Abandon all hope, or keep hope alive? Matthew picks the former.
By Matthew Postins
There shall be no more talk of the Dallas Cowboys as a playoff contender this season.
Sure, mathematically they’re still in it. Theoretically they could win their final five games and finish 10-6, which would probably be enough to get a playoff berth.
But after watching this Cowboys (5-6) team in November there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that this team doesn’t have what it takes to be a playoff team.
Some of it is on the Cowboys. They’re not as talented as national analysts believe they are. That’s personnel evaluation. They continue to make too many mistakes, both in turnovers and in penalties. That’s on the players. Head coach Jason Garrett seems unable to find any equilibrium or discipline on this team. That’s on him.
Some of it is circumstance. They are completely beat up on the offensive line. They are missing their best overall defensive player and may have lost his replacement on Thursday.
The Cowboys’ 38-31 loss to the Redskins seems closer than it actually was. Dallas was, once again, down big at halftime. They did what they could to get out of that hole. But unlike the Cleveland Browns, the Redskins didn’t make the crippling mistakes down the stretch that led the Cowboys back in the game.
There are five games left in this season. To paraphrase Mike Shanahan, these last games are about finding out who’s going to be here next season.
They’re not about surging to the postseason. No way. No how.
Here’s how it all broke down.
Run Offense: There’s little reason to assess the Cowboys run offense in this game. Going in we knew the Cowboys were going to put the game in the hands of quarterback Tony Romo and that’s what the Cowboys did. Dallas ran the ball 11 times. Three were Romo scrambles. Lance Dunbar’s run of 8 yards was the long of the game for Dallas.
Pass Offense: Where to start? Wide receiver Miles Austin left the game in the first quarter with a reported hip strain. Between Dez Bryant, Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley the Cowboys managed to find production. Left tackle Jeremy Parnell made his first NFL start. Guard Mackenzy Bernadeau started at center again and Derrick Dockery started in Bernadeau’s guard spot for the second week in a row. But the protection was adequate throughout the contest. Former Cowboy Stephen Bowen managed the only sack until the Ryan Kerrigan sack of Romo just before the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter. The game plan helped Romo out by calling for short, quick passes, but the Redskins also helped the Cowboys out by rarely blitzing. Washington defensive coordinator Jim Haslett seemed content to give up pressure on Romo to have six or seven players in coverage. At times that worked. Romo’s interceptions were killers, as was Bryant’s fumble. All three led to Washington touchdowns. As Romo often does, he followed bad with good and got the Cowboys back into the contest in the second half against a Redskins defense playing soft in coverage. Bryant (8 catches, 145 yards) had another solid effort, in spite of the fact that the Redskins doubled him at every opportunity once Austin left the game. Beasley worked the underneath routes and had a career day, and tight end Jason Witten had a quiet afternoon, even with a team-leading 9 catches. Felix Jones didn’t have many chances to run the football, but he made a nice contribution in the pass game, including a touchdown reception. The Austin injury hurt, but Dallas compensated. What hurt, as it usually does with this team, was the game-changing turnovers in the passing game. They led to 21 points. Romo threw for a career-high 441 yards and lost.
Run Defense: All of the focus was on how Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III was going to run the ball against the Cowboys. But, frankly, the Cowboys did a great job of containing Griffin outside of the tackles. What they weren’t able to do was stop running back Alfred Morris between the tackles. With nose tackle Jay Ratliff and defensive tackle Sean Lissemore out of the game the Cowboys had only Josh Brent to play the nose. The Redskins took full advantage. Morris, a rookie, gained most of his yardage inside the hash as center Will Montgomery and guards Chris Chester and Kory Lichtensteiger set the lanes well in the Redskins’ zone blocking scheme. Morris rushed for 113 yards and scored 1 touchdown, but Washington’s ability to consistently run the football forced the Cowboys into more single-coverage looks against the pass. It also allowed the Redskins stay balanced, with 29 run plays to 28 Griffin passes. It’s the kind of rushing performance the Cowboys wish they had week-in and week-out.
Pass Defense: The Cowboys used their ability to keep containment on Griffin in the run game as an avenue to pressure him in the passing game, and it worked to some degree. Linebacker Anthony Spencer had a great game, sacking Griffin twice and helping the Cowboys to four sacks overall. But Griffin beat the Cowboys for big pass plays. His long touchdown pass to Aldrick Robinson was the result of bad safety coverage by Danny McCray. The touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon was well-covered by Bruce Carter, but he couldn’t get his hands on it. Garcon made a great catch on a pass thrown behind him. Cornerback Brandon Carr was there for the touchdown pass to Santana Moss, but he couldn’t get turned around quickly enough to bat down Griffin’s perfectly thrown ball. The final touchdown pass to Niles Paul was a complete breakdown in coverage and ended up being the difference in the game. Big plays killed Dallas all night. So did third down. The Cowboys allowed the Redskins to convert half their third downs. Charlie Peprah’s interception was the result of a rare overthrown pass by Griffin, and it was the only turnover Dallas forced all night.
Special Teams: The Cowboys started using Harris on kickoff returns, in addition to Lance Dunbar. Harris ended up with the better average. For the first time since he took over punt return duties, Harris failed to get one return of at least 10 yards. The Cowboys coverage units did a good job of limiting Redskins return man Brandon Banks.
Coaching: Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett did the best he could do with a limited hand on offense. He knew the Cowboys weren’t going to be able to run the football, so he abandoned that by the second quarter and left the game in Romo’s hands. That ended up being a mixed bag, but that was Garrett’s best path toward a win and his game plan reflected getting the best out of what he had. Execution was more the issue. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had a sound game plan in terms of containing Griffin’s ability to run. The big plays the Cowboys gave up were a result of players being out of position or being a step too slow in coverage. Ryan’s game plan appeared to make a choice — to make Griffin beat the Cowboys with his arm. Griffin did.
Injuries: The Cowboys lost inside linebacker Bruce Carter in the fourth quarter due to an elbow injury that seems serious. Ratliff, Lissemore and running back DeMarco Murray were inactive.
One more thing: Washington beat Dallas for the first time on Thanksgiving Day in seven meetings. Romo lost on Thanksgiving Day for the first time in six starts.