Dallas Cowboys: Monday Night Football

Loss will linger, but will it haunt Cowboys?

October, 2, 2012

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Remember way back on Sept. 5 when the Dallas Cowboys beat the New York Giants to open the season? Seems like a lifetime ago, doesn't it?

It wasn't even a month ago, but after an embarrassing 34-18 loss to the Chicago Bears on Monday, the Cowboys find themselves having to chase the season in the same way they had to last year.

With the Cowboys Stadium roof open under a clear night, Tony Romo was intercepted five times and had two of those picks returned for touchdowns.

Almost a year ago to the day, the Cowboys found themselves chasing the season after a 34-30 loss to Detroit and never recovered, finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs. The Cowboys blew a 27-3 lead that day and Romo had two interceptions returned for touchdowns by the Lions to kick-start Detroit's comeback.

And like that Lions game, Monday's loss leads into the Cowboys' bye week.

"You don't need this as a wake-up," tight end Jason Witten said. "We knew what this game meant."

A win meant 3-1, progress, a potential wild-card tiebreaker down the road and a sense of accomplishment through the first quarter of the season. A loss means 2-2, inconsistency, the loss of a wild-card tiebreaker down the road and a sense of befuddlement with a first-team offense that has totaled three touchdowns in the last three games.

Now the Cowboys have to wait until Oct. 14 to play again, and they will have only one day of practice this week thanks to NFL rules. After Wednesday's workout, they will be off from Thursday to Sunday.

For more on what Monday's loss meant to the Cowboys, click here.

Update: Anthony Spencer out vs. Bears

October, 1, 2012
While an earlier source had said that Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Anthony Spencer would play Monday night against the Chicago Bears despite missing practice all week with a strained pectoral, a source with direct knowledge of the situation later confirmed Spencer would not play.

Spencer, a key cog in the NFL’s top-ranked defense, is officially listed as questionable.

Spencer, a former first-round pick playing this season under a franchise tag tender, has been a force during the Cowboys’ 2-1 start. He ranks second on the team in tackles (29, according to coaches’ film review) and sacks (two) and leads the Cowboys with nine quarterback hurries and two tackles for losses.

Rob Ryan’s defense will be missing three starters, including strong safety Barry Church, who was placed on injured reserve after tearing his Achilles tendon in the Week 3 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff, who had yet to play this season due to a high ankle sprain, might be able to return after the Cowboys’ upcoming bye. Defensive end Kenyon Coleman will miss his second consecutive game with a hyperextended knee.

W2W4: Cowboys vs. Bears

October, 1, 2012
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys enter their home contest against the Chicago Bears with an opportunity to remain in first place in the NFC East on "Monday Night Football."

We preview.

The series: The Cowboys lead the all-time series 13-9 and have won two of the last three meetings. This will be just the fourth meeting between the teams in the last 14 seasons. At one point, the Cowboys had defeated the Bears in six consecutive games from 1973-84.

It's Monday night: The Cowboys are making their 74th appearance on "Monday Night Football," second most in league history. Miami has made the most appearance with 78. The Cowboys lead the NFL with 43 MNF victories. The Bears and Cowboys have met only once on "Monday Night Football" with the Bears winning 22-6 on Sept. 2, 1996. With Lovie Smith as the coach, the Bears are 7-2 on Monday nights, including winning five of the last six contests.

Spencer and Forte status: Cowboys outside linebacker Anthony Spencer is listed as questionable with a pectoral muscle injury. He is a game-time decision. If he plays, Spencer will wear a harness. Spencer is second on the team with two sacks and leads with nine quarterback pressures. Matt Forte, the Bears' starting running back, is questionable with an ankle injury. Forte was limited all week in practice. Forte has rushed for just 111 yards on 23 carries this season. Expect both players to participate on Monday night.

Cowboys offense struggling: After scoring 24 points in the season-opening victory against the New York Giants, the Cowboys have totaled just 23 points the last two weeks. You can point to any number of reasons for the struggles, from lack of a running game to an inconsistent offensive line to the playmakers -- Dez Bryant and Miles Austin mainly -- not getting enough touches.

Carr vs. Marshall: In the last two games against the Cowboys, Brandon Marshall has nine catches for 194 yards and two touchdowns. But Brandon Carr wasn't defending him. Carr is a big cornerback who can use his power to redirect receivers off their routes. It should be a good one-on-one matchup between the two players. Jay Cutler was questioned about targeting Marshall too much this season. Is it too much?

