It was a hugely gratifying win. Not only did the Dallas Cowboys climb to 3-1 despite missing (deep breath) Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, Orlando Scandrick, and DeMarcus Lawrence against the San Francisco 49ers, they staked the opponent to a 14-point lead before outscoring them 24-3 the rest of the way. With so many starters on the sideline, it was time for others to step up. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, the previous BTB game ball winners this season, both had great performances. But this week, the award goes to a player who made two very huge defensive plays down the stretch, and had a very good game overall. Morris Claiborne has finally arrived.
It is always fun to name a game ball winner after a Dallas victory, but naming Claiborne has a special level of satisfaction. Ever since the Cowboys traded up to take him with the sixth-overall pick of the 2012 NFL draft, he has been seen as a huge disappointment. Some called him the biggest draft bust of the post-Bobby Carpenter era. Plagued by a series of injuries, he never came close to living up to the high expectations that come with that kind of draft capital being spent. It was not until last season, after the Cowboys had declined to pick up his fifth-year option, that he was finally healthy enough to begin to show some hints that he might be a better player than we had seen to that point. He reached agreement with the Cowboys on a one-year “prove it” kind of deal - and he is very much in the act of proving it.
It is hard to argue that he is not the best cornerback on the team this season, especially with Scandrick fighting the dreaded hamstring issues. He came into the game against the 49ers with the lowest completion percentage allowed in the NFL. And this is behind a defensive line that is still struggling mightily to bring any real pressure on opposing quarterbacks. There is no doubt that the secondary is the best part of the Cowboys’ defense, and Claiborne is showing he is the strongest piece in the unit.
But his contributions in the win over San Francisco were not just outstanding, they largely sealed the deal. He had not one, but two huge plays down the stretch to ensure the triumph. The first came at the 10:52 mark of the fourth quarter. The Cowboys had come from 14 down to take a 21-17 lead, but had just been stymied by the 49ers defense and a foolish taunting incident by Brice Butler that killed the drive (and knocked Butler, who had a very good game otherwise, out of consideration for this game ball). The Niners started their possession at their own 45 after a very good punt return by Jeremy Kerley. Chip Kelly decided to go for a quick strike while he figured the Cowboys were back on their heels a bit, but Blaine Gabbert, who was otherwise very good through most of the game, underthrew a long pass intended for Torrey Smith. Smith seemed to lose track of the ball, but Claiborne was locked in like a Kardashian on a camera pointed her way, and he went up to high-point the ball at the seven, then returned it 27 yards to set the offense up with good field position. That led to the field goal that pushed the lead to seven, reducing the options for the 49ers as they attempted to come back.
Dallas had burned off most of the game clock in scoring their field goal, but Kelly runs a quick strike offense and one score is never safe with him. The 49ers moved the ball into Cowboys territory, but the defense stiffened again, and forced San Francisco into a fourth and six at the Dallas 35. The defensive line finally got a little pressure on Gabbert, flushing him out of the pocket, and he threw short to Torrey Smith. That was where Claiborne made his second huge play, stopping Smith well short of the first down mark and forcing the ball over on downs. With the use of a totally unexpected pass play to Cole Beasley, the Cowboys ran out the clock and got out of Santa Clara with a huge win.
Claiborne did not just have the two big plays, but was a key component on defense for the entire game. He would finish with seven total tackles (third on the team) and also had a tackle for a loss and a pass defended on his stat line. And there was one other play that may have been bigger than it appeared at the time. On the first play of the third quarter, with the score tied at 14 all, Carlos Hyde burst through the line for 32 yards. Claiborne finally brought him down, and he may have been the only thing that kept Hyde from reaching the end zone. Instead, San Francisco would have to settle for a field goal six plays later, and that allowed Dallas to take the lead a few series after.
Claiborne has been maligned by the fans and parts of the media alike. Now we are seeing that it may have been the injuries all along and not a lack of talent on his part. It is late, but given the shaky state of the Dallas defense, he has become a vital element in the early success of the 2016 Cowboys. He may not have as steady an impact as Prescott and Elliott, but in this game, his big plays were clearly evident. And while his play against San Francisco is the reason for this game ball, the way he has held his head up and fought through everything to finally get to this point makes this even more pleasing to do. It took a long time, but Mo may finally have arrived. Let this game ball mark the moment.