IRVING, Texas – The 2011 Dallas Cowboys season ended in great disappointment, and for that reason, far more than the down-to-the-wire games and a handful of thrilling wins, the year will be remembered for a long time to come.
So for posterity sake, the DallasCowboys.com writers will take one last look at the memorable but frustrating season, game by game. Today we present the second installment of this 16-part series.
Game 1: Cowboys (0-1) vs. 49ers (1-0)
When: Sunday, Sept. 18, 2011
Where: Candlestick Park; San Francisco, Calif.
Storyline: Like any good story, Week 2 had all the necessary plot elements. First, the prologue: quarterback Tony Romo was vilified all week for blowing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead with two turnovers (as well as a blocked punt for a touchdown) in a three-point loss to the Jets on national television. Then, the conflict and rising action: Romo clearly got hurt at some point in the first quarter and the Cowboys found themselves trailing 14-7 at halftime. Could he dig the Cowboys out of a possible 0-2 hole and redeem himself?
Game Review: Romo just didn't look himself in the first half. He completed 8 of 17 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown but winced with pain with each throw after the first series. An X-ray showed that the hit Romo took on the third play from scrimmage had fractured a rib, and backup Jon Kitna played the first three series of the third quarter. With San Francisco leading 21-14 with 37 seconds left in the third, Romo – who took pain-killing medicine at halftime – stubbornly re-entered in the game. He led the Cowboys on two fourth-quarter scoring drives, including a last-second 48-yard field goal from rookie kicker Dan Bailey that forced overtime. The Cowboys' defense stopped San Francisco on the previous series thanks mostly to linebacker DeMarcus Ware's eight-yard sack of quarterback Alex Smith on second down. The defense forced another 49ers punt on the first overtime possession, and Bailey, who missed a 21-yard chip shot in the first half, would go on to hit the winning 19-yard field goal.
Pivotal Play: How about the one that set up Bailey's winning kick? With a first-and-10 at his own 22-yard line, Romo saw the 49ers' safeties close to the line of scrimmage and changed the play at the line of scrimmage. He faked a handoff to running back Tashard Choice, fooling the safeties, and hit wide receiver Jesse Holley for a 77-yard catch and run to the 49ers' 1-yard line. Holley had three catches for 96 yards on the final series of regulation and overtime, the first three catches of his career.
Gamebreaker: Romo wasn't the only offensive starter playing hurt; running back Felix Jones hurt his shoulder, center Phil Costa hurt his knee and tight end Jason Witten bruised his ribs. Wide receiver Miles Austin certainly didn't play like a guy with a bad hamstring, either. Austin, who had been dealing with his hamstring since training camp, caught a game-high nine passes for 143 yards and three touchdowns – two from Romo and one from Kitna. He aggravated it on a fourth-quarter run and exited the game for good just before the Cowboys forced overtime.
The Fallout: Unlike 2010, the franchise's worst record since 2002 (6-10), the Cowboys had avoided a 0-2 start with their home opener against Washington up next. The status of Romo's rib and lung was an immediate issue. Further tests also revealed a pneumothorax, a small amount of air leaking between his lung and his chest wall, which quickly resolved itself and allowed him to practice and play the following week with a protective vest and a pain-killing injection. One week after one of the lowest points in his career, Romo had circled 180 degrees, showing toughness and late-game prowess against a tough opponent. Austin would miss the next two games with his strained hamstring. Bailey's two late kicks sparked a franchise-record tying streak of 26 that lasted into early December.