One loss does not ruin the Dallas Cowboys' surprising first half of the season. But Monday night's 20-17 overtime defeat to Washington showed this squad plays with a small margin for error, and there will be bumpy times ahead.
Make no mistake: This was an ugly defeat that could come back to haunt the Cowboys in late December. It's a division loss at home to the NFC East's worst team, against the Redskins' third-string quarterback. Forgetting the standings and tiebreak implications for a minute, the game showed off a few potentially fatal flaws for Dallas' title hopes.
This is a top heavy team that is heavily dependent on a few offensive stars. Tony Romo has played fantastic this season, but he's a 34-year-old quarterback coming off two back surgeries in as many years. Owner Jerry Jones surely saw the Cowboys season flash before his eyes when Romo lay inert on the artificial turf for two minutes before heading to the locker room.
Romo admitted to taking a pain-killing injection in his effort to re-enter the game, the second straight week he's needed a shot. Romo has skipped Wednesday practice all season as he tries to manage his back issues, and he's always going to be one hit away from bigger concern. His condition makes the Cowboys' season feel even more precarious than your average NFL team's campaign, so dependent on injuries and luck.
This loss, however, can't be pinned on Romo's injury. He struggled with Washington's blitzes from the first snap and the Cowboys offense never seemed able to adjust. Romo actually left the game while trailing, and re-entered to a tie game.
We saw on Monday night what happens when the Cowboys offense doesn't carry the team. The Dallas defense has overachieved to be average this year, but it's not a talented unit overall. They entered Monday night as the fifth-worst defense in yards per play allowed, and that number got worse against Colt McCoy's crew. Washington flipped the script on Dallas, holding the ball for ten more minutes than the Cowboys.
Jones said the team likely lost their leading tackler Justin Durant for the season due to a torn biceps muscle. He would be the third linebacker the team has lost for the year, including their best defensive player, Sean Lee.
Monday's loss was also reminiscent of so many heartbreaking defeats in the Jason Garrett era which included lack of adjustments and questionable late game play-calling. With two plays to get three yards in overtime, the Cowboys did not lean on their vaunted offensive line or running back DeMarco Murray.
Perhaps it's not fair to criticize Garrett during this impressive season, but he has not earned the benefit of the doubt the last few years. To show this Cowboys team is different, they will have to re-prove themselves anew each week. There will be no better time to do so than Sunday against the blitz-happy Arizona Cardinals, the new owners of the NFC's best record.
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