How does the expression go? It's not how you start but how you finish? Well, the Dallas Cowboys have not finished well, not in any recent year. And if they don't finish well this season, chances are there will be people finished in Dallas. It is that simple.
As good as the Cowboys have been, as successful as their season has been, it all comes down to this: December. The month that has undone family budgets also has undone Cowboys seasons. And it threatens to do so again.
Three times in the past six regular seasons (2008, '11 and '13), the Cowboys have won only one game in December and January. Even worse, since 1997, the Cowboys have compiled a 30-47 regular-season December-January record, tied for 28th in the NFL during that span.
Before the Cowboys get to December, they have a rather significant Thanksgiving date with the Philadelphia Eagles. But after Thursday's key NFC East matchup, their last November game this season, the Cowboys play three of their remaining four games on the road.
Dallas plays at Chicago on Dec. 4 and at Philadelphia on Dec. 14, returns home for Indianapolis on Dec. 21 and closes out the regular season at Washington on Dec. 28.
Nobody has traveled as well as Dallas, the only NFL team unbeaten in road games (5-0) this season.
Yet Week 17 has been especially brutal to the Cowboys. Since 2000, the Cowboys are 2-12 in Week 17 games, the worst record of any team in that span. They have lost four straight "win-or-go-home" games dating to 2008 by a combined margin of 127-60.
“The game will be Thursday so you do everything you can to get yourself feeling at your best around 3:30 on Thursday,” Romo said. “That’s my job, and I’m going to wear out the mental side of it to get ready and to have the Eagles down cold by the time we get there.”
Romo has fared well on Thanksgiving in his career. The Cowboys are 6-1 in his starts and has thrown 18 touchdown passes to just six interceptions.
“I mean the mental challenge is there, but I’ve played in enough Thanksgiving games to understand what is going to give you some advantages to the short week, to give you a leg up,” Romo said. “You’ve got to really grind it out. And you’ll be a little bit exhausted on the mental side of it but that’s a good thing in this sort of week.”
Williams was the only real serious injury on the Cowboys' practice report.
Defensive end Jack Crawford and safety Jeff Heath (thumb surgeries on Tuesday) didn't practice and won't play against the Eagles. The same can be said of cornerback Tyler Patmon (knee/ankle) and linebacker Dekoda Watson (hamstring).
Defensive tackle Josh Brent (groin), right tackle Doug Free (foot), defensive tackle Nick Hayden (shoulder), quarterback Tony Romo (back) and linebacker Rolando McClain (knee) are listed on the injury report as full participants in practice.
IRVING, Texas -- The trash talking has started between the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles in anticipation of their Thanksgiving Day clash at AT&T Stadium.
On Monday, Eagles defensive tackle Bennie Logan didn't seemed impressed with the Cowboys' offensive line.
Logan told CSNPhilly. "Yeah, they’re OK. I don’t really know what’s great about them."
The Cowboys have the NFL's leading rusher in DeMarco Murray and an offensive line with three first-round draft picks, including Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith.
Starting left guard Zack Martin, the Cowboys' 2014 first-round selection, is getting consideration for the offensive rookie of the year award.
"The running back’s having a good year running, but I don’t see anything spectacular about them," Logan said. "Same offensive line we faced last year and they have one new guy. We faced them [before]. They’re OK linemen."
Cowboys center Travis Frederick, like Martin and Smith, a first-round pick, didn't take the bait.
"I'm not really a big bulletin-board guy," Frederick said after Tuesday's practice at Valley Ranch. "For me, if you can't get motivated to play a game, this is your job, this is what I do, this is what I love. I'm motivated to play every game. People say things sometimes to the media and sometimes the media spins it a little bit. It is what it is."
Frederick was made aware of Logan's comments by fans on Twitter and Murray didn't know what was said until a reporter told him about it.
"Let's find out Thursday," Murray said with a smirk.
At times this season, he's been beaten by players such as Houston's J.J. Watt and Sunday night against the New York Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul. And, for what it's worth, Pro Football Focus ranks him 21st among tackles. Doug Free ranks 16th.
Smith has not been as dominant this season as he was in 2013, when he seemingly destroyed opposing defensive ends every week. Then again, the standard for Smith is so high that it's easy to forget the only player who's never been beaten is the player who stays on the sideline.
"That's the standard he needs to have for himself. That's the one we have for him, you also have to recognize who he's going against play-in and play-out, week in and week out. He's not perfect, but he's a great teammate and a great guy to have on your team not just because of his ability and productivity but also because how he goes about it."
Pierre-Paul had two tackles, a quarterback hit and forced a holding call. At times, he was disruptive.
But on the final drive with the game on the line, Smith made Pierre-Paul disappear. Twice the offensive line provided Romo with more than seven seconds to throw a pass against a four-man rush.
If you hadn't seen it, you wouldn't have believed Romo had so much time.
