Nick Eatman is the author of the recently published ****If These Walls Could Talk: Dallas Cowboys***, a collection of stories from the Cowboys' locker room, sideline and press box, with a foreword written by Darren Woodson.*
PHILADELPHIA – If Jason Garrett has said it 20 times, he's said it 200 times – and that's just in this month.
*Be your best regardless of circumstance. *
It's one of Garrett's mantras and he preaches it over and over and over. And the reason he reiterates the message is for games like this one Sunday afternoon.
In this case, the circumstances included your most talented player out for this game and probably a handful more in Dez Bryant. You're already down a couple of key defensive starters, throw in a left guard, a third tight end and if none of that is enough, how about just put the quarterback and face of the franchise out for the game and maybe another two months as well.
Oh, and these circumstances also include facing an Eagles team that appeared desperate, playing its home opener with a running back looking to send a message to his former team.
And on top of all that, you've got one of the weirdest games ever with record-setting penalties, including horrible personal foul call on a kicker standing on the sidelines. This was just the most unique of games from start to finish.
That's your circumstances. So, were the Cowboys at their best?
I can say this, that defense certainly was.
The Cowboys as a whole, can play better than what we saw in this 20-10 win over the Eagles. But I'm really not sure this defense – and I mean *THIS *defense – can play any better.
The Eagles had 21 yards of offense in the first half and their only first down came by penalty. DeMarco Murray rushed for two yards on 13 carries. Remind you, that's a game total – TWO FREAKING YARDS. Before Romo went down he rushed for 12 on one play.
For the game, the Eagles had just 226 yards and 80 of that came on the last drive.
What Rod Marinelli did was an absolute masterpiece. He not only shut down the Eagles' offense, but slowed them down in the process. Maybe those two things are one in the same. If you slow'em down, you more and less can shut them down.
The Cowboys were able to do both. And let's not forget what is missing from that side of the ball. We all know about Dez, and now Romo, and even Ron Leary, but the Cowboys are missing key components as well. Mainly, not having a guy like Randy Gregory in this game was seemingly pivotal because of his ability to rush up the field, play laterally when the Eagles go side-to-side and more than anything, just another body on the field to combat Philly's up-tempo offense.
Obviously, Rolando McClain and Greg Hardy are missed. We knew they would be but against a quick-strike team like this, you at least wanted to see the Eagles after the first four games.
At least we all thought. No Hardy, McClain, Gregory … no problem at all.
The Cowboys played with the guys they had and were head and shoulders better than the Eagles. And this was a desperate Eagles team that simply couldn't go down 0-2, especially two games behind Dallas. But yet, that's exactly where they are because they were outplayed, out-schemed and out-fought for four quarters.
Yeah, I'm sure DeMarco Murray wanted this game real bad. Well, it's too bad his offensive linemen couldn't do much about that.
Murray was hit in the backfield several plays, including those two big losses of -5 and -6 to start the third quarter. Again, I'm certainly not an offensive expert but we saw Murray do so much damage last year running downhill – straight at the line of scrimmage and darting through big holes. So far in two weeks, it's a lot of side running on sweeps and pulls and it's up to him to find not just a hole, but the right one.
So far, he seems so uncomfortable, but since it's only been two games, let's just focus on this one. The Cowboys made him so uncomfortable even though Marinelli said his guys did nothing out of the ordinary.
"It's really nothing unique. It's what we do every week," Marinelli said bluntly. "The guys executed, they were explosive and hit the gaps. We just do what we do."
Without Hardy, I think we all wondered where the pass rush would come from. And while the Cowboys were credited with just one sack (Anthony Hitchens), they made Sam Bradford hurry many of his throws. And with him, that can be good enough.
I said it all week that I thought Bradford wasn't good enough to beat a Tony Romo-led team. No, the quarterbacks don't face each other but these games are won and lost by the quarterback play. Plain and simple, I thought the Cowboys would benefit more from Romo than the Eagles would with Bradford.
As it turned out, the Cowboys fared well with Weeden, who completed all of his passes, including a game-sealing touchdown to beat the Eagles' blitz.
For so long around here, the Cowboys have been a team in which Romo simply had to go win games. Now, it's starting to look more and more that this position just has to manage the game, and strike when the opportunity presents itself.
That's what a good defense does for you. On the flip side, Bradford had to press all day and even when the Eagles got down to the Cowboys' 3, they called two straight passes. The latter was picked off in the end zone by Sean Lee, who had blanket coverage on tight end Zach Ertz to come up with a huge game-changing play.
And speaking of Lee – that was the guy we haven't seen since the middle of the 2013 season. He was all over the field, in the backfield, making tackles on receptions, runs, just wherever was needed. Heck, he even fielded the onside kick to put the game away.
Without looking at some of the rest of the performances from Sunday, I would say Lee has a good chance to earn NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors, an award he actually claimed back in 2013, against Philly on the road.
Maybe it's just a Philly thing. Or maybe it's just a "he's-healthy-now-and-back-to-his-old-self" type of thing. Either way, the Cowboys will not only take it, they need it.
And this piece would be incomplete is we didn't mention the secondary. Those guys on the back end were amazing, mainly because we didn't really hear from them. Brandon Carr and Mo Claiborne dominated their matchups all day and so far, the Cowboys haven't really missed a beat with Tyler Patmon as the nickel corner. And don't forget about the rookie Byron Jones. The Cowboys are putting him on opposing tight ends and he's winning a lot of the battles, including one late in the fourth quarter that resulted in a deflection and interception.
Without a doubt, the Eagles had their own offensive issues coming into the game. But the Cowboys made sure those problems got a little worse.
This game will be remembered more for Romo's injury. But to me, the way the defense manhandled the Eagles – before and after the setback – is the reason why the Cowboys held on.
It might just be the reason why the panic button won't be pushed just yet.