Sunday October 19th, 2008

Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we take in Colts-Packers at Lambeau -- an old-school NFL matchup that could have just as easily occurred in 1958, '68, '78, '88 or '98 ...

• And you thought last week was bad in Dallas? Just wait (but not for long). Last week's flurry of big events -- losing quarterback Tony Romo, running back Felix Jones and punter Mat McBriar to injury, and Pacman Jones to another league suspension, and overspending for a No. 2 receiver in Roy E. Williams -- might seem like the good old days by comparison.

With the Cowboys' debacle of a 34-14 loss at St. Louis just a couple hours old, I've got a feeling that things in Jerry World are about to get real ugly, real soon. And I'm talking a full-blown, Texas-sized, sky-is-falling meltdown in Dallas. A legitimate state of emergency, panic and general disarray is in the offing this week. Failure is simply not an option in Dallas -- or at least that's the line that Jerry Jones wants us all to believe.

I'm not breaking this news, but these Cowboys, losers of three of their past four, have got some problems. Significant problems. Keep-you-out-of-the-playoffs-type problems -- let alone the Super Bowl. Dallas hasn't played a solid game since it moved to 3-0 with its 27-16 Week 3 win at Green Bay, and that's a lifetime and a half in Cowboy years.

After all, this was the Rams who outclassed Dallas (4-3). St. Louis entered the game with more head coaches this season (two) than wins (one). And it wasn't even close. The Cowboys were outplayed, outcoached, outhustled, out-everything'd. And you thought the power outage was in Buffalo on Sunday.

The issues that need addressing in Dallas are plentiful:

-- The Cowboys secondary can't cover anyone. Without cornerbacks Terence Newman (sports hernia) and Pacman Jones around, everybody's open. Rams rookie receiver Donnie Avery (five catches, 65 yards) ran free and clear in the first half, scoring the Rams' first touchdown on a 42-yard bomb that torched cornerback Anthony Henry.

If fixing the Cowboys were approached like triage, staunching the bleeding in Dallas' pass defense would be the top priority.

-- The Cowboys defense, in general, is looking shaky. In the past four games, Dallas has given up 26 (to Washington), 22 (to winless Cincinnati), 30 (to Arizona) and 34 points (to the Rams). That's 112 points, or 28 per game, a dreadful output for a team that believed it had Super Bowl-level talent.

Even the normally reliable Dallas run defense went to heck in a hand-basket against St. Louis. The Cowboys entered the game ranked 7th against the run, giving up just 87.5 yards per game, and 3.7 per rush. With Steven Jackson gashing Dallas for 160 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries, the Rams finished with 180 yards on 35 attempts, a gaudy 5.1-yard average.

-- The Cowboys offensive line suddenly looks overrated when it comes to pass protection. Dallas supposedly has a great offensive line, but I don't see it. The Rams consistently applied pressure on Dallas quarterback Brad Johnson on Sunday, dropping him three times and harassing him plenty more. Last week in that overtime loss at Arizona, Romo got the same treatment, absorbing three sacks and getting hit a ton. The pounding resulted in him breaking the pinkie on his throwing hand, which resulted in his 32-game starting streak coming to an end.

-- The Cowboys passing game is supposed to be their strength, but Johnson's first start in place of Romo was less than impressive. He finished 17 of 34 for 234 yards, with one touchdown, three interceptions and a 45.5 passer rating. But it was worse than that because in the first half, when the game was still vaguely competitive at 24-7, Johnson went just 6 of 18 for 66 yards with one tipped pass interception.

And don't look now, but Terrell Owens had just two catches for 31 yards, and I don't have to tell you that spells trouble. I even saw Owens kind of it give it the old alligator-arms effort on one pass that Johnson sailed a bit high on a crossing pattern. That's never a good sign. As for new receiving addition Roy Williams, he had no catches in his Dallas debut, so instant impact isn't exactly the phrase that comes to mind today.

These Cowboys are at a crossroads, and it could just be a train coming directly at them. Next week Dallas has Tampa Bay at home, and then there's a trip to New Jersey to take on the defending champion Giants, who, at 5-1, are now 1½ games ahead of the 'Boys in the NFC East.

The Cowboys need to get Romo healthy and throwing from behind a line that can protect him. They need to somehow start plugging some of their holes in the secondary, and hold an opposing offense or three to at least 10 points less per game.

Somehow, I don't have high hopes that Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips is going to be up to the Mr. Fix-It role that this situation requires. Phillips seems to be a fine coach when things are going well, but he struggles to regain control when things start going badly.

And make no mistake, these are some bad days in Dallas.

• I have to admit, when I first heard that the Chargers-Bills game had been suspended due to a power outage at Ralph Wilson Stadium, I assumed it was the work of Roger Goodell. The NFL commissioner will suspend anything these days.

