It is hard to award a game ball when so many things went so badly in the Dallas Cowboys' loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Although the bulk of the blame is going to be rightfully laid on Tony Romo and his three interceptions, there are plenty of other things that were pretty terrible during the game.
So in awarding a game ball, you have to look for someone who kept fighting hard, who did everything they could to turn the situation around. And you look to the future. What message did the player deliver about what the team can expect from him in the remaining 15 games?
It came down to two players this week, one who showed us all that he is who we thought he is. The other wound up proving to us that is more than we may have expected.
The runner up this week is DeMarco Murray, who played with determination and was effective almost every time he touched the ball. He had 118 yards on 22 carries. And this is not a statistic that was padded by one or two breakaway runs. The longest carry he had was for 15 yards. No, Murray was getting good, effective yards almost every time he touched the ball.
Of course, he also had one very, very bad play, when the ball was torn from his arms and run in for a touchdown by the 49ers. That play, just 54 seconds into the game, was certainly a shock to the Cowboys, and turned out to be the beginning of flood of first quarter miscues. Murray also was part of two other sequences that contributed to the general malaise that afflicted Dallas, although his involvement was in how he was not used. Dave Halprin dissected the first one, the second-and-one call at SF 2 yard line. Had the Cowboys done the smart thing, not the clever thing, and fed Murray the ball, the game would likely have been tied. Then, in the second quarter, with first and goal at the 5, Dallas again went to the pass and it led to an interception. Even on their second touchdown play late in the game, Dallas was passing from the 2 yard line rather than running it in. Murray continues to prove what he can do - to everyone, it seems, but the coaching staff, who apparently doubt his ability at crucial moments.
So the game ball goes to another player, one who there were many doubts about going into the game, but who answered them with hard, effective play and some bone-jarring hits. The first BTB game ball of 2014 goes to middle linebacker Rolando McClain, who tied with Justin Durant for the team lead in tackles at eight. More to the point, he clearly answered the questions about his motivations. His play was not perfect, but he showed up in Pro Football Focus's rankings as Dallas' second-highest rated defensive player (behind Jeremy Mincey). More importantly was the way he leveled a couple of people coming through the line. His talent was never questioned, but many had strong doubts that McClain really had his head straight after retiring from football twice. Instead, he looked and played for much of the game like he was the best athlete and player on the field for Dallas' defense.
On Sunday, he looked like he was fully committed to playing the game. He even had to play the nickel after Justin Durant went out with a groin strain. His performance overall looked to be about as much as the Cowboys could want from someone having to step in to cover for the injured Sean Lee. Dallas looks to have found a keeper, and the question about what to do at the Mike position is answered. In a game that left so many other questions unanswered, and even brought up a couple of new ones, the emphatic way McClain took care of the questions around him and his position earn him the Game Ball for the first game of 2014.