Thursday, January 11, 2007

It's Alright Ma, We're Only Bleeding

Oh the humanity! Only the finality of the NFL playoffs can bring this much heartache to a football fan. Ask any New York Giants or Jets fan, ask a Kansas City Chiefs fan -- teams which were bounced out of the playoffs last weekend -- or of course just ask any Cowboy fan how bad a postseason elimination is, then multiply it by around a hundred when you get one of those kick in the stomach losses. The defeat ranked right down there with some of the most unlucky, unbelievable losses in recent NFL postseason memory -- regrettably joining the rancid ranks of the Oakland Raiders' cruel loss to the Patriots in the notorious January 2002 "tuck rule" game and the Giants' historic collapse to the 49ers in the same month, the last occasion where a botched snap or hold on a field goal factored so monumentally into a playoff game's outcome.

In the Cowboys 55th all-time playoff game, the Cowboys came up a day late and a dollar short, leaving about a thousand what-ifs to play themselves out in the dumbfounded mindsets of their stupefied fans. This was only the Cowboys second one-point playoff loss, the other being the famous 28-27 loss following the 1981 season to Joe Montana's upstart SF 49er team, which forever after was known simply as "The Catch." But I didn't even reference that game in my own mind following the botched snap by QB Tony Romo. No, this game brought a unique pain all its own.

It wasn't just a normal loss in the postseason, as if that wouldn't have been enough to bum me out for an entire offseason. No, this one had to involve the new face of the franchise, Tony Romo, mishandling the snap on a chip-shot field goal attempt that would have put us up 2 points with about a minute left. Beforehand, there was the tease of TE Jason Witten's first down that wasn't, the football follies moment of WR Terry Glenn's fumble that maybe wasn't even a catch, and a handful of questionable penalties (Seattle getting 4 crucial first downs via penalty), in addition to the usual 5 or 6 plays that swing a game one way or the other in your average NFL game.

By my calculation, the Heartache Express will be coming to seven other NFL cities this year, starting with four such stops this weekend. So if misery loves company, then the losers of these four playoff games -- Baltimore-Indy, Seattle-Chicago, Philly-New Orleans, New England-San Diego -- are themselves in for a heaping helping of hurt once the final scores are tallied by the great finger of the scorekeeper in the sky. Here's hoping a few new scapegoats will emerge, a few more goats and villains if you will, to take some of the unwanted onus off young Tony Romo, already the butt of some lame Jay Leno "jokes" (are there any other kind?) and water cooler scorn & mockery, depending on which lens you view his recent gaffe through.

Leaving aside the bitter end to the 21-20 defeat at the hands of Coffeetown's own band of Seahawks, Romo didn't play all that badly, going 17-29 for 189 and a touch. I was right that Julius Jones was due for a big game, and he had one, with 112 yards on 22 carries, including the key 35-yarder on that last drive that almost, almost, almost went for a TD. But Dallas didn't do enough to exploit Seattle's weakness in the secondary, and while the defense played better, no sacks and very little pressure on Seattle QB Matt Hasselback allowed him to pass for 240 yards and 2 TDs. As I expected, they bottled up RB Shaun Alexander, who has yet to have a big game in a big game, holding him to 69 yards on 24 carries; his only damage came on Seattle's last drive after the missed FG attempt, when he ran for 20 key yards and thus all but seal ed the outcome.

Ironically, the Cowboys probably would have been better off if the officials had ruled the Terry Glenn fumble as a TD instead of a 2-point safety, as the play eventually resulted in 8 Seahawk points; the Cowboys would have gotten the ball back after that series with the game tied at 20, instead of down by 1 after Seattle's missed 2-point conversion following the TD. In other words, the safety made it 20-15 Dallas, then Seattle took over and scored to make it 21-20. Funny how things play out, although maybe funny isn't the right word...

I thought Sports Illustrated's Don Banks came closest to capturing the mood of depressed, despairing Cowboy fans the world over when he said: "In retrospect, it had to end that way for the Dallas Cowboys this season, didn't it? With one last wild swing of momentum, one final plunge on the down side of the rollercoaster ride that was their 2006. It had to end with Tony Romo being humbled by his game-deciding mistake, after seemingly having the world at his feet just a few short weeks ago. From Next Big Thing to Bill Buckner, in the span of about a month. It was the closest thing the NFL can come to Greek tragedy, and it was a devastatingly swift turn of events for a quarterback who had the word "mania'' attached to his last name for much of the season's second half."