Bears pass rush is deadly: The Bears lead the NFL with 14 sacks, with 10.5 of the sacks coming from the front four. The Bears don't blitz a lot, instead asking the front four of Israel Idonije, Henry Melton, Stephen Paea and Julius Peppers to bring the pressure. The Cowboys' offensive line has allowed seven sacks this season, including four last week in the victory over Tampa Bay. The Cowboys' front has struggled, with tackles Doug Free and Tyron Smith combining for 12 penalties.

Where is Witten? Jason Witten, who leads the NFL with five drops, says he's healthy and doesn't make any excuses for his slow start. Tony Romo's favorite target is going through a tough stretch right now. Is this the start of a decline for Witten or just a bad stretch?

Where is Urlacher? Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher has no tackles for loss and, based on the coaches' stats, is tied for the team lead with 21 total tackles. Some believe Urlacher is on the decline, but this is a game where he needs to establish himself as a force.

Stats & Info preview: Bears at Cowboys

September, 30, 2012
Two numbers should stick out to the Dallas Cowboys this week: Four and five. The Chicago Bears, who lead the NFL in sacks entering Week 4 with 14, have collected 12 of them using four or fewer pass rushers, including five in each of their last two games. Speaking of five, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has the lowest Total QBR (7.4) of any passer in the league this season when facing five or more pass rushers.

Another important number this week for both teams is three. Since the current playoff format was adopted in 1990, teams that started 3-1 made the playoffs 64.8 percent of the time (118 of 182). Teams that started 2-2 made the playoffs 35.3 percent of the time (71 of 201). The Bears and Cowboys are both 2-1.

Here are three other statistical areas to watch Sunday:

- Entering Week 4, Cutler was tied for the league lead in interceptions with six, including five in the past two games. Five of the six interceptions Cutler has thrown this season have been in formations that feature three or more wide receivers, which is already two more than he had all of last season in such sets. In addition, Cutler has been sacked once every 8.3 dropbacks this season in such formations, a rate 6.3 dropbacks worse than last season. The Cowboys have picked up five of their seven sacks this season when teams have used three or more wide receivers.

- With Tony Romo facing a Bears team that leads the NFL in sacks, he could be on the run a lot. Romo has thrown a league-leading 12 touchdowns outside the pocket without an interception since the start of the 2010 season. The Bears are tied for the most interceptions – seven - on passes outside the pocket in that span.

- Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray is averaging just 2.7 yards per carry in his last two games after a promising start to the season. Murray, however, could get a boost against the Bears’ rushing defense. The Bears are vulnerable to rushing plays up the middle, as they have allowed 4.3 yards an attempt on such plays. In his career so far, Murray is averaging 5.5 yards on rushing attempts up the middle.

Practice report: Six starters miss practice

September, 28, 2012
IRVING, Texas -- The Cowboys were without six starters during Friday's practice at Valley Ranch. Of the six, four expect to play Monday night against the Chicago Bears.

Fullback Lawrence Vickers missed practice because of the flu. "I'll be out there (Saturday)," he said, adding that he should be well enough to play Monday night.

Outside linebacker Anthony Spencer is on the injury report with a shoulder injury but revealed it's his right pectoral muscle that's nicked up. Spencer raised his arm and pointed to an area between the shoulder and the chest that's bothering him.

"I plan on playing," Spencer said. "I'm hoping (to practice) tomorrow."

Among the others who missed practice were defensive end Kenyon Coleman (knee), center Phil Costa (back), safety Matt Johnson (back), punter Chris Jones (knee) and nose tackle Jay Ratliff.

Linebacker Alex Albright (stinger) and safety Gerald Sensabaugh (calf) were limited in practice. Sensabaugh said he should play and wasn't sure if he'll need a sleeve to protect his calf. Albright said he's feeling better but isn't sure if he'll play.

"Just taking it slow," he said. Then while smiling he added, "I was beating guys up on special teams. It's a day-to-day thing right now."

The Boys: Bring on 'Da Bears

September, 28, 2012

Monday Night Football is coming, so are you ready? Calvin Watkins gets the lowdown on the offensive-line struggles and states his case as to why Brandon Carr should stay at cornerback for Monday night's game against the Chicago Bears.

