Monday September 21st, 2009

ARLINGTON, Texas -- There's so much ground to cover on this strange, almost surreal night here, deep in the heart of Jerry's World. So let's get right to it ...

• Well, that was entertaining. For starters, the Cowboys new stadium is ridiculously captivating. And those 60-yard video screens are indeed mesmerizing. But throughout the night's festivities -- and that may be the only word that truly fits -- I couldn't shake the feeling that I went to a big, splashy Vegas opening and a football game broke out.

To say the game took a backseat to the stadium's opening is a Texas-sized understatement. There were times Sunday night in this $1.2 billion venue where the Giants' 33-31 see-saw thriller over the Cowboys (RECAP | BOX) felt like a complete afterthought. If you wanted fanfare and scenery, you came to the right place. Glitz, celebrity and fireworks were not in short supply. But if you were looking for a dominant display of football from the home team, well, better luck next time.

I swear I wouldn't have been shocked if Jerry Jones himself would have emerged from beneath the star at midfield to induct himself into the Ring on Honor at halftime. This night was heavy on the pageantry, a little light on the gang-tackling and offensive execution.

Jones in recent days said he expected his team to "empty their buckets" in the process of playing in this stadium's historic and celebrated regular-season opener. In the end, Dallas came up empty all right. Just not in the way Jones envisioned. He has himself a heck of a venue. I'm not just too sure he has a heck of a football team to go with it.

• There's no other way around it. Tony Romo was a difference-maker for the Cowboys on Sunday night. He and his three interceptions were the reason Dallas lost its much-ballyhooed home-opener. And that's straight out of his mouth, so nobody else needs to really echo the point.

"It's very disappointing," said Romo, just beginning a 10-minute self-flagellation session in his postgame news conference. "I think our team played some really good football, and obviously my mistakes really put us in the hole and allowed them to capitalize on some things. I thought the defense played great for us. Our offensive line was wonderful. Lots of guys stepped up and made a lot of plays tonight, and I really cost us this one."

Romo wasn't exaggerating for the sake of team leadership. He cost his team with his decision-making and his execution, both of which defied explanation for much of the game. Despite Dallas pounding out 251 yards on the ground against the Giants' vaunted defensive front, Romo un-did much of the good that the rushing game did with a woeful 13 of 29 passing performance, for 127 yards, one touchdown, three picks and a 29.6 passer rating.

So much for all the attention Romo paid to taking care of the football this offseason and preseason. He reverted back to his sloppy self against the Giants, floating two of his interceptions with passes that made you wonder where he was throwing the ball. Romo's third pick was just as ugly, bouncing off tight end Jason Witten's foot to Giants safety Kenny Phillips. Giants reserve cornerback Bruce Johnson turned Romo's first interception into New York's first touchdown, returning it 34 yards for a 10-7 first-quarter lead.

"We can't win games if I do things like that," said Romo, whose passer rating in the third quarter was an unbelievable 2.8. "I'm just really disappointed in myself right now. You work so hard at something and try to use certain things to change in certain ways. It's disappointing and frustrating. I'm really not OK with it right now. I know I made a couple bad throws. Looking back now, it's stupid. I'll look at myself and figure out why I did those things. I'll be better from here on out."

Romo remains rather confounding at times. We've heard the mantra about him cutting down on the costly turnovers before, but it continues to plague him in his biggest games.

• If you're a Giants fan, here's the best piece of news to come out of this key NFC East matchup: Relax, you've got receivers. Yes, you do. What a double-barreled coming-of-age performance from New York's Mario Manningham and Steve Smith, who both caught a staggering 10 passes, turning one each into a touchdown.

Who needs Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer?

Manningham finished with 10 receptions for a career-high 150 yards, including his 22-yard touchdown catch just before the half. Smith followed suit, grabbing 10 passes for 134 yards, and matching Manningham's 22-yard scoring catch, with his coming early in the fourth quarter.

"He's been working since day one," said Giants coach Tom Coughlin, of Manningham. "He's just continued to improve. We're a work in progress, and he certainly played well tonight. It does obviously give evidence that other teams have got to pay attention."

That warning came too late for the Cowboys. Their secondary ignored Manningham at their peril, and they paid for it. He and Smith may not combine to catch 20 passes for 284 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the same game ever again, but their showing against the Cowboys should at least put to rest the notion that New York doesn't have any real No. 1-type receivers.

