EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – The Dallas Cowboys certainly didn’t expect their 2008 football season to take the various turns it suddenly has, given the many injuries they’ve suffered to key players, the ongoing saga of one Adam “Pacman” Jones, and their defense’s inability to stop other teams from scoring. But, here we are, nearly at the season’s halfway point and the struggling Cowboys are sitting with a 5-3 record and no longer projecting as the division champion in the competitive NFC East, as was expected by a consensus of pre-season punditry.
The Cowboys are now two games behind the first place Giants, who are off to a roaring 6-1 start. A loss this Sunday at Giants Stadium could be devastating to their division title chances, making this game a must-win for Dallas.
“Well, I don’t know what “must” is – we have three losses right now,” said Dallas coach Wade Phillips. “I don’t know how many losses will win the division but it is certainly an important game for us. We know that.”
Wade’s offense has struggled mightily without starting quarterback, Tony Romo, who broke the pinky finger on his throwing hand three weeks ago and will miss his third straight game. Since then, the Cowboys had lost two in a row and three of their last four, a disastrous happenstance for any Jerry Jones-owned team until last Sunday’s 13-9 barely impressive win at home against Tampa Bay.
Brad Johnson has stepped in for Romo but has not distinguished himself. His quarterback rating is a paltry 60.3, a sharp drop from Romo’s 103.5, the NFL’s second best. In last Sunday’s win over Tampa, Johnson engineered the Cowboys offense to a grand total of 170 yards of total offense.
Johnson thinks the low production is a result of Phillips’ decision to play more conservatively and not risk turnovers in the game.
“We were conservative; I think that was part of it,” Phillips said. “Part of it also was that Tampa is pretty good on defense. I don’t know if anybody knows that but we played fairly conservative.”
In any event, it seems as if Johnson is now on a very short leash with Phillips, who will not hesitate to pull the 40-year old quarterback if he isn’t matriculating the offense down the field.
“We think we can go with Brad and see what happens,” coach Wade Phillips said Wednesday. “We’re not going into the game saying, ‘This guy is going and we’re going to pull him if he doesn’t do anything.’ We’re going in with a more positive attitude than that.”
The reality is the Cowboys have to be ready for it. That’s why third-stringer Brooks Bollinger got some work with the first team Wednesday. Before practice, star receiver Terrell Owens said the only passes he’d caught from Bollinger were warm-up tosses.
“Obviously, he’s here for a reason,” Owens said. “We’re just going to go with whomever is back there.”
Pro-Bowl tight end Jason Witten is also on the injured list with broken ribs. Taking Witten out of the Cowboys offense, along with the loss of Romo is crippling to Dallas’ game plan.
“He is a top notch player, not just as a tight end but a receiver, blocker, everything,” Phillips continued. “We lose a lot when we lose Witten.”
The Cowboys problems have also spread to their secondary, beset by injuries and the suspension of the Pacman, their best cornerback who is currently under suspension by the league for a minimum of four weeks for an alcohol-related incident at a Dallas hotel on Oct. 8. Previous reports indicated Jones was involved in an alcohol-related scuffle with a bodyguard assigned to him by the Cowboys, and that hotel employees called the police.
Pacman’s timing was not the best.
“In the last game, we were down to our fourth, fifth, and sixth corners but they all played and played well,” said Phillips. “We just have to get them ready.”
Giants Gist: Playing against an immobile, 40-year old quarterback seems to be a special gift for a fierce pash-rushing defensive line. Mathias Kiwanuka, the Giants right defensive end who has stepped in for the injured Osi Umenyiora, was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his outstanding performance against the Steelers. The third-year pro from Boston College had three of the Giants’ five sacks of Ben Roethlisberger, five total tackles, three tackles for losses, two quarterback hits and a forced fumble. He sacked Roethlisberger twice in the decisive fourth quarter. The five sacks increased the Giants’ season total to 25, jumping them into the league lead, one ahead of the Steelers.
“It’s definitely something that I am proud of,” Kiwanuka said. “As long as I use it and move forward and not take any steps back, then yeah, at the end of the season I can look back and reflect on it, but right now it’s not the time for that. I’m honored that I got it and appreciate all the accolades, but that’s something I will reflect on in the offseason.”
This is Kiwanuka’s first Player of the Week award. Umenyiora was named Defensive Player of the Week twice in 2007: Week 4 vs. Philadelphia (six sacks) and Week 7 vs. San Francisco (touchdown on a 75-yard fumble return). Umenyiora suffered a season-ending knee injury in the preseason and was replaced by Kiwanuka, who moved back to end from strongside linebacker.
Prior to Umenyiora being honored, Michael Strahan had received each of the four previous Defensive Player of the Week awards won by Giants. The last Giants player at a position other than end to win the award was safety Percy Ellsworth in Week 16 in 1998.
Kiwanuka is the second Giant to be honored this season. Kicker John Carney was the Special Teams Player of the Week after kicking four field goals, including an overtime game-winner, in Week 3 vs. Cincinnati.
According to the Neilson ratings, Sunday’s Giants-Steelers game was the most-watched television program in the New York metropolitan area last week. The game had a rating of 18.1, which translates to approximately 1.35 million homes.