The Other Side: ESPN Chicago's Michael Wright

September, 27, 2012
The Cowboys host Monday Night Football this week, taking on the Chicago Bears at Cowboys Stadium. For more on the opponent, we talk with ESPNChicago.com's Michael Wright, who has covered the Bears for the last three seasons.

Q: How are the Bears in their new offense?

A: They're playing in a new offense, so they’re going to have to deal with the inevitable growing pains of implanting their third system in four years. Offensive coordinator Mike Tice wants to play what he calls a “duh” offense. That means he wants to exploit advantageous matchups, especially when it comes to the box count which will determine what checks they make at the line. The key early on is for this team to be able to establish the run first, and then work play action off that so they can take a few shots downfield. Because the offensive line struggles tremendously, Tice will look for ways to get the ball out of Jay Cutler’s hands quickly with three-step drops. He’ll also employ tons of max protection in the passing game, in addition to keeping in tight ends on the left side and sending running backs over to chip block.

Q: Is Jay Cutler beloved in the locker room and in the Chicago community?

He's taken a lot of heat for how he reacts on the field. There’s probably about a 50-50 split in the locker room and a 70-30 in the Chicago community. Within the locker room, Cutler certainly isn’t the most beloved figure. But at the same time, the team totally supports him. Ultimately in the NFL, players don’t necessarily have to like one another to perform once the lights come on. In the community, there’s an interesting dynamic at play. It seems that Chicago considers itself a blue-collar, working community. So Cutler’s body language, aloof demeanor and tendency to shirk responsibility for shoddy performance don’t sit well with a certain segment of the fan base. But there’s also a segment of the fan base that recognizes that Cutler is arguably the best quarterback to ever play for a team that traditionally has endured horrible play at that position.

Q: The Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall connection has struggled at times. Can it get better?

Yes, it can improve. But they need the pieces around them to do their parts. At this point it seems that Marshall and Earl Bennett are the only receivers Cutler totally trusts. So obviously, they’ll get the majority of looks from the quarterback. Once the Bears get the running game popping to take some of the pressure off Marshall, and allow for more diversity in the offense, you’ll see the Cutler-Marshall connection become more impactful. But at this point, Cutler forces too many throws to Marshall, who already has a penchant for making the circus catch, but drops routine passes.

Q: So is Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher on the decline?

He’s 34, so that’s inevitable. But Urlacher still possesses the physical attributes to make this team’s Tampa 2 system go. Urlacher is coming off arthroscopic knee surgery performed in August, and the team has been adamant about limiting his practice repetitions so the linebacker can make it through a 16-game season. So he’s still playing his way back into shape after missing about 95 percent of training camp and the entire preseason. But if you go off his performances thus far, you’ll see that every game he’s gradually improved and is trending toward more improvement.

Q: If Matt Forte can't play, who's the starting running back?

Forte recently returned to the practice field and said he expects to be healthy enough to play against the Cowboys. But Bears coach Lovie Smith cautioned against being overly optimistic about a Forte return for Monday night’s game. So if Forte can’t go, they’ll ride with Michael Bush, who they signed to a four-year contract in March worth $14 million. Bush started in Forte’s place last week when the Bears faced the Rams, and Smith acknowledged he took some hard shots in that game, including one that forced him out and thrust third running back Kahlil Bell into action. The word around Halas Hall is that Bush suffered a shoulder injury against the Rams. But the extent of the injury at this point is unclear, and he did attend practice Wednesday. So while it appears Forte might be set for a return, look for Bush to play if he can’t go. If Bush’s shoulder isn’t sufficiently recovered for Monday night though, you’ll likely see Kahlil Bell in the lineup.

Danny McCray's job much more difficult

September, 27, 2012
IRVING, Texas – Safety Gerald Sensabaugh insists that he’ll play Monday night after missing last week’s game with a strained calf.

ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon and Jean-Jacques Taylor join Ben and Skin to talk all things football in another award-winning Cowboys Think Tank.

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Danny McCray sure hopes so.

McCray will have his hands full regardless as he replaces injured Barry Church to make the first start of his career. But McCray’s job will be much more complicated if Sensabaugh can’t play and make all the secondary calls.

“It gets tougher and it’s more responsibility,” McCray said. “At the same time, Rob [Ryan] teaches us to do that. Learn every position on the defense and every scheme. Once you do that, the defense will be easier. Now, I’m learning why he says that. Things happen during the year and you’ve just got to be ready to step up.”

