Debatable, Dubious and Dunderheaded

As they unfolded previous to Sunday's opening-day kickoff in Jacksonville, many of the Cowboys' preparatory moves appeared to float somewhere between debatable, dubious and just-plain dunderheaded.

The multi-million-dollar Idiot Kicker is inactive in favor of one of last year's Loser Legs? T.O. is suddenly ready to go after a summer of stealing celebrity headlines from Mel Gibson and Paris Hilton? The top draft pick, Bobby Carpenter, slides from Defensive Savior/Parcells Guy to Bust-of-The-Day in civvies?

Potentially saving the day, however, was one strategic nugget that, when Dallas staffers first whispered it to us on the eve of the game, struck us as. ... well, debatable. Dubious. And maybe even just-plain dunderheaded.

The offensive gameplan, we were told, could be boiled down into two steps:

Step 1: Use a controlled passing game to set up the run.

Step 2: When it was time to run, hit Jax where it hurts: right in its defensive midsection.

The execution of Steps 1 and 2 were nothing short of perfect on the game's first TD drive, a gorgeous time-capsule effort that featured the predicted controlled passes highlighting the debuting T.O. and then capped things off by a counter play that saw Julius Jones bounce it outside for a scoring sprint. Owens couldn't be covered on slants, tight end Jason Witten overmatched his defenders, Terry Glenn would be allowed single coverage, and just when the Jags were reeling -- and down 10-0 early as they were -- the Cowboys would counterpunch with more thrusts at the interior defense.

Where was the logic in that? After all, Fox voice Troy Aikman spent the afternoon praising Jacksonville's defensive front. He called defensive lineman Marcus Stroud "as good as there is in the league.'' He and partner Joe Buck made noises about Stroud's DT partner John Henderson being almost as good. And then there is middle linebacker Mike Peterson to orchestrate the whole group, which is "the best in the game.''

But Dallas knew Peterson's knee was troublesome. And that Stroud's ankle was in similarly bad shape. So again, controlled passing to set up the run -- thus allowing the Cowboys to test Stroud and Peterson and the rest, but to do it on their own terms.

Somehow, that 10-point lead evaporated into a 24-17 loss in which it can be argued:

* That replacement kicker Shaun Suisham missed a late FG try that would've given Dallas a 13-10 lead, and that therefore, maybe Vanderjagt should've been allowed to play after all.

* That Terrell Owens has been right all along in thinking he is The Show. What he did with his six catches and 80 yards and the marvelous TD catch late in the contest was truly special. And it leaves the Cowboys fan wondering what would've happened had T.O. been fed the ball even more frequently. Owens was the impetus on all three of Dallas' scoring drives, including the 21-yard TD reception with 1:54 to play that cut the lead to seven.

* That the gameplan miscalculated in its judgment of what the Jags could do defensively. That goes for Stroud and Peterson, who were both terrific. (For sports fans in the Metroplex, you've seen in the last few days the essential difference between football and baseball. In football, generally, even a sprained knee causes the guy to tape an aspirin to it and he plays. In baseball, you've got Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks criticizing his perennial also-ran players for a lack of toughness. And Rangers "gamers'' respond how? By whining about Hicks' comments having hurt their wittle feewings.)

It also goes for a relatively unknown fourth-year cornerback named Rashean Mathis. Along with our eve-of-the-opener conversation with Cowboys staffers, also visited with old friend Dave Campo, the Cowboys whipping-boy head coach-turned-Jax defensive boss. Campo told us that he believes Mathis is destined to be a Pro Bowler. We filed the info away, figuring we might use it in a few years.

But we use it now: Mathis was outmuscled by Owens early. But with six tackles, two passes defensed and a huge interception, he was critically important to containing Dallas, as a cover guy and astoundingly as a rare run-stopping corner, too.

Not enough Cowboys answered the efforts of the Jags' other top players, including QB Byron Leftwich (who threw a touchdown pass and ran for a score) and Fred Taylor (115 combined yards and a TD). Drew Bledsoe in particular will catch heck from some for his three-pick contribution to Jacksonville scoring 24 unanswered points. But this is another of those cases where there is plenty of blame to go around. And while we've decided not to engage in too much bullying of Bully Bill on this day -- it's a long season, and he's paid handsomely to win 10 or 11 or 12 games, this year, but not EVERY game -- we didn't even have to witness the coach's postgame postmortem to know that he'd point the finger at someone besides the guy behind the podium.

Some unsuspecting sportstyper said something to Coach about the Cowboys being penalty-prone.

Responded Parcells: "This is a new season. Don't give me that crap. Penalties weren't a problem last year; we were about sixth in the league. Get your information right before you start making statements like that. Get your information right!"

Yessir. The Cowboys committed nine penalties for 99 yards. (Which is a lot no matter whether such screwups last season or not.) The kicking situation stinks, a 10-point lead was lost, T.O. probably should've been ridden more, the defense allowed 24 consecutive points, Taylor rushed for 100-plus, the once-promising gameplan backfired and the hopeful Cowboys are 0-1.

All of it debatable, dubious, dunderheaded.

But the real problem is that some insignificant reporter needs to "get his information right.''

It's going to be a loooong season. More prosperous than this day in Jacksonville, we think.

But still loooong.

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