Friday afternoon, tragedy struck. America laughed while Big Tex smoldered, fairgoers having no free hands to wipe the tears as they double-fisted turkey legs and corn dogs. With the memory of the deep-fried deity lighting a fire in their collective boots, the Cowboys stormed out of the locker room and blasted the opening kick-off ... out of bounds. It was misfires like that that plauged the Cowboys all day, keeping them from putting any distance between them and the Panthers in a 19-14 win. If you find yourself feeling a little unsatisfied this morning, just keep telling yourself, "The Cowboys won."
A white-knuckle win against a team that might claim three victories on the year, but a win nonetheless. The difference between 3-3 and 2-4 may not seem like much, but in a clustered NFC East, every victory is precious.
There were still all of the signature markings of a 2012 (or 1998-2011) Cowboys game: inopportune penalties, questionable play calls and an over-reliance on special teams, but sometimes that's what it takes. The ball seemed to bounce the Cowboys' way more often than not, and they leave the Panthers in the rear-view, settling back into that well-worn .500 rut. Let's take a sip of some observations and then chug through the awards.
Hey, At Least The Punt Coverage Is Good: If there was one area that was executed flawlessly by the Cowboys, it was their punting. The mighty leg of Brian Moorman combined with the sure-formed tackling of Eric Frampton and Lance Dunbar resulted in the Panthers averaging one yard per return on four punts. While the on-field performance is fine, it's curious that the Cowboys continue to carry two punters, Moorman and lefty Chris Jones, on the roster. With a team that's been continually bitten by injuries, it seems that offensive line depth or defensive talent would be a higher priority. I suppose when you're busy trying to turn your stadium into Galleria Mall West, things like that go unnoticed.
Cowboys Offense Crushes a Bottle of Ambien: If the Panthers' rushing total of 112 yards seems paltry, then the Cowboys' tally of 85 ground meters is downright embarrassing. With Demarco Murray on the sideline, the combo of Felix Jones and Phillip Tanner struggled for 74 yards on 28 carries against a bottom-feeder Panther rush defense. The passing attack fared only slightly better, keeping the team's head above water with 227 yards.
Romo was efficient and mistake-free, though he did throw a pass directly to stunned Panthers linebacker James Anderson, who dropped the easy pick. Most disturbing of all was the continuing dearth of touchdowns. In order to be an above-.500 team, the Cowboys need to be able to finish drives with seven points as opposed to leaving everything on the foot of Dan Bailey. It cost them the Ravens game and very nearly cost them in Charlotte as well.
Time to Break Out Some More 'Tussin: TIE Phil Costa and Sean Lee -- It seems as though every week has turned into an adventure for the Cowboys medical staff. There hasn't been an entire game this season that has featured the full anticipated starting 11 for the Cowboys' defense. This week, Sean Lee got his turn in the locker room, as he hurt his toe in the third quarter and didn't return. If Lee is lost for even one week, it would be a gigantic blow to the defense. His level of play and familiarity with Rob Ryan's schemes have kept the defense functional these first six weeks.
Lee at least had some company back in the friendly confines, as center Phil Costa suffered an ankle sprain in the second quarter. Jason Garrett deviated from his 10-word press-conference vocabulary to note the injury as "severe," so this one could sting for a while. Fortunately for the Cowboys and backup center Ryan Cook, the Giants are on the table next week, and we all know what happened the last time Cook faced the Giants.
Let's give out a couple awards.
The Gordon Keith Memorial Impersonator of the Week: Ron Rivera and the Carolina Panthers -- If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Jason Garrett's freckled cheeks must have been a delightful shade of fuchsia all day. Rivera and his team of felines did one of the greatest impressions of the Cowboys we've seen in a while. Drive the field and throw an interception in the endzone? Check. Mismanage timeouts in the waning minutes of the game? Check. Send your home crowd to their cars dejected? Check!
It would be ignorant not to concede that the referees helped the visiting squad on a couple of occasions, the 4th down Mo Claiborne play and Phillip Tanner horse collar jump to mind, but those kind of breaks happen every game. Carolina still could have easily won the game, especially once Garrett opted to run a draw play on 3rd and 9, setting up a situation that would give Carolina the ball back, down two points, with three minutes to go. If the same situation had been presented to Manning, Brees or Brady, the Cowboys would have been toast. Fortunately, Cam Newton fell just shy of executing the knockout punch, and the Cowboys live to fight another day.
The Schizo Award: The Cowboys' Defense -- Rob Ryan's bunch is suffering from a serious case of split personalities. Against the run, they are staunch. Including a couple of long Cam Newton scrambles, Dallas only allowed 112 yards rushing on the day. After getting burned once on a zone read keeper, Demarcus Ware bottled up anything and everything that came to his side. The historically formidable Panther backfield of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and chunky Mike Tolbert were held to 48 yards on 15 carries, with 20 of those yards coming on one play. The real story of the Cowboys' rush defense success, though, lies in the number of rush yards Cam Newton had after halftime: zero.
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Defending the pass, it seemed as though Dallas was much more docile. Oftentimes corners would be trailing receivers by a step or two, not showing much aggressiveness in going for the ball. I've noticed this trend since the Seattle game, as it seems like Rob Ryan is telling his guys to just let the receiver catch the ball and then make the play, opting to risk a small gain in order to prevent a larger one. While that works in distinct situations, adopting that as a general philosophy can be costly, just ask Jay Cutler. Kudos to Mo Claiborne for grabbing his first career pick and amazing the Cowboys' first on the season, but there's a reason it took this long for the defense. Turnovers equal momentum, while completions equal quarterback confidence. It would be wise for the team to focus on the former and quit surrendering the latter.
The Cowboys return to the casa this Sunday for their final regular season matchup with the Giants. Eli's bunch has seemed to catch a groove, winning three straight, but if the Cowboys can resist the temptation to throw the game away, they might be able to recreate that first week magic. We conclude with some words of wisdom from the CGI savant, Cleatus.