Well, yes, Don, it may have resembled a Greek tragedy, but somehow I highly doubt even old Sophocles or Euripedes at their pre-Socratic peak possessed enough powers of descriptive imagination to capture how absolutely crestfallen it must have felt to be the one player who undeniably cost his team a chance to advance in the National Football League playoffs. But Banks was also right when he said that Romo's young enough to recover from this brush with disaster. Either the football gods plotted nefariously to humble this kid who took the football world by storm immediately after his ascension to the starting QB position on the NFL's most high profile team, or they have even bigger plans and greater success down the road for him but first saw fit to put a few skyscraper-sized obstacles in his way to make it that much sweeter when he reaches the sport's ultimate pinnacle. This is no time to stress the negative, however, because in football there is always the chance for redemption as long as you have an opportunity to keep playing. There will be other Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons, and I would take Tony Romo on my side any day, any time, as we go into battle. Only quitters themselves would think otherwise.

And SI's Tim Layden, who wrote a great feature on Romo during the height of Romo-mania, also expects the young QB to bounce back next year. Layden writes that Romo's extraordinary work ethic and drive to succeed will in the long run make "The Bobble" a mere footnote when it's all said, done and written: "Romo is in the football business to carve out a long and successful career with personal acclaim and, more important, team success. That's why he will rally. I would expect him to slip underground for a while. No public appearances with Underwood or any other American Idols in the near future. He will go to the Pro Bowl and get the support of other players who understand his plight."

That said, it will take more than time and tide to erase the shattered psyche of a battered gladiator. Only winning can take some of the sting away. Playoff game winning. A lot of QBs went through a lot of agony before they won the prize, and I'm thinking here of John Elway, Phil Simms, Steve Young, even Roger the Dodger himself ... while others won it all early and thus relatively pain-free, like Joe Montana, Tom Brady and Terry Bradshaw.

With all the unbridled glory the Dallas Cowboys have enjoyed, the team and its fans have somehow have had to endure much more than their fair share of galling, appalling losses, especially in the postseason. It began early in the team's history with those two back to back tough-fought NFL championship game defeats to the Packers in the late 1960s, including the notorious Ice Bowl; continuing on with the 16-13 loss to the Colts in Super Bowl V on Jim O'Brien's last-second field goal; the two monumental Super Bowl losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s -- no Cowboy fan of a certain age can forget Jackie Smith's end-zone drop of an easy TD from Staubach -- coming up short in three consecutive NFC championship games, losing on the road to Philadelphia, San Fran & Washington. In this they resemble another highly successful framchise in another sport, namely your New York Baseball Yankees, who have been on the tantalizingly short end of countless close-but-no-cigar moments, as any follower of the Bronx Bombers can attest, especially in this new century. And like the Yankees, the Cowboys have also had a disturbing amount of premature deaths & tragic casualties among its populace of players, from losing Harvey Martin, Bob Hayes, and Mark Tuinei to the well-publicized off-field travails of Hollywood Henderson, Michael Irvin, Nate Newton, Lance Rentzel, etc. ... Luckily, as Yankee fans have all those World Series trophies to console them, the Cowboys will always have those five Super Bowl trophies to offset some of the torment.

One quick fact, whether or not it makes for ammunition that can be used by conspiracy theorists: before the fateful snap on the botched field goal, the Cowboys' long snapper, the well-known L.P. Ladouceur, complained that the football he was given was too slippery. The NFL now uses what are known as K-Balls for all kicking situations, which are basically NFL regulation balls but they're taken right out of the box without being handled in any way by staff members of either team. For years, ever since the policy went into effect in 1999, kickers and snappers and holders have complained about the situation, but to no avail. The Saints' John Carney said that kickers "were punished" when they came up with the new rules, saying that "nobody really likes the K-Balls."

It may have been a good idea in theory, the NFL trying to assure that all footballs used in the kicking game conform to one standard, but it's a case of going too far in the other direction and thus hurting the game. Perhaps the Cowboys and earlier the Bengals, who had their seasons ended by bobbled snaps on short, potential game-winning field goals, are only the first victims of the dreaded K-Ball.