• After watching the Dallas defense get shredded for 174 yards rushing and a 5.6-yard average run at Tampa Bay last week, how many of us thought they would shut down the Giants two-headed running game? I see no hands.

But the Cowboys came up huge against the run, limiting New York to just 97 yards on 26 carries, a 3.7 average. It was even better in the first half, with New York's Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw combining for just 12 yards on 11 carries.

I know what you're thinking: How does Dallas lose this game? But it gets even weirder than that, Cowpoke fans. If I told you before things got started Sunday night that Dallas would shred the Giants defensive front for 251 yards rushing on 29 carries (an 8.7-yard average) and three touchdowns, you would have guessed the Cowboys won by 21, right? Wrong.

It was Dallas that fielded the two-headed beast of a running game Sunday. Marion Barber rumbled for 124 yards on 18 carries and a touchdown, and Felix Jones had 96 yards on just seven rushes, with a 7-yard touchdown and a 56-yard gain included. Heck, even Romo chipped in with a rushing touchdown on a 3-yard quarterback draw late in the third quarter.

Go figure.

• Leave it the Cowboys to throw a party this grand, invite more than 105,000 people, and then blow so much of the potential goodwill it created by losing the game (see last season's Texas Stadium finale, against Baltimore).

I watched as an ashen-looking Jones wordlessly left the Cowboys locker room, head down and striding away with purpose as fast as his legs would carry him. This one had to hurt the Cowboys owner. He had a little sweat equity invested in having this day turn out right for his team.

"I am disappointed for Jerry, because I wanted to win this one for him," Dallas head coach Wade Phillips finally said, after numerous questions along those lines did some prodding. "I think our team overall wanted to because he is such a great honor and he put this up for us, the Dallas Cowboys. So I do feel bad about that."

Romo, too, did his part to publicly bleed for Jones.

"You can't help but play for this organization and love Jerry," Romo said. "He's been nothing but great to all of us that are players and we're lucky to have him as an owner. We definitely wanted to win this one. It was extra motivation, and I'm very disappointed now that he's not going to be able to have that one."

• Here's an astounding statistic that had plenty to do with the Cowboys' loss to the Giants: After two games, Dallas still has no sacks. That's pretty remarkable for a team that led the NFL in sacks last season with 59.

Without pressure, Eli Manning burned Dallas for 330 yards passing and a pair of touchdowns, on 25 completions in 38 attempts. Manning had a 110.6 passer rating, and found eight Giants receivers.

"They kept the tight end in most of the time, and the [running] back," Phillips said. "We pressed them some, but they are a good solid team. They are not going to get sacked all the time. But the chances we had to get him, he seemed to get away."

• Weird, weird scene at the end of Phillips postgame news conference. An unidentified individual who happened to be wearing some sort of counterfeit credential -- definitely not a media credential -- ended Phillips' Q&A by asking the Cowboys coach if he "missed Jessica Simpson this year?''

Phillips grunted and left the platform, and a Cowboys veteran public relations official quickly ushered the bogus reporter out of the room.

• Somebody tried to give Romo an out of sorts in the postgame news conference, asking him if the Cowboys new stadium is "too interactive," meaning too distracting?

"No, the stadium was great," Romo said. "The fans were fantastic tonight. I suspect we're going to have an incredible homefield advantage throughout the rest of the season in this place. I think it's going to allow us to be a really good team at home. Tonight, I just cost us. I have to get better at the mistakes I made, and I will."

• My favorite moment in the pregame ceremony, and I kid you not, was when the big video screens showed shots of the Roman Coliseum, the Parthenon, the Pyramids, Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, then lastly, a picture of the gleaming new Cowboys Stadium, finally ready for its close-up.

I'm hoping that was Jones's tongue-in-cheek way of saluting his masterpiece. But you can never tell with Jerry's ego.

• For the record, you really do often end up watching those 60-yard long video boards rather than the field. Maybe because the press box in the stadium is a long, long ways away from the field level.

But just for the record, I didn't see a single one of the game's nine punts come anywhere close to hitting one of the video boards. Score one for Jones and his big screens, suspended 90 feet over the playing field.

• As omens go, the last time the Cowboys opened a new stadium, in 1971, they won the Super Bowl. Don't be betting the mortgage on that streak continuing.

• With the Giants spoiling his big night, wouldn't it be just like Jones to petition the NFL to be the Giants' home-opening opponent next season when New York opens its own new $1-billion-plus stadium? Paybacks can be hell, and Jones would love to get his revenge next September in New Jersey.

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