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Monday, October 13, 2008
Cowboys look lost in the desert

By Dan Graziano
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- For a few frantic moments Sunday, the Cowboys made you forget how pedestrian they've become. Marion Barber's mad dash to the end zone and a 52-yard field goal by Nick Folk at the end of regulation temporarily covered up another unimpressive effort.

But with one blocked punt return for a touchdown, the Cardinals delivered a jolt of reality. Arizona won the game 30-24, and any other result would've been a crime after watching the Cardinals dominate the second half.

 
 Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
 Dallas quarterback Tony Romo's solid numbers and high passer rating are misleading.

The Cowboys probably should've turned the ball over four times in the first half, but they only had one. The aerial assault on what had been rumored to be an outmanned Cardinals secondary never materialized, and Tony Romo spent most of the day checking down to Barber.

Romo somehow always ends up with 300 yards and three touchdowns, but don't be fooled by those numbers -- or his 113.3 passer rating. He fumbled the ball three times, and was fortunate to lose only one. The only thing that prevented him from giving up a touchdown in the first half was the tuck rule, which makes less sense every time I see it called.

In fairness to Romo, his Pro Bowl-laden offensive line was dominated by the Cardinals' defensive line. Left tackle Flozell Adams offered little resistance as defensive ends Bertrand Berry and Antonio Smith raced past him. I've documented almost every Romo start since 2006, and I've never seen him take that much punishment. People want to ask where all the enthusiasm and child-like joy has gone. Well, getting hit in the mouth every other play isn't a particularly enjoyable experience.

Romo showed up to his news conference with a heavily bandaged right throwing hand. According to the Cowboys, he sprained his right pinky finger. And considering the punishment he took Sunday, he may have gotten off easy. Romo made an interesting statement when asked about the constant pressure he faced.

"I think there's a couple of things we've got to do to counteract ... one of our formations I think some of the teams are kind of getting a bead on," said Romo. "We'll rectify that this week and hopefully learn from it."

(Surely Romo's not suggesting that teams have figured out what the Cowboys' $3 million offensive coordinator is doing? After all, Jason Garrett was the hottest name in coaching last season.)

For a half, the Cowboys' defense returned the favor, hitting 37-year-old Kurt Warner almost every time he dropped back. The strategy of using press coverage on the Cardinals' dangerous wide receivers paid off, because it forced Warner to hold the ball longer than he wanted. Safety Ken Hamlin became the first defensive back to get an interception this season when Warner was slammed to the ground as he delivered a pass late in the first quarter.

The Cowboys opened the second half exactly as they did against the Redskins two weeks ago. Romo led the team on a 12-play, 77-yard touchdown drive that put the Cowboys up 14-7. But this team barely put the Bengals away the previous Sunday. On a play that a lot of people will forget about because of the wild finish, the Cardinals had a third-and-17 at their 33. Warner completed a short pass to rookie Tim Hightower in the left flat and he bulled his way down the sideline for 17 yards. It was an effort play that breathed life into the Cardinals' offense.

Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Todd Haley, who has done a remarkable job playing to Warner's strengths this season, wanted to go after Adam "Pacman" Jones, and that's who Larry Fitzgerald beat on a two-yard touchdown pass to tie the score. Haley was the passing game coordinator in Dallas when Romo replaced Drew Bledsoe in 2006, and he has an intimate knowledge of the Cowboys' personnel.

After the game, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones insisted that Pacman's fistfight with his team-hired bodyguard earlier in the week didn't serve as a distraction. I approached the cornerback as he slipped on some sunglasses (it's always bright in the visiting locker room), but he said, "I ain't saying anything."

My gut's telling me that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will suspend Pacman for at least next Sunday's game against the upstart Rams, but I didn't mention that to Jerry. He was busy justifying Sunday's loss. Asked if this team had met expectations, Jones said, "Yes. Absolutely. I wouldn't have thought we'd be sitting here 6-0."

In fact, Jerry even made the point that some early losses might be the way to go. Perhaps the Cowboys breezed through the 2007 season without enough hardships. Maybe you need an occasional bathroom brawl and a loss to the Cardinals to keep you honest.

"This kind of disappointment might prepare us better for the playoffs," he said. "No one's gonna fall on their sword over this game."

