When the pass-happy Cowboys offense works, it really works. And when it doesn't, like in yesterday's crushing come-from-ahead loss to the Packers that denied Dallas first place in the division, the failure tends toward the spectacular. The Cowboys spent an entire half with a huge lead throwing the ball, when every cheat sheet and simulator and old-school football pundit said to run it, and there's more than enough blame to go around.
A 23-point halftime lead evaporated as the Packers scored a touchdown on every single possession that didn't end in the victory formation. With the Cowboys owning the worst defense in the NFL, that's more the order of things than their stifling first half. So we look to Tony Romo, upon whose arm the season lives or dies, and we ask—why not just hand it off and run down the clock?
Sam Shields's backbreaking interception with 2:46 remaining was supposed to be a handoff. "It was a run call that he threw the ball on," Jason Garrett said, not necessarily shifting the blame but pointing out a fact. The Cowboys offense has long allowed Romo the freedom to change plays when he sees something he doesn't like, and this time he saw nine Packers defenders stacking the box, with the CB Shields the only defender on WR Miles Austin.
So Romo alerted Austin—and no one else—to a "smoke" route, one of his oldest tricks. It calls for a one-step hitch against soft CB coverage. But Clay Matthews went unblocked, and in avoiding the sack Romo's and Austin's timing was thrown off. Shields undercut the route and pulled down the INT.
"They overloaded the side we were going to run the ball to," Romo agreed. "I ended up throwing the ball to the man who was one-on-one. It was my fault for obviously putting the ball in a position where the defense could make a play."
It's not the worst idea—getting a first down runs down the game clock more than a rush for no gain—at least when it works. "We decided to be a little more aggressive and felt it was the right approach," Romo said, but being aggressive comes with the risk of, well, this. The right thing to do, once the "smoke" was blown up by Matthews's pressure, was to put that ball somewhere no Packer could get to it. Romo thought he could thread the ball through—he couldn't. One play, with one bad decision and one poor execution, and it was the beginning of the end.
It didn't need to come to that, though. Dallas was up 26-3 at the half, partially on the strength of DeMarco Murray's 93 yards on 11 carries. With a huge lead, Murray only got the ball seven times after the break. Yes, it's harder to gain yardage on the ground when the defense expects you to run, but there's a reason they expect it. It's the smart gameplan.
This one's all on Garrett and offensive coordinator Bill Callahan. The Cowboys changed their structure a month ago—Callahan continues to call the plays from upstairs, but now they're routed through Garrett first, so he can give input and offer vetoes. So who's to blame for calling 48 pass plays in a game a team led by 23 at the half and by 12 with eight minutes left?
"Bill calls the plays," Garrett said, as if he doesn't have final say on everything. "We wanted to mix run and pass. We'll go back and evaluate and see how well we did that."
As for Callahan?
When a reporter sidled up to Dallas offensive coordinator and began asking a question, Callahan smiled and said, "I'm not required to speak to the media after the game."
A total failure in the chain of command. Too many pass plays called. No overruling from the man whose job it is to do exactly that. And on that fateful INT, which came long after the game ought to have been over, one last unnecessary, unilateral pass from the man under center. It's the sort of combined meltdown that costs people their jobs, and only Tony Romo was being anything close to accountable.