With 3:24 left in the fourth quarter on Sunday night, the Cowboys had a win expectancy of 98 percent. Ninety-eight percent! Dallas, of course, promptly snatched defeat out of the jaws of victory for the second week running, as a failure to execute in every facet of the game cost them first place in the NFC East and a clear path to the division title.
For the Cowboys, though, mere collapse does not do. Every close Dallas defeat seems to require a scapegoat. If it’s not Tony Romo throwing a key interception, it’s Jason Garrett icing his own kicker, right? So who was Sunday night’s scapegoat? We polled our Twitter constituency to identify that scapegoat and got about a dozen different answers. The reality is that there were a lot of moving parts in that Cowboys loss, and pinning it on one particular player or aspect of the game is unrealistic. So instead, we’re going to partition the loss out and split it among a number of key Cowboys in a totally subjective way. Here’s who to blame (or not blame) for the latest Cowboys disaster:
- Miles Austin (zero percent): On that fateful third-down pass that could have sealed the game up for the Cowboys, Austin broke free at the line and then failed to locate the ball in the air before it was too late. Cowboys fans were blaming him after the game for not diving in an attempt to catch the pass, but we’re going to trust Austin’s instincts for how to properly catch a pass here. In addition to his work before that failed play, Austin also deserves some credit for his 22- and 23-yard receptions on the final drive that should have set up
- Dan Bailey (zero percent): Bailey got iced for the second week in a row! That means icing works! Right? Well, this would be a pretty generous definition of iced. If iced means “have a kick blocked the second time around,” then sure, Bailey was iced. Too bad icing didn’t work for Lovie Smith in Denver before Matt Prater’s game winner in overtime. Bailey was great before the kick and, well, it’s not his responsibility to block Jason Pierre-Paul.
- Mat McBriar (5 percent): Even after the failed third down with 2:25 left, the Cowboys should have been able to pin the Giants well inside their own territory and force Eli Manning to go a minimum of 70 yards for the game-winning touchdown. Instead, McBriar punted from his own 25-yard line and was only able to advance the ball 33 yards, giving the Giants the ball on their own 42-yard line while creating a short field for Manning to eviscerate.
- Jason Garrett (5 percent): You can quibble with Garrett’s play selection at times, but it’s generally a good thing when you get your best wide receiver open by three yards streaking toward the end zone, regardless of when the game situation is. You can suggest that the Cowboys should have run the ball and forced the Giants to use their final timeout before the two-minute warning, but their odds of picking up a first down running the ball on third-and-5 are pretty slim. Before that, though, Garrett’s work as a play-caller wasn’t exactly inspiring. He waited too long to adjust Dallas’ protections against Jason Pierre-Paul. We’ll get to that in a bit.
- Tony Romo (10 percent): Romo hit some big throws during the game — the bomb to Laurent Robinson on third-and-10 for 74 yards comes to mind — but he’s the one who screwed up on the biggest play of the game, overthrowing an open Austin in a situation in which anything but an overthrow seals up the contest. If Romo underthrows the pass, it’s pass interference on a frantic Aaron Ross and the Cowboys can come close to kneeling on the football before punting. If it’s thrown properly, it’s a touchdown and the Cowboys coast. If it’s even just slightly overthrown, Austin has a good shot at reeling it in. Instead, Romo simply missed. He did some excellent work to set up a shot at a game-tying field goal on the final drive, but oh, what could have been. In addition, while it’s always sort of dumb to assume that the game would continue the exact same way if you remove a scoring play from the game, Romo’s curious safety in the first half ended up serving as the margin of victory. If Romo didn’t take a safety and the Cowboys punted, the Giants would have been down 34-27 during their final drive and undoubtedly kicked the extra point upon scoring.
