Dallas Cowboys 23 – New York Giants 20

Game Overview: Long-time BBI‘ers will recall a time when I used to argue that while coaching was important that it was overrated. I believed (and still believe to a large extent) that talent is the most important deciding factor in how a team performs. That’s why you would see a guy like George Seifert win a Super Bowl with the 49ers, then fail miserably with the Panthers. Or Barry Switzer win a Championship. Or even look at how Mike Shanahan look like a genius with John Elway, but struggles in the playoffs without him. Bill Parcells hasn’t won a playoff game in nine years.

That all said, in the age of free agency and the salary cap, parity rules. There really isn’t that big a difference between most teams in the NFL. That’s why upsets are the norm each week. When the playing field is this level, every little advantage or disadvantage matters. The Giants have experienced one big disadvantage this year – the injury bug has hit them hard again. But they have also been hurt by very poor coaching decisions. And these coaching decisions rest with one man – Tom Coughlin.

Consider these facts:

(1) Against the Bears, the Giants were trailing Chicago 24-20 with 12 minutes to play in the game. However, momentum was on the Giants’ side as the Giants had scored a quick touchdown on their previous possession and stopped the Bears. Facing a 4th-and-15 at the Chicago 34-yard line, Coughlin decided to have PK Jay Feely attempt a 52-yard field goal into the wind on a wet field. The kick came up short and the Bears broke open the game by returning the ball 108 yards for a touchdown. The smart play there would have been to pin the Bears back inside the 10-yard line with your punter who is known for being able to do just that.

(2) Against the Jaguars, Coughlin called 13 running plays in 56 offensive snaps. Fans like to blame Offensive Coordinator John Hufnagel, but Coughlin is an offensive coach and everything runs through him.

(3) Against the Titans, leading the Titans 21-0, the Giants faced a 2nd-and-4 with 13 minutes left in the game. For some inexplicable reason, the call was to have Eli Manning in the shotgun, five-wide, with an empty backfield set (Tiki Barber was then motioned into the backfield). The Giants basically telegraphed a passing play in a situation that begged for a run. Even Titans’ coach Jeff Fisher openly questioned the play call after the game. Manning’s deep pass was intercepted, opening the floodgates on the horrific Titans’ comeback victory.

(4) Against the Cowboys, in the second half of the game, the Giants twice were deep inside the red zone and yet were forced to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns. Unbelievably, the Giants took out their goal line running back in both of these situations and basically, once again, telegraphed passing plays. There was one 1st-and-goal situation from the 4-yard line and the Giants called two passes and one running play to Barber. On the next red zone opportunity, the Giants faced a 2nd-and-goal from the 4-yard line after Brandon Jacobs had bulled his way forward for four yards. The Giants inexplicably then took him out of the lineup and called two passing plays. Had the Giants scored even one touchdown in these two attempts, they probably win the football game. Even if Coughlin felt the Giants should have passed in these situations, why take your number one potential decoy – Jacobs – out of the game? At least make the defense think you might run the football. Also questionable was the decision to eschew a 41-yard field goal attempt and go for the first down on 4th-and-1 from the Dallas 24-yard line late in the first half. That decision resulted in a possible 6-point swing in the game. And if you are going to run the football in such a critical situation and in such a critical game, why not run behind your two best drive blockers – Chris Snee and Kareem McKenzie? Why not a quarterback sneak? Instead the Giants ran a stretch play to the left with pulling linemen. Don’t give the running back an option to bounce the play outside, just get the freaking yard you need by running between the tackles.

I’m not saying Tom Coughlin is a bad coach. And there are some good things to point out about the decision-making and play-calling even during this four-game losing streak. But the above-mentioned coaching mistakes had a dramatic effect on the outcomes of those four football games. Coughlin is not a stupid man, but those were stupid coaching moves. And in a League filled with evenly-matched teams, a team can’t afford consistent coaching blunders and expect to be a Champion. Right now, I don’t see a lot of difference between Coughlin and Jim Fassel. When’s the last time you really came away from a Giants’ game thinking the Giants have really out-coached the other team?