"He never wants to get beat in anything we do," Garrett said. "We do these pass-rush drills, and if he gets beat or he doesn't have a good performance, you can just see it inside of him.
"A number of times, if he has gotten beat, he says, 'Give it to me again.' He wants to go again and rectify that situation immediately. The best players I've been around and the best offensive linemen I've been around have that same attitude."
The Cowboys also felt more comfortable with him moving out of the pocket on designed plays. Romo said he feels better and expects to be back closer to normal in a week or two.
The challenge Thursday against the Philadelphia Eagles is the quick turnaround. He has been limited in his practice work since the second week of the season as he rested and rehabbed his surgically repaired back, but there is no time for rest this week.
Romo has excelled in Thanksgiving games in the past. He has posted a 6-1 record with 2,033 yards, 18 touchdowns and six interceptions. His only defeat came in 2012 when he lost to Washington 38-31 while throwing for 441 yards on 37-of-62 passing with three touchdowns and two interceptions. These Cowboys are not as pass-happy with their focus on the running game, so the burden is not as heavy on Romo to do everything.
The nature of the practices this week is light because of the quick turnaround with the Cowboys playing the Philadelphia Eagles on Thanksgiving, and Romo took part in Monday’s walkthrough as well. Since the second game of the season Romo has not practiced a full week because of his surgically repaired back, but that will not be the case this week.
The only players missing from Tuesday’s practice are defensive end Jack Crawford, safety Jeff Heath, linebacker Dekoda Watson and cornerback Tyler Patmon. Crawford and Heath had surgery Tuesday morning to repair broken thumbs. Watson has a hamstring strain, and Patmon is working his way back from a sprained knee.
Wide receiver Terrance Williams is on the practice field. He suffered a fractured index finger against the New York Giants but will wear a splint and continue to play.
Here’s a look at five plays that shaped the Cowboys’ win:
Play: Eli Manning completion
Situation: First-and-10 from Dallas 18
Score: Dallas leads, 24-21
Time: 1:05 left in third quarter
Taylor's Take: Orlando Scandrick stumbled almost at the snap and Odell Beckham Jr. blew past him. He had 10 yards on Scandrick, but Manning looked right and never saw him. By the time he looked left again, the Cowboys were pressuring him and he dumped it off to Rashad Jennings for a 5-yard gain instead of an 87-yard touchdown to Beckham Jr.
Play: Manning incompletion
Situation: Second-and-goal from Dallas 3
Score: Tied, 0-0
Time: 7:15 left in first quarter
Taylor's Take: The Giants lined up with three tight ends and called a play-action pass. The Cowboys weren’t fooled and Scandrick tracked Manning the entire play was he rolled right. When Manning threw back into traffic, Scandrick broke on the ball and should’ve intercepted it. Instead, he dropped it and the Giants scored on the next play. You have to wonder how different the game would’ve been if Scandrick had intercepted the pass.
Play: Cowboys challenge overruled
Situation: First-and-goal from Dallas 8
Score: New York leads, 14-10
Time: 2:21 left in first quarter
Taylor's Take: Andre Williams went into the pile with the ball, and linebacker Anthony Hitchens came out of the pile with the ball. Replays indicated Barry Church had ripped the ball out, but officials apparently couldn’t determine whether he was down when the ball came out. The Cowboys challenged the play, but officials upheld the call on the field. The Giants scored on the next play.
Play: George Selvie sack
Situation: Second-and-8 from Dallas 37
Score: New York leads, 21-10
Time: 8:06 left in third quarter
Taylor's Take: After a Cowboys’ punt the Giants had the ball in great field position to add more points before the end of the half and deliver a knockout punch. Selvie rushed hard outside then spun inside just as Manning was trying to escape the pocket. He tripped up Manning for the Cowboys’ first sack of the game, creating a long-yardage situation on third down. The drive fizzled and the Giants punted.
Play: Tyron Smith penalty
Situation: Second-and-nine from Dallas 45
Score: New York leads, 21-10
Time: 11:32 left in third quarter
Taylor's Take: Jason Pierre-Paul gave Smith trouble all night. He rushed hard outside then cut inside, forcing Smith to hold him so he didn’t sack Romo. Romo rolled right then lofted a pass to Dez Bryant for a 39-yard completion tot he Giants 16. Instead of getting in position to score a touchdown, the Cowboys second-and-19 and eventually punted.
"I thought he was fantastic," coach Jason Garrett said. "It starts with the offensive line. They blocked very well, but to be able to run the football as well as he's run the football week in and week out, against a lot of eight-man type fronts where they're trying to defend the run, I just think is really, really good stuff. He was physical throughout. Sometimes you get some gaudy numbers running the football because you make some big runs. He had a couple of explosive runs for us, but for the most part it was a grinder. That's really to me, when you're evaluating a back, that's when it gets most impressive. He's had a number of those kind of games where a lot of dirty runs, a lot of five, six, seven yard runs where he's finishing forward. He just did a lot of positive things in allowing us to control the football, make some first downs and really control a lot of the game."
