Chad Pemberton: Expect Cowboys to lose another must-win game
Flexed by the NFL to the Sunday night primetime slot, the Dallas Cowboys will travel away from the jeweled confines of Jerry Jones's Eighth Wonder of the World and face the Washington Redskins with the NFC East crown and a playoff berth on the proverbial line.
I write the previous paragraph, and it sounds vaguely familiar, as if I've written it before. I search back through the archives of my columns -- this being my second season opining about the NFL for The Herald-Dispatch -- and find it. A column written two days shy of exactly a year ago, wherein I describe the micro and macro ramifications of what's at stake in the final game of the 2011 season between the Cowboys and the New York Giants: the NFC East crown, a playoff berth, and of course the tired, requisite narratives that come from falling short when it supposedly matters most.
The particulars of that game might seem foggy, but the outcome is not. The Giants won (something I predicted in that very column, as if anyone keeps track of these things), and the Cowboys' 2011 campaign of perpetual hype and grandiose expectations was awash with disappointment and frustration and a myriad of offseason questions. This was the second time in four years that Dallas was held out of the post season because they lost the last game of the regular season (the other was a 44-6 shellacking by Philadelphia in 2008).
Dallas is trying feverishly not to repeat what happened last season and in 2008. I'm trying desperately to write something new. Something that doesn't sound loosely derivative of things I have already said about the Cowboys. But it's difficult to do. My thoughts on Dallas, despite them winning five of its last seven, remain essentially unchanged. As I wrote earlier this season in this space -- when they were 3-5, staring down the double-barrel shotgun of a third consecutive loss that would have put their 2012 season down for good -- Dallas is a franchise that is in desperate need of change.
Talk of change about a team that's one win away from the playoffs might seem counterintuitive. Especially when you think about what head coach Jason Garrett has been able to accomplish under less than ideal circumstances (the plethora of injuries and of course the tragic death of practice squad linebacker Jerry Brown and the subsequent arrest of nose tackle Josh Brent on a charge of intoxication manslaughter), and the quiet impressiveness of Tony Romo in a season where he has assumed more responsibility than ever before, as evidenced by his career high in pass attempts (611) and yards (4,658).
Romo has been particularly efficient as of late, throwing 16 touchdowns and only three interceptions in the last seven games. His high interception total (16) is deceptive. Romo has protected the ball better than his overall stat line indicates -- the bulk of his interceptions came from two games (five against Chicago, and four against New York) -- in fact, Romo has seven games with zero interceptions, which is tied for seventh most in the NFL.
But still, I do believe the Cowboys need to change, and I do believe they will lose Sunday to the Redskins. The latter of which will come because of matchup problems and schematic discrepancies: Rob Ryan's defense is at its most disruptive when they're sending five or more pass rushers, but that will nary be the case against Robert Griffin III, who has, according to ESPN Stats & Info, an NFL-best 97.7 Total QBR when facing five or more pass-rushers, a QBR that is 9.5 points better than the next-best (Tom Brady), and better than any quarterback ESPN Stats & Info has tracked in the last five seasons.
The Cowboys are 2-10 in season finales since 2000 (the worst in the NFL). Which piques my wonder about whether the problem in Dallas isn't as much the players and coaches -- though, that will assuredly be the reason they lose this weekend -- but rather the denominator that never changes, that which is both the king and the poison: Jerry Jones.
Chad Pemberton is a Marshall University graduate who follows the NFL and is writing about it for The Herald-Dispatch. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.