So close, yet so far away.
That’s been the theme of the Dallas Cowboys over the years, and it was especially apparent on Sunday. Despite penalties and injuries, they were able to put themselves into position to kick the game winning field goal.
Unfortunately, their chances of an upset sailed wide left, as Dan Bailey was unable to connect on a 51-yarder. Penalties were once again a major factor as they lost to the Baltimore Ravens 31-29.
I don’t know if there really is such a thing as a good loss. This game may be as close as it gets. The Cowboys were the more dominant team all afternoon, and if not for numerous penalties and a bizarre case of late-game clock management, they would have won this one.
But that’s the Cowboys we’ve come to know: undisciplined, poorly coached and sometimes just flat-out baffling.
They are now 2-3 with a long road ahead of them. Through five games, here are the key players off to the best and worst starts.
DeMarcus Ware is once again making a case for being the best outside linebacker in the league. Twenty-two tackles, six sacks and three forced fumbles, all while being double-teamed, is Defensive Player of the Year material.
Sean Lee gets the pleasure of lining up next to Ware, and it’s just a matter of time before the term “ball-hawk” becomes synonymous with his name. He’s already racked up 52 tackles, good enough for seventh in the league, one forced fumble and one interception. He’s been absolutely disruptive and brings a ton of energy to the field. He’ll be the leader in the locker room before it’s all said and done.
Tony Romo could be placed in the “worst starts” category after his five-interception performance against the Bears. But the fact of the matter is, he has played well over the course of five very difficult games. Keep in mind he’s been dealing with an offensive line that can’t block and is one of the most penalized in the league.
His receivers, namely Dez Bryant, haven’t been running the right routes and have been directly responsible for interceptions. His favorite target, Jason Witten, started the season with an uncharacteristic case of the dropsies.
The entire secondary has been playing very well. And that’s with a major injury to safety Barry Church, who has been lost for the season. Brandon Carr is living up to expectations. He had some trouble with Brandon Marshall, as most cornerbacks do, but has otherwise has been very reliable. Morris Claiborne is still shaking off what little rookie rust he had to start with, but so far, is keeping owner Jerry Jones from getting absolutely crucified in the media for taking such a risk in the draft.
Going into Sunday’s game, the Cowboys were ranked first in the fewest yards allowed through the air. What a difference a year makes.
Dez Bryant has yet to live up to the hype. He’s had trouble getting off of press coverage. He’s had trouble communicating with Romo and running the correct routes. He’s had trouble getting his hands on the ball. Even his 95-yard, two touchdown performance against the Ravens was overshadowed by a key drop on a two-point conversion that would have tied the game. Bryant has been one of the biggest disappointments of the season.
Felix Jones had a great game on Sunday, racking up 105 yards and a touchdown. It’s the first time this season we’ve been able to say something positive about him. The concern going into 2012 has always been DeMarco Murray’s health, which is why a productive Jones is so important. Thus far, he’s looked over weight and slow. At least up until he took over for Murray against the Ravens.
I’d be very surprised if Jones is on the Cowboys roster in 2013. And if he hopes to be picked up by another team, he’ll need to vastly improve. He may be called upon next week against the Panthers if Murray is limited.
Doug Free had a terrible year playing left tackle in 2011. There was some hope that returning him back to his natural position at right tackle in 2012 would cure some of his problems. Instead, he’s picking up right where he left off. Not only does he lead the team in penalties, it just doesn’t seem like he knows how to play football. This from ESPN’s Dan Graziano:
Free looks lost and overmatched on almost every play -- like a lineman who's guessing and always guessing wrong. You can beat him with outside moves and inside moves. You can outrun, out-fake or out-muscle him. And when you load up on his side and he has to try to block two players, it looks like a dam burst on that side of the line.
The rest of the offensive line has been far from competent. Center Phil Costa has been injured for the entire season, not that he’s a better option than Ryan Cook, who joined the team mere days before their first game. Right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau has been as much of a disaster as Free. Right tackle Tyron Smith is battling Free for the lead in team penalties. Suffice it to say, this group is the biggest weakness the Cowboys have.
The good news is, they can’t get much worse, which suggests that they will get better. As the season wears on, I expect them to gel, and who knows, maybe even play good enough to not be the worst offensive line in the league. Imagine what Tony Romo could do with a clean pocket.