Monday, December 8, 2008

The Dallas Cowboys Have No Reason to Panic

"Everyone's lost but me." - River Phoenix, "Indian Jones and the Last Crusade"

It's funny. When you're a sane person awash in a sea of insanity, everyone thinks you're the crazy one. For example, if I talk to a radical right-winger, he/she comes away thinking I'm a pinko-liberal. If I talk to a pinko-liberal, he/she comes away thinking I'm a radical right-winger. The truth is I'm a moderate and make up my mind based on individual issues, not party ideology.

It's true in politics and it's true in sports.

That's why many fans probably think I'm bipolar or a couple players short of an infield. I've spent most of the year being sharply critical of the Dallas Cowboys, culminating in a piece a couple days ago about the team and Tony Romo not being ready for the New York Giants. The next day, I wrote that the 'pokes would make the playoffs.

But it's not really as ridiculous as it looks in print.

I usually write in reaction to the hysteria created by some members of the national media. One minute, Dallas is destined for Super Bowl glory because they scorched the San Francisco 49ers (a win that's actually looking better recently, but still didn't mean much at the time) and the Seattle Seahawks. The next minute, the 'boys are in trouble because they lost an excruciating game on the road to the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team on top of the American Football Conference North.

So who's crazy?

Look, I'm the first guy to point out Tony Romo's faults. But having an atrocious game (that's what it was) on the road in an insanely hostile stadium and terrible weather against the National Football League's most fearsome defense? Lots of very good quarterbacks have such "smears" on their resumes.

And let's be clear about this: it wasn't a must win game.

Dallas lost and moved into the playoff picture. That means there's no guarantee that even the most elite QBs (Tom Brady, Peyton/Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, etc.) would have survived with a W. Those guys are sure to bring their A-game when the chips are down and the chips weren't down in the Steel City yesterday.

It was an important game, they all are from here on out.

But, as I pointed out in my last article, the National Football Conference South isn't as strong as it looks and I think the Atlanta Falcons stumble down the stretch. They already lost one of the problem games on their schedule (in New Orleans) and they still have the division-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers coming to town and a roadie against the division-leading Minnesota Vikings. I say they lose at least one of those games, possibly both.

Let's also be clear about something else: there is definitely reason for some concern.

However, it's got less to do with Dallas and more to do with its opposition. That's because the Giants lost in Philadelphia to the Eagles. That loss means two things. It means the Giants will be extra focused coming into Dallas and it means they have something to play for all of a sudden. Another loss means a losing streak and puts homefield advantage in jeopardy. New York will want to avoid both scenarios as well as to keep Dallas out of the postseason.

But it's minor concern.

I still think the Cowboys' desperation to make the second season and homefield advantage will win out. I'm just not so sure anymore. Even so, Atlanta will almost certainly lose at least one more game. As will all of the teams who presently sit one game behind Dallas for that final playoff spot. The one team that should legitimately scare Dallas, the Eagles, sits on the 'pokes schedule.

Sure, that's a road game against a stiff defense and it looks like it will be hugely significant. These elements usually conspire against Romo with a high degree of success.

But it's also a divisional rivalry so it should be close. As good as Philly looked yesterday, I don't think they win if Plaxico Burress doesn't submarine his team (his replacement dropped a sure touchdown early, ran the wrong routes, and Antonio Pierce played like a chump). Dallas has two receivers who can impersonate Plaxico and its defense will be better prepared/equipped to handle Brian Westbrook out of the backfield.

As for Romo and the egg he laid yesterday in yet another big game under adverse conditions.

There is no denying Dallas lost in disturbing fashion, disturbing because they had the game won and lost it in a way that's becoming an ugly pattern. However, if the Cowboys had simply lost that game, no one would really be heralding gloom and doom. It's not like many reasonable observers expected Dallas to win that game.

We thought they had a chance, but it was a slim chance considering how good the Steelers are, the games was in Pittsburgh, and Marion Barber wasn't playing.

The only reason some members of the media are freaking out is because Dallas defied those odds for three quarters and then imploded in spectacular fashion.

But the truth remains, had Romo played well and finished out that game, it would have been a HUGE step forward. The growth process for NFL QBs usually happens in smaller increments. Say an increment that looks more like a big win under adverse circumstances, but with the support of a home crowd.

Then, we can more reasonably expect him to go get the same on the road because it's the next logical step.

With Dallas, the national media seems to fabricate miracles in minor accomplishments and, consequently, demand them on a routine basis. It's absurd.

I'll say it again, a 3-1 finish probably gets the Dallas Cowboys into the playoffs.

And since even an obscene loss only counts for one, there's no reason to panic in Big D.

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