Sensabaugh’s status could also affect McCray’s role. If Sensabaugh plays, McCray could come off the field in certain substitution packages when the Cowboys use a corner at free safety.

McCray, the Cowboys’ special teams captain, would have to play every defensive down if Sensabaugh isn’t available. McCray admits he would have to depend on inside linebacker Sean Lee to help with secondary calls without Sensabaugh.

“Having a veteran out there is big, because he’s been through everything that I’m going to see while I’m out there,” McCray said. “Having him out there for support is big. If he isn’t, we’ll just have to see how it works.”

All eyes will be on Cowboys defense Monday

August, 12, 2012
Jon Gruden and Mike Tirico preview Monday Night Football's matchup between the Cowboys and Raiders.

Romo, Cowboys out-tough the Redskins

September, 27, 2011
Tony RomoTim Heitman/US PresswireTony Romo overcame a broken rib and a punctured lung to lead the Cowboys over the Redskins.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- In the raw, emotional aftermath of an 18-16 meat-grinder of a win, Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant spoke about his quarterback, Tony Romo, in awed, reverent tones.

"He motivated me to go out there tonight when I obviously wasn't 100 percent," said Bryant, who was slowed by a thigh injury but still managed to make the critical third-and-21 catch that kept the Cowboys' final scoring drive alive. "I mean, broken rib, punctured lung, and he's out there. You've got to be willing to put yourself out there for a guy like that."

This was the prevailing thought in the Cowboys' locker room -- that in spite of the tower of circumstances that were stacked against him, Romo was the reason the Cowboys beat the Washington Redskins on Monday night. He was without top receiver Miles Austin, and Bryant wasn't himself. His offensive line played a miserable game, especially center Phil Costa, who was so confused by Redskins defenders barking fake snap counts that he kept snapping the ball before Romo was ready for it. The running game didn't get going until the second half. Oh, and his rib is still broken, and that hurts.

And yet, without much help from any of his offensive friends, and without so much as a single touchdown, Romo managed to deliver a fourth-quarter comeback win for the second week in a row.

"Pure will," tight end Jason Witten said. "And nobody in this locker room is surprised. We knew he had that kind of makeup, and when you have a quarterback with that kind of mentality, it's easy to want to go out there and play for him."

The watchword for the NFC East so far in this young season is "tough." Sunday in Philadelphia, the undermanned, injury-ravaged New York Giants came back on the division-favorite Eagles and won a game they seemingly had no business winning. Giants quarterback Eli Manning wasn't playing with broken ribs, but his passing-game options are as shredded as Romo's right now, and that says nothing of the injury issues the Giants are enduring on defense. But Manning remained cool and calm Sunday, picked his spots and threw four touchdown passes to lift the Giants to 2-1 in spite of all they're going through.

Monday night, Romo did basically the same thing. No, he didn't throw any touchdowns. The scoring hero of this game was rookie kicker Dan Bailey, whose six field goals accounted for every point Dallas scored. But with everything seeming to crumble around him and his center flipping the ball over his head, Romo kept making plays. He kept getting in his teammates' faces and urging them to be better. His very presence on the field did as much. It may well have been Romo's shining moment as a leader.

"He won the game for them," Redskins nose tackle Barry Cofield said. "Quarterbacks are measured by wins and losses, and he did enough to win the game. He made enough plays."

The Redskins, by the way, would like to be included in the toughness discussion. They know everybody picked them to finish last, but they came into Monday night's game 2-0, and when it was over they felt they'd let one slip away. They're not into moral victories in Washington. They believe themselves to be a good team, and they took a tough loss just the way you'd expect from a team that expects itself to win. They took it hard.

"We feel like we have everything we need to be a winning team," left tackle Trent Williams said. "We've just got to find a way to bring these tough games home."

Williams was flat-out exhausted from working all night to try to contain Cowboys pass-rushing monster DeMarcus Ware. Williams had Ware frustrated to the point that the Cowboys moved him over to the other side to send him against right tackle Jammal Brown for much of the second half. Ware got past Williams a couple of times in the fourth quarter, when the Redskins were unable to sustain the clock-eating drive that would have salted away their victory, but overall Williams had reason to feel good about his performance. He said he did, but he looked spent.

"It's almost impossible to go out there and dominate him to where he doesn't make any plays," Williams said. "I felt like I recovered well, but there's some stuff he did that he didn't even show on film, a lot of inside moves and stuff. He's a great, great player."