To add even more fuel to that fire, consider:

  • The players continue to mouth off to the press despite Coughlin’s repeated warnings not to do so.
  • Penalties have always been an issue throughout his coaching tenure, belying his supposedly disciplinarian background.
  • Offensive assistants John Hufnagel and Kevin Gilbride haven’t done a very good job of developing Eli Manning. In fact, ever since Manning’s rookie season, the overload principle employed seems to have backfired. Too much mental and physical pressure is placed on Manning – especially in comparison with the other young quarterbacks in the League.
  • Despite some excellent defensive efforts, especially against the run, Defensive Coordinator Tim Lewis’ pass defense schemes always seem vulnerable to quality passing attacks.
  • Despite improvement in this area in 2005 and a lot of emphasis on it in 2006, special teams have been poor and a significant factor in the disappointing 6-6 record.
  • The NFC stinks. Even with all of the injuries the Giants have suffered, there is no reason for this team to be on the verge of missing the playoffs. Perhaps in the AFC, but not the NFC.

Giants’ ownership and management has a big decision here at the end of the season – should Coughlin and his assistants be let go? Can the Giants’ become a Super Bowl winner with this staff? Or is this an average coaching staff that will only result in average results? Indirectly related to those questions, is this the best staff for Manning?

As for the Giants-Cowboys game, I am proud of the fact that the Giants played hard in the national spotlight and almost beat a team that I feel is the best in the NFC. However, once again, their own mistakes did them in. In hindsight, this was a game the Giants could have and probably should have won. In my mind, the red zone coaching mistakes were a huge factor in losing the game. The players also did their part: poor kickoff return coverage, nine penalties (though two of the personal foul penalties were dubious), the fumble by DE Mathias Kiwanuka, two bad plays by the safeties, and the constant breakdowns in containment responsibility on QB Tony Romo. The Giants continue to be their own worst enemy. Sad.

Defensive Overview: It was not a great defensive game for the Giants. Granted the Dallas Cowboys are loaded at the skill positions, but the Giants made matters worse by not executing very well. I also wasn’t crazy about some of the schemes. Dallas gained 365 yards of offense with 255 net passing yards and 110 net rushing yards. While HB Julius Jones (24 yards on 11 carries for a 2.2 yards per rush average) was kept in check, HB Marion Barber (76 yards on 12 carries for a 6.3 yards per rush average) was not.

Against the pass the biggest problem was that the Giants kept allowing QB Tony Romo to scramble out of the pocket. This not only bought him extra time, but it allowed his receivers to break free from downfield defenders, and gave the short quarterback better sight lines. In fact, it seemed as if all of Dallas’ big passing plays came on plays where Romo ran out of the pocket. He is beginning to remind me of Jake Plummer – keep him in the pocket and he is a much, much less effective passer. Coughlin mentioned the same thing: “We didn’t have much pressure on (Romo). When he got outside, he had little or none, which is the way he plays…This guy is an athletic quarterback who is mobile, who does utilize opportunities when he sees a rusher duck inside or he thinks he can get to the edge to allow him to throw the ball further down the field…To me, you have to keep him in the pocket and when he gets outside the pocket you lose. He’s not trying to run, now. He’s trying to set himself up to throw the ball further down the field.”

Why was Romo getting out of the pocket? Well, a few times he made defenders, including blitzers, miss. Other times, the defensive end would take a charge too far inside and expose the corner. I also think, schematically, the decision to employ a three-man line in many passing situations contributed to lack of containment (and pressure). I don’t like rushing three, especially against a mobile quarterback. I know the thought process was to drop eight and give Romo a look he hadn’t seen before, but it also allowed him extra time. Guys dropping into coverage can only stick to their receivers only so long.

The Cowboys also believed – and correctly so – that the smart move was to spread the Giants out with multiple WR-sets. Tim Lewis, schematically, wasn’t able to counter. There were holes in coverage and idiotic match-up problems such as having FS Will Demps try to cover WR Terrell Owens out of the slot. After one three-and-out early in the third quarter, Dallas scored on each of their last three possessions of the football game. The Giants’ defense let up each time the Giants’ offense scored.

