Friday, November 16, 2012

America's team? Are you kidding me?

The myth that is America’s Team continues to live hale and hearty down in Dallas, Texas.

Truth of the matter is the Dallas Cowboys have lived that lie now for more than 15 years. They are no more America’s team than the Browns right now.

OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but when the two teams meet up Sunday in Jerry Jones’ palatial football stadium, the chasm that separated the two franchises no longer exists.

The Cowboys are not the scary team that dominated the National Football League in the 1990s. No, the Cowboys of the last 15 years have become quite normal, quite mediocre.

Since 1997, they’ve had their ups with six playoff appearances and their downs with three straight 5-11 campaigns and only seven winning seasons. For the Cowboys fans, that’s considered near disastrous. They are 124-125 in their last 249 regular-season games. Their inconsistency should be proof enough the title of America’s Team is a misnomer.

Jones has hired and fired almost as many coaches since 1997 as the Browns have since the return in 1999. Count ‘em: Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer, Chan Gailey, Dave Campo, Bill Parcells, Wade Phillips and Jason Garrett, the current sacrificial lamb.

The one constant is Jones. That’s because he can be. The Arkansas oilman calls all the shots. He’s the owner, president, general manager and team spokesman. He is the Dallas Cowboys. And if Roger Goodell would allow him to coach, Jones probably would do that, too. Everything, it seems, does not move without his approval.

Jones was smart enough to hire Johnson (after firing the legendary Tom Landry) when he bought the team in 1989. And then lost all his smarts when he fired Johnson in a battle of egos and power in 1994 after Johnson won him a second straight Super Bowl.

Jones last hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy in 1996 when Switzer led the Johnson-built team past the Pittsburgh Steelers. Since then, it’s been a parade of mediocrity. But you’d never know it by the fawning media.

Every year, it seems, many members of the national media hop on the Jones bandwagon and every year, Jones is left lamenting his club’s failures but never accepting responsibility for those failures.

This season is no different. The Cowboys are a mundane 4-5 entering Sunday’s game against the Browns, who are 1-2 against the Jones-era Cowboys, but the lone victory was registered by the old Browns in 1994.

These Cowboys have a distinct Cleveland favor with the Brothers Garrett, who attended and played football at University School in Hunting Valley. Jason is the head coach, brother John is the tight ends coach and passing game coordinator and brother Judd is the club’s director of pro scouting.

The Garretts spent their time in the Cleveland area when their dad, Jim, was an assistant coach for Sam Rutigliano’s Browns from 1978 to 1984. Jim III still lives in the area and teaches English at US.

The Cowboys got off to a rough start this season, losing four of five after winning two of their first three games. One of the main reasons was the club’s inability to establish a strong running game.

Dallas can’t keep its running backs healthy. If it isn’t DeMarco Murray missing games with a sprained foot, it’s Felix Jones missing games with a bruised knee. Jones is expected to start against the Browns with Murray, absent the last four games, a game-time decision.

The Cowboys average just 85 yards a game on the ground, but let’s not forget these are the Browns they’re facing. The Browns surrender 132 yards a game against the run, but that could change with the return of regular tackles Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin from injury.

The Cowboys’ strength on offense is definitely through the air with quarterback Tony Romo hitting on 67% of his passes, However, the veteran is prone to mistakes as his 13 interceptions certainly prove.

His favorite target by far is tight end Jason Witten, who has caught 66 passes, but don’t be fooled by that impressive number. His effectiveness contributes to extending drives and moving the chains. He has had only one end zone visit this season, a remarkable number considering the frequency he is targeted.

In fact, 31 of Witten’s receptions were recorded in two games. He caught an NFL  record (for a tight end) 18 passes, but did not score, in a 29-24 loss to the New York Giants and 13 more (in 14 targets) with  his lone TD in a 34-18 loss to the Chicago Bears. Expect Romo and Witten to play pitch and catch most of the afternoon against the Cleveland secondary.

Romo’s wide receivers can be just as lethal. Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Kevin Ogletree check in with 112 catches for 1,603 yards and 10 touchdowns. And with Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden questionable with an oblique injury, trouble looms unless the Browns can get to Romo before he wants to throw.

The Browns are a different team with Haden in the lineup. When he served a four-game suspension for illegal drug use earlier this season, the Browns coughed up 122 points (30.5 a game) in four losses. With Haden in the lineup, the Browns are 2-3 and have permitted just 17.8 points a game.

Considering defensive coordinator Dick Jauron prefers a conservative approach to rushing the passer, the Cleveland secondary could be in for a very long afternoon if Romo stays clean.

Defensively, the Cowboys have been unusually subdued this season. Unusual because defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is an out-there kind of guy who loves to blitz. For whatever reason, though, he seems to have mellowed and eschewed that strategy and it shows in the club’s defensive statistics.

The Cowboys average just two sacks a game and have picked off only four passes. All-Pro linebacker DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer own 13 of the club’s 18 sacks. Ware is his usual quarterback abusing self with nine sacks and four fumble recoveries from the Jack linebacker position.

If what the Philadelphia Eagles did against the Cowboys last week is any indication, look for the Browns to attack rookie Dallas cornerback Morris Claiborne early and often. Claiborne had his hands full with veteran Eagles receivers Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson, who combined for 13 catches.

Now whether Cleveland offensive coordinator Brad Childress chooses to exploit this apparent weakness is another matter. The Browns this season have consistently shied away from taking advantage of other teams’ weaknesses. Perhaps having an extra week to prepare for the Cowboys will make a difference.

How much of a difference will the bye week be for the Browns? Hard to say. We can go only by what they did last season in coach Pat Shurmur’s rookie season.

After splitting their first four games of the season, they emerged from the bye against the Raiders in Oakland. And lost, 24-17.

Some things never change. That will hold true Sunday. The Cowboys drive another nail into Shurmur’s coffin. Make it:

Cowboys 24, Browns 17

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