In a game where the Cowboys were clearly the more talented team, they did almost everything in their power to give the Giants the victory in the 2015 season opener. With just over eight minutes remaining, Dallas found themselves down ten points. Playing without his best weapon, Tony Romo led Dallas on back-to-back touchdown drives, the last starting with only 1:29 remaining and no timeouts and ending with finding Jason Witten at the goal line with seven seconds remaining. Mixed in with some late-game tomfoolery play-calling and execution by the Giants , Dallas was able to win a game they dominated in almost every aspect by the slimmest of margins, 27-26.
“The key is to disregard the fact you have to score twice,'' Romo said. "I’m just gonna go out here and execute these plays and go score once. And then once we do that, I’ll reassess the situation, figure out where we’re at and then I’ll say ok… I mean the rest of the game doesn’t matter. At that point it’s like, there’s a minute to go in the game, we’re down, alright we need a touchdown. Well how do I attack the field, what parts of it… what can I do? You know we work that stuff all the time, and we’ve been pretty successful here at it.”
Indeed they have. The comeback win was the 29th game-winning drive for Romo, a league-best since 2006, the year he became the QB for the Cowboys. It was also the 25th fourth-quarter comeback of his career. Romo ended the game completing 36 of 45 passes, to eight different receiver, for 356 yards, 3 TDs and 2 INTs. Romo’s clutch numbers on the final two drives were 11 for 12, for 148 yards and two scores.
It was the quarterback’s 18th consecutive regular season game with a completion percentage over 60%; dating back to the Chicago game at the end of the 2013 season in frostbite conditions. Lance Dunbar, speaking to SiriusXMNFL, would say about Romo in the huddle on the final drive: "Tony was real relaxed. It was crazy, it felt like practice."
This was his fifth consecutive game with multiple touchdowns, and he once again outplayed rival Eli Manning.
Dallas’ defense shut down the Giants passing attack, holding Manning to only 193 yards and keeping him out of the end zone. Still because of several Dallas miscues, Manning sat with a chance to close the game out with under two minutes to go. Not only did the Giants fail to score a sealing touchdown, they passed on a chance to make life even more difficult for the Cowboys.
After Dallas had closed to within three, the Giants found themselves first and goal at the Dallas 4 with 1:54 remaining. Two failed runs used up Dallas’ final two timeouts, but on third down, the Giants inexplicably chose to pass. Manning, unable to find an open receiver, compounded the playcall by throwing the ball away instead of sliding and giving up a sack. That left 1:37 on the clock instead of what could have been 57 seconds or so; a mistake most wouldn’t expect a 10-year veteran QB to make.
He did, and Dallas capitalized. Now we’ve learned that not only did Eli fail to make the right play on third down, but he overruled the Giants coaching staff and told RB Rashad Jennings to NOT score on the first two carries. Manning’s calm nature is normally what his supporters point to in response to his average career stats. It was certainly a different side of him in a clutch situation.
The victory didn’t come without a steep price for the Cowboys, as Dallas lost two key members of their team to injury. Wideout Dez Bryant will be out, best guess, between four-to-eight weeks after breaking a bone in his right foot. He had successful surgery on Monday to insert screws. For CHQ’s resident medical expert’s take and Dez' own words, go here.
Also, rookie defensive end Randy Gregory suffered the dreaded high-ankle sprain and is also expected to miss four-to-six weeks. The Cowboys have a bye in Week Six, and the team hopes both players will return for the final 10 games of the regular season.
Ron Leary has a strained groin and will miss one to three weeks.
The club will now have some interesting personnel decisions to make in lieu of the injuries. It started today with the release of OT Jordan Mills, who was just signed last week after being released by Chicago. (Fish reports Dallas wants to sign OT Charles Brown next.)
Dallas chose to include just five wideouts on their 53-man roster to start the year. With two of the remaining four wide receivers of diminutive stature, Dallas will likely need to bring in someone of some size. The option of just giving more snaps to Gavin Escobar and Lance Dunbar wouldn’t seem to hold up, because where would the club be if Terrance Williams or Devin Street were to go down?
The club needs someone capable of playing the X receiver, or at least the Z position.
As for replacing Gregory, without him, the pass rush seems eerily similar to 2014. Despite the depth that was touted through the preseason, Dallas only dressed three defensive ends Sunday night. Now they will need to activate Ryan Russell and also consider bringing in help from the outside. The Cowboys only notched one sack, by new rich-man Tyrone Crawford, and had just 14 QB pressures on the night. In just 21 snaps, Gregory tallied a QB hit and three pressures.
The club entered the game with only 7 defensive linemen, and were down to six in the fourth quarter. Their run defense faltered at that point, after only allowing 27 yards on the ground to running backs. Attrition and lack of early-season conditioning should be addressed moving forward.
Finally, the Cowboys went with only seven offensive linemen as expected. Mackenzy Bernadeau currently has more functional versatility than rookie La’El Collins, earning him the last active designation. Now that Leary will miss a game, will Collins get the nod as the starter, and keep Bernadeau in a utility role as backup to three interior positions? We wonder if Berny will stay ahead of the kid for another week ...
It’s not only the injuries, though. The Cowboys had many questions entering the game. They had rarely played together in the preseason, would there be much rust, leading to potential mistakes? What would the run game look like without Demarco Murray, and would they prove confident in it despite going to a RBBC? How would the new look defensive line fare against the Giants patchwork offensive line and their quick passing game? How would their special teams perform, specifically their coverage units? How would Sean Lee and Morris Claiborne perform in their returns?
Yes, there was rust. The miscues were plentiful throughout the first three quarters of the game but Dallas shook them off and looked like a fine-tuned machine on offense. The reverse happened to the defense, which looked stout until they seemed to lose steam as the game got into the later moments.
The run game, or the running back position in general, was every bit as productive as one could have hoped when looking at the overall performance. Randle got 19 touches, to 8 for Lance Dunbar and 7 for Darren McFadden. They totaled 212 yards from scrimmage between the three on 34 touches; a 6.2 yard-per-touch average. Last year, with Demarco Murray leading the way, the team’s RBs averaged 5.3 yards-per-touch. On short dumpoffs, the backs had long receptions of 25, 24 and 19 yards respectively, showing that handing it off won't be the only method Dallas uses to capitalize on their committee approach.
On special teams, the guys with the feet refused to give former Cowboy Dwayne Harris any shot whatsoever. Dan Bailey sailed all six kickoffs out of bounds and Chris Jones continued his miraculous turnaround, booming his two punts 53 and 54 yards each. When Harris tried to return them, he was met early and shut all the way down to the tune of three yards on the two punt returns.
Sean Lee came back from missing the entire 2014 season to lead the team in tackles. Lee didn’t get much work in the offseason and seemed a step behind in pass coverage, but he was a sure tackler and matched in effort, enthusiasm and performance by second-year pro Anthony Hitchens.
Claiborne was part of a secondary effort that was tremendous, limiting the Giants receivers the entire game. No Giants pass catcher had more than 46 yards, and two of the top three guys were actually running backs. Brandon Carr played a great game, shutting down Odell Beckham who never seemed to recover after free safety J.J. Wilcox lit into Beckham and causing a dropped pass with a lightning strike to the soul.
If the Cowboys had lost the game, it would’ve been seen as a disappointment because outside of the -3 turnover margin, they thoroughly outplayed the rival Giants. In some ways, the come-from-behind victory made it even more impressive, in that even when Dallas shoots themselves in the foot, on repeat, they still have the talent and mentality to accomplish what they came to do. Of course it was bolstered by the Giants own ineptitude, but that’s how the games go sometimes. Now the team will focus on rounding out the roster in anticipation of taking on the last place Philadelphia Eagles next Sunday afternoon.