[Ed. Note] There is a heavy graphics load for this article, please be patient.
Let me start by saying I really enjoyed reading the comments on my last piece. I hoped to create some discussion and there was much of that. Some posters even anticipated the direction I was taking this. By way of introduction, however, I'd like to address a common complaint I saw: J. J. Wilcox failing to make the game-saving tackle on the final play. Wilcox actually made several of those stops over the course of this game, but, in particular, I'd like to direct you all to a play with 8:58 remaining in the 3rd quarter. It's the spitting image of the final play. Same route, same near sack (from DeMarcus Lawrence, this time), same positioning for Wilcox. The difference is that Byron Jones doesn't fall down and Matthews has to deal with him. Matthews brushes Jones off with a stiff arm, but he's not able to run full speed and Wilcox can catch him. On the game's final play, Matthews is free to run unhindered because Jones is on the ground. It should be a surprise to no one that a wide receiver with a three to four yard lead, a full head of steam, and a completely open field (the only other player even on that half of the field was Brandon Carr and he was completely blocked) should be able to out run a safety, even a fast one. Wilcox never really had a chance, there, because the support wasn't there.
But that speaks to the team nature of this game, where every action has repercussions and the smallest things make massive differences. I'll show that on the final play breakdown here in a moment. But the main thing is that this team was literally inches away from winning this game on several occasions... as they have been on most of these games. So the question is "why?" What is lacking in this team that keeps them failing down the stretch?
Is it scheme? Talent? Effort?
Watch Darren McFadden's finish here. Does this look like lack of effort?
Watch Tyrone Crawford destroy his man. Does this look like lack of talent?
Watch the safety have to respect Gavin Escobar (right slot) beating his man deep, leaving Cole Beasley wide open and free to take the ball in for a score. Does that strike you as poor play design?
I don't actually believe any of those to be a problem. Talent level, effort, and yes, even coaching are all there (don't misunderstand, I'm not saying there isn't room for improvement in all three, just that Dallas is not particularly lacking in any of them).
So what is the issue? Well, Everything is a tick late, a yard short, a step behind. Generally, that's a sign of overthinking. Pressing. Tightening up. Choking.
You can put ugly names on it, but the difference between success and failure in the NFL is often a matter of inches. Those inches are often a matter of decisiveness. And that decisiveness is often a matter of confidence. Perhaps the real thing that Romo can bring in his return is a matter of calm, cool, confidence that will allow players to play their game instead of trying to make up for the team's shortcomings. A player can have all the foot-speed in the world, but if the mental speed isn't there then the play will be late. That's why comfort and fit with other players is so huge -- the player has to be focused on their own job and cannot spare a tenth of a second to worry about others.
Can Tony Romo's return restore the whole team's mojo? Maybe, but as much as there's no doubt it needs restoring, there's also very little to be restored, in truth. That final drive, Philly was up against it over and over again. 1st and 15. 2nd and 14. 2nd and 12. 4th and 1. Dallas let them off the hook each time. But let's look at the game losing play and how close it was on so many levels.
Here's the pre-snap, with Jordan Matthews and Byron Jones in focus:
As they get out into the pattern Wilcox (far left) floats over to the left hash, deep. In this exact same pattern earlier, Wilcox went to precisely the same spot, so I don't believe he was out of position.
From there, he is 11 yards down field, but also six yards to the left side of the field from Matthews, who has a clear run to the goal line from here. That Wilcox slowed Matthews at all was actually pretty good considering the lead Matthews had. We've seen Dez Bryant and Terrence Williams both score in this type of situation. Just above, Cole Beasley scores with far more between him and the goal. Could Wilcox have been a tick faster reacting? perhaps. And one step might have made the difference.
But that's far from all. Check out the line play. Hardy is left unblocked.
When tight end Brent Celek comes back across the play in a jet sweep-type action, it's as if Hardy doesn't trust Andrew Gachkar, behind him, to read and react properly, and he takes a cross step to cover Celek. I'm not saying this was a mistake, but it definitely cost him a tenth of a second getting to Bradford. You can also see that Tyrone Crawford (the last Cowboy in focus on the left) has his man beat to the offensive right.
We see that Crawford has inexplicably reversed back into the middle, perhaps worried about leaving Bradford a running lane, but Rolando McClain is right there. For his part, McClain sees where Bradford is going and decides to cover underneath.
Crawford is beginning to jump to try to bat the pass and Hardy is reaching for the ball in the back of Bradford's motion. McClain (off screen) is breaking underneath the route. There are two things in common in all three of these actions. They are all perfectly capable of ruining the play, and they are all just an instant too late.
This is literally the next frame I could get. The ball is out, the damage done. the game is over at this point, we just don't know it yet.
This is the exact same frame, but further back and focused on McClain moving to guard the route.
If Bradford had been a little behind or McClain a shade faster reacting, the ball would've been knocked down and possibly intercepted. Here is the gap by which Bradford got the ball past McClain.
And that is just one play. There were several like it on the overtime drive alone, and many more over the course of the game. Could one slightly more decisive action have changed the Cowboys' entire season? Almost certainly. Will Romo's return help the team relax and find itself? I'd find it extremely likely. Confidence, true confidence, is an amazing, yet quirky thing. It allows people to be decisive, and decisive, well-timed action is almost the entire key to successful competition. He who hesitates is not only lost, but loses.
Yet merely acting in an effort to "do something" is a losing proposition as well. The trick, in a team effort like football, is to know and do your job and be able to rely on others to do theirs. The Cowboys have been literally distracted by injuries, in my opinion, and are lacking the focused will that served them so well last year. Does Romo provide that? Probably not directly, but his abilities may give the team the comfort level they need to find their places again and play to their level.
And, mathematically at least, it's not too late. One thing is for certain though, on the vanishing chance that Dallas recovers and gets to the playoffs with Romo at the helm, there will not be any question as to who the MVP is this year.