IRVING, Texas – Check it down vs. chuck it up.
For Cowboys fans badly in need of bye-week optimism, that might have been the perceived line between Brandon Weeden, so often labeled too conservative in three games, and Matt Cassel, the new starter who needed to shake things up Sunday at the Meadowlands by taking shots downfield, risk be damned.
In reality, Cassel attempted to be both against the Giants. Safe and aggressive. To play quarterback at a consistently functional level in this league, you can't be one or the other.
The results in his first start with a star on his helmet, obviously, were mixed.
Cassel showed no hesitation looking vertical. He averaged 8.4 yards per attempt, which would rank third in the NFL among qualified passers. Two of his completions were deep crossing routes to Terrance Williams and Jason Witten for 62 yards on two scoring drives in the first half. Another was a terrific throw to Devin Street (and catch) for a 25-yard touchdown in the back of the end zone midway through the fourth quarter.
Those types of plays test a defense, and they might have helped loosen up running lanes for Darren McFadden and the offensive line, who worked in harmonious concert for McFadden's season-high 152 rushing yards – the team's first 100-yard individual rushing effort of the season.
Of course, there were at least three throws Cassel would like back. Three interceptions, specifically, into coverage.
The consequences: three extra Giants possessions that led to 10 points in a 27-20 Cowboys loss that extended their losing streak to four for the first time in the Jason Garrett era.
Cassel, in his 11th season doing this job, knew he made too many mistakes. And maybe he took too many chances challenging savvy veteran cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who grabbed two of the three picks and returned one 58 yards for a score.
"Turnovers is what killed us (Sunday)," Cassel said. "And it lies on my shoulders, obviously."
Overall, though, Cassel delivered some hope for an offense that will be without Tony Romo (fractured collarbone) for a minimum of three more games.
The offense did get a jolt with Cassel under center. The Cowboys had five pass plays of at least 20 yards Sunday, the highest single-game total of the season. They entered MetLife Stadium with 11 in the first five games.
Perhaps another week of practice will help Cassel settle into the role, and most importantly, develop a better wavelength with his receivers. All three interceptions, to some degree, were a product of off timing – the first two to Williams and the last to Brice Butler.
Garrett and Cassel offered no excuses afterwards, but it's worth noting he hadn't really worked with the first-team offense until 12 days ago.
"The comfort level in this system playing in games helps players," Garrett acknowledged. "The experience that he had within the system and the nuances of playing with particular guys, sometimes those things show up when you don't have the opportunity to do that in practice and in game situations.
"That applies to all positions and it probably applies to the quarterback position more than any other. We'll work through those things, and some of the things that happened in the game that might have been a result of that, we'll learn from as we go forward."
The Cowboys are hopeful to get Dez Bryant (foot) in game action very soon. They might have found a rhythm to their running game.
But until Romo gets back, Cassel has got to be the guy. And they simply won't win games going forward with a minus-4 turnover differential (league-worst minus-9 for the season).
Three costly picks aside, though, Cassel delivered signs of a spark for the offense.
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