ARLINGTON (CBSDFW.COM) – The Dallas Cowboys entered Sunday night’s NFL season-opener against the visiting Giants by talking gleefully about “unveiling new wrinkles,” “having some things up our sleeves” and adding a “Secret Sauce” to help them to contention. There was a cockiness to it all that invited derision toward a program that for a decade-and-a-half now talks a better game than it plays.
But Cowboys 36, Giants 31, delivered on most of those promises with a defense that has a takeaway mentality that has taken hold and with an offense that, despite occasional sputters, has added infrastructural foundation pieces that show promise.
“The defense was great, the special teams was great and the offense was great enough,’’ said veteran defensive tackle Jason Hatcher. “And if we do this right, it’s only going to get better.”
The ballhawking and the attitude that goes along with it is measurable and tangible. Dallas forced Eli Manning’s team in six turnovers, including takeaways returned for touchdowns by Barry Church (a 27-yard fumble recovery) and by Brandon Carr (a 49-interception return that essentially sealed the outcome with 1:50 remaining in the game between the NFC East rivals.
“Turnovers were the story of the game,” coach Jason Garrett said. “It’s been a huge emphasis from Minute One. It’s good to see taking from the practice field to the first game of the season. Taking the ball away is the No. 1 ingredient to winning games in this league. It has been for 100 years. It’s been a huge emphasis in practice. It’s infectious. It’s contagious.”
The defensive effort was keyed not only by Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware (who played at different spots along the line and opened the game with an interception of his own) but also by unheralded defensive linemen like George Selvie, Nick Hayden and Landon Cohen — recent street-free-agent additions to the Cowboys who never figured to go down in franchise lore but played in place of injured stars Jay Ratliff and Anthony Spencer. New York’s running game was also never allowed to get untracked thanks to linebackers Bruce Carter and Sean Lee, along with Church, who harassed Giants runner David Wilson into a pair of fumbles.
Last year’s Cowboys forced 16 turnovers. It took until Week 6 to reach the total of six Dallas grabbed Sunday.
“And yet we shoulda played better,’’ new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said, maybe thinking of Manning’s 450 yards and four touchdowns. “You know, we just gave them some things.’’
Also seeking to get better: Dallas’ offense, where the results aren’t nearly as glowing, but the changes in philosophy are apparent. Garrett supervises the play-calling of coordinator Bill Callahan, and Romo is deeply involved in the process, too. Maybe the numbers (in this game, QB Tony Romo completed 36 of 49 passes for 263 yards and touchdowns of 15 and 4 yards to tight end Jason Witten) will come in another week. And maybe there will be more balance as well, though the double-teaming of Dez Bryant left others to pile up numbers: Miles Austin had 10 catches for 72 yards, Witten had eight catches for 70 yards and DeMarco Murray had 86 yards on 20 carries and caught eight passes for 39 yards.
“As a quarterback, you want to attack,” Romo said. “(But) you had to accept what the defense has given you. We did a good job and it produced a win.”
Dallas’ offense did it with numerous fresh looks: The Cowboys ran out of The Pistol. They used 13 Personnel (three tight ends). There were stretch plays. And a screen pass. There appeared to be “Packaged Plays,’’ with Romo in charge of combing through multiple options at the snap. And there was the No-Huddle offense, used not so much to hurry the clock but to force Giants defense personnel to remain on the field, unchanged and tiring.
The biggest offensive blemish occurred when Romo was sandwiched in the pocket by a pair of Giants just before the half. The official report had Romo having the wind knocked out of him but he’ll underdo X-rays on Monday to check for damage in the rib area.
“You got to be out there to play,” Romo said of returning despite a possible injury. “I’m going to be fine. It’s no big deal.”
Maybe in the end this victory will be “no big deal’’ as well. The Cowboys began last season with a Week 1 win at New York but managed only an 8-8 mark for the second straight year. This time, there were “new wrinkles” and “up-sleeve’’ tricks and “Secret Sauce’’ offerings that owner Jerry Jones jokingly noted included the re-christening of a building (from “Cowboys Stadium’’ to this year, “AT&T Stadium’’) in which the Giants had been 4-0.
“I’m going to do whatever it takes to beat these Giants,” Jones guffawed. “I changed the name of the stadium, so we’ll do whatever comes up to get it done.’’
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