IRVING, Texas – Here is the deal.
No Tony Romo.
No Dez Bryant.
Still no Greg Hardy or Rolando McClain, and now for sure no Jeremy Mincey.
Only a maybe on Ronald Leary.
Jason Witten could barely walk on Monday, but by Wednesday when told I'd bet my last dollar he'd play on Sunday, he said with gusto, "And play well."
And on top of all this, the 2-0 Atlanta Falcons arrive at noon Sunday at AT&T Stadium to inspect the equally 2-0 Cowboys' next man up mentality in the only NFL game this week between two undefeated teams.
And if it's the Falcons here, that means Julio will be down by the ball yard, Jones one of just two NFL receivers to open the season with back-to-back 100-yard receiving games.
"Matty Ice," too, Ryan already having blasted opponents with 80 passes in two games, his 53 completions (22 to Jones) netting 661 yards.
And don't forget the Falcons under new head coach Dan Quinn, the 16th in franchise history, average 25 points a game.
This is no time for the Cowboys to turn into the proverbial turtle, drawing their heads back into some cozy shell, a theory many seemingly want the team to subscribe to while offensively short-handed. You know, rely on the running game, don't ask much of backup quarterback Brandon Weeden, control the clock behind that notorious offensive line and step up defensively.
Question I ask you: If you have thought of that game plan, don't you think that maybe, just maybe, that might have dawned on the Atlanta coaching staff? Don't you think for a minute the Falcons, as the Eagles eventually did last Sunday, won't start creeping up toward the line of scrimmage, bound and determined to stop the Cowboys running game while betting Weeden and his cast of receivers can't beat them throwing the ball?
Sure, the Cowboys want to run the football. Want-to and ability-to are two different things.
"It's hard to run the football in this league," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett was saying this week, along with, "It doesn't always look pretty," and this, "Somehow you have to find a way to block the extra guy."
Ah-ha, the key. Can you block the eighth man in the box or can your running backs make him miss, and miss regularly enough to put up enough points?
That's the key because these Falcons are pretty potent offensively, averaging 1.5 yards short of 400 a game, 318 of those passing. This isn't the Eagles offense, one that didn't score a touchdown against the Cowboys until there was just 1:21 left in the game. And remember, that was just the fourth time in the past 43 games the Cowboys have won when scoring no more than 20 points.
What are the odds of that happening two consecutive Sundays?
Got to let Weeden play quarterback. Got to let him throw the ball down the field. Got to back off that Atlanta defense.
And I know, the thought makes many of you squeamish, last year's 28-17 loss to Arizona with Weeden starting for the injured Tony Romo your reference point. That and all those starting stats from his two years in *Cleveland *(5-16), which to me is about like saying that back at the end of the 1989 season Troy Aikman would never amount to anything because he went 0-11 starting as a rookie.
Yes, the former first-round pick out of Oklahoma State had brain freeze on those two interceptions in that Arizona game, so uncharacteristic of what we – the coaches, too – had seen from him up to that point, and really afterward.
But did you also remember the Cowboys were playing without Leary up front, and then without Doug Free.
Did you remember Dez Bryant had two damaging drops?
Did you remember this was one of just four games that DeMarco Murray didn't rush for 100 yards (just 79 on 19 carries)?
Did you remember of the 33 passes Weeden threw that day (18 completions for 183 yards), only 12 were thrown in a first half the Cowboys trailed 14-10, the 10 points the Cowboys did score thanks to a Tyler Patmon interception return for a touchdown and a 52-yard Dan Bailey field goal?
All the Cowboys seemingly did was allow Weeden to throw screen passes, swing passes and a couple of bootlegs while the Cardinals repeatedly stacked the box with eight up to stop the run. By my count, Weeden only threw the ball three times further than 10 yards that half. The rest all underneath.
The Cowboys were fortunate it was only 14-10 through two quarters.
The second half became more of the same, run, run, run, and more underneath passes. The Cardinals, playing man defense in the secondary, never were threatened.
Weeden's most egregious mistake came on third-and-9 at the Arizona 18, trying to throw a 10-yard out to Witten. He was never open. Worse, Weeden was late. Tyrann Mathieu jumped the route for an interception, killing a red-zone scoring opportunity.
Not until it was 21-10 with 5:53 left to play did the Cowboys take the covers off Weeden. Twelve more of his 33 pass attempts came during the final six minutes. He had one more intercepted, again the throw late to a never-open Terrance Williams, but he also drove the Cowboys to their lone offensive touchdown, a 3-yard reception by Dez.
Weeden's performance so disgusted him, he really hasn't gone back to watch the game again this week. He knows his reads on the two picks weren't sharp, that for some reason he locked in on his targets without moving to his secondary targets.
"Brandon was part of a game last year against Arizona we didn't win, and we didn't play our best against a really good football team," Garrett says. "He was part of it. We all were part of it."
That Arizona defense was good enough (18.7 points a game last year) to propel the Cardinals to an 11-5 record and a wild-card playoff game. Most around The Ranch will tell you that Cardinals defense was the best one they played all last year.
So here the Cowboys go again, but this time they know for sure Romo will miss the next seven games. Weeden is the next guy up, backed for this contest likely by Kellen Moore, who hasn't taken a snap in an NFL regular-season game yet. That is why Matt Cassel arrived this week via trade. He's played in the big league. He's insurance … for now.
No one expects Weeden to be Romo. If he was, he'd be somewhere else starting this week. But still, let him be an NFL quarterback.
Cowboys quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson insists Weeden was one of the "most improved" players in the offseason.
"He has better command of our offense and what is expected of him," Wilson says, emphasizing how Weeden is doing a better job of finding his secondary receivers if the primary option is covered.
So we'll see, because as Witten says, "This is a game we need to win," the veteran tight end not about to concede anything just because the two guys primarily driving this offense will be watching. "We know they're going to play eight men in the box."
Just as the Eagles eventually did, and on that all-important drive, with the Cowboys leading just 13-3 in the fourth quarter, Weeden completed his seventh of seven pass attempts, a zinger of a deep slant to Williams, who went 42 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. Why, they took a shot down the field. But from the point Romo went out until the touchdown pass to Williams, the Cowboys had run the ball 14 times (including a Weeden scramble) and threw the ball just six times and for only 32 yards – no shots down the field.
See, can't draw up inside yourself. Got to stick your head out there and play offensive football. Otherwise, in games like this you're just beating yourself, sort of delaying the inevitable. Still got to score points.
"You've got to continue running a balanced attack," says Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick. "You have to continue to run what you do."
Not nibble. Not become ultra-conservative. Not play with a scared stick. Do what you do. After all, the big sign in the locker room proclaims, We Do.
Now just go do.
In other words, as Weeden says, "Just go out and play football."
Yeah, play football, then maybe, against long odds, the chips will fall where you want them to.
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