But Williams hung tough, and the Redskins' defense hung tough for most of the night. And the offense ran the ball tough, though without much success against an extremely tough-looking Cowboys defense. These two teams traded punches as if they were fighting at the end of a "Rocky" movie, and in the end the Cowboys were one or two plays tougher.

"I don't feel like we took a step back," Redskins linebacker London Fletcher said. "We held them to six field goals and we needed to make one more play than we made defensively."

Coming out of this week of head-to-head matchups in the NFC East, the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins are all 2-1. The favored Eagles are 1-2, mainly because their own quarterback hasn't been able to finish the past two games. While Michael Vick is complaining about not getting calls, Manning and Romo have been finding ways to overcome their challenges and win games anyway. Their teams may not have as much talent on the field right now as the Eagles do, but they're taking a back seat to no one in the toughness department, and the records reflect that.

"It's going to be tough and hard-fought every single week, right to the end, and I think with all four teams," Cofield said. "That's the way it always is in the NFC East. That's the way we like it."

Stadium flashback: Working the sideline

April, 8, 2010
For reasons I can't recall, my best friend Danny Terry and I were once called upon to work the sideline for the Miami Dolphins at Texas Stadium. I was 13 at the time and the Cowboys' veteran equipment manager Bucky Buchanan signed us up for duty.

[+] EnlargeEric Dickerson
Getty ImagesEric Dickerson and the Pony Express frequently galloped across the Texas Stadium turf during their heyday.
Looking back, I should have been blown away in the presence of coach Don Shula and a young quarterback named Dan Marino. But all I knew about Marino is that he'd fallen short to SMU in the Cotton Bowl.

Offensive tackle Ronnie Lee gave me a practice shirt that day and linebacker Bob Brudzinski provided me with some gloves that I kept for six or seven years.

Before the game, I actually warmed up quarterback Don Strock, who appeared to be older than most of the assistant coaches. We also shagged punts for the late, great Dolphins punter Reggie Roby, a man who would have hit Jerry Jones' new HD screen on a regular basis.

I would end up covering games for a living at Texas Stadium 18 years later, but that wasn't as fun as working the sideline on "Monday Night Football."

Dad always said Texas Stadium was either the hottest or coldest place in the world. And we've endured both extremes. Probably my favorite games to watch at Texas Stadium were between Baylor and SMU in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Baylor had linebacker Mike Singletary and the Mustangs had the Pony Express.

For a brief period of time, we had one of the best college teams in the country and the most recognizable pro team sharing the same home.

Texas Stadium is one of the most iconic structures in the state. And tearing it down is not going to erase the memories.

Oh, one more thing: My first date with my future wife was attending a playoff game between Lake Highlands and Waco High School at Texas Stadium. Perhaps I should have led with that.

Stadium flashback: An inauspicious start

April, 8, 2010
Tony Romo
James D. Smith/NFL/Getty ImagesAfter breaking his first NFL huddle as the Dallas Cowboys' starting quarterback, Tony Romo had his pass intercepted by the New York Giants.

At Texas Stadium on Oct. 23, 2006, Bill Parcells' Cowboys weren't exactly getting their clocks cleaned on Monday Night Football by the New York Giants, but it sure wasn't pretty. Starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe resembled a standing target -- he was sacked four times in the first half -- while completing just 7-of-12 passes for 111 yards.

The Cowboys trailed 12-7 at the half and the natives were grumbling, to put it mildly.

Then the course of the Cowboys' future changed with their opening possession of the second half. Backup quarterback Tony Romo pulled on his helmet, jogged off the sideline and into the huddle.

Here comes my most memorable moment at the old yard in Irving.

The Giants' kickoff was a touchback, and Dallas is at its own 20-yard line. An energy not felt at Texas Stadium in some time sweeps through the building. The Cowboys break the huddle and Romo gets under center as everyone sitting in a blue seat was fully aware -- or at least hoping -- that they were finally witnessing the passing of the quarterback torch to young No. 9. Since Troy Aikman, the torch has been more like a hot potato, but on with the moment ...

Romo takes the snap, drops back, looks, looks, fires and ... the ball is tipped at the line of scrimmage, high in the air. Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce has a bead on it, swallows it and sets up the Giants at the Cowboys' 14-yard line. Three plays later, the Giants led 19-7 and the rout was on.

And with that, the Tony Romo era had begun.

Sorry, Tony, but if that's the worst thing that happens in your career, it's been a pretty good life.