- Rob Ryan (15 percent): Ryan’s defense did one thing well: stop the Giants in short yardage. That’s the only thing that kept the Cowboys in the game, since their defense was otherwise awful. It’s hard to give up 38 points and really look good, but the Giants left additional points and opportunities on the field with big drops. It felt like the play-calling blitzed at the wrong times and dropped into coverage when a rush was needed, and just like the Giants, a quick substitution by the Cowboys on defense created a blown assignment for an easy touchdown pass. The scheme Ryan employed also placed a disproportionate amount of pressure on an overmatched Sean Lee (interception aside) and the defense’s two most disappointing players
- Terence Newman (18 percent): When the Giants needed a completion on Sunday night, they seemed to go to Newman’s side of the field, notably picking up a fourth-and-3 on an easy pitch-and-catch with Manningham on the drive that ended with Lee’s interception. Even more distressingly, Newman dropped what would have been an easy pick-six in the first quarter; if he turns that around and takes it to the house, the entire game might change. But even he was able to do more than the unit’s biggest star.
- DeMarcus Ware (22 percent): If you didn’t notice Ware on Sunday, well, you weren’t alone. Playing against a team that was starting an ancient artifact at right tackle (Kareem McKenzie) and a deposed left tackle moved back to his abandoned spot after an injury to Will Beatty (David Diehl), Ware was an absolute nonfactor. He suffered a stinger in the fourth quarter that likely sapped his effectiveness, but he had just one tackle for loss all day, with no sacks or even a knockdown of Eli Manning. And crucially, Ware took an offsides penalty on each of the Giants’ final two drives, including one that wiped a bad snap and 10-yard loss off the board.
- Everything related to stopping Jason Pierre-Paul (25 percent): JPP was just about the best player on the field Sunday night, something you might have heard Cris Collinsworth say about a dozen times. In addition to the game-sealing blocked field goal, Pierre-Paul had two sacks: one that produced a safety and the other ending a drive. He forced Felix Jones’ fumble that set up a Giants field goal at the end of the first half. He made two tackles for no gain or a loss almost single-handedly, and he chased down Jones on a big blitz during the final drive and prevented him from picking up big yardage on a checkdown. The Cowboys didn’t pay JPP enough credence in their game plan and failed to adjust their protection accordingly on offense. What he was able to do on the field goal, though, was sheer athletic brilliance. The best compliment we can pay him: He looked like DeMarcus Ware out there.
The Week in Tebow
Oh, ho-hum, another incredible comeback victory from Tim Tebow and the Broncos when they were essentially dead to rights on multiple occasions in the fourth quarter. Yawn. Wake us up when he wins by a couple of touchdowns.
OK, we’re kidding. That was awesome. Comebacks like that are the reason we watch football, let alone from a guy who has been doing it seemingly on demand this season. As our colleague Chris Brown put it on Twitter, “What a great story. It makes no sense, it’s not sustainable, but it’s football and just so much fun.” It’s amazing that a 13-0 Packers team has been totally (and in a way, rightfully) overshadowed by a quarterback who was a league-wide joke as recently as October, and it’s a credit to Tebow that he’s been able to keep his team in close games. In fact, in taking a look back at Sunday’s game, it’s very tricky to parse out Tebow’s impact on the comeback. In one way, Tebow is getting too much of the credit for things he had nothing to do with. In another, though, Tebow isn’t getting enough credit from that famed straw man group, the people who just look at the numbers and didn’t actually watch the first three quarters of the Broncos game.
The stat bandied about with regard to Tebow’s comeback has been that he started the game 3-for-16 against the Bears defense. Chicago’s pass defense played a sound game and actually induced Tebow’s second interception of the year in the first half, but 3-for-16 grossly undersells how Tebow was playing. His receivers dropped six passes, and one of them was an easy touchdown to Demaryius Thomas that the second-year receiver flat-out dropped. It’s also worth noting that, for whatever weaknesses he has as a passer, Tebow is playing with arguably the worst group of receivers in football. Thomas, Eric Decker, and former Patriots special teamer Matt Willis are not the sort of players who should be combining for 28 targets a game, as they received on Sunday.