Defensive Line: Not a very impressive performance. The run defense was sporadic and there wasn’t enough pass pressure. Osi Umenyiora (zero tackles) had not played since these two teams last met and is still hurt, and it showed. Umenyiora’s biggest mistake of the game was letting Romo get outside of him on the killer 42-yard completion with under a minute to go in the game. Mathias Kiwanuka had an up-and-down game. While he had seven tackles and forced a fumble with a hard hit on a sack of Romo, he also lost contain to his side of the field a few times, leading to some big pass plays. Most damning of all was that he inexplicably fumbled the ball away after intercepting it, despite not even being touched on the play. It was a huge mistake as Dallas scored a touchdown three plays later. Kiwanuka also got blocked out of the play on Marion Barber’s 7-yard touchdown run. Earlier in this drive, he did a nice job of disrupting one run that lost three yards.

Inside, the tackles played OK. Barry Cofield (2 tackles) and Fred Robbins (3 tackles) held their ground on some plays, were effectively blocked on others. Robbins got good penetration to disrupt one run and did a nice job of bringing the back down on one draw. Robbins and Umenyiora also got in Romo’s face on the ill-advised pass that FS Will Demps intercepted. Cofield had a couple of good pass rushes.

Linebackers: I thought it was a bad game for the linebacking corps. Carlos Emmons (5 tackles) was invisible. Hell, he’s been invisible most of the year. Particularly disappointing was the play of Antonio Pierce (7 tackles). Most fans pointed to his inadequacies in pass defense after the game, but I thought he came up small against the run in this game too. For example, on Dallas’ first drive, the Cowboys ran a neat play that had both Barber and Jones in the backfield together. Romo feigned a toss to Jones and handed off to Barber who made Pierce miss badly in the hole en route to a 16-yard gain. (Incidentally, this was an example of how the Giants could use Brandon Jacobs and Tiki Barber in the same backfield together occasionally).

Pierce was flagged with a costly 26-yard pass interference penalty on TE Anthony Fasano that gave the Cowboys a 1st-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Pierce actually had pretty good deep coverage on the play, but panicked and grabbed at the tight end as he turned. Pierce didn’t need to do this and it was the reason why the penalty was called.

It was nice to see Brandon Short (4 tackles) back in the lineup, but he wasn’t particularly noticeable either.

Defensive Backs: FS Will Demps has been directly involved in three of the most costly plays of the Giants’ season. He missed a tackle against the Bears’ 26-yard draw play on 3rd-and-22 just before halftime. He let QB Vince Young waltz right by him after DE Mathias Kiwanuka unbelievably let Young from his grasp on 4th-and-10 against the Titans. And on Sunday against the Cowboys, he was out of position on the 42-yard pass to Witten in the final moments of the football game. “Our half-field cover safety (Demps) got way too wide because there was a receiver going up the sideline, which is no excuse,” said Head Coach Tom Coughlin. Another big play in the game was Demps getting beat by Owens out of the slot on 3rd-and-3 on Dallas’ second-half touchdown drive. Demps was a mile off of Owens, but one has to wonder why Demps was put in such a position in the first place. Making matters worse was that Demps missed the tackle too. Demps did pick off an errant throw by Romo early in the second quarter.

SS Gibril Wilson (9 tackles) did some nice things against the run. However, as a blitzer, he missed one sack on Romo, allowing the quarterback to get away and get a deep pass off. He also got caught too far inside on another blitz, allowing Romo to get outside the pocket on the 26-yard pass interference penalty against Pierce. Even more damning was that he missed his chance to win the game for the Giants with six minutes to go in the game. Tied at 13-13, Romo threw an ill-advised pass along the sidelines that Wilson jumped on. Wilson should have intercepted this ball and run it back for a long touchdown return. But the ball sailed through his hands and resulted in an 11-yard completion on 3rd-and-4, keeping the drive alive. A few plays later, Dallas scored as Wilson missed a tackle on a 7-yard run off right tackle. The missed interception was a 14-point swing in the game!

