Dallas Cowboys: Niles Paul
The Cowboys had arguably the worst rushing attack in franchise history, but the ground game was adequate in the season finale. Dallas ran the ball 22 times for 100 yards, which was much more effective than the norm this season. DeMarco Murray carried 17 times for 76 yards, highlighted by a 21-yard run that featured a fantastic cutback. Felix Jones, the former first-round pick who probably played his last game in a Cowboys uniform, showed surprising quickness while gaining 24 yards on five carries.
This looked like the Tony Romo from the first half of the season. It's hard to beat a quality opponent when you throw three interceptions. Romo didn't make nearly enough plays to overcome his critical mistakes, finishing with 218 yards and two touchdowns on 20-of-37 passing. It didn't help that Miles Austin (no catches) missed most of the game due to a high ankle sprain or that Dez Bryant (four catches, 71 yards) was sidelined in the fourth quarter by back spasms. The Redskins only sacked Romo twice, but they blitzed him effectively throughout the game.
This was a disaster. The Cowboys simply couldn't stop rookie running back Alfred Morris, who broke Clinton Portis' franchise record for rushing yards in a season. Morris gashed the Cowboys for 200 yards and three touchdowns on 33 carries. His dominance allowed a gimpy Griffin to gain 63 yards and score once on six carries when the defense got sucked in by the zone-read fake. A healthy Griffin would have probably run for well over 100 yards.
After the Thanksgiving Day debacle, the Cowboys were determined not to let Robert Griffin III beat them with his arm again. He didn't, completing only 9-of-18 passes for 100 yards. However, the Cowboys' pass defense didn't make any game-changing plays. Dallas didn't create any turnovers. They didn't have any real pass rush with DeMarcus Ware a one-armed shell of himself. Anthony Spencer had the Cowboys' lone sack.
Dwayne Harris was a difference-maker again on punt returns. He averaged 26.0 yards on three returns, including a 39-yarder that set up the Cowboys' last touchdown. Dan Bailey drilled a 48-yard field goal on his lone attempt. But punter Brian Moorman had a net average of only 32.0 yards on four punts. The Cowboys allowed Niles Paul to average 30.7 yards on three kickoff returns, including a 48-yarder that featured a few missed tackles.
Jason Garrett's staff got outcoached by Mike Shanahan's staff. That's not a surprise, considering Shanahan has won two Super Bowls as a head coach and Garrett has never been to the playoffs. Garrett's inability to counter the Redskins' blitz packages was particularly problematic. His decision to punt instead of attempting a 52-yard field goal in the final minute of the first half was also questionable.
Archer - Dan Snyder hasn't been the most patient owner, so is there any chance that Mike Shanahan could be on the hot seat?
Maese - I think that'd very doubtful at this point. For starters, Shanahan will have three years left on a contract that pays him around $7 million per season. While Snyder has certainly thrown away money on players, he hasn't been as eager to buyout coaches. But I think Snyder has also shown more patience as he's grown as an owner. Shanahan inherited a bad team in just about every way possible. The more likely scenario, I think, is for Snyder to bring in someone to beef up the personnel and scouting departments.
Archer - From the outside the quarterback position has gone horribly wrong. Is that Mike Shanahan's fault? His son's? The players? Are fans calling for Andrew Luck yet?
Maese - Ultimately, Mike Shanahan has final say in personnel decisions, so he has to shoulder the responsibility for the terrible quarterback play. Now, he's certainly taking into consideration what he hears from his coaches, including Kyle Shanahan, his son and offensive coordinator, but at the end of the day, it's his call. I think every human being in the Washington area would be shocked if either Rex Grossman or John Beck is somehow starting Week 1 in 2012. Unfortunately for them, the team's 3-1 start likely eliminated them from the Luck Sweepstakes.
Archer - The Redskins have Tashard Choice on the roster and he said he's playing this week vs. his former team. What type of role is there for him there?
Maese - As bad as quarterback play has been, the team's running game has been even less consistent. The offense is supposed to be built off the running game, and they're on pace to have the worst season running the ball in more than 40 years. So there's an opportunity for Choice. He'll have to show in practice this week that he's picked up Shanahan's system and deserves playing time this Sunday -- not to mention his hamstring needs to be 100 percent.
Archer - It appears the defense is still playing pretty well. How has another ex-Cowboy, Stephen Bowen, done in his first year?
Maese - Despite the Redskins' myriad problems, they feel like they beefed up their front-seven and that certainly seems to be the case through nine games. Bowen has held up well, despite an increase in snaps over last season. Depth is a problem along the defensive line and the Redskins can't afford to be without Bowen at this point.
Archer - So much talk about how bad the season has been, what's been the best thing this year?
Maese - There's been flashes of promise from young players. First-round draft pick Ryan Kerrigan should be in the running for rookie defensive player of the year. Rookie tailback Roy Helu set a franchise record with 14 catches in one game, breaking a mark set by Art Monk. Rookie Leonard Hankerson, who went on IR this week, topped 100 receiving yards last Sunday. Rookie Niles Paul is currently sidelined with a toe injury but has shown promise. Second-year linebacker Perry Riley had his first start last week and recorded four tackles for loss. So there are a few bright spots; they're just overshadowed by injuries.