In fact, Tebow’s begun to turn the corner from gimmick quarterback to something resembling a legitimate NFL passer. The Broncos have gotten away from the option stuff they installed as their offensive base after the Lions shellacking, and Tebow’s been given more responsibilities as a standard dropback passer. Sunday was the first game since the Lions contest where the Broncos threw more than they ran, and while part of that is related to the 10-0 deficit they were in during the second half, Tebow threw 13 times in a scoreless first half. Tebow drew two roughing-the-passer penalties to extend drives while exhibiting a legitimate skill, his ability to extend passing plays by making rushers miss. Tebow is getting better at improvising when plays break down as he develops a rapport with his receivers, and as those bonds get stronger, he should be even more improved when he gets out of the pocket. Tebow may never be a great pocket passer at the professional level, but teams are going to be very afraid of what he can do when he’s outside the hashmarks and looking downfield. As bad as his receivers are, secondaries can’t cover them for eight or nine seconds while also worrying about the possibility of a Tebow scramble.
All that being said, if you want to assign Tebow the full credit or blame for winning or losing, he didn’t get his team in a position to win the football game during the fourth quarter. After an incredible onside kick from Matt Prater1 was narrowly recovered by Chicago, the Bears ran the ball for no gain to get to the two-minute warning. The Broncos had no timeouts left, so with the opportunity to run 40 seconds off the clock after second down and third down, the Bears could have punted from midfield with 40 seconds left and forced Tebow to drive 50 yards for a field goal with no way to stop the clock.2 All Marion Barber had to do, of course, was stay inbounds, and you know by now that he did not. It was a stupid play by Barber, but this is the same guy whose entire career has been built upon receiving praise for how hard he hits the hole and how he runs every carry like it’s his last. Barber should have known to stay inbounds at all costs, but are you truly surprised that he failed to?
And even then, after the field goal, the Bears were in a good spot to seal up a win without giving Tebow the ball. Remember, Caleb Hanie drove the ball 42 yards in six plays to set the Bears up with third-and-7 from the Denver 38-yard line, at which point they were faced with a conundrum. They could have chosen to kick a 55-yarder on third down, a play that would have been within Robbie Gould’s range in the thin air of Denver. Of course, we just went and criticized the Cowboys last week for failing to make Dan Bailey’s kick any easier at the end of regulation, so we’re not going to be hypocrites and suggest that the Bears shouldn’t have tried to advance the ball. They made the right decision to do so, and it’s incredibly unfortunate that Barber couldn’t hold on to the football with the game on the line. Tebow deserves a ton of credit for the drives he pulled off after those two Barber mistakes, but as a team, Denver was handed two miracles that had nothing to do with Tebow whatsoever.
Ironically, even as Tebow and the Broncos seem immune to the sort of statistical regression toward the mean that we forecast for them on Friday, the Bears are the cautionary tale against believing that teams can just avoid those nagging realities forever. After staying remarkably healthy and going 7-3 in those infamous games decided by a touchdown or less in 2010, the Bears started off 2011 by keeping up those habits. Over the first two months of the season, the Bears stayed relatively healthy and continued to win the close ones, winning all three of their games within seven or less. Then Jay Cutler got hurt. And then Matt Forte got hurt. And the Bears, who seemed like absolute locks for the playoffs at 7-3 before Thanksgiving, have lost three consecutive games. Each of those losses has been by seven points or less. With a break or two here or there, the Bears could have won any or all of the three games. Instead, they’re limping toward the postseason and might not make it there in one piece.
Thank You for Not Coaching
The Broncos might have won on Sunday, but they made some very curious choices along the way to their victory. The most notable of those decisions came late in the second quarter, when Denver faced a fourth-and-1 on the Chicago 49 with 4:12 left in a 0-0 game.
In a vacuum, it’s probably a very reasonable decision to punt and play field position football. In Denver? It made no sense. Consider the context: The Broncos have Tim Tebow at quarterback, who has been excellent in short-yardage situations. Their odds of picking up the first down were almost surely in excess of 60 percent. If they were stuffed, the downside was giving the ineffective Caleb Hanie the ball at midfield. And if they chose to punt, they had to punt to the best return man in the history of football, Devin Hester. How is punting the optimal decision there?
They weren’t the only ones who made curious decisions. The normally brilliant Jim Harbaugh made a very curious challenge during the first quarter of the 49ers’ loss to the Cardinals, challenging that an incomplete pass from Kevin Kolb on third down during Arizona’s opening drive was actually a fumble. That sounds like a high-reward challenge, but the Cardinals had recovered the fumble on the field, so the only upside of the Niners challenge was turning a fourth-and-6 punt from the Arizona 17-yard line into a fourth-and-15 punt from Arizona’s 8-yard line. Those nine yards are absolutely irrelevant, and even if you want to rightly claim that it slightly improves San Francisco’s field position, the impact it has on San Francisco’s ability to make future challenges with virtually the entire game to go is worth a lot more than those nine yards.
Arizona later had a challenge attempt go in its favor, as it threw in a challenge flag one moment before the 49ers snapped the ball and attempted a fake punt that resulted in a long completion to center Jonathan Goodwin. It didn’t appear that the Cardinals had a great shot at winning the challenge, but when the replay equipment malfunctioned, the veracity of the challenge didn’t matter. The Cardinals got their challenge back, the 49ers had their fake punt wiped off the board, and San Francisco promptly attempted and failed to kick a 50-yard field goal. The decision-making here isn’t a problem, but the idea that the challenge system is dependent upon the replay equipment working is absurd. How can the replay system fail when we can see plenty of replays at home? If the equipment on the field fails, the decision should be left up to the replay assistant in the booth upstairs. Decisions should be placed in the referee’s hands as frequently as possible, but if the ref can’t make a call because of failed technology while other technology exists to make a proper ruling, the league should never have to resort to that sort of embarrassing excuse.
The Spree for RGIII
As they do every single year, NFL general managers and personnel men have begun their annual winter process of trashing a clear first overall pick. After a year-plus of anointing Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck as the best quarterback prospect of his generation, one personnel director told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that ” there are people around the league who prefer Robert Griffin III to Luck.” Presumably, those people are not secretaries or janitors, so let’s wonder why these personnel people are suddenly pushing Griffin ahead of Luck on their draft boards.
In this context, Griffin is playing the same role Ryan Leaf played before the 1998 draft. That’s not to say that the accurate, poised Griffin is a prospect cut from the same cloth as the famously dreadful and immature Leaf, but that Griffin is stuck playing the alternative when an alternative isn’t needed. Griffin’s role in this process has nothing to do with him as a player; if it weren’t Griffin, teams would use Matt Barkley or Landry Jones as the bogeyman across from Luck.
It’s truly less about Griffin’s strengths as a player and more about his strengths vis-à-vis perceived weaknesses of Luck. Just as critics of Peyton Manning pointed to Leaf’s huge arm and used it to slight Manning’s ability to get the ball downfield (something we seem to think has not been a problem for Peyton), the arguments against Luck will quickly come to revolve around his lack of athleticism relative to the threat offered by Griffin, who won the Big 12 hurdles championship at Baylor when he was 17 years old.
Why does this process happen? Why do teams suddenly start chattering in December about how the consensus first overall pick isn’t really all that and a bag of chips? Well, it’s probably because they want that consensus first overall pick. Think about it; let’s say that you’re the Vikings and you want a shot at drafting Andrew Luck. The best thing you can do is try to decrease Luck’s market value by creating some confusion in the marketplace as to whether he’s actually the best player available. Even if you can’t convince the Colts that Griffin is a better player than Luck, as long as you can convince them that you would be happy to take Griffin with the third overall pick as opposed to giving up a massive haul to move up two spots and take Luck, you’ve eroded Indy’s leverage by seeming less desperate. Maybe you end up getting a Luck trade for a little less than you otherwise would have. There’s no downside, certainly, to making Indianapolis think you’ll pay less.
Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.
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