Sam Madison returned to the lineup and played decently. He made a nice play in run defense by tackling the back for a 1-yard loss. But he did miss a tackle on Owens on a short pass that resulted in a 10-yard gain. Late in the third quarter, he made a real nice play breaking up an end zone pass intended for WR Terry Glenn.

R.W. McQuarters gave up a 20-yard completion to Owens on 3rd-and-10 late in the first quarter (Demps also couldn’t make a play on this play). Later McQuarters made a nice tackle on Owens after a short throw, keeping the completion to a 2-yard gain. However, McQuarters missed a sack on Romo on a 3rd-and-10 incompletion early in the third quarter. McQuarters also stopped his forward progress on a sack opportunity on the play where Wilson missed the interception. It was obvious that McQuarters was overly-sensitive to Romo getting around him again. Then on Barber’s 7-yard touchdown run, McQuarters failed to make a play on the ball carrier.

Kevin Dockery played and didn’t look bad though he did give up a couple of short passes. I thought the personal foul penalty on safety Jason Bell was a bad call. The ball carrier was still in-bounds if you ask me.

Offensive Overview: Don’t take Brandon Jacobs out of the lineup in any 1st- or 2nd-and-goal situations inside the 5-yard line. Don’t do it. Even if you don’t want to run the football, use him as a decoy. Keep the defense honest. Also, Jeremy Shockey was also standing on the sidelines during some of these red zone plays. Why? Jacobs and Shockey should always be on the field in these situations.

Quarterback: Probably the biggest positive coming out of this game was the play of Eli Manning (24-of-36 for 270 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions). Manning had such a rough month of November that any positive performance might be over-exaggerated. But that is not the case against Dallas, one of the best defensive teams in the NFL. Manning played very well and this was arguably his best game of the season. He was patient in the pocket and poised. He came off his primary receiver if he was covered. For the most part, he did not force throws and threw the ball away when need be. He was accurate and decisive most of the game. And Manning was also surprisingly nibble, getting away from the rush a couple of times and making something out of nothing. For example, his 17-yard touchdown pass to TE Jeremy Shockey was a great play by Manning. He escaped the rush of a free blitzer coming up the middle, rolled to his left, and threw back across his body to hit Shockey with an accurate throw (this is a difficult play for a right-handed quarterback to make). Later, he impressively spun away from pressure and completed a 19-yard pass to WR David Tyree on 3rd-and-20.

In the second half of the football game, the Giants scored three times in four possessions. On the Giants first field goal drive of the second half (a 17-play affair), Manning completed 7-of-10 passes. His last throw, a 3rd-and-goal pass to Shockey in the end zone was slightly off target. His worst throw of the game came on the second field goal drive when he was almost picked off in the end zone on 3rd-and-goal. However, the corner so expertly jumped on this route that it was like he knew the pass was coming – the corner and Plaxico Burress both broke on the ball at the exact moment. In a must-score situation late in the fourth quarter, trailing by a touchdown, Manning was a perfect 6-for-6, with the drive culminating with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Burress. In one of the biggest games of the year, Manning played like a Pro Bowler.

Wide Receivers: Plaxico Burress (6 catches for 43 yards, 1 touchdown) continues to mix the bad with the good. The bad was his stupid personal foul penalty on safety Pat Watkins early in the second quarter. Even if the hit was close to the whistle, it was away from the play and looked deliberate. It was clear from the very beginning of the play (by the way Burress charged across the field) that Burress’ only intention was to go after Watkins (they were probably jawing at each other). It helped to stall what was a promising drive after Romo’s second interception. Dumb.

Burress was shutout in the first half. All six of his catches came in the second half. His touchdown reception was a beauty as he had to fight through contact against a big corner to make reception.

Tim Carter (2 catches for 21 yards) remains an afterthought in the offense. However, he did make a very nice 10-yard catch of a low pass on 3rd-and-6 on the first field goal drive in the second half. David Tyree had one catch for 19 yards. It’s too bad he couldn’t have somehow rolled or lunged for an extra yard because on the very next snap, the Giants turned the ball over on downs. The illegal crackback penalty called on him was a phantom call.

Sinorice Moss turned a short pass on a WR-screen into a 10-yard gain, demonstrating fine acceleration on the play.

