Cowboys Win: When A Plan Goes Exactly Right
December is reputed to be a scary month for the Dallas Cowboys. Yet, entering Thursday here in Chicago, since 2006, the Cowboys were 13-6 in December under a very specific circumstance: when a running back scores a TD.
And when a running back failed to do so in December games for Dallas since ’06? The Cowboys were 1-14.
Knowing that, fixing that, executing that, was central to what turned out to be a .... declawing of the Bears at Soldier Field. After all, this number can be narrowed more specifically to men on this edition of the team, to a DeMarco Murray-led club:
Entering Thursday, the Cowboys were 4-1 in December when Murray scored a rushing touchdown. When he did not, they were 1-7.
Again, the moral to the story: Run in the red zone.
Dallas' 41-28 crushing of the Bears was, to start, all about feeding Murray, who registered a 1-yard TD in the first quarter to begin the scoring and who by the time two minutes were left in the first half had 16 carries and six catches. That’s 22 touches before anybody even got a chance to work up a sweat in the relatively pleasant 36-degree weather in The Windy City.
Murray’s final numbers: 179 rushing yards on 32 carries and nine catches. Dallas started running in the Chicago red zone … and finished by running DeMarco all the way to Winnetka.
In the meantime, Dallas' defense -- or a combination of all three phases -- needed to discover a way to sap the will from QB Jay Cutler and his guys. CowboysHQ.com's Jordan Ross is the gold-miner of these nuggets, and I bet the Cowboys don't actually know them specifically ... but I bet they are aware of the general concept:
One: In the last four games in which Cutler absorbs a first-quarter sack, he and the Bears are 0-4.
Two: In the last eight games in which Cutler is guilty of a first-quarter turnover, he and the Bears are 1-7.
Now, it took a little more time than that for the emotional collapse to occur, and it didn't come in piles of sacks or takeaways (though Orlando Scandrick's end-zone pick of Cutler was the late sealer.) It came because Tony Romo (compared unfavorably to Cutler by some national-media dopes) was in a complete 'nother class compared to the Chicago QB, because the defense largely bottled up the big-play potential of the Bears, and because even the special-teams harassed the home team with a blocked punt and a missed extra point.
Dez Bryant and his physicality would be part of the solution to avoiding a familiar December swoon, of course; in fact, contrary to the thoughts of some, he’s always part of it. Dez' average December-game stats: five receptions, 78 yards and a TD. And here? Well, Bryant had six catches for 82 yards. Pretty much on the money. But the load was shared nicely with Romo at the trigger -- a Romo who promised to be better than he was in his two-interception flop against the Eagles last week ... and was.
Since 2010, Romo has never followed up a multi-interception game with another multi-interception game. History said he would rebound; in addition to his words, a full week of healthy preparation (unavailable to him in the short week before Turkey Day) said he would, too.
And here was Romo, clicking at his time-buying best, even when his offensive line — intent on erasing the embarrassment of its play last week — has already protected him sufficiently. And when you give this QB that extra time? You give extra offensive weapons like Cole Beasley (two touchdown catches) and Gavin Escobar (one touchdown catch) extra chances.
So the offense ran early and then poured it on. And the defense -- which just a year ago, remember, was The Worst Defense In The History of Sports -- beleaguered Cutler and his weapons and then hung on.
Sources told me earlier in the week that rookie Demarcus Lawrence (ribs, chest) might not play, that Henry Melton was going to move to end, that Josh Brent would for the first time be activated and would be the backup 1-tech and that it all needed to add up, in part, to some playmaking on the end and some Matt Forte-plugging bulk inside.
Result? Lawrence was inactive. Melton had a big pass deflection. Brent made his first tackle in an NFL game in two years, and Forte was eliminated as a factor, in part by the defense and in part by the lopsided score.
"It was surreal," Brent said. "I feel blessed."
So the December Swoon is thwarted here, in part because of the clarification of another myth: On the road in general, coach Jason Garrett entered Thursday with a record of 15-14 since 2011, which ranks as the seventh-best road winning percentage in the league.
That number belies a largely negative perception of his leadership, and Dallas-on-the-road is an even more foundational piece for this year's Cowboys. Going into Thursday, they were 5-0 on the road and in fact, their last road loss was ... Last winter. To the Bears. In Chicago.
Except for that, though? This team shows some resilience. Some willingness to accept a challenge. Some ability to overcome adversity — which is what road football can, by definition, be.
Garrett oversees a very, very good road team.
This coach is now just 8-10 in December, and despite lots of factors - injuries and opponents among them - that's obviously not good enough. But 1-0 in this December, on the road, is as good as it gets. ... and means Jerry Jones' hand-picked leader finds himself concerned with staying hot instead of fidgeting on "the hot seat.''
But this year the bar has been raised. Nobody started the season with much thought of the Cowboys as a team with a shot at 10 or 11 wins. Yet here there are ... with an unusual gameplan combination working in Chicago and maybe, hopefully, an unusually good December in the offing.
"Twelve!" said Barry Church when we asked him how many wins Dallas will need to make the playoffs. "we gotta win out. Then everything will take care of itself."
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