BALTIMORE – “Sometimes it comes down to a kick,” Dallas quarterback Tony Romo said. “If the kick goes in, it’s, ‘You did a great job today, everybody!’ If it doesn’t go in, it’s ‘We didn’t do enough to win.’”
There is a maddening truth to that review of Sunday’s 31-29 loss at Baltimore, a truth made even more stunning if you understand the effort, passion and intellect that Dallas poured into a particular trio of strategies … And how the product of those three approaches leave the 2-3 Cowboys, who lost at the buzzer when Dan Bailey’s 51-yard field-goal try sailed wide left, looking like a empty-headed clusterbuck.
STRATEGY 1: Running-game ball control.
It worked. It worked in record-setting fashion. The Ravens were all about bluster and reputation when it came to the “Quien Es Mas Macho” battle between Dallas’ beleaguered offensive line and Baltimore’s 13-time Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis and company. Yet even with a foot injury to DeMarco Murray forcing the Cowboys to reach all the way down to “junior-varsity” fourth-string tailback Lance Dunbar, Dallas dominated on the ground. The Cowboys’ time-of-possession edge? A stunning 40:03 to Baltimore’s 19:17. The advantage in offensive plays run? Dallas 79, Baltimore 49. (That 79 number ties a franchise record.) The 227 rushing yards? That’s a Baltimore franchise record for defensive futility.
And the crusher: Before Sunday, how often have the Dallas Cowboys ever run the ball 42 times in a regulation NFL game and lost?
This was an all-time performance … And yet a numbing number because it means nothing.
STRATEGY 2: Kick-coverage “lane integrity.”
Right about now, many Cowboys fans are frustrated by head coach Jason Garrett’s public approach to football crisis, wishing he’d dump the cool and almost robotic approach to criticism by screaming a blue streak at underperforming players. Would it comfort you to know that Dallas employs one of the most boisterously profane staffers in the NFL?
Would it comfort you less to learn that the Dallas assistant who motivates with words that would’ve made George Carlin blush is none other than special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillas?
It was Joe D’s unit that once again created an emotion hole for Dallas when it allowed Jacoby Jones’ NFL:-record-tying 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that put the Ravens up 24-13 early in the third quarter and created Dallas’ uphill second-half climb.
Know that this organization very meticulously pinpoints end-of-roster specialists just for such obscurities as kickoff-coverage work. A guy named LeQuan Lewis was here for a couple of weeks to help Dallas chase return stars Leon Washington (Seattle) and Devin Hester (Chicago). For this game, Lewis was cut and the aforementioned rookie Dunbar was elevated to help on kick coverage.
All the chess moves and all the meticulousness and all the Joe D cussing … And then Alex Albright, by all accounts a very fine special-teamer, apparently decides to freelance while covering Jones’ return. Albright exited his “lane,” seemingly guessing that Jones planned to return the ball up the middle of the field. Instead, Jones hit ’em where they ain’t, attacking the exact lane to his right that’d been vacated by Albright.
A free touchdown allowed. A smart chess game ruined.
STRATEGY 3: The “what-ifs”” of last-second clock management.
“We couldn’t get untangled,’’ Garrett said.
The Cowboys had valiantly fought back, aided by a bundle of clutch Romo-to-Witten throws, riding Dez Bryant’s huge effort (13 catches, 95 yards and two scores) while surviving his drop of a potential game-tying two-point conversion catch, and hoping to capitalize on the last-gasp recovery of an onside kick.
It was all there for the taking with 26 seconds left in the game, Dallas with a timeout in its pocket and the ball being driven to the Ravens’ 35. The Cowboys threw a slant to Dez for a one-yard gain. That play was completed with 21 seconds remaining on the clock.
The plan from there: Get 11 Cowboys hustling back to the line. Run another play and then call a timeout, or clock the ball and strategize about a way to get a few yards closer for Bailey’s final try.
Instead, the seconds ticked away as Dallas struggled to lineup. Receivers Miles Austin and Kevin Ogletree seemed to be especially slow to understand the urgency of sprinting back to the line.
“It took a long time to get us in the formation for the play we wanted to get into,” Romo said. “Once it got below a certain point, it was not in our best interest to run another play.”
So Garrett and Romo found themselves in clock-management limbo. … and eventually, having wasted so many valuable seconds, called their timeout at :06.
There would be no “one more play’’ to help Bailey move closer. There would only be Bailey’s wind-blown failure (his first miss of the season) and there would only be Garrett trying to explain.
“What we were trying to do there is what we talked about before the play,” Garrett said. “We had one timeout left so we had the ability to throw inside and Tony was going to get them on the ball as quickly as we could, knowing that we had one in our picket. We just took too long for everybody to get unpiled, so (the clock) got down into single digits. So we said ‘take it down to the four seconds and bang the timeout’. We couldn’t get it run as quickly as we wanted to.”
Again, there was a plan for how to handle the final seconds. It just turned into a clusterbuck.
Just like there was a plan to run the football that turned into a numbing number.
Just like there was a plan to cover kicks that turned into irresponsibility.
And in the end, it is no consolation that in these three areas, the Cowboys almost earned that “You did a great job today, everybody! ” praise in terms of preparation. Because the “Great job today, everybody!’’ of preparation ended in a “Bad job today, everybody!’’ in execution.
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