And yet Murray wasn't completely pleased Sunday.
"I definitely felt like I was rusty," Murray said, adding, "I may have missed a few things here and there, but we'll watch the film and get it corrected and see where we go."
Murray entered the season seven games of at least 120 rushing yards in his career. He has six this season. He has recorded at least 100 yards in 10 of the Cowboys' 11 games. He is now third in team history with 17 career 100-yard games, trailing only Emmitt Smith (76) and Tony Dorsett (43).
His 1,354 yards are ninth-most in franchise history. He is on pace for 1,970 yards, which would be a franchise record. Smith had 1,773 yards in 1995. He needs one more 100-yard game to equal Smith's team record for most in a single season.
"I like the word patience better than pace," Garrett said. "Pace kind of suggests that he's pacing himself. But great runners have patience. They have great vision and they have patience. There's a ton of expressions that have been used through the years, slow to the hole, fast through the hole. You're always kind of working on coordinating the runner with the line blocking and the scheme and the timing of that, his depth, his steps, all of those things. And allowing plays to develop is a big part of being a good runner. The best runners I've been around, they kind of see things and ‘Hah!' and they go. And he certainly has those traits."
We're here every Tuesday during the season.
Away we go:
- Not to get carried away, but I wonder if the Cowboys can end up with home-field advantage. Let's start with the premise that they have to sweep the Eagles to get that done. They trail the Arizona Cardinals by a game but lose the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Cardinals end the year with Seattle and San Francisco. The Green Bay Packers might be the best team in the NFC right now, but they play New England this week and close the year against Detroit at home. In between is a pretty soft schedule. The Cowboys have the head-to-head tiebreaker on the Seahawks but lose it against the Niners. The Seahawks have two games versus San Francisco, play at Philadelphia and at Arizona. The Niners have San Diego as their toughest non-division game left. The possibility is there but the Cowboys almost have to win out to get it done. Maybe I should've wondered about a first-round bye instead.
- Chicago Bears and Eagles. The fan voting ends on Dec. 15. The players and coaches vote on Dec. 19. The teams are announced on Dec. 23. So far I would say DeMarco Murray, Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin have good chances of making the all-star game. I wonder if guys like Rolando McClain and/or Dwayne Harris could make a push. For all the grief fans sometimes receive for their votes, players don't pay much attention. If McClain and Harris can have monster games with everybody watching, that could help their candidacy. I wonder if a couple of Cowboys can use this late-season run to make a Pro Bowl bid. The Cowboys played on national television on Sunday, will play the only game on Thursday afternoon and then have back-to-back night games against the
- I wonder if the Cowboys would look to sign left guard Ronald Leary to a contract extension. There has been plenty of discussion about the futures of Bryant, Murray and a few others, who will be unrestricted free agents, but little about Leary, who will be an exclusive rights free agent in the offseason. The Cowboys don't have to rush Leary because they own his rights at least through 2015, but they have given a multi-year deal to an exclusive rights free agent before. In 2012, they gave tackle Jermey Parnell a three-year deal that included a $1 million signing bonus. The Cowboys might want to stagger some of the deals they will have in the future along their line with Travis Frederick (2016) and Zack Martin (2017). Leary, whose knee condition has not cost him a game yet, is a solid starter and a building block. Maybe the Cowboys can work something out.
- I wonder how different the Cowboys' defensive line will look in 2015. Of the 10 linemen on the 53-man roster, four could be unrestricted free agents after the season: Henry Melton, Anthony Spencer, Nick Hayden and George Selvie. The Cowboys have acknowledged they're rebuilding the defensive line the way they have the offensive line. They need numbers and it will take time so maybe a couple of them can be stop-gap players as they rebuild on the fly. They will have Ben Gardner, a seventh-rounder in 2014, coming off shoulder surgery. They could see Amobi Okoye, who is spending the year on the non-football illness list, develop. Jack Crawford and Jeremy Mincey are signed through 2015, so this is a process that will take more than a few years.
- I wonder if the Cowboys will have a cornerback lead the defense outright in interceptions. Brandon Carr did it in 2012 with three, but the last time a corner led the team in picks outright was Mike Jenkins in 2009 when he had five. Terence Newman tied safety Gerald Sensabaugh for the lead in 2010. Newman tied linebacker Sean Lee for the lead in 2011. The Cowboys' current interception leaders are linebackers Rolando McClain and Bruce Carter and safety Barry Church with two. Carr is still looking for his first pick. Orlando Scandrick has one, as do Tyler Patmon, who is out for another week or two with a knee injury, and Morris Claiborne, who is out for the season.