In a press conference the week after the Cowboys had clinched the NFC East title with a dominating 42-7 win over the Colts, Jason Garrett told reporters a somewhat surprising story: he knew the Cowboys could be a good team and, perhaps more importantly, could win games using the precise formula they used to perfection during their subsequent six-game winning streak, after the season-opening loss to the 49ers:
"I'm the only guy around that I know who felt good after the San Francisco game," Garrett said. "When I watched that game in detail -- and I told our team this -- I said, 'That game told me what we were capable of doing....They beat us handily. But we also did some positive things. We did a good job on defense, slowing them down. We ran the ball fairly well against a good defensive team. To me, if you get in there and you say...'Let's go play this way. Let's defend the run. Let's run the ball. Let's take advantage of some opportunities in the passing game when we get some favorable looks to throw it. That's the kind of team we can be.' I expressed that to our staff after the game. I expressed that to our team."
Indeed, the following week, against Tennessee, the Cowboys won in exactly the fashion Garrett described. Against the Titans, the Cowboys "established the run"; Scott Linehan called Murray's number on nineteen first down plays, and those plays went for a whopping 116 yards and a touchdown, which came, fittingly, at the end of a four-play drive in which Murray carried for 18, 6, 13, and then the final 3 yards for the score. In total, Murray toted the rock 29 times for 167 yards (a nice 5.8 clip), and the Cowboys as a team gained a total of 220 yards on the ground, their highest total since 2012's week six loss to Baltimore (227 yards).
Thanks to the dominant running game, the Cowboys controlled possession 41:11-19:49. Although they engineered long drives of 4:03, 6:59 and 4:44 in the first half, I was most impressed by their work after the Titans narrowed the score to 16-10. Wanting to protect that lead, Dallas' next three drives were as follows:
12-plays, 80-yard TD (5:36)
11 plays, 38 yards, FG (6:08)
11 plays, 40 yards, punt with 23 seconds remaining in the game (5:59)
On those three possessions, the Cowboys ran 34 plays, 23 of them runs (17 of their 21 fourth-quarter plays were runs) and took 17:43 off of clock. All eleven plays in the final drive were runs - five to Murray and the final six to Lance Dunbar.
As the Cowboys were pounding the ball and grinding the clock, the defense was stifling a Titans attack that had overwhelmed the Chiefs the previous week. In the first half, Dallas held Tennessee to 68 on 21 plays, forcing them to punt on five of their first six drives (which gained 8, 4, 20, 20 and 8 yards, respectively) and ended the sixth, a seven-yard drive, with a Barry Church interception. In so doing, they held Tennessee quarterback Jake Locker to 7.6 passer rating (on 4-12 passing for 26 yards).
In the second half, the Titans went to a no-huddle operation and the Cowboys gave up some yards. But Rod Marinelli's troops also offered us a glimpse of what was to come - i.e., that they would be able to stop offenses in a variety of less conventional ways. In the final 30 minutes, they held the first Titans drive to a field goal; gave up a TD on the second; halted the third with spectacular Rolando McClain interception; and effectively ended the game with a goal-line stand on the Titans' fourth possession. In the process, they announced that they weren't going to live up to preseason pundits' proclamations of historic ineptitude.
For breathless Cowboys fans, all of this quality play was desperately necessary because our franchise quarterback was not on his game. In week one, against San Francisco, you may recall (if you haven't expunged it from your memories), Romo struggled mightily. He looked to be a half-second behind the game, as if the paucity of mental reps in a preseason during which line item number one was to rest his back had resulted in the game moving too fast for him. As a result, he threw three interceptions and finished with a meager 19.9 QB rating.
Against the Titans, Romo was certainly better on paper, going 19 of 29 for 176 yards and a TD and no picks. But he looked uncomfortable, his mechanics appeared to be off, and he floated several throws, missing Jason Witten on back-to-back throws at the end of the first half on passes that he had made literally thousands of times over the years. Later, he floated one to Bryant near the Dallas sideline and was low on a crossing route to number 88.
And he narrowly escaped once again being the goat. A third quarter pass to Witten was high, forcing The Senator to jump for it. He managed to get his right hand on it, such that the ball fell right into the hands of Tennessee safety Bernard Pollard, who had a clear path to the end zone for a touchdown that would have given the Titans a 17-16 lead. But Witten recovered, reached to Pollard's belly with his right hand and stripped the ball free before Pollard had control, turning it into an incompletion.
To be fair, Romo was terrific during the game's most critical drive, a 12-play, 80-yard march for a touchdown after the Titans scored 10 quick points in the third quarter to pull within six.for 57 yards and a touchdown (on a pretty catch on a back-shoulder fade). Most clutch was Bryant's 18-yard gain on third-and-15, a conversion most observers agreed was the play of the game.
These heroics aside, the team appeared to win despite Tony Romo rather than because of him. It had been six seasons since the team had won a road game when Romo threw for fewer than 200 yards, and he finished the game with one of the lowest yards per attempt marks of his career, a feeble 6.1 (that fell to 4.5 when subtracting sack yardage). Since he took the QB reins in 2006, the Cowboys had won only three times when Number Nine had a YPA of 6.1 or lower - and the other two were flukey wins. As I wrote in my post-game "by the numbers" piece, "the Cowboys won despite receiving Quincy Carter-level quarterback play."
To their credit, the Cowboys braintrust recognized that relying only on the running game was not a sustainable offensive formula. In the wake of the Titans game, Jason Garrett told reporters,
"If you decide that, ‘This is the way we want to play,' it's hard to guarantee you're going to be able to do that week in and week out," Garrett said. "So you try to be balanced enough on offense to be able to play the way you need to play to win the ballgame and certainly you want to have the success that we had on defense, a lot of different situations that allowed to get us off the field and do the things that we did throughout that game. It's certainly a good formula, [but] hard to guarantee it every week."
With this in mind, the team made a critical decision: instead of participating in team drills during Wednesday's practice (which, it must be noted, is largely about the running game), Romo followed a different itinerary, participating in the morning walk-through, then heading to the weight room to work with Mike Woicik for 90 minutes while his teammates practiced. After that, he would return to the practice field to go through the calls with passing game coordinator Scott Linehan while Brandon Weeden took the snaps.
The results of these restful Wednesdays were immediately apparent. In week three against the Rams, he didn't throw for an astronomical number of yards (217), but he was very efficient, going 18-23 (a neat 78.3 percent clip) and two scores. Perhaps more importantly for Cowboys' fans' weakened hearts, he had a 16-yard scramble for a first down on a critical third-and-long. In short, we witnessed the "old Romo": the mobile guy who, when given protection, could be deadly accurate.
Perhaps because of this turnaround, the Cowboys decided to institute "Romo Wednesdays" as a regular practice the remainder of the season. And they continued to bear fruit: after opening the season with two touchdown passes and three interceptions in the first two games, Romo was second-to-last in league QB ratings. From week three onward, he logged 32 touchdown passes against only six interceptions, and rose up in the league rankings to the point where he finished with a league-best 113.2 passer rating, and led the NFL in QBR (82.75), completion percentage (69.9), touchdown percentage (7.8), and yards per attempt (8.5). Simply put, from the moment that Dallas instituted "Romo Wednesdays," Number Nine was the league's best passer.
Looking back at the season that was, we can see the roots of their astonishing offensive success in a critical week wherein a young team discovered that they could run the ball at will and an aging quarterback discovered that an extra day of rest would allow him to have the best season of his impressive career. After the Titans game, Romo told reporters, "I think I’m going to make it. I’m getting stronger every week. It’s a positive."
Next up: the positive ramifications of releasing DeMarcus Ware