Tag Archives: Morris Claiborne

A GROWING COWBOY: Morris Claiborne getting bigger and stronger this offseason

dallas cowboys cb morris claiborne scores on a 50 yard fumble recovery vs philadelphia eagles - the boys are back blog

Morris Claiborne had to do a couple of things this spring.

One, get bigger.

Two, get stronger.

So far, so good.

“I feel like I’ve had a tremendous offseason with getting in the weight room and trying to get stronger,” the second-year cornerback said Tuesday after the Dallas Cowboys’ first OTA practice at Valley Ranch. “Actually, I put on a couple of pounds. Last year, I was at 187. Now I’m at 193. So I’m just trying to learn how to move with that weight and just get comfortable.”

Claiborne and the Cowboys figure he can use the extra weight to become a stronger tackler, a skill that will be required more from the cornerbacks under new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Last year as a rookie, Claiborne never got up to speed with his strength because he spent the spring recovering from wrist surgery.

“There were times last year where he wasn’t strong enough to execute a certain technique,” secondary coach Jerome Henderson said. “So he had to get stronger to do that. He’s done the work to do that.”

Claiborne has known all spring about the physical style that will be required of him and fellow corner Brandon Carr. But he believes he is ready for it and feels confident as he enters his second pro season.

“I told someone the other day, I feel a difference when I pull up in the facility than I did a year ago,” Claiborne said. “I feel like nothing’s too much new to me. I expect everything how it was last year. We’ve got a couple of coaching changes, but nothing stopping. I’m just trying to continue to get more comfortable, continue to get more established in this system, so I can go out and play and have fun.”

NO DESPARADOS: With this nucleus, the 2013 Dallas Cowboys may not need a free agency splash

Dallas Cowboys NT Jay Ratliff ready for the new 4-3 defense - The Boys Are Back blog - Tim Heitman - USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys have no cap room and aren’t signing anyone. Does it really matter? How desperate are the Dallas Cowboys, really?

Bryan Broaddus wrote about defensive tackle Jay Ratliff and the way he’ll fit into Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 defensive alignment. Bryan’s excited because he thinks Ratliff is the kind of player who will flourish in the 4-3, and that he can play either of its defensive tackle positions well:

In this scheme, the defensive coaches want their guys to play with more speed and quickness, which is right down the alley for Ratliff. There is a reason that Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett never wavered about Ratliff coming back for this 2013 [season] despite the legal problem he faces in the coming months. He was built to play in this scheme.

Jay Ratliff is part of a talented nucleus in Dallas that should contend for the NFC East title again this fall.

Think about it. Sure, Ratliff’s a knucklehead for blowing up at Jerry Jones in the locker room. Worse yet, he was arrested and charged with DUI a month and a half after teammate Jerry Brown was killed in a drunk driving accident for which teammate Josh Brent was charged. And sure, he had no more sacks last year than you or I did. But when healthy and on the field, Ratliff is still an excellent player, capable of disrupting an offense from an interior line position.

Ratliff isn’t exactly alone on the roster. On the defensive side of the ball, DeMarcus Ware is an excellent player. Cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne are very good. Linebacker Sean Lee is outstanding, and fellow linebacker Bruce Carter sure looked headed that way last season before his injury. Jason Hatcher was excellent last season, and so was Anthony Spencer, whether he’s worth his $10.6 million franchise tender or not.

On offense, the Cowboys have excellent players at quarterback, tight end and both starting wide receiver spots. They have a very good running back and left tackle. Can you find fault with any or all of these players? Sure. But on balance, I just gave you 14 starting positions at which the Cowboys are at least above average, and in several cases much better.

The point? Well, as Cowboys fans bemoan the lack of cap space and resultant lack of activity in this first week of free agency, it might be worth remembering that there are some really good players on this team, and that it might not be the kind of team that needed to have a big first week of free agency.

Now, of course they need work. They’ve been 8-8 each of the past two seasons. The offensive line is a wreck, that they have question marks at safety, and that depth is an issue in spots. They need to find another starting linebacker to go with Lee and Carter. And yes, of course Tony Romo’s reputation for playing small in big spots. All of that stuff is true. It’s too easy too often for Cowboys fans to get negative about the way they perceive their team. It’s all doom and gloom in Dallas.

