Cowboys need to control damage better

October, 2, 2012
10/02/12
9:00
AM ET
Tony RomoRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesMonday night's loss to the Bears was one to forget for Tony Romo and the Cowboys.
As everyone shouts and scrambles this morning to figure out who's to blame for what happened to the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night, I'd like to suggest that we at least consider the Bears as one possible answer. Chicago has a good, tough team with an opportunistic defense that's built on forcing turnovers. They are well coached and understand where to press their advantages. I'm sure, for example, that forcing Brandon Marshall inside on short routes to limit the damage he might do on the outside seemed like a good idea to the Cowboys in their defensive meetings last week. The Bears saw it as a chance to get him matched up on linebackers, whom he could dominate with his size. They were right. Sometimes you get outplayed and outcoached. It's a tough league, and the other team's getting paid, too.

For me, the most disturbing thing about Monday night for the Cowboys was the way they fell apart once the game appeared lost -- the sloppy, unfocused and downcast way they played the fourth quarter when all they still had to play for was pride. For a team that's trying, as Jason Garrett has said, to "build a football program for the future," that part of the performance stands out as something that needs to be addressed.

There was a point in the game at which Tony Romo had thrown only three interceptions, and you could have reasonably said two were not his fault. Dez Bryant made a mistake that led to the first one (though I still think blame is shared there, as it appears Charles Tillman may have jumped the route and picked the ball anyway), and Kevin Ogletree's stone hands act caused the second. The third was a result of a poor, over-aggressive decision by Romo to try to make something happen. The fourth and fifth were just plain sloppy, and their effect was the eradication of Romo's benefit of the doubt. By running his interception total into the realm of the incomprehensible, he invited those who would blame him for every loss to blame him for the loss.

Once the Bears were up two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys were in the worst possible situation -- one in which Romo was trying to do too much and making bad decisions as a result. Adversity can be a very bad thing for Romo, and last night was an example of a guy flooring the gas pedal after blowing out a tire. When keeping it together would have showed his team a lot, even if a comeback wasn't possible, Romo fell totally apart.

Same thing happened on defense, where at the end of their first bad game of this season the Cowboys' defensive backs appeared to have left early to beat the traffic. It's no picnic trying to cover Marshall, but you are expected to try, and to do so for all 60 minutes. Marshall's 31-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter that put Chicago up 34-10 should have come in a gift bag with a note thanking him for visiting Cowboys Stadium. Contesting plays like that in the game's final minutes would have shown you something about this revamped Dallas defense, and it might have been something even more impressive and valuable than the high quality of its play in the first three games of the season.

And yeah, I know the defense was missing three starters, and I know Bryant dropped too many passes, and I know it's disheartening when you realize a game has slipped away from you, at home, with a billion people watching in prime time, etc. But that doesn't mean you just fold up like an umbrella and let the visiting team continue to embarrass you.

The Cowboys players were accountable after the game. They stood there and took responsibility for the loss and their many failures in it. And that does show you something about a team and give you reason to feel as though it has the kinds of solid citizens and dedicated professionals it needs to succeed. But they could have offered even more reason to feel that way if they'd appeared, in Monday night's fourth quarter, to be angry or upset about what was happening to them, or showed more determination to keep it from getting worse.

Monday's wasn't a game the Cowboys should have won. The Bears were in the NFC Championship Game two years ago. It's fair to say they're a little further along in their program than the Cowboys are in theirs. It would be far less of a surprise to see Chicago in this year's playoffs than it would to see Dallas there. That was true before the season started, and it's obvious this morning. The Cowboys are building something, and they have a ways to go.

But where they failed Monday was at the end, when they had a chance to use a tough loss to a tough team as a character-building experience. To show grit and determination in the face of insurmountable difficulty. When the going got tough Monday, the Cowboys collapsed utterly. And if I were a Cowboys fan or coach or player, that would bother me a lot more than the turnovers, the dropped passes or the loss itself.

Dan Graziano

ESPN New York Giants reporter

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