a hard day for Smith, the offense line is what we thought it was, opening holes for Murray and giving Romo all day to throw, (those sack numbers are misleading, Romo held onto the ball too long all day). We knew Romo was going to be the biggest question of the team; but we might have been wrong why. His back didn't seem to be bothering him, but something was definitely off.
In the long run, one early game one usually means nothing. Back in 2000 the Ravens played a week two game against Jacksonville, with a final score of 39-36. Huh, Baltimore must have been a high scoring team with a bad defense right? Nope, that year they ended up setting an NFL record for points against, giving up an average of 10 points a game. The point is, it's early. We knew going in that the team would need time to gel, so let's give it time before reaching any conclusions, especially after a first game that turned many of the common assumptions on it's head.
As Billy the Kid said in Young Guns, "There's many a slip between the cup and the lip". And there's still a lot of football to be played.