Each of the past two seasons, they made it to the final game with a chance to win the division. By definition, that’s a contending team, and as close to being a playoff team as one can get. They must improve in spots, most notably the offensive line, or it’s going to be hard to believe they can make any big leap forward. You don’t have to agree with the perception that they’re in big trouble because they were hamstrung this week in free agency. In part, because of last years splash, there are a lot of very good players on the Cowboys’ roster. If properly supported by a good draft and some smart free-agent bargain hunting, this a competitive team in 2013, just as it was in 2011 and 2012.

That’s worth keeping in mind.

Editors comments: The Dallas Cowboys have one of the highest payrolls in the NFL. There is a reason for this. They are loaded with talent. The team needs health on their side and a few pieces to break away from the 8-8 mold. Addressing the offensive line will allow the Cowboys to have an offense few can match, week-to-week. This Kiffin experiment has validity also, again … a few pieces are needed to execute on this side of the ball. This offseason, if the Jones’ focus on the trenches and a safety, this team has a chance. This is not a roster of desperation, it’s a core of players on the brink. Dallas doesn’t need another millionaire free agent. What they need can be accomplished on a modest budget (with a little more salary restructuring) … trusting the talent evaluators on staff, and a youth infusion through the draft.

ROSTER REVIEW: Final grades for the 2012 Dallas Cowboys

america's team - dallas cowboys helmet 2012 - the boys are back blog

No more whistles, no more playbooks, no more coach’s dirty looks. Sure, not quite as catchy as the iconic “no more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks,” but we’re talking football grades here, not math, science and social studies.

The biggest difference in grading pupils and players is expectations. All students are created equal; not so much for a professional football team. Just doesn’t make sense to hold Miles Austin, one of the highest-paid wide receivers in the game and a two-time Pro Bowl selection, and Cole Beasley, an undrafted free agent rookie, to the same standard. Ditto for DeMarcus Ware, headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and some dude signed off his couch midseason. Not even Batman.

Without further ado, here are our final grades for the 2012 Dallas Cowboys:

QUARTERBACKS

Tony Romo – B

This one is difficult, because for 80-plus percent of the season, 13-of-16 games, Romo played as well as any quarterback in franchise history. Yes, including Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. His numbers for those contests include 303.1 yards per game, 24 touchdown passes, seven picks and a 100.2 rating. Even with the other three games – vs. the Bears and Giants and at the Redskins – Romo had the league’s sixth-highest rating by Football Outsiders, behind only Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan.

He threw for nearly 5,000 yards, and on many occasions was his own best pass protector in terms of finding an extra second or two. There were times when he was brilliant, and never before has he shown the leadership he did this season. Still, in the end, Romo flunked his final. Again. That’s not easy to write. Romo has been sort of the teacher’s pet these last five years, but there is no excuse for those final two picks at Washington.

Kyle Orton – I

He broke Clint Longley’s 38-year-old mark for highest passer rating (minimum 10 attempts) with a ridiculous 137.1. Played just the one game, though, giving him an incomplete.

RUNNING BACKS

DeMarco Murray – C

A disappointing season for the second-year back who was expected to anchor the offensive load. Didn’t rush for 100 yards after Week 1 at the Giants and rarely showed the explosiveness from his rookie season with just five 20-plus carries. Finished tied for 21st in the league with 2.5 yards per attempt after contact. He also picked the worst of times for his first two NFL fumbles. His durability has also become a concern as he has missed nine of the team’s last 19 games with injuries.

Felix Jones – C

Finished with more offensive touches than expected, was much improved in picking up the blitz, caught the ball well, and for the most part, maximized his rushing yards with the gaps provided. He averaged just 3.6 yards per carry after entering the year at 5.1 for his career.

Lance Dunbar – B

Was impressed with the free agent rookie from North Texas from the first preseason game through Week 17. Finished with eight special teams tackles, was solid if unspectacular on kick returns and showed a little burst on offense. Should play a bigger role in 2013.

Phillip Tanner – C

Solid on special teams with 10 tackles, although he didn’t show much in limited action carrying the ball.

Lawrence Vickers – C

Showed promise catching passes, that little dump-off was seemingly always available. But his blocking was average and his four penalties in 305 snaps was the highest percentage of any fullback playing 25 percent of his team’s snaps.