I noticed something weeks and weeks ago about the strange way Tony Romo holds on field goals and extra points, something nobody has brought up in the relentless, ongoing deconstruction of "The Hold." Now, obviously, for a right-footed kicker, the holder will set up for the hold on the kicker's right, and vice versa for a lefty. But Romo, a right-hander, used his left hand -- specifically the index finger on his left hand -- to place the ball on the ground. To me that's an extra step in the process that increases the potential for error. Watch all the kicks this weekend and see if any other holder uses anything but his right hand to spot the ball.

It's obviously 20-20 hindsight now, but on the very first replay they showed of the botched snap and then Romo taking off around left end in his futile attempt to reach the endzone and/or the one-yard line, which would have given Dallas a first down, I noticed that all K Martin Gramatica had to do was get his body in the way of Seattle's Jordan Babineaux -- not even make a block but more like a basketball screen -- and he would have been unable to tackle Romo from behind. I know we don't pay the 5-8 Argentinean to block safeties, but I'm just saying that any physical contact at all would have prevented Babineaux from making his game-saving shoestring tackle. Such is the tenuous nature of that cruel mistress football and why it's often rightly dubbed a proverbial game of inches.
As any sentient Cowboys fan will tell you, some good did come out of the premature end to Dallas' season last weekend. Mike Zimmer, the Cowboys' justifiably much-maligned defensive coordinator, was thankfully taken off our hands by the Atlanta Falcons, who somehow saw fit to give the job to the man whose defense totally collapsed down the stretch -- going from one of the top squads in terms of yardage and points allowed to a stuttering, sputtering unit that allowed tons of each to opponents. The collapse started with the Saints game, when the D gave up 42; continued with Atlanta (28) and Philly (23), before reaching a new nadir in the Detroit fiasco (39). Although the defense played better in Seattle, it was hardly dominating at any point, and so the feeling is one of good riddance to the embattled Mike Zimmer, if not good luck as such. CB Terence Newman, one of the real leaders on the entire team, may have inadvertently expressed the overall sentiment toward Zimmer when he said this about potential replacement Todd Bowles (currently the team's secondary coach), "Instead of running the same thing every week, he knows teams will figure that out and understands you have to change things up." Ouch!

In other coaching matters, it looks like Bill Parcells will return for a fifth year as head coach. I don't see him going out like that. I really think a coaching staff shakeup is in order, and I think we need to hire a proven defensive coordinator in the 3-4 if that's what we're gonna stick with. I personally like the 4-3 for the personnel we have, with our best/only pass rusher DeMarcus Ware moving back to traditional DE and not being used ever again in coverage -- one of the real lamentations expressed by Cowboy fans in their catalog of criticisms hurled at the outgoing Zimmer: How could you drop your best sack-meister off into the flat or deep into zone coverage to guard wide receivers while the QB gets time to survey the field and pick the secondary apart? You'd think that was Football 101, but not in Zimmer's playbook. My brother mentioned one possible candidate to replace him: Baltimore's Rex Ryan, son of Buddy, although we don't know his contract status (the Ravens' website says only that he's in his second year as defensive coordinator); NFL coaches don't usually make lateral moves unless their deals are up.

Another positive, besides Zimmer leaving, was the inspired play of last year's #1 pick, LB Bobby Carpenter, who showed his athleticism and football instincts to make a bunch of plays last Saturday. We have our full allotment of draft picks as well as a boatload of cap space to make some key additions going into next season. Until then, we will neither surrender nor retreat. I know as much as our QB, Tony Romo, must be itching to get back on the field and prove himself all over again, that's how eager fans are to see some painful memories erased. At this point it doesn't pay to rehash the negativity; instead you have to pick yourself up and dust yourself off so that you can live for another day where you can instill some misery on someone else. And at the end of the day, isn't that what sports is all about?

For this weekend's games I like Chicago big over Seattle, the Saints to struggle with the Eagles but win a very close one late, New England over San Diego by at least 10, and the Ravens to win a low scoring game over the Colts. In fact, right now I like the Bears to go all the way, flaws & all, winning a close Super Bowl over Baltimore. But for those playing at home, please, no wagering...


jimithegreek said...

Oh well, we can both say " We'll get em next year!"

WardensWorld said...

True enuf, brother jim, and we may both have lame duck coaches because this is really the last year i can see coughlin and parcells sticking it out. these are old school guys who may not be cut out for the modern type of athlete anymore. also, year to year in the nfl everything changes so much, you can go from worst to first and back again in the blink of an eye. i know you're all teary-eyed about tiki but you can watch the love affair with himself continue as he begins his media career!