For a very long time in their game hosting the Cleveland Browns, it looked like the Dallas Cowboys could pretty much call the 2012 season over. They were thoroughly dominated for the entire first half, and then after storming back to take the lead, they gave up a touchdown and trailed again with just over a minute to go in regulation. But the team managed to drive down for a game tying field goal, and then was able to put Dan Bailey in position again to kick the winner in overtime.
The Cowboys have won back to back games for the first time this year. But it is undeniable that the team has major issues it will have to deal with for the rest of the season.
That elephant stomping around in the middle of the room is the battered and struggling Cowboys offensive line. It came into the game with Mackenzy Bernadeau seeing his first action ever at center and Derrick Dockery seeing his first action of the season taking Bernadeau's place at right guard, and things just went downhill from there as Tyron Smith, the best lineman on the team, went out in the first half with a reported high ankle sprain. Jermey Parnell replaced him, and it turned into a long afternoon for the guys up front.
The running game suffered greatly, with Dallas only mustering 63 yards on the ground, and Tony Romo got beaten up. He was sacked seven times and took an additional ten hits. His elusiveness was neutralized by the strong rush from all directions, leaving him with no escape routes. The contrast with the Browns, who have a good line, was stark. They put up 119 rushing yards, or roughly double what the Cowboys managed, and Brandon Weeden was only sacked twice and hit four times. With the effectiveness Romo was able to display in the second half even while under constant attack, it can only be imagined what he could have done with some real protection and a viable running game.
The team is rightfully focused on extending the winning streak and making a run to try and get into the playoffs, but it is also time to face reality. No matter how things go the rest of this season, upgrading the offensive line has to be job one for the coming offseason. Doug Free was largely ineffective in the game, despite some complimentary words from owner Jerry Jones. There is going to have to be a decision made about whether his contract is a mistake. If Romo is to survive a few more seasons, he has to have better protection, and Dallas may have to eat part of Free's contract and move on. In the short term, they are going to be forced to go with Free, and pending the outcome of Smith's injury, may have to try to survive with Parnell for a game or more. It is not going to be easy.
Dallas' offensive line was why they almost lost this game. They probably wound up winning because of the man who wasn't there, Browns cornerback Joe Haden. The best defensive player Cleveland has, his absence was a direct cause for the horrid play of their secondary. Dallas got a remarkable 10 first downs from penalties, exactly one third of their total. Almost all of those free first downs were due to flags drawn in pass coverage. There were two penalties just on the drive for the game-tying field goal that helped get Dallas into position. It is likely that Haden would have avoided at least some of those flags.
Dallas did not have a stellar day on penalties themselves, drawing nine total flags to Cleveland's twelve. But they only gave two first downs to Cleveland, with many of the other penalties in the form of holding calls on the struggling offensive line. In this game, it was clear that the Cowboys suffered much less from their errors than the Browns did.
Although things are certainly going to be difficult from here on for Dallas, there were a couple of positives that emerged. First, the team showed admirable determination and never gave up, even after a botched coverage let the Browns reclaim the lead with only 1:07 left to play. They will certainly need this kind of fortitude with the limitations they face going towards the end of the season.
Second, Dez Bryant had by far the best game of anyone on the team, and the best of his career. He is emerging as a go-to guy for Romo, because he is finally delivering consistently. He only had one mental mistake of note, stepping out of bounds just short of a first down. Otherwise, he was just stellar, getting 145 yards and a touchdown on twelve catches. He may be surpassing Miles Austin as the most dependable wide receiver on the team.
Will the positives of this gritty win be enough? It is questionable. There is a lot for opposing coaches to plan against in the video of this game. Dallas only has one certainty from this: They had to win it to keep their hopes alive, and they did.