Continue reading →

PLAYER PUZZLE PIECES: How the Dallas Cowboys current personnel fit Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 defense

2012 dallas cowboys defense loses bruce carter to ir - the boys are back blog

A lot has been made about the Cowboys’ switch from the 3-4 defense to Monte Kiffin’s 4-3, and rightfully so. Although a great defense ultimately comes down to talented players executing a well-crafted scheme, it’s not as if elite players can simply line up at any position and succeed. If the chances of success at a particular position are optimized at a certain height, weight and speed, it follows that getting farther from those ideal traits will lower the probability of succeeding.

Kiffin’s defenses have typically emphasized speed over size at most positions, and that’s certainly a plus for a Cowboys defense that seems as if it hasn’t kept up with the NFL’s pass-happy evolution. Still, the truth is that the best defensive coordinators tailor their scheme around their personnel.

Kiffin’s version of the 4-3 in particular, known as a 4-3 Under, could potentially accommodate the Cowboys’ personnel better than most other 4-3 schemes. One reason is the presence of the 1-technique defensive tackle. A 1-technique tackle shades the offensive center, nearly playing heads-up over the top of him like a 3-4 nose tackle. The other defensive tackle, the 3-technique, is typically a smaller player that almost acts as a large defensive end in the interior.

There are certainly areas where the Cowboys might have holes to fill, of course. To figure out just how far away Dallas might be from Kiffin’s “dream” defense, we’ve researched the height and weight of each defensive player for Tampa Bay from 2003 to 2008. Kiffin was the defensive coordinator for the Buccaneers during that stretch, emphasizing specific traits at each position. Below are the averages of each player on the roster at every position.

4-3 defense

1-DT: 6’3’’ 304 pounds

As mentioned, the 1-technique tackle is a strong presence in the inside, but he also has to be nimble enough to shoot up field.

Cowboys’ fit: Jay Ratliff (6’4’’ 303 pounds) matches Kiffin’s prototypical player at this position to a tee. The issue is whether or not the Cowboys can afford to continue to pay Ratliff the big bucks. Sean Lissemore (6’3’’ 303 pounds) also fits the bill.

3-DT: 6’2’’ 285 pounds

The 3-technique defensive tackle is much smaller than the 1-technique. Also note that, at an average of just 6’2’’, the 3-technique is shorter than the defensive ends.

Cowboys’ fit: This position in particular is difficult to project for the Cowboys. Jason Hatcher could potentially play any position along the defensive line, although at 6’6’’ 305 pounds, he’s much taller and heavier than the typically short, light tackles Kiffin has used in the past. Tyrone Crawford (6’4’’ 285 pounds) will probably play defensive end, but he also could have some versatility.

DE (Strong): 6’3’’ 279 pounds

Kiffin has typically used a very large, bulky player to man his strong-side defensive end position.

Cowboys’ fit: If there’s evidence that the Cowboys could let Anthony Spencer walk, this might be it. At 250 pounds, Spencer doesn’t come anywhere near matching the profile of Kiffin’s past ends. As mentioned above, Crawford checks in around this size, but his pass-rushing ability is a question.

DE (Weak): 6’3’’ 267 pounds

On the weak side, Kiffin’s defensive ends have been relatively close to the same size as the typical 3-4 outside linebacker.

Cowboys’ fit: DeMarcus Ware will play this position, although even he is listed at only 254 pounds. Ware shouldn’t have much of a problem adjusting, however. Alex Albright might need to transition to this position as well at 6’5’’ 260 pounds.

MLB: 6’1’’ 232 pounds

The “Mike” linebacker in Kiffin’s 4-3 defense has to have the ability to turn and run, so it’s no surprise that they’ve averaged only 232 pounds.

Cowboys’ fit: At 6’2’’, 245 pounds, Sean Lee is a bit oversized compared to the average 4-3 middle linebacker. He’ll often be asked to run downfield when tight ends run vertically, but Lee should be up for the challenge.

WLB: 6’1’’ 224 pounds

At only 224 pounds, the average “Will” linebacker in Kiffin’s defense must have the speed to run sideline-to-sideline.

Cowboys’ fit: Like Lee, Carter is “oversized” for the 4-3 at 240 pounds, but it really shouldn’t matter. As one of the fastest linebackers in the NFL, Carter won’t have a problem transitioning to the 4-3. He could potentially play any of the three linebacker spots, giving the Cowboys plenty of flexibility heading into the draft.

SLB: 6’1’’ 235 pounds

As the biggest of Kiffin’s linebackers, the “Sam” is still smaller than all but