Maybe not. But if they can't clean up this mess against the Rams on Sunday, I'd at least have a sword or two handy. And if the owner comes to Arizona and handles a loss so graciously, maybe it's time to lower our expectations for this team. I know I have. Honestly, it was sort of refreshing to hear wide receiver Patrick Crayton showing a little frustration.

"Maybe we need our a---- chewed out or something," Crayton said. "You never know. Sometimes that jump starts something. We need to step up and play ball."

Crayton went on to say that the team "bops around" during practice and that the Redskins loss should've been a wakeup call.

"We hit the snooze button," he said.

With all due respect to Wade Phillips, the rear-chewers now reside in South Florida. The Cowboys embraced Wade's touchy-feely approach, so it's interesting to hear a player yearn for discipline.

Maybe this team needed a dose of reality. I remember at least two players talking about how they wished they could flash forward to the playoffs. Based on Sunday's performance, that seems like wishful thinking.

And if the previous 1,000 words weren't enough, there's more:

What happened on the blocked punt? I've had the oppor
tunity to discuss the blocked punt in overtime with about 12 players and coaches. When I bumped into Cowboys special teams coach Bruce Read, he looked like a broken man. He'd just watched his unit allow a touchdown on the opening kickoff and another score off the blocked punt in overtime.

"We just missed a block off the edge," he said.

He obviously wasn't going to say who missed the block without looking at the film, but Read could barely lift his head. He told me it probably ranked as the toughest day of his career.

The Cardinals actually had a return set up on the punt, but when Sean Morey lined up on the right side he noticed that no one was blocking him. No one ever touched him and he arrived before Mat McBriar had any hope of getting the punt away. Cowboys linebacker Kevin Burnett has been out there in the past, but he was moved to the guard spot because he's such a strong blocker. From watching replays, it looked as if tight end Tony Curtis and wide receiver Miles Austin were on the left side. Of course, none of the Cowboys wanted to release that information. But the more people I talk to, the more it seems as if Curtis was the culprit. It's a sick feeling, and it's one that right tackle Marc Colombo felt against the Redskins two years ago when he accidentally let a player come free on a field-goal attempt.

The kicking fraternity: McBriar's a guy I've gotten to know really well over the last few years, so I immediately made my way over to the area where doctors were surrounding him. I thought it was pretty cool that Cardinals punter Dirk Johnson, kicker Neil Rackers and Cowboys kicker Nick Folk were the first players on the scene. Because being a kicker can be such an isolating experience, most of them form a strong bond. Watching Rackers and Johnson come sprinting over from the Cardinals sideline showed you what a tight-knit fraternity it really is.

By the way, the team's orthopedic surgeon, Drew Dossett, told me that it looks as if McBriar didn't break anything.

Why can't Romo hold onto the ball?: I asked Phillips this very question. It's an obvious concern, but it's something that Romo simply refuses to clean up. He was fortunate to fall on his fumble after being sacked on the first play of overtime. An ex-NFL quarterback told me after the game that you have to pretend to be a running back and tuck the ball away when you sense pressure from behind. Romo does a nice job of feeling pressure, but he holds the ball out, making it easy for defenders to poke it away.

Folk makes amends for missing short FG: If you paid close attention, Cowboys kicker Nick Folk nearly hooked his first extra point. It's exactly what he did when he hit the left upright on a 37-yard attempt at the end of the first half. On his 52-yard field goal at the end of regulation, he hit it straight and true. He made a similar field goal -- twice -- to force overtime against the Bills last season.

T.O. is once again a non-factor: The only reason T.O. stood out Sunday was because he was wearing a bright yellow sweater vest, white-rimmed sunglasses and a bowtie. His most active moments of the game came when he shouted at center Andre Gurode for his poor snaps.

The Cardinals became the latest team to frustrate T.O. with man-to-man coverage, but even when they backed off of him, he had trouble getting separation. This doesn't simply feel like a phase he's going through right now. Even though he's a huge physical presence, he's not as imposing a player on the field as you might think. Michael Irvin used to slap the arms of people who tried to jam him at the line of scrimmage. Ask Darrell Green about that.

T.O. has become a player who's dependable on 8-yard curls and short out patterns. He's just not that big of a threat right now, and it's been remarkable to watch his decline. I'm not really sure he deserves as much camera time as he's receiving when he's catching four balls for 36 yards. Honestly, I didn't see the Cardinals rolling coverage his way all that often.