• When Bills receiver Lee Evans pulled down that Trent Edwards pass in the extreme back corner of the end zone, using only his right hand and pinning the ball against the back of his helmet, I started to think that David Tyree could probably sue for copyright infringement.

• Vikings head coach Brad Childress threatened the job security of his punter, Chris Kluwe, a few weeks back, and I can't help but think Kluwe dropping that perfect punt snap in the first quarter -- resulting in a 17-yard Garrett Wolfe touchdown return by Chicago -- isn't going to help his case one bit.

• Speaking of Minnesota and special-teams meltdowns, I don't like Paul Ferraro's chances of surviving to see another season as Childress' special teams coordinator. With Sunday's two punt/punt-return-team mistakes which turned into a pair of Bears touchdowns, that makes it five touchdowns that Minnesota's special teams units have allowed this season.

Two weeks ago, of course, the Vikings let Saints scat-back Reggie Bush return two punts for scores in Minnesota's improbable Monday-night win at the Superdome.

• Wow! A Chad Johnson-in-the-end-zone sighting. You don't see those every day any more.

Brodie Croyle took a hellacious high-low hit from the Titans defense on the play that knocked him out of the game with a knee injury, but I'm beginning to think an NFL quarterbacking career is just not in the cards for him. The guy's now 0-8 as a starter in this league, and if he keeps getting hurt this often, he's going to be known as "Tin Foil'' Croyle.

Croyle's season is over, Chiefs coach Herman Edwards said, and with him being hurt in four of his eight career starts, I can't imagine why Kansas City would continue to see Croyle as their quarterback of the future.

• My faithful readers know I'm not a Fantasy Football guy, but if I did play, I'd want Carolina rookie Jonathan Stewart on my team. Every time I look up the kid is scoring another rushing touchdown. With another one on Sunday against the Saints, he's got five in the Panthers' first seven games.

• Impeccable timing on my part, predicting last week that Saints quarterback Drew Brees is going to break Dan Marino's NFL single-season passing yardage record of 5,084. Brees, who entered Sunday averaging 332.2 yards passing per game, threw for a season-low 231 in New Orleans' 30-7 loss at Carolina. That dropped Brees' per game average to 317.7 yards, which puts him on a 16-game pace of ... drumroll, please ... 5,083 yards. In other words, three feet short of Dan the Man.

• Here's the question I keep coming back to as I continue to try and fathom why the Cowboys would give up first and third-round picks for Roy Williams: How many highly drafted products out of the University of Texas have been great NFL players of late?

Answer: Not many. Just ask Vince Young. Or Michael Huff. Or Cedric Benson.

Jimmy Haslett, I think I owe you an apology. This league is all about results, and you're getting them since taking over for the fired Scott Linehan in St. Louis. Now, if only the Rams could play against the vaunted NFC East every week. St. Louis is 2-0 under Haslett, upsetting Washington on the road and Dallas at home.

Under Linehan, the Rams lost to NFC East foes Philadelphia and the Giants by a combined score of 79-16 in Weeks 1-2.

• Doesn't it kind of feel like 2005 never even happened in Cincinnati? Like that feel-good 11-5, division-winning season that Marvin Lewis' team crafted that season was some sort of dream sequence?

My point is that we're back to the truly bad old days in Bengals-land, and that hardly seems fair when Cincinnati had so precious few better days during its brief renaissance to relevancy.

• Question: Which 2006 quarterback drafted on the first day is closer to getting back in to his team's starting lineup, Vince Young in Tennessee or Tarvaris Jackson in Minnesota? What's that? Neither you say? Let's put it this way: Kerry Collins and Gus Frerotte aren't going anywhere any time soon.

• It's official: Michael Phelps has supplanted Peyton Manning as the most over-exposed commercial pitchman in recent television history. I like the medal-wearing Olympic swimmer from Baltimore, but please, no more ads for a while. I'm begging you.

• It bears asking: Are the Bears lessening Devin Hester's effectiveness in the return game by featuring him on offense? Hester still doesn't have a touchdown this season on special teams, and he suffered a thigh injury Sunday, although we're not sure if it came when he was on offense or in the return game.

That said, wouldn't it be fun to see Hester in a Chicago version of Miami's "Wildcat formation?''

• I know the Chiefs entered Sunday with the league's 32nd-ranked run defense, but 332 rushing yards surrendered to Tennessee? What happened to the notion that Kansas City was building a young and talented defense?

• The Chargers fly east and lose at Buffalo. The 49ers fly east and lose at the Giants. Tonight, Seattle tries its hand at the cross-country travel thing at Tampa Bay. No team has won this season making the West Coast to East Coast journey, and it's getting a little silly at this point.

• Wonder what John Madden is doing with his bye week? Wonder what Pacman Jones is doing with his bye month? Then again, more accurately in Jones' case, it could be a month, and then bye-bye.

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