IRVING, Texas– What is a team to do, pray tell, when the best laid plans of mice and men go awry, leaving you wallowing in a losing streak, the losses and headaches mounting by the week as the number of games remaining dwindle?
Why, your quarterback is throwing some, but still unable to play for two more games, leaving you on your third quarterback trying to rescue the season. Your wide receiver is back, but really not back yet. Your starting running back is now gone, and so is the guy adding electricity to your backfield. Your offense has nearly forgotten where *paydirt *is, having scored only 13 touchdowns so far in seven games, fewer than 29 other teams in the league have.
And you have lost five consecutive games, frustratingly close in three of them, but still no cigar with the Philadelphia Eagles ready to pounce on you at AT&T Stadium for all to see Sunday night on national television.
What is a 2-5 team to do?
"When you've lost five in a row there is an urgency to go get it," says your veteran co-captain, Jason Witten, one of the few guys on this team who remembers the last five-game losing streak.
"We'll get it handled, trust me, trust me," says your defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford, new to such a prolonged stretch of losses.
"Now we have to go, have to go," says your defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, not one to fall victim to despair.
"We've got to get to 3-5, and as fast as we can," says your defensive co-captain, Barry Church, just after last Sunday's latest close call.
Modest battle cry, OK: Two bits, four bits, six bits a dollar, all for 3-5 stand up and holler.
But after all, you can't get to 5-5 without first getting to 3-5. And the way this NFC East is going, heck, do so against the equally modest 3-4 Eagles, which is certainly not out of the question since you've beaten those dudes once already in a game that wasn't even as close as the 20-10 final score, and you conceivably could go to sleep Sunday night with the same number of losses as everyone else in the division.
But how do you do so with an offense seemingly allergic to goal lines, having failed to score a touchdown in two of the past three games, a vital reason for those losses? How do you do so with an offense having scored just four touchdowns while kicking 10 field goals over the past four games, of course all those losses, too? How do you do so when you own the league's 28th-ranked red-zone offense when it comes to scoring TDs?
How do you do so with a pass offense ranked 24th in the league, a ranking so low you have to go back to the 2002 season to find a lower one at season's end when the Cowboys combination of* Q-Car* & Hutch finished the season with the 31st-ranked passing offense? (Only 1990's 27th ranking in a 28-team league was as low in the 16-game era.)
Well, here is how, and repeat after me:
De-Fense … De-Fense … De-Fense.
OK, understand your reluctance to believe. Yep, we know the Cowboys defense has limited the last two opponents, the Giants and Seattle offenses, to only 13 points on their own. We know the Cowboys defense is ranked eighth in the NFL, making you wonder, what else is a defense to do since that would seem a major improvement over last season's 19th ranking? We know with the exception of New England (fifth ranked) and Atlanta (fourth), no offense without the aid of return touchdowns in four quarters has scored more than 20 points against Dallas.
Yet, the Cowboys still haven't been able to win any of the past five games without Romo on the field.
And I've got the nerve to ask for more from this defense?
"It's not enough," Marinelli insists.
But, the defense has kept the Cowboys in almost every game.
"A lot of it is death by inches," Marinelli says. "That's it. Our game is a game of inches and skill."
So, what? What more can you do?
"We're 2-5, the record shows that," bottom-line Marinelli says. "There are plays to be made in crunch time."
Yes, there is that. Fresh in his mind, the 17-play Seattle drive after the Cowboys took a 12-10 late, fourth-quarter lead, converting three of four third-down opportunities, to kick the winning field goal with 1:06 remaining. Then there's the 80-yard overtime touchdown pass in New Orleans. Oh, and squandering the 28-17 lead over Atlanta.
"You have to take the ball away," Marinelli says.
And that brings us to Example A, the one that will be right before this defense's very eyes come Sunday:
The Eagles lead the league with 19 takeaways, immensely helping their struggling offense's cause since their defensive ranking (total yards) leaves them only tied for 17th. And 11 of those takeaways are interceptions.
"They have caused fumbles, intercepted passes, and that's really what gives them chances to have success over the early part of this season – taking the ball away, giving their offense more opportunities," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett says, even more support for his theory of the ball, the ball, the ball.
Then there is Example B:
The Cowboys defense comes limping into this game with a measly four takeaways. Four now! That leaves them tied for dead last in the league with Baltimore. Only one of those four is a fumble recovery. Only one of those three interceptions is by a defensive back (J.J. Wilcox). That leaves them on pace for nine takeaways this season.
That would go down as the fewest single-season takeaways in the franchise's 56-season history by a long shot. Fewer than even the 17 in the 1-15 season of 1989 and, if you can believe this, fewer than the 26 in the 0-11-1 inaugural season of 1960.
Now then, Example C:
The Cowboys finished the 2014 season with a drastically higher 31 takeaway total, second in the NFL to only Houston's 34. And talking with Marinelli the other day reminded me of what he was most proud of in that 31-takeaway 2014 season that we talked about like back in March.
His defense closed out games, delivered late fourth-quarter knockout punches by either taking that ball away or coming up with fourth-down stops in critical situations, er, crunch time.
Ah the memories.
- The fourth-and-goal stop with 6:22 left in the 26-10 win over Tennessee with the Titans trying to inch back in the game.
- Morris Claiborne's interception with 1:02 left to close out a 34-31 victory over St. Louis.
- Sterling Moore's recovery of a Justin Durant-caused fumble with 1:53 left in the 38-18 beating of the Saints.
- The overtime stop against Houston to send the Cowboys on their way to kick the game-winning field goal.
- Rolando McClain's interception of Russell Wilson in Seattle with 42 seconds remaining to close out that 30-23 victory.
- Henry Melton's recovery of Durant's forced fumble with 35 seconds remaining in the 31-21 victory over the Giants.
- Stopping Rashad Jennings on fourth-and-2 with 40 seconds left in the 31-28 win over the Giants.
- Orlando Scandrick's end-zone pick in Chicago with 1:29 left to end any chance of the Bears recovering from a 41-28 deficit.
- Bruce Carter's interception with 1:50 left in the 38-27 beating of the Eagles.
- Closing the door on that 37-17 whooping of the Redskins in the regular-season finale when Wilcox recovered that Keith Smith forced-fumble with 1:49 left.
- And, DeMarcus Lawrence's most memorable sack-forced-fumble-recovery with just 54 seconds left in the 24-20 playoff victory over Detroit.
That's eight takeaways to close out games late in the fourth quarter.
That's one stop on downs with the goal line at their backs late in the fourth quarter.
That's one stop on fourth down to close out a game in the final minute.
That's one stop on the first possession of overtime.
That accounts for 11 of the Cowboys' 13 victories.
That's crunch-time Marinelli Madness.
"We just haven't made plays late in games," says his other defensive co-captain, Sean Lee. "We have to find a way to play better in the fourth quarter and find ways to get the ball back to our offense."
Darn right, the fastest way to keep this season and last season from becoming, respectively, bad and fading memories.