Anytime you beat a division rival on the road with such ease that a 17-0 final score is still the source of some level of discontent, you know that either A) you are a pretty good team, B) your opponent is certainly not, or C) both of the above.
I choose C.
I imagine that all accounts of the Cowboys' 10th victory of the 2009 season will focus on the importance of taking care of business and setting up the chance to play for a NFC East division title in 6 days time. We will spend the next few thousand words discussing things that went right or wrong, but I would find it simply irresponsible, on a day when teams like the Saints and Giants would welcome a less-than-perfect win, to point out the absolute lead story was that this Cowboys team responded very, very well to the Saints victory by rolling out a road-trouncing of the rival Washington Redskins.
The Redskins, as we knew all week (or all decade), are a mess of the highest order. Their organization seems to often hamstring their own team's efforts with the insane nature in which they do business. No matter how goofy Jerry Jones makes things in Dallas, to suggest that he has set up the most chaotic environment in the NFL is to ignore the Raiders and Redskins. So, at least we have that going for us.
The story of Game #15 for me would have to be the precision with which the Cowboys offense seemed to operate with again - only to leave many, many points on the field due to the inability to get the last yard at the moment of truth. The Cowboys called 5 running plays on 3rd and 4th down with 2 yards or less to go. All 5 were some variation of a power run to Marion Barber. And all 5 failed. It is certainly not difficult to imagine the trouble that can cause down the road. If you combine that with a kicking situation that is less than rock-solid, you can understand the ice the Cowboys stand on is exceedingly thin. Think about it: The Cowboys are in a crucial game with huge stakes (every game from here until the Super Bowl would qualify as a crucial game with high stakes) and they face a 4th and half of a yard from the opponents 31 yard line. Do you trust the kicker to make a 49 yarder? No. Do you trust your OL and RB to be able to get that last 18 inches? How could you after the issues against the Chargers and Redskins in the last few weeks? The quandary is there for all to see.
So, why can't this team move the chains when they need to most? Especially when I have spent the season talking about how this team seems to be a solid power-run team. Well, running in "21" or "22" personnel is one thing in normal down and distance situations because on 2nd and 8, you do not face 10 or 11 in the box. But, when it is 4th and half of a yard, the defense knows what you want to do. They plug a jumbo personnel group right at your OL, and if your OL cannot push back, the RB doesn't have much of a chance. This is not to say that Barber is not to blame - because he is. Barber looks tentative and frankly a bit lacking with his usual strength in busting through with his relentless abandon. But, I also have to question the boys up front getting and winning their individual blocks. We have quite a few plays to consider in these last 3 weeks that fall under the "short yardage" banner, and the fact is that there are a number of reasons they are not getting it done. But, I don't think you blame Jason Garrett (this time). What else would you call on 4th and 1? You play the percentages. And the percentages suggest that any NFL offense should be able to get 18 inches. But, especially this NFL offense, who has many rich men on that offensive line - some who attend the Pro Bowl on a regular basis. This isn't Garrett's problem. This is on the players.
But, otherwise, the passing game still looks sharp - with Miles Austin and Jason Witten again combining to show us how elite they really are. Austin had 10 balls thrown his way, caught 9 and moved the chains 7 times. Witten had 7 passes in his direction, caught 6 for 4 first downs. The efficiency with which those 2 have operated this year have almost made the frustrations of watching Roy Williams a story that while annoying, does not seem to hamstring the offense dramatically.
The defense was very good at snuffing out any of the feeble attacks the Redskins could mount. This was not a stiff test for them, but it was more of the same from the last several weeks, with Ware and Spencer on the flanks looking the part of destructive OLBs in a 3-4 defense that make production extremely difficult for most offenses.
Other observations from the completion of the first season sweep of Washington since 2004:
* Let's start with Joe DeCamillis who was in the hospital at the time of the game with a "sudden attack of appendicitis" according to Evan Grant. Man, that guy has had a rough 2009. The Special teams coach suffered a broken neck back in May during the practice facility collapse, and now will stay in a Washington hospital until Wednesday. I think most of us have appreciated his improvements to the special teams, but for some reason writing about his coaching seems a bit irrelevant when the guy is still in his hospital bed, so let's wish him a speedy recovery and get on with some of the other details. However, I should say this: When you talk to guys who work for the Cowboys - you often get the claim that he is a great candidate to be a future NFL head coach.
