What’s the narrative about Tony Romo this Sunday? Over the course of four weeks, Romo’s gone from embarrassing choker to comeback artist to gritty grinder to, well, embarrassing choker again. The Cowboys blew their second big lead in four weeks on Sunday, allowing the Lions to come back via a disastrous second half, and the blame has been firmly pinned on the Dallas quarterback. He deserves better. Blame Romo for his three interceptions, but let’s make this clear: He didn’t lose this game for the Cowboys.
Let’s start with the idea that Romo somehow gifted the Lions 14 points by having two of his three interceptions returned for touchdowns. Go watch those plays again. It’s one thing when a quarterback makes a terrible throw to the sideline and it gets jumped by an eager defender. That’s a throw that invites a pick-six. The two interceptions that were returned for scores were both disappointing throws, but neither of them were totally on Romo. And if you watch the returns, you’ll note that Bobby Carpenter and Chris Houston run through virtually the entire Cowboys offense en route to the score. The Houston pick came on a quick slant where Laurent Robinson quit on his route. There’s nothing about those interceptions that forced the Cowboys to avoid making tackles, and assigning Romo all of the blame for those plays because the Cowboys didn’t tackle is beyond unfair.
Historically, no quarterback has shown an ability to prevent pick-sixes or a propensity for consistently producing them. Even the great ones have games like that — Peyton Manning threw four interceptions and had two returned for scores by the Chargers last season. It’s a fluke that those two picks resulted in touchdowns, not a reflection on Romo.
When the Cowboys weren’t turning the ball over on offense, of course, it wasn’t like Romo was sitting at cornerback and watching Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew take over the game. During the second half, the Cowboys simply had no answer for the two Detroit star receivers, with Johnson memorably catching a Matthew Stafford lob into triple coverage in the end zone for a touchdown before later picking up the game-winner on a fade. After holding Stafford to 88 yards and an interception in the first half, the Cowboys let Stafford go 12-of-20 for 152 yards with two scores and no picks. They also had a blown coverage that left Johnson open for what would have been an easy score, only for Stafford to somehow overthrow, probably out of shock more than anything else. The same Cowboys pass rush that took over in the fourth quarter of the Redskins game in Week 3 didn’t sack Stafford once all game.
Romo deserves credit for what he did in the first half with Robinson and a gimpy Dez Bryant at receiver. With one of the league’s most fearsome pass rushes staring down an inexperienced offensive line, Romo was 19-of-24 for 195 yards with two touchdowns. At least one of the incompletions was dropped by the consistently awful Martellus Bennett. And that’s all with a rib that’s still cracked.
The reality is that the Cowboys could easily be 4-0 or 0-4 with a few small breaks going in either direction for them in any of their four games. Romo has been inconsistent, a mix of big plays with some poor decision-making, injury limitations, and communication issues with his receivers. If you truly believe that Romo is holding back the Cowboys and that they lost on Sunday because he blew the game, you’re kidding yourself. He’s carrying them.
Attack or Block
The Cardinals might have tried to take advantage of a rare opportunity on Sunday: Inflict an injury on an important player with no repercussions whatsoever. With four seconds left in the first half, the Giants lined up for a 30-yard field goal to take a four-point lead. Kicker Lawrence Tynes put it through, but the Cardinals made him pay for it by roughing him up. Although they took a penalty on the play, it was just about meaningless.
We never like to suggest that teams should attempt to injure opposing players, but think about it from the Cardinals’ perspective: A 30-yard field goal is going to split the uprights close to 90 percent of the time. With a flat-out miss unlikely, going after the kicker without regard for a personal foul might increase your chances of blocking the kick. If the kicker were to get injured — accidentally, of course — and miss the rest of the game, your chances of winning would get a nice bump. (Think about the Ndamukong Suh extra point experiment against the Jets last year.)
And now, think about the repercussions (or the lack thereof). If the Giants chose to accept the personal foul penalty and take the ball on the 9-yard line, they would have had one second left (or an untimed down) to run another play. They would have still been kicking a field goal. If the field goal is converted, the penalty is enforced on the ensuing kickoff. That came with one second left, and would have been a squib kick with virtually no shot of turning into anything good, even without the added 15 yards.
We don’t want to suggest that the Cardinals deliberately tried to injure Tynes, because there’s no evidence suggesting that they did. Nor do we want to suggest that teams should pursue this strategy in the future, since it’s illegal. But in a league in which teams pursue virtually any small edge to try to win, it’s a surprise that teams haven’t taken advantage of this loophole in the rules more frequently.