Running Backs: Tiki Barber (23 carries for 90 yards; 5 catches for 53 yards) played alright. Dallas has a very good run defense and while Tiki was able to chip away here or there, he still was unable to break a real big run. There was one neat play call with a direct snap to Tiki out of the shotgun set on 3rd-and-3. This play completely fooled the Cowboys and resulted in a 20-yard gain – Tiki’s largest of the game. He also had a nifty 16-yard around right end early in the fourth quarter. Tiki’s best play came was a reception on the game-tying drive late in the contest. Tiki broke tackles and impressively made a bunch of defenders miss en route to a 28-yard gain. On the down side, Barber did fumble and only a real nice play by Jim Finn to recover the ball saved his neck on the play. Finn’s lead blocking was mostly positive, but there were a couple of plays where he got tossed aside.

Brandon Jacobs (5 carries for 29 yards; 2 catches for 52 yards) should be getting the ball more. I don’t like the fact that the coaches take him out of the game right after he has an impressive run. Feed the Beast. Get him rolling. I still openly wonder if he isn’t the better back on the team right now. I really liked his 11-yard run on 3rd-and-2 where he ran over one linebacker and then pushed another several yards down the field. That all said, Jacobs did make a mistake with his decision to bounce the ball outside on 4th-and-1 late in the second quarter. The middle was congested too and he might not have picked up the first down there, but by bouncing it outside, he had no chance. The blocking wasn’t there. Jacobs’ biggest play of the game was his 43-yard gain on a 2nd-and-16 screen play. Dallas knew the play was coming and they still couldn’t stop it (good blocking by the offensive line). After that play was over, my wife turned to me and said, “Damn, he’s not just big, but he’s fast too!” Exactly.

Tight Ends: Jeremy Shockey (6 catches for 65 yards, 1 touchdown) had a very solid game. He did drop one pass that might have picked up a first down on 3rd-and-15. He also committed an inexcusable false start on the second-quarter drive where the Giants came up one-yard short. The good news is that the Giants are finally getting him involved early in the game and it is paying dividends. Stating the obvious, he’s the emotional heart of the offense. He laid it all on the line against the Cowboys and was a big factor in the near-upset win.

I thought both Shockey and Visanthe Shiancoe blocked well on the plays where I focused on them.

Offensive Line: Pass protection was about as good as good as one could hope for as the line did not give up a sack against a very good defensive team that can rush the passer. Also, Barber and Jacobs did rush for 119 yards on 28 carries (4.25 yards per carry average) against a tough Dallas run defense. Kareem McKenzie did well in pass protection, including against DeMarcus Ware, but I’ve seen him play much better in the run game. There were a few plays where he was called to pull and block the strongside linebacker, but his man played off the block to disrupt the play or get in on the tackle. Diehl Diehl also gave up few pressures.

Penalties were an issue. While OG/TE Rich Seubert has been a real asset as a blocking tight end, he was flagged with a false start. Like Shockey, Diehl committed one inexcusable false start on the drive that came up one-yard short in the second quarter. Three false starts, especially at home, is completely unacceptable. Bob Whitfield deserves credit for playing probably his best game of the season against a top-notch opponent, but his 15-yard personal foul penalty by head-butting an opponent after the play was stupid.

Special Teams: PK Jay Feely’s poor kickoffs and shoddy kick return coverage were a big factor in this loss. After kickoffs, Dallas started drives at the 33-, 45-, 35-, 34-, and 32-yard lines.

Meanwhile, with Derrick Ward returning kickoffs, the Giants started at their 32-, 25-, 28-, and 37-yard lines. Ward averaged 21.5 yards per return.

Chad Morton did not return one punt (he had one fair catch). Giants’ punt coverage was good as the one Dallas return did not pick up a single yard. P Jeff Feagles averaged 32.3 yards on three punts. His first punt went for 47 yards and his second was downed at the Dallas 4-yard line. However, he had a terrible 16-yard effort from the Giants’ 34-yard line, giving the Cowboys the ball at midfield.

(Box Score – Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants, December 3, 2006)