* Keith Brooking has been such a great addition to this team. He makes plays and he brings intensity. I have no idea what that audio routine proved that NBC showed of his "WWF-style" pre-game rant, but it did bring a smile to my face. After the Zach Thomas era came and left with little result or effect, I was not overly optimistic about what the Brooking signing might mean. But, the intangibles that he has presented this squad seems to be just what was needed. But, as we have found over the years, the ability to speak in the lockerroom often is dictated by the ability to make a real difference on the field. He, obviously, can do both.
* It is clear to me that Cris Collinsworth has no idea who Alex Ovechkin is.
* That Touchdown pass on the 1st drive of the game was such a thing of beauty that further demonstrates that Tony Romo is a player with rare talents. He doesn't panic in the face of a pass rush, and is more than willing to buy that extra split second to make a play. That particular play looked dead in the water with Kedric Golston breathing down his neck, but in typical Romo fashion, when he is in the red zone he seems to develop even a better feel for what is available. He lobbed that pass on a perfect trajectory to Roy Williams and scored a TD that was beautiful. The ball floated right over the hands of DeAngelo Hall and right in front of Reed Doughty.
* So, London Fletcher's hit on Patrick Crayton is not a penalty? Blow to the head and defenseless receiver rules don't apply if they don't feel like calling it?
* If you read this blog on a regular basis, you know I was not terribly bullish on shares of Doug Free when Marc Colombo broke his leg in Green Bay. But, I must tip my hat to the young man and suggest that he shows plenty of promise. I still think he can stand to gain some strength, but he appears to have plenty of fight and desire, as well as solid quickness for a tackle. If a guy enters with no experience to a team that is on a playoff run, then plays 6 weeks without any sort of train wreck games that cost you, then it is time to declare his showing a solid success. I do wonder about short yardage with him versus Colombo (evidence shows this team was quite a bit better when Colombo was there), but otherwise, Free looks like a keeper.
* NBC's game broadcast always has more information and statistics than the other networks. I assume this is because they can focus on 1 game rather than the 6 or 7 that Fox and CBS must prepare for, but regardless, I enjoy the numbers that they produce. In particular, the stat of Roy Williams leading the NFL in "on-target drops" with 10 was a number that merely confirmed our beliefs. I think it might be harsh to call that interception last night Roy's fault completely - as the ball may have been a tad high - but, I need Roy to out battle Carlos Rogers for position on that play. It always looks like he has half as much fight for the ball that he needs.
* 1 play after that interception, Anthony Spencer (with help from Igor Olshansky) tried to take the ball right back on a sack that almost resulted in a fumble strip, too. Spencer looks so confident right now, and you can clearly see that when a pass rusher is no longer satisfied with just the sack. He wants to take that ball, too. And he came darn close. I think Spencer's breakout stretch is continuing quite well.
* I don't believe Terence Newman enjoys dealing with Santana Moss. His interception early was a real momentum changer, but through the night, anytime Moss grabbed one of those WR screens (which appears to be about the only route on the Redskins' route tree), Newman looked fairly uncomfortable trying to contain, control, and tackle. Moss has given him fits for so many years, and I believe Newman would be happy to be done with him.
* Albert Haynesworth is an absolute impossible matchup. I am not sure I have ever seen Kyle Kosier tossed around like #92 caused last night. Albert is a handful, and while I agree that he is a bad investment for a team like Washington that possesses so many holes that spending a huge chunk of change on Haynesworth doesn't make sense. However, he is tremendous quality. And he is unblockable in certain spots. And, he is perhaps the best reason the Cowboys couldn't win their blocks on those short yardage situations. So, I understand this idea that Washington overpaid and that it likely will not work. I also understand that his conduct this past week is not admirable in any way. But, wow. He is unstoppable.
* I am very much on the record with my opinion of Wade Phillips. I think he should have been fired in the lockerroom after 44-6. But, since he wasn't, I wonder where we are now. They are 10-5, and have a chance to win their division. If they do, they will host a playoff game with an 11-5 record. If they win the first playoff game in 13 seasons, we would have to admit progress was made. That is alot of "ifs" but, if those "ifs" happen, how do you fire him?
* Jay Ratliff is awesome. And there is no bigger punctuation mark for a big Cowboys performance than a Ratliff sack celebration. What a stud.
So, 10 wins. A playoff berth. And a rematch with the hated Eagles for a division crown on Sunday afternoon. This is what you want. This is riveting stuff. Who knew 2 weeks ago that the season was going to take this turn?
Now, Green Bay and Arizona play in Week 17, and the Eagles are here. All 4 teams are likely to play during the Wildcard weekend, with the only things assured are that Arizona will be a home team and that Green Bay will be on the road. Beyond that, it is all in front of us.