Broncos remind the Cowboys of truths to remember about success: The Morning After

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ARLINGTON , TX - NOVEMBER 7: Dalton Risner (66) of the Denver Broncos blocks Leighton Vander Esch (55) of the Dallas Cowboys as Melvin Gordon (25) operates during the first half at AT&T Stadium on Sunday, November 7, 2021. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

By Bob Sturm Nov 8, 2021

“Success isn’t owned. It is leased. And rent is due every day.” — JJ Watt (maybe, but he probably got it from somewhere, too).

This one is going to be filled with half-truths and clichés. For every success story includes moments where the subject deals with failure. Some of it is because the endeavor is difficult and things that are worth achieving involve tasks that are not easy to navigate. Other times, it simply is because the protagonist forgot how hard they worked to get their taste of success and attempted to take a shortcut to see what role preparation played in the process.

Either way, the dud the Cowboys produced on Sunday should be a stark reminder of several things about the NFL. First, just because you win a lot of games for several weeks, your next opponent is going to show up and attempt to demonstrate that those teams have nothing to do with them. Next, the team you play is filled with remarkable players who on their day — especially if you let them start to feel good about themselves — are plenty good enough to make you wish you didn’t have to deal with them. In other words, there are no free wins in this league and each one requires three hours of your best performances. And finally, the margins in the NFL are so small. While you can survive flat efforts over the course of four months, you might find yourself with a much more difficult route to navigate in January because you screwed around with a massive underdog in November.

Lessons were hopefully learned as taught by a Denver Broncos team that did not look nearly as helpless as we painted them out to be on Friday. Yes, they appeared to be on the fast-track to nowhere with multiple injury excuses where all four of their starting linebackers were not present for this affair on Sunday. Nor were key members of an offensive line that is mid-level to begin and by the second half of this game had reserves at left tackle, right guard and right tackle. They also traded the signature player of the past decade mid-week to send the signal that they were on to 2022.

Yet, Dallas was unable to get the rent money in on time as they were not just beaten — they were obliterated in their own stadium in front of their own disappointed fans. In fact, Dallas looked the part of the helpless side repeatedly in a game where it is pretty difficult to find a specific culprit.

“You have to give Denver credit. … Frankly, we were out-coached and outplayed all the way through. This is the first time that clearly our energy did not exceed our opponent. And that is disappointing,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said immediately following the game. Nobody would argue that every coach and every player will have to reconcile that performance with the mirror. Absolutely. That brought back visions of flat noon performances of 2020 before the Dak Prescott injury against Atlanta and Cleveland — also home games against non-rivals in noon CT starts in Arlington. We have seen this trend for a long time, noon starts in that building make for flat performances from the home side. It predates the coaches and players on the sideline Sunday, but it definitely doesn’t cover for them.

But, noon starts don’t explain this one by any stretch. Nor does the inexplicable closing of the roof to make it feel as much like a convention center as possible on what had to be the most beautiful autumn day in North Texas possible. I have been here long enough to know that this will never change, but still want to make mention of how ridiculous it is to have a roof that you refuse to use in daytime hours. If there will be sunshine on this stadium, it can only be in the eyes of the players through the windows — never from the sky above through the roof. Sad, but true.

So, in the interest of venting, let’s make our own list:

• The Cowboys’ run defense was atrocious. And, that might be an understatement. It is hard to explain a specific reason because, for the most part, there were not completely unattended gaps because they couldn’t line up right or hideous linebacker play like in 2020. This time, it looked like there were a number of times when defensive ends were caved in and the edge was lost. Then, the tackling effort was unlike anything we have seen from Dan Quinn’s crew. They were credited with 12 occasions where they missed tackles, including seven times in the first half. That exceeds most games to this point and there is nothing more demoralizing than seeing Javonte Williams squirting through for an additional 10 yards than he had earned on several runs. It looked contagious. Then you add a few passing plays into the flats where further damage was done after the catch when it cannot happen and you have a defense looking helpless. It is definitely described as “not ready to play”, but that seems a lazy catch-all to simply not losing the edge to a backup tackle because your technique is sloppy. Either way, the Broncos’ reserve linemen won big over the Dallas front and you can see where there are days when your best edge against the run is DeMarcus Lawrence and he would have played a big role if available.

