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Cowboys' mental mistakes are not a bug - they're a feature

Tim's picture

I returned from a long couple weeks of travel last night, and, masochist that I am, I finally watched my recording of the game. How incredibly frustrating to see the team do so many good things, but still manage to sabotage themselves with so many bad things.

Think about this: Dallas held the ball for over 40 minutes, went 8 of 15 on third down, 2 for 2 on 4th down, put up 481 yards - 227 of them rushing and only punted once. Yet they screwed up enough to reverse all of that, because make no mistake about it: the Cowboys beat themselves on Sunday.

When you lose by two points, with the last play being a missed go-ahead field goal try, every single bad play in the game could be the reason for the loss. I wish I could list all of those bad plays out for you, but there are just too many.

Should Bailey have made that 51-yarder? Of course. But of all the bad plays responsible for the loss, I'd rank his miss very near the bottom. I'd rank Romo's interception much higher on the list, but both of those plays are the obvious ones. How about looking at a few others?

As we all know, Dallas was called for 13 penalties in the game. Certainly, nearly any penalty could be highlighted as one of the causes of the loss, but it's the ones that happened in crucial situations that mattered the most. On the final touchdown drive – the one that ended with the missed 2-point conversion – Dallas started at the 20. Eighty yards to go with 4:41 on the clock. With penalties, Dallas actually covered 124 yards on that drive, including two 4th and 10 conversions. Yes – Dallas drove 124 yards for that score. Think maybe they could've used a few of those yards on the next possession?

On the cowboys second drive of the game, 3rd and 4 from the Baltimore 12, a six yard Felix Jones run is negated by an illegal shift by Austin. Now, instead of 1st and goal at the 6, Dallas faces 3rd and 9 at the 17, and ends up with a Field Goal. Was a touchdown assured without the penalty? Nothing is assured, but the way Dallas was running the ball Sunday, it's difficult to imagine that a fresh set of downs at the Baltimore 6 would not have ended with a touchdown.

How about one more? Second quarter, Baltimore with a 3rd and goal at the Dallas 2, Flacco's pass to Rice falls incomplete. But wait! A hands to the face call against Kenyon Coleman give the Ravens a fresh set of downs at the one, and all of a sudden, the game is tied.

The defense was good, but there is a first half play you might not remember that looms pretty large in retrospect. It probably stood out to me more because I was watching the game already knowing its outcome. Dallas ahead 10-3, Baltimore has a 2d and 7 at their own 35. Flacco throws a slant to Torrey Smith that Mike Jenkins jumps. The ball hits Jenkins in the hands and bounces off his chest.

The very next play was the 43 yard dump and run by Ray Rice that set up Baltimore's tying TD.

Dropping that INT, which almost surely would have gone the other way for 6, was a game-changer. Sean Lee's interception of a tipped ball against Tampa is the only interception all year for this defense. Including Lee, 132 individual players in the NFL have intercepted as many passes as the entire Dallas defense combined.*

It matters.

As it was, Dallas held the ball for over 40 minutes, and ran for 227 yards. What would that have looked like if the score midway through the second quarter had been 17-3, rather than 10-10?

A lot of people may have been at fault for the 108 yard kick return – Bob Sturm's analysis suggests it may have been the kicker. But the bottom line is that we have had two of three losses this year where Special Teams played a huge part. This is not a new problem, and it's not a small problem.

Finally, we come to that last 34 seconds of the game. How many nailbiter NFL games have you watched where a team with 34 seconds and a time-out remaining only gets off one play? One! NBC highlighted Austin and Ogletree slowly jogging back to the huddle, and Ogletree's comments later indicated that he thought they might take a time out there and get a play called. Austin and Ogletree's fault? Yes.

Seriously? How do you not go into that first down with two plays already called? Maybe run a play and spike it? Coach's fault? Yes. But let's say Austin and Ogletree had hustled back – then it would have been Bryant arguing the spot of the ball who blew it. Bryant's fault? Yes. We do have a veteran QB, though. He could see what was happening. He had to know time was running out. Why didn't he just call the time out immediately? Romo's fault? Yes.

It isn't one thing, it's everything. It isn't one person, it's everybody. And when the mental lapses are this regular and predictable, I think you have to stop calling them lapses. Right now, they are clearly this team's expected performance.

*UPDATE: the original version of this post said that Dallas had intercepted zero passes this year. That has been corrected.