With a 2-1 record, the 2011 Dallas Cowboys are already ahead of where many local pundits thought they would be. Predictions of a 9-7 season were the norm, a record which would likely not give the Cowboys a chance to make the playoffs.
Game 1 Loss to the New York Jets
In game 1, the Cowboys played on the road against a very good New York Jets team, and they came very close to winning it but blew a 14-point lead in the 4th quarter. Quarterback Tony Romo threw a last-minute interception after fumbling the ball during a previous goal line play in which he pretended he was former running back Marion Barber trying to bulldoze his way through a pile of bodies. It was a play reminiscent of those that the former coach of the Cowboys, Bill Parcells, feared most about Romo’s decision-making ability in pressure situations. Fans of the Cowboys will remember Parcells’ cautionary remarks when he was responding to criticism about staying with veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe as the starter, whom many thought to be on his last legs before he ever arrived in Dallas to play.
Romo: Worst Quarterback in History
Like every win and every loss in Dallas, the tendency is to overreact. During the following week, the local and national press jumped on the bandwagon in blaming Romo for the loss, despite the Cowboys having given up a blocked punt for a touchdown and a botched field goal attempt earlier in the game from extra-point territory.
Romo the Messiah: Victory in San Francisco
The following week, playing the San Francisco 49ers on the road, they pulled off a narrow victory in which Romo and kicker Dan Bailey both redeemed themselves. In a storybook scenario, Romo left the game with a broken rib and sat out much of it while old-timer quarterback Jon Kitna handled the Cowboys offense. That is, until Romo came running onto the field to lead the team to its first win of the season.
The following day it was reported that Romo had not only broken his rib, he had also suffered a slight puncture in his lung. It was played locally as an “outhouse-to-the-White-House” comeback for Romo given the bad publicity from the week before. Like I said, it’s an overreaction city and always has been since the days of their earliest successes under coach Tom Landry.
Victory in Dallas Over Nemesis Washington Redskins
Finally coming home for their first game in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, they faced their age-old nemesis, the Washington Redskins, now coached by Super Bowl winner Mike Shanahan, whose record was 2-0. Fighting through miscues, four premature snaps of the ball on offense, injuries to star receiver Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and a couple of interior offensive linemen, Tony Romo did something fans have been waiting to see. Not only did he overcome the pain of his injury, but he exhibited field leadership in his handling of the players on the field. In similar situations in the past, Romo has been criticized for becoming a loner, with his head down and withdrawing to the end of the bench.
Still, with the victory over the Redskins, the Cowboys offense did not score a touchdown. They scored six field goals, Dan Bailey now having experienced the full redemption of his first-game miss—that is, until he misses his next one. They beat the Redskins 18-16, so their record is now 2-1, which ties them for first place in the NFC East division with the Redskins and the New York Giants.
Defense, Defense, Defense
Probably the best off-season decision by the Cowboys was hiring defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. In spite of key injuries to Cowboys cornerbacks, the defense is playing very well. The new all-out blitz schemes are hiding the weaknesses in the Dallas secondary.
Could Sean Lee Be the Second Coming of LeeRoy Jordan?
One very bright spot is two-year linebacker Sean Lee, who replaced Keith Brooking in the starting role. Lee was named NFC Defensive Player of the Month for September, the first time a Cowboys player has won this award since its inception in 1986 (source: ESPN website). Sean Lee’s numbers are impressive after three starts. He is credited with 36 tackles, of which 23 were solo, two interceptions, and two fumble recoveries. Veteran DeMarcus Ware has been phenomenal as well, lining up all over the field to avoid double-team blocks and giving himself just one blocker to overcome on his way to the quarterback.
Don’t Forget, It’s Still the Cowboys
There are problems, however. At some point very soon—the Cowboys play the undefeated Detroit Lions this weekend—the mistakes on offense will thwart any effort to come from behind. Romo is demonstrating better field leadership, but play-calling and offensive schemes will eventually have to pick up the pace as well as just plain “football smarts.” Receivers and Romo need to get on the same page fast! Missed routes and terrible secondary reads by inexperienced receivers will frustrate the entire team, and the Cowboys will sink back into the muck and mire of the recent seasons under head coach Wade Phillips.
It is still questionable whether the Dallas defense has been fully tested. Folks in Dallas did not expect it to be as good as it has shown to be so far. The biggest test in this young season will be the Detroit Lions this Sunday. A Lions drought spanning two decades appears to be over. They bring their 3-0 record to Dallas this weekend with their quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who has shown brilliance thus far with 997 yards passing and a 67% completion average with 9 touchdowns thrown.
Rob Ryan seems to be made for this kind of challenge, and fans expect to see just how good his defensive schemes and players are this week.
It is still hard to tell how the team will fare. It is a long season, and injuries have come early and often. Knowing the pulse of the local fan base, even though many folks thought the Cowboys would win no more than 10 games, expectations are high, way too high. They have weaknesses that have not yet been exposed by great teams. I’m still holding to my prediction of 9-7, but of course, like all lifelong Cowboys fans, I’ll overreact at every loss and every win.