Phillips: Why Brandon Weeden Can Succeed -- With A Lot More Help

IRVING, Texas – You're sure to see this stat over the next few days: Brandon Weeden is now 5-17 as an NFL starting quarterback.

Hey, tracked wins and losses are part of the job when you take the keys to Tony Romo's offense. Only QBs and head coaches have their team's record attached to their names. They get the majority of the credit, or the blame, for how all 46 active players perform.

But if you watched closely Sunday, you knew Weeden wasn't the sole reason the Cowboys got outscored 22-0 in the second half in a decisive 39-28 defeat to the Atlanta Falcons while Romo wore a sling over his fractured left collarbone for the first of at least seven games on the sideline.

I get it: Weeden doesn't have equity with Cowboys Nation yet. The first of his two starts in a Cowboys uniform since 2014 didn't end well, either. He was 18-of-33 for 183 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions last November in a 28-17 home loss to Arizona.

For a large portion of Sunday's game, though, Weeden did what was asked of him. He didn't do enough to beat Atlanta, but he wasn't asked to play hero ball, either. And he shouldn't be.

In the first half, aided by a dominant offensive line and running game, he managed the game nearly perfectly: 13-of-14 for 164 yards on four touchdown drives.

The one mistake he made early on – an off-balance, throw-across-his-body interception that badly missed Jason Witten and set up a Falcons touchdown drive from the Dallas 23-yard line – was a bad, bad decision, the type of impulse throw he has admitted making early in his career with the Cleveland Browns when he felt he had to force things for a losing team.

His final line: 22-of-26 for 232 yards, no touchdowns and the one interception. Combining his bullpen stats in Week 2 for an injured Romo, Weeden overall is 29-of-33 for 305 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

I'll take that.

And ultimately, I'm guessing the Cowboys will take 28 points by a Weeden-led offense most weeks going forward – especially if they expect the defense to yield somewhere around its 23.5-point average through the first two games instead of the 39 Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman hung on them. (Seven of those, of course, came off Weeden's lone turnover.)

Jason Garrett praised his replacement starter multiple times in the post-game press conference, and that wasn't lip service. Overall the head coach thought Weeden played within the parameters of the offense and took what Atlanta gave him, which was mostly underneath stuff against a crowded front and single-high safety coverage.

Sometimes, particularly with Dez Bryant (foot) injured, that meant settling for checkdowns to running back Lance Dunbar, who led the offense in targets and receptions (10).

"I thought he (Weeden) played a really efficient ballgame . . . He drove the ball throughout, he made good decisions," Garrett said. "They (the Falcons) play a lot of guys around the line of scrimmage, so you have to be effective running against those eight-man looks and you have to be effective throwing the ball. And oftentimes when they play eight-man fronts, they don't give you chances to throw it downfield.

"So be effective, be efficient, throw the ball to the right guy and keep moving the chains."

Granted, the offense barely moved the chains after holding a 28-17 halftime lead. They converted only three first downs in the second half after a whopping 20 first downs in the first half.

They also didn't have many chances. The Falcons dominated time of possession in the second half, 20:07 to 9:54, and the Cowboys ran only 19 offensive plays.

When they did have the ball, the offense couldn't establish a balanced attack around Weeden. Thanks to a pair of penalties, he wound up facing third-and-23 on the first drive of the second half. The Falcons also were much more effective against the run. Five of the Cowboys' 19 plays were runs for minus-4 yards that dropped their final rushing total from 131 to 127.

And, well, this part is well established by now: The defense had absolutely no answer for Jones or Freeman.

Credit Atlanta's offense for: 1) moving Jones all over North Texas to get him open; 2) giving Ryan time to set his feet and find the all-world receiver; and 3) exploiting the edges in the running game against a depleted Dallas defensive line.

"We didn't play well enough on defense. That's really where it was," Garrett conceded.

Weeden wasn't perfect -- the incomplete throw down the seam to an open Witten could have been a huge gain in the third quarter -- but he can't win games by himself while Romo's out. The backup's backups, Matt Cassel and Kellen Moore would face the same issue if ever called upon to play during this stretch.

As Garrett addressed Monday, Weeden didn't target his outside receivers much – only Williams was thrown to three times, counting the penalty he drew on the opening drive; Cole Beasley had four catches working mostly the middle. Testing defenses vertically could help loosen up the run game over 60 minutes.

Weeden must do more of what he did in Week 2 at Philadelphia: eliminate turnovers, manage the game and capitalize on opportunities when they surface, like Terrance Williams' 42-yard catch and run for a touchdown to seal the Cowboys' victory over the Eagles.

In an ideal scenario, the defense could also provide Weeden an extra possession or two. They missed a couple chances at takeaways Sunday. At the very least, they can't allow 438 total yards and two 90-yard drives that eat 10 minutes of clock.

A healthy Jeremy Mincey and Randy Gregory certainly could have helped slow down the 3-0 Falcons, but as Garrett says, no one cares about your team's injuries.

The outside microscope will continue peering straight at Weeden, but the Cowboys – now 2-1, still facing life without Romo, Bryant and others for the time being – will take close look at themselves this week.

It'll take everyone to get Weeden back in that win column.

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