In 2012, Robert Griffin III twice ripped out the Dallas Cowboys' hearts en route to helping his Washington Redskins win the NFC East. On Sunday night, we learned yet again just how much can change from season to season.
Griffin turned the ball over twice in the second half, Dwayne Harris spurred the Cowboys' scoring attack with excellent returns, and Dallas moved back to .500 with a 31-16 win over Washington on Sunday night.
Before a crowd of 90,239 at AT&T Stadium, Harris proved to be the most exciting player in a contest featuring multiple Pro Bowlers. The third-year return man scored an 86-yard punt return in the second quarter and compiled more than 200 total return yards to boost a stagnant Cowboys offense.
Harris also had a 90-yard kick return in the third quarter, setting Tony Romo up to find Terrance Williams on a touchdown pass to put Dallas ahead 21-9 with 9:03 remaining in the third quarter.
Griffin, meanwhile, spent his entire evening trying to remind folks just how electrifying he could be.
Much of the bluster heading into this game in D.C. said that Griffin would finally get an opportunity to run more. And he did. The second-year quarterback rushed for 77 yards on nine carries and received the nod on multiple designed runs that stretched out the Dallas defense.
The problem was Griffin's passing.
He completed only 19 of 39 passes for 246 yards, struggling with both accuracy and ball control—especially deep in Cowboys territory.
The Redskins went 3-of-4 in red-zone opportunities. However, each of those conversions were Kai Forbath field goals. Forbath had Washington within eight points, 14-6, going into halftime, then brought it to 14-9 on the opening possession of the second half.
Scoring three points is better than zero, but Griffin and the Redskins left as much as 12 points off the board. Washington's only non-conversion came when Griffin threw an interception to Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick at the 5:08 mark of the fourth quarter to essentially seal the game.
Griffin now has as many interceptions this season (five) as he did all of his rookie campaign.
Speaking of interceptions, Romo avoided making the critical one this time. The Cowboys quarterback did not match his 506 yards and five touchdowns from last week's loss to Denver, but he had a solid contest overall as game manager.
Romo completed 18 of his 30 pass attempts for 170 yards and a touchdown against an interception. It was the first time he threw for fewer than 200 yards since Oct. 23, 2011 against the St. Louis Rams.
Although the tone was celebratory after the game, the Cowboys did suffer two critical losses.
Running back DeMarco Murray left in the second quarter with a sprained knee, and defensive end DeMarcus Ware also exited early with a quad injury. Neither returned to the game.
Their replacements both came up big in the fourth quarter. Kyle Wilber sacked, stripped and recovered a Griffin fumble early in the period. And Joseph Randle subsequently punched the ball into the end zone from one yard out, finalizing the score at 31-16 with 8:49 remaining in the contest. Overall, Randle's numbers weren't so good, as he finished with just 17 yards on 11 carries.
On the other side, Redskins running back Alfred Morris carried the ball 16 times for 81 yards, highlighted by a 45-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
At 3-3, the Cowboys pulled into a tie with the Philadelphia Eagles for first place in the NFC East. The two teams face off next week in a game that will very likely help shape the divisional foundation for the rest of the season. Neither the Redskins (1-4) nor the New York Giants (0-6) look in any shape to make a run for the division title this year.
Some would say that's what folks said about Washington last season. That's true, but if Sunday night proved anything, it's that a return to 2012 stylings isn't a fix-all for this Redskins team.
Robert Griffin III (QB, Washington Redskins): C+
Griffin wasn't in peak form by any stretch, but we saw glimpses of it in the loss. The Redskins coaching staff loosened the reins a bit with its quarterback, drawing up designed runs that got the offense into a rhythm early.
The result was an increase in hits to Griffin—a huge increase. But the Washington offense had noticeably more cohesion and moved the ball well on the ground and, at times, through the air, with Griffin looking far more comfortable making his short and intermediate reads.
Completing 19 of 39 passes against the league's second-worst pass defense isn't going to make anyone shudder in their cleats, but the hope is he continues to get more comfortable going forward.
Griffin led multiple pre-garbage-time scoring drives, used his legs for the first time all season, and kept his team in the game despite poor performances elsewhere. Grading on a curve from what we've seen in 2013, that's a promising outing.
He might want to be more careful with the ball in the pocket, however.
Dwayne Harris (WR/PR, Dallas Cowboys): A
Outside of having a Devin Hester prime-level performance, Harris had just about the best night possible for a return man. He scampered up the field for an 86-yard touchdown and then had a direct hand in another score.
Harris had such a good game that no one questioned him fielding a punt inside the 5-yard line with his back to the coverage team. That broke two of the cardinal rules of punt returning, but most everyone probably thought that it was a good decision after the fact.
It's cliche to expound how critical field position is. It's also become a semi-popular theory that one way to help stave off concussions in football would be to eliminate the kick return.
Game-changing nights like Harris' make that conversation all the more difficult.
Tony Romo (QB, Dallas Cowboys): C+
One week, Tony Romo has the best game of his entire career and loses. The next, he's overshadowed by a special teams star and wins. Isn't judging quarterbacks entirely on their wins and losses fun?
Romo's outing will again mostly be defined for his fourth quarter, during which he held down the fort, avoided costly mistakes, and even led a field-goal drive against a surprisingly game Redskins defense.
But for the first three quarters, Romo was unable to get anything going.
He had only 111 passing yards and the Cowboys were nearly tripled up in total yardage up to that point. Dez Bryant and Romo had trouble connecting and didn't make much headway when they did. Romo threw an interception and a touchdown, but the former proved meaningless and the latter was almost entirely set up by another player.
Come to think of it, maybe we should just pretend Romo won last week and lost this week. Sound good?
Alfred Morris (RB, Washington Redskins): B-
There will be some who could call this game a rejuvenation of Morris' season, but that's not actually the case.
Heading into Week 6, the second-year back was averaging 5.3 yards per carry. A majority of his games looked much like this, with Morris picking up a succession of shorter gains before a longer run props up his average.
The difference here is that Morris could get opportunities for most of the game, rather than being tossed aside early in a blowout. This was just the second time this season Morris had more than 15 carries, even though we're stretching the bounds of "more" with 16.
Only a few of those carries were worthwhile gains, most of which came after it became clear Griffin refound use of his legs. But with teams now having to prepare for more of a dual-threat situation from the Redskins quarterback, Morris should have more opportunities and bigger holes to run through going forward.
Washington returns home after two straight on the road next week to take on the Chicago Bears, who will have 10 days of rest under their belts. The Cowboys begin a somewhat treacherous slate of upcoming road games, starting with the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 7.
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