• Dak Prescott has looked the part of an NFL MVP all season and Sunday was anything but. He missed throws over and over again. He had an opportunity to flip the game early in the second quarter with the Cowboys down 13-0 and Dallas facing third-and-7 from its 45. He had time to throw and CeeDee Lamb had a step on Ronald Darby down the numbers on what would have been a routine touchdown catch for Lamb. But, Prescott missed him by plenty. If he connects — which Prescott usually does in his sleep — the game is back in hand. But, he missed many more throws than that. He looked like he had the yips on many occasions including a fourth-and-2 throw to Cedrick Wilson that might have been a touchdown on a crosser on the second drive of the game. On third-and-1 late in the first quarter he airmailed Noah Brown on an open throw to the sideline. On fourth-and-1 with 6:54 in the third quarter, where he could have kept it to move the chains, he saw Lamb open again for a huge gainer, so he lofted a throw and let Lamb make a play — if the throw doesn’t miss Lamb by five yards. That isn’t even close to the full list. Prescott was as bad as we have seen him in ages and I would suggest the layoff and injury must have played a real part. Everyone is allowed to have an off day, but this one was every bit of that and then some. The missed practice time produced a fantastic example of the benefits of practice. Awful.

• We also shouldn’t forget some awful drops. Amari Cooper (for all of his genius) and Tony Pollard both had absolutely awful drops that might have changed the game. They didn’t.

Trevon Diggs was roasted several times and also appeared allergic to tackling again. This is not the Deion Sanders part to imitate. His constant “let someone else” tackle stance is far more problematic when the team is getting thumped. He needs to at least make an honest effort.

• Coaching decisions that mattered? It all starts with them so whether we talk about the tackling — Quinn or the inability to pass protect against Broncos’ reserves and Dallas not being able to beat Denver’s heavy box versus the run, but no blitzing in pass situations which means heavy zones to frustrate the passing game would be something to wonder about with Kellen Moore. For McCarthy, the aggressive nature on fourth down is something I will never take issue with because that is the full personality of the team and we better not become outcome-based critics of something that is smart and usually works. But, the team was flat and McCarthy must take account for that, which it appears he did. He also should understand the risks in leaving everyone out there down 30-0, especially a QB who may have a few health doubts. And wondering about the Terence Steele performance is a fair thing for a fan base to do.

Do I think Steele and La’el Collins is a move to second guess? Honestly, I would have done the same thing, except I would have done it in Minnesota. They didn’t, because we assume they were sending an additional message to Collins of discipline by not allowing him to step back in. Collins is a significantly better tackle than Steele, despite Steele demonstrating that he is much better than he showed in 2020. So now, you ask, upon losing Tyron Smith for a spell: Do you put Collins back to the spot he has occupied for years, or do you call upon his 2014 tape at LSU to place him at left tackle for the first time in ages? A man with 3,500 snaps at right tackle has played 0 at left tackle in the NFL is not starting Sunday unless you are telling me that the opponent’s edge rusher over is Myles Garrett and the edge at right tackle is someone like former Cowboys kicker Billy Cundiff.

But, this wasn’t that. This was Jonathan Cooper, a seventh-round rookie edge rusher from Ohio State who had played in eight games and never had a sack until Sunday, when he spanked Steele for the first two of his career. People are talking like “you should leave Steele where he was” as if he was some first-round tackle who must be groomed. Folks, he is a swing tackle and that means you swing back and forth as the injuries require. All over the league a swing tackle will take snaps at both sides and you will help them and hope for the best. If they can only play one side, you will try to find one that is a better option than that and unfortunately, Ty Nsekhe demonstrated last week that Steele is probably a better option on either side. If you have an issue with anything, it would be that for several years in a row, the veteran swing tackle is not up for the task — but the issue is probably that the NFL doesn’t have three good tackles for every team because that would require 96 strong tackles in the league. There may not be half that many. Steele is improved, but the step down from Smith and Collins is immense. Don’t fall for tiny sample sizes.

The game had one last chance to turn back to Dallas and that was the blocked punt incident. Malik Turner blocked it, but the ball bounced into the eager arms (and facemask) of rookie Nahshon Wright two yards past the line of scrimmage. To all watching and playing, this still seemed like a turning point where Dallas can get right back into the game. But the officials knew that this well-meaning touch by Wright occurred beyond the line of scrimmage and therefore is treated like a muffed punt return and makes it a “free ball” which Denver recovered for a fresh set of downs. On one hand, it seemed a ridiculous rule (to which McCarthy said, “it doesn’t matter” and he is absolutely right. He knew, but chances are great that the rookie Wright did not) and on the other hand, special teams players need to be well aware of it. I don’t blame Wright for attempting to grab a ball that he might have put right in the end zone, but it was another brief moment of chaos that lined up perfectly with the rest of a series of unfortunate events that ruined the day.

It was just not a game the Cowboys were going to win, it seems. Too many were not up for the task and hopefully lessons were learned. Good feelings are gone and now they will see many that will disregard the past two months and welcome the doubts and the naysaying.

Lessons can be learned, but only if they are embraced. The team started to feel too good and appeared that it heard too many of us say that Denver and Dallas are on two different levels last week.

At least that part of the preview was correct. But, the levels were quite different than described. This one was too ugly to believe.
 
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