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The Big D Blame Game
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The Big D Blame Game

It’s a familiar narrative: Romo wilted under pressure, throwing two picks in the final three minutes as the Cowboys blew a 23-point lead on Sunday. But the truth is more complicated—and the bigger finger points to the men calling the shots
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports

After blowing a 23-point halftime lead and losing 37-36 to the Packers at home in a game with major playoff implications, it was a CYA postgame in Dallas on Sunday: cover your ass. For Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, not the players. While the latter either told the truth or protected teammates, Garrett wore quarterback Tony Romo like a bulletproof vest as he faced the media in full view of owner Jerry Jones.

Romo threw two interceptions in the final 2:58. That’s what Garrett wants the headlines to be. Here’s another one he wouldn’t mind: Romo changed the play that set the course for the loss. All of that, however, deflects blame from the two biggest factors that ultimately cost the Cowboys: the refusal of Garrett and offensive coordinator Bill Callahan to run the ball with a huge lead, and the Cowboys’ joke of a defense.

No, no, no. Acknowledging that truth would bring too much heat on Garrett, who is now 26-26 as a full-time head coach, with zero playoff berths in nearly three seasons. (He was 5-3 as interim coach in 2010). I feel a Bill Parcells quote coming on. Oh yes, this one: “You are what your record says you are.”

But I digress.

If you want to blame Romo—and he’s not blameless—say this: He made a bad throw with the game on the line. Clinging to a five-point lead, he dropped back on 2nd-and-6 from Dallas’s own 35 and threw behind Miles Austin. Sam Shields made the interception, and Green Bay scored the go-ahead touchdown eight plays later.

You might think bad things always seem to happen to Romo in critical situations. That’s certainly valid, but don’t say Romo threw a bad pass to Cole Beasley with 1:24 remaining. “That was on me,” Beasley said to reporters of Romo’s second interception, which aborted the Cowboys’ comeback on the second play of their final drive. “That’s all it was. ... I stopped when I should have kept going. I don’t have the option to do that on my play. That was my fault.”

Romo did the classy thing, only saying that he and Beasley weren’t on the same page. Garrett handled himself with much less tact. Regarding Romo’s first interception, the coach made the point of saying, “It was a run call, though, that he threw the ball on … I think he’d be the first one to tell you right now that he probably should have run the ball in that situation.”

Gee, after he made a bad throw that cost the Cowboys the lead? Tell us something we don’t know! But here’s the thing: It’s disingenuous to say Romo should have handed the ball off in that situation. That’s just using hindsight to CYA. Romo did exactly as he was instructed to do, and the coaching failed him.

Let’s go through the play:

The Packers, trailing 36-31, called their second timeout with 2:58 to play. Roughly 40 seconds of real time passed between the timeout and when the Cowboys broke the huddle for Garrett, Callahan and Romo to be crystal clear about what they were going to do. Was a straight running play called? No—the coaches called for a run with a pass option tacked onto it.

It’s a rudimentary example of the packaged-play concept that’s sweeping the league. Teams such as the Eagles and Bears can have three to five options built into a single play design. What the Cowboys decided on has been around for several years, at least as far back as 2007 with Brett Favre and the Packers. The call is a running play, unless the defense stacks the box against the run. Then the quarterback—without even calling an audible—throws a quick pass. The receiver and the QB are the only ones executing the pass; everyone else is proceeding with the run because they don’t know the ball is being thrown.

The goal is to aid the No. 1 objective of any NFL offense: stay out of bad plays. In other words, if the play has little chance of succeeding against a particular defensive look, don’t run it.

“Tony threw a pass—we call it a smoke or a flash [play], something we have accompanying some runs if he gets a bad look, and that’s what happened on the interception,” Garrett conceded.

What’s mystifying is why the Cowboys hardly ran the ball in the second half.

So Romo breaks the huddle and sees eight Packers defenders in the box, and nine in the vicinity of the line of scrimmage. There are no deep safeties. The entire left half of the field is open if Austin beats his man. Everything Romo has been coached to do tells him to throw the pass. Austin knows the pass is viable: He doesn’t run-block on the play; he clubs Shields to the outside and runs a slant.

Then things get hairy. Instead of crashing to his left against the run, Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews goes right at Romo. (Because the Packers run smoke so much with Aaron Rodgers, who would have thrown the ball too, Matthews likely knew the defense was inviting the pass). But Romo made a great play to avoid Matthews.

And then the play fell apart.

Romo’s error was in failing to set his feet and step into the throw. He didn’t lead Austin, who had two steps on Shields. Romo’s feet were parallel to the line of scrimmage, so he couldn’t get much on the pass. If he was going to miss, he should have missed long. That’s what Romo is kicking himself about, that or not tucking the ball away and running it to keep the clock moving.

“They overloaded the side we were going to run the ball to, and I ended up throwing to the man who was one-on-one,” Romo said. “The defense did a really good job of coming in on me instead of following the tackle down. It was my fault to, obviously, put the ball in a position where the defense could make a play … I have to do better than that.”

murray-run-800 DeMarco Murray had 83 yards on 11 carries in the first half, but got just seven more touches despite the Cowboys’ having a 23-point lead at halftime. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Regardless of the headlines or the blathering on talk shows today, Romo did not make a mistake throwing instead of running there. If Romo had made a slightly better pass, that’s a game-sealing touchdown and the narrative would be how gutsy Garrett and Callahan are for staying aggressive so they didn’t have to rely on their sieve-like defense. (In the second half the Cowboys’ D gave up five touchdowns on five drives, and 340 yards on 38 plays.) If Garrett was indeed dead set on running the ball, he had plenty of time during the timeout to make that clear. Or he could have called a run-only play.

It’s mystifying why the Cowboys hardly ran the ball in the second half. After DeMarco Murray carried 11 times for 83 yards in the first half, he got just seven more touches despite the big halftime lead. The Packers’ defense had given up at least 5.2 yards per rushing attempt in four of their past six games; the only outliers were the porous offensive lines belonging to the Giants and Falcons. The Eagles, Vikings, Bears and Lions each pounded the ball down the Packers’ throats with the game in the balance. The Cowboys, despite averaging 7.4 yards a carry, didn’t. That’s a failure in coaching, not quarterbacking.

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