Welker on His Way
You would have been forgiven if you had suspected before the season that the Patriots were phasing Wes Welker out of their offense. Instead, another year removed from his torn ACL, Welker’s delivered at a level nobody could have expected. It’s not just that Welker has been the most productive wide receiver in football through the first quarter of the season. He’s been the best receiver in NFL history.
After four games, Welker’s accrued 40 catches and 616 receiving yards. Both stand as NFL records through the first four games of the year. The previous record was 36 catches, held coincidentally by three different Smiths: J.D. (1961), Jimmy (2000), and Rod (2001). And while Welker was once the receiver who never went outside the hashmarks, he’s been picking up significant yardage after his catches this year to go along with that 99-yarder against the Dolphins in Week 1. Those 616 receiving yards are a 13 percent improvement on the previous record of 544 receiving yards. That mark was also set by a Patriots receiver, as Terry Glenn reached that milestone during the 1999 season.
Welker narrowly comes up short of setting the records for any four-game stretch. The good news, though, is that he was already tied for the receptions record with 43 catches over a four-game period in 2009; he’s joined at 43 by Brandon Marshall and Marvin Harrison. And he comes up 48 yards short of the record for receiving yards for one quarter of the season, but that title belongs to a Patriots teammate who could use some love right now: Chad Ochocinco.
Five Up, Five Down
1. Jimmy Graham: When the Saints’ Marques Colston went down with an injury after the Packers game in Week 1, the onus was on wide receivers Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem to step up and fill his absence. Instead, Graham has been the guy who’s taken the leap into becoming virtually uncoverable at times, and even though Colston came back this week, truthfully, Graham is now the no. 1 receiver in the Saints offense. Against a capable cover linebacker in Paul Posluszny, Graham caught 10 of the 14 passes thrown to him on Sunday for a total of 132 yards, picking up seven first downs and a touchdown in the process. Prorate his performance during the first four weeks to a full season and he’s at 84 catches, 1,468 receiving yards, and 12 touchdowns. That’s dominant stuff from a guy whom the Saints were able to grab with the 95th pick of the 2010 draft.
2. Arian Foster: We’ll know a lot more about this in a few weeks, but there’s a very interesting question coming out of the Texans’ victory over the Steelers: Is the Steelers run defense that bad, or are the Texans just that dominant on the ground with a healthy Foster in the lineup? Houston declared its intentions during the opening drive of the game, when it ran the ball 12 times on a 19-play drive that took more than 10 minutes off the clock before scoring. Foster picked up three first downs on the drive and had six first downs on the day to go along with his 42-yard scamper. He finished with 155 yards on 30 carries.
3. Matt Forte: Pay this man! The Panthers aren’t any great shakes, but it’s painfully obvious that Forte is the man who makes the Bears offense go. His 205 rushing yards on Sunday were a career high, and it was a combination of big plays (like his 46-yard run early in the first quarter) and consistent gains. He also had six first downs, including a fourth-down conversion, and with 25 carries, he only had one play that produced a loss. He also caught four of the five passes thrown to him out of the backfield and drew a holding call.
4. Steve Smith: We talked earlier about Welker showing that he’s still got it, but Carolina’s Steve Smith is another receiver on the wrong side of 30 who’s off to a monster start. Taking advantage of “Pro Bowler” Brandon Meriweather at safety, Smith caught eight of the 10 passes thrown to him and picked up 181 yards in the process. Keep in mind that he’s in an offense in which the other wide receivers are Brandon LaFell and Legedu Naanee (who was 4-of-11 for 27 yards on Sunday). And that he’s been doing this for close to a decade now. And that it’s been with Jake Delhomme and, now, a rookie quarterback throwing him the ball. What an incredible player.
5. Ryan Succop: If you believe that the Chiefs should firmly be in “Suck for Luck” mode by now, you might want to put Succop in the other category. Fair enough. But the Chiefs got their first win of the season on Sunday because Succop had one of the best games of his life. Going 5-for-5 is one thing, but Succop hit a 51-yarder to end the first half and followed it with a 54-yarder later on. He also put all six of his kickoffs in the end zone and generated four touchbacks. That’s just about a perfect game for a kicker.
But into every Sunday a little mediocrity must fall. Let us also reflect on those who actively detracted from their teams this weekend.
1. The Eagles Running Game/Continued Insistence Upon Being the Eagles: How many points do you want to leave on the field this week, Eagles? Everyone deserves a little bit of the blame. Andy Reid has helped oversee a roster construction that doesn’t feature anything resembling a goal-line back, either to block or handle the football. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg refuses to roll out Michael Vick near the goal line1 and instead called that bizarre pass/run option play. And let’s then throw a little bit of blame on Ronnie Brown for deciding that it was a good time for him to attempt a pass as he was in the grasp of a defender and falling down. Oh, and throw a little bit of blame on Reid for wasting a challenge on the play, too.
The understandable logic here is that the team doesn’t want to risk injuring Vick on a sneak. Fine. Then bring in Vince Young near the goal line. As the Cowboys have shown over the past couple of weeks, when you eliminate the possibility of the sneak near the goal line, it creates serious problems for your packages there.
Of course, the Eagles weren’t particularly effective away from the goal line, either. LeSean McCoy’s been brilliant this season, but despite having a big lead for a good portion of the second half, the Eagles only ran him nine times all game, picking up a total of 18 yards. The San Francisco run defense is good, but not that good. The annual hysteria over Andy Reid needing to run the ball more is usually overstated, but a bit of balance would have taken more time off the clock and given Philly a chance to squeeze the Niners out of the game in the second half.
2. Jason Campbell: I have no reason to believe that Jason Campbell would ever shave points in a football game. I think he’s an upstanding individual, a fine quarterback, and an underrated player. But explain that interception in the end zone to me without incorporating that possibility. And the Vince Wilfork pick might have been even more bizarre. How do you not see Vince Wilfork? Campbell was playing what might be the league’s worst pass defense — especially after you consider that they were missing their second- and third-best cornerbacks — and left too many plays on the field despite not being sacked.
Also, a demerit to Hue Jackson for punting down 31-13 with the ball on his own 27 on fourth-and-three with 6:38 left. Three minutes later, he chose to go for it in exactly the same situation (same distance, same yard line). What was different about these two scenarios?
3. Rex Grossman: If the Patriots don’t have the league’s worst secondary, the Rams do. Grossman’s offensive line played a great game, keeping the pass rush off of their quarterback by allowing nary a sack in 29 dropbacks. The running game was cooking, as the combination of Ryan Torain, Roy Helu, and Tim Hightower averaged 5.5 yards per carry on their 35 attempts. It’s hard to think of a better situation for Grossman to be in. And what happened? He went 15-of-29 for 143 yards with a touchdown and two picks. Grossman threw for five first downs in the first quarter and then had a total of five more (one with his feet) over the rest of the game. It wasn’t like the Redskins were backed up, either: Grossman failed to convert on four different third downs with five yards or less to go.
4. Rashard Mendenhall: I can basically rip up my bet on Mendenhall winning the rushing title; while the Pittsburgh offensive line is having a rough time thanks to injuries, that was also the case last season, and Mendenhall looked way worse on Sunday than he did at any point in 2010. Before leaving the game with a hamstring injury, Mendenhall had just 25 yards on nine carries. Four of those carries went for no gain or a loss, and both of the passes in his direction fell incomplete. Meanwhile, backups Isaac Redman and Mewelde Moore combined to run for 74 yards on 10 carries. Mendenhall’s now averaging less than three yards per carry this season, and that was before the hammy concern reared its head.
5. Bernard Berrian: We nominated Nolan Carroll as the worst player in the league through two weeks. At the quarter-pole, it’s time to give Berrian the nod. This season, Berrian’s been thrown 16 passes. He’s caught two of them. Two. That’s an unreal catch rate of 12.5 percent, and it actually rose on Sunday, because he went 1-for-6 on targets. The average starting wideout is right around 58 percent over the past few years. The poor guy even had a 13-yard catch called back by an offensive hold this week. Put it this way. Through Week 4’s action, Donovan McNabb has completed 59 percent of his passes and averaged 6.1 yards per attempt. If you cut out the passes to Berrian, McNabb’s completing 66 percent of his passes and averaging 6.7 yards per attempt. Maybe the Vikings need to cut out the passes to Berrian.
Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.
Previously from Bill Barnwell:
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part IV
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part III
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part II
Grantland’s Mega NFL Preview: Part I
Viva Las Vegas: Apartment Hunting in Sin City
Viva Las Vegas: Sabermetrics in the Wasteland
NFL Free Agency: Winners, Losers, and Who’s Left
Flash Over Substance: DeSean Jackson and the Eagles
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