The PJ Tatler

Cowboys Return to Bad Old Habits in Loss to Redskins

Dallas Cowboys QB Tony Romo didn’t thrown the decisive, game-losing interception last night. He did come back into the game in the fourth quarter, after suffering a back injury midway through the third, with the game on the line. Owner Jerry Jones, Romo and the coaches wanted a fairy-tale ending more than they just wanted to grind out a win.

While he was out, backup Brandon Weeden came in, the Cowboys kept things simple, and they stayed in the game. While Weeden was in, and with Colt McCoy leading the Redskins from the start, there were two former Browns QBs in the game.

That’s not generally a sign of quality, but both players played well enough. Weeden produced 10 points in two drives including an 80-yarder capped by a touchdown pass to TE Jason Witten. He was efficient. McCoy started to melt down as the pressure built, making little mistakes at the line that stalled Redskins drives. But when it mattered most, he looked like the player who became famous in Austin and came within an injury of winning the NCAA national title. And when it mattered most, the Cowboys forgot what has given them their best season start in ages.

Upon his return, late in the fourth, with the score tied at 17 apiece, Romo succumbed to the Redskins pressure and fumbled on his own five. The Cowboys recovered that fumble. A play or two later Romo almost threw that decisive interception, but the pass fell incomplete.

The Dallas Cowboys of 2014 have not looked or played like the Cowboys of recent seasons. The pass-happy Cowboys of the Romo era had been replaced by a more bullish offensive line that’s capable of providing the foundation for a productive running game. RB DeMarco Murray has started off this season making history, as the first ball carrier in NFL history to start a season off with seven consecutive 100-yard games. He had well over 100 yards on the ground last night, as well as another good night receiving. The Redskins could not stop him. Murray made roadkill of their defensive backs.

When Romo went out, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones went in — almost literally. The Palpatine-esque owner had given a live interview to ESPN earlier in the game, during which he noted that the Cowboys had finally figured out how to protect Romo from opposing defenses.

Within a few plays of that, Romo was sacked for the fourth or fifth time of the game, took a knee to the kidney, and went down. As Tony Romo lay on the turf in Arlington and ESPN went to commercial, Cowboys fans saw the team’s strong start to the season for the fragile thing that it truly is. The Cowboys may have been 6-1 going into the Monday Night Football showdown with their arch rivals, but they are a suspect 6-1, with a defense that can still be too generous and no serious backups to several key starters. If Murray or Romo or Witten go down…?

Jones first went to the locker room to check on Romo, and told ESPN’s Lisa Salters that his QB was lobbying to get back into the game. Then Jones went to the sideline to play cheerleader.

The Cowboys already have cheerleaders. World famous cheerleaders.

Jones’ decision to go to the sidelines is one that Head Coach Jason Garrett and everyone else associated with, connected to, or supporting the Cowboys wishes he had made differently. As in, stay in your box. Keep out of the way. No coach should have to deal with the spectacle of the team owner prancing about on the sidelines and making faces for the cameras — and looking like he is telling the coach whether their injured veteran quarterback, who has had back surgery, is going to come back into the game.

At any rate, with Jones on the sidelines, he also earns a share of the blame. Not that he will accept that.

Regulation ends with the score tied at 17. The Redskins win the toss, take the ball, and march right down over the Cowboys’ suspect defense and kick a field goal — 20-17 to the visitors. Colt McCoy looked like the Longhorns Colt McCoy during that drive, using his legs, using his arm, making crisp, accurate throws to his receivers to keep the ball moving. The Cowboys’ unrebuilt defense was exposed by a man who had not started a game in nearly three years.

The Cowboys now must score or the game is over. A field goal keeps the game going, while a touchdown wins it.

The Cowboys get the ball, run to Murray on first down and he drives forward. Other than one really bad play earlier, when Murray capped off a brilliant catch and run with a fumble in the red zone, Murray had had a lights out game.

Murray picks up 8 yards on first down. Second and two, Murray is unstoppable on the ground, roadkill on the Redskins defense, the Cowboys run again, right?

No, they forget how to run. They set up for a pass across the middle to tight end Jason Witten, but he’s covered, so Romo checks down to Murray on the screen right. The Redskins read that and stuff it. He loses two yards. The Cowboys lost the game on that play, they just didn’t know it yet.

Romo had been unable to read the Redskins blitz on third downs all night. The Dallas defensive coaches had been similarly baffled, even though everyone else in the stadium and watching on TV could see the Skins blitzes coming every single time. Third and four or more, they’re going to blitz. They had done it all night. The Cowboys have been great on third downs all season but they never picked it up Monday night.

The sacks on Romo had taken their toll, especially the one that sent him out for a quarter. When he returned, it was clear that Romo’s head was a little foggy and was not as mobile as he usually is. He was, essentially, a fixed target in the backfield. Everyone in the stadium could see that, too, and the Redskins knew that while Romo’s arm still might be a threat, his receivers are always a threat, his feet no longer were, and he could not wriggle out of pressure the way he has successfully done all of his career. They also know his history. Tony Romo either leads the Cowboys on a brilliant, last-minute game-winning drive, or he throws the interception or drops the fumble that costs them the game. He either beats you or he implodes. With that back injury, as long as the ball is in Romo’s hands, which is more likely to happen?

As it turned out, Romo didn’t lead a game-winning drive, but he wasn’t to blame this time.

Third and about four in overtime, so it’s four-down territory all the way. Romo is a stationary tackling dummy but he has the best running back in the NFL and an offensive line that has been great for the ground game all night.

The Cowboys run Murray again to grind out a few yards or get the first down and keep the game alive, right?

Nope, they pass, incomplete.

Fourth down, blitz, pass, incomplete.

And that’s the game, ending with a whimper this time. The 9-point underdog Washington Redskins, without several key starters and down to their third string quarterback — a man who had not started a game since December 8, 2011 — had just ended the Cowboys’ six-game winning streak.

They had also gotten the Cowboys to abandon their NFL-best running game with the game on the line, and put the ball into the head and hands of an injured Tony Romo.

The Dallas Cowboys have already won more game this season than I expected them to win all year, so anything beyond this point is still gravy. But at 6-1, fans had a right to expect that the Cowboys coaches and owner had learned from previous failures. Stay balanced between the pass and run and you win. Get pass happy and you lose. Keep Jones from making questionable decisions like, say, drafting Johnny Manziel when you need offensive linemen, and you build a team that just might even win a playoff game.

It doesn’t look like that’s the case. Jerry Jones barged down to the sidelines and all but demanded that the coaches suit him up and give him the ball. Whether he or Garrett made the decision to put Romo back in we don’t know yet, but the visuals suggested that it was Jones making that call. With Romo back in, the Cowboys never scored again. The Cowboys abandoned the running game when it mattered most, and when Murray could well have broken off another long run to win the game.

The Cowboys lost to the Redskins at home last night because they reverted to thinking and playing like the same old mediocre Dallas Cowboys who make terrible decisions in key moments, and cannot get out of their own way.

They’re still 6-2, that’s the good news. The bad news is their quarterback is now a doubt and will carry that back injury for a while, and they’re still three wins away from actually having a winning season. Will they get those three wins?