Finishing Ugly

The fact Wade Phillips was attempting to secure individual records despite the "nothing to achieve" contest they were involved in was admirable.

There were many personal distinctions up for grabs, and while a few were pain-stakingly achieved, one should-have-been automatic milestone went by the wayside. It's this particular feat gone awry which is most concerning heading into the 2007 NFL post season. It remains to be seen if it will cost the Cowboys their desired trip to Glendale, AZ.

Dallas' offensive Hee-Man, that of throwback ilk, was a mere 19 yards from joining the franchise's elite 1000 + 40 club. The organization had two members entering the start of the Washington game, and by all measures, it should have had three at the end of the day. Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith remain, but Marion Barber III remains outside looking in. His induction should have been a slam dunk, especially considering the game time weather conditions and sloppy track. One would have thought the human battering ram could have willed his way or simply fallen forward for 19 yards in 60 minutes.

To be downright blunt and brutally honest, the Cowboys should be embarrassed and humiliated for this non-achievement. A playoff ready team should have accomplished this in their sleep. Either the Cowboys don't sleep or they're (dare it be said) not playoff ready. Hopefully this statement is just happen-stance and born out of sheer frustration, but there's a gut feeling afoot that the League is starting to doubt Dallas' ability to run the football.

Facing the truth and exposing an Achilles Heel can be mighty painful, but it's high-time to identify the potential undoing of the record-shattering, previously high-flying, 13-3 record achieving, #1 seed in the NFC. The Cowboys' offensive line does not get to the defensive second level with regularity and effectiveness. As a matter of fact, they're very slow to the second level. Athletic linebackers give them fits, and athletic linebackers that stop the run and cover the pass effectively are nightmares for the Cowboys' offense. The Cowboys front wall is huge, and their girth and sheer strength are enough to stop opposition penetration. This works tremendously well in the passing game, but is very limiting for a team looking to advance the ball via the ground game.

The truth hurts.

Look at the milestones which were either broken or heavily-pursued during the 2007 campaign. Eighty percent (if not more) coincided with the passing game. Go look for yourself. These accomplishments should be heavily-applauded, but do it with caution. The Cowboys should consider themselves blessed they reside in the NFC. The AFC contains the high octane, quick strike offensive capabilities. These are the offenses you want standing on the sidelines relegated to watching the action; not creating it. So, how does a team achieve this feat?

Ball control.

Controlling time of possession, moving the chains, and methodically running the ball are the ways to effectively minimize an offensive machine. You want that offense holding their helmets, sitting on them, or keeping the Gatorade boy earning his keep. If they're allowed between the white lines, then the potential for danger increases mightily. The Cowboys have no choice. They must find a way to control tempo and flow. They have two weeks to figure it out. While they're strategizing, here's another piece of the puzzle which must be solved.

Slow starts and playoff football do not mix!

The Cowboys won't be allowed to get the post season job done in one half of football. They must find a way to distribute the production over the four quarters. Slow starts and minimal first half points create potholes and in many cases, craters. Deep, dark, inescapable caverns.

Before strategy is discussed, the Cowboys facilitated another dangerous situation with Sunday's FedEx field results. They allowed the hottest team, a divisional rival at that, in the NFC to enter the post season game. This white hot, run-generating and run-stuffing team enters as the sixth (lowest) seed. They will be the Cowboys first opponent in the divisional round of the playoffs. Even though they'll be on the road, their momentum and four quarter execution will humble the Seahawks, quiet the 12th Man, and send Seattle to the coffee houses for the remainder of the playoffs.

There aren't nearly enough available fingers to plug the Seattle dike. They've sprung more than a leak, and they're clearly doing the backstroke and swimming up-stream while the Redskins are about ready to throw things in overdrive. Seattle is the equivalent of a vehicle with one gear. Reverse. Seattle has one saving grace, and it may not be much of an advantage. Joe Gibbs has a decision to make. A big decision. A quarterback decision. Does he ride the hot-handed Todd Collins or revert back to starter Jason Campbell? A most interesting dilemma, but one a veteran coach, like Gibbs, is paid to make.

That's their problem to address, not one the Cowboys can or need to solve, so let's get back to what it's going to take to knock off the visitors who come calling on the January 12th weekend. Worth mentioning is the one milestone the Cowboys did achieve Sunday. They set the franchise record for lowest rush yards ever in a game. One yard. Let that be repeated and allowed to sink in. One yard. One measly yard, and this is the #1 seed in the NFC! Folks, that's not only horrible, it's tragic, and it will flat get you beat 7 out of every 10 times. This must be rectified!

How?

You either find a way to run the ball or you live and die by the aerial game. If the latter is selected, Terry Glenn, Terrell Owens, Andre Gurode and Tony Romo better come in at 100% or better. Not only completely healthy, they must arrive on target and in rhythm. Miss on any of these facets and Dallas has big problems. This team lives and butters its bread via the pass. That won't change, and it shouldn't. A team must play to its strengths. Dallas has to put it up to win. That section of the playbook stays.

The Cowboys must sit Julius Jones. Must. They can't afford to dink, dunk and dabble with this guy. The Cowboys' third down conversion rate is falling like the mercury in a thermometer these days. Julius Jones puts them in too many third and long scenarios. Whether his runs are stopped on first or second down, the Cowboys always seem to be left with a yardage dilemma. With Jones' inability to create his own yards, coupled with a line that struggles in the running game, they have to turn to a back who will work for yards. From the opening bell, MBIII must shoulder the load from here on out. Yes, Julius can make an appearance now and then, but he must be very limited in his action.

Secondly, the Cowboys must run into the opposition's penetration/rush. They must turn the sack artists into run stuffers. Neutralize the pressure by meeting it head on. If Barber can get past the initial point of attack, he can almost will a few more yards out of a play. Forward progress can certainly minimize or curtail the third and long situations. In no way, shape or form can Cory Proctor be called a liability. He's someone you can rely on and go to battle with; however, Andre Gurode is needed. There are big uglies amongst the playoff teams, and his girth will be sorely needed. Get well, big man. Get well.

How effective does the run game need to be? As effective as necessary to set-up the play-action pass. Defenses must respect the running game enough to effectively freeze linebackers and secondary personnel. The Cowboys must create hesitation in the opposition's pressure. Barber will sell the run more effectively than his running mate, and he is more trusted with blitz pick-up and check-down passes. Again, this ground game does not need to generate 200 rushing yards; it just needs to do the necessary things well. Positive yards on first down. Moving the chains with regularity. Establish the run to set-up the pass. Grind clock.

The Cowboys need to establish a little more offensive balance or rely on winning shoot-outs. They have the ability to do either, but one is certainly more preferable. In the three Super Bowl years of the 90's, the Cowboys won their fair share of battles, and none was more important than time of possession.

It's time for a few adjustments out at Valley Ranch. Fortunately, they have some time to take a long, hard look in the discovery mirror and come up with a few New Year's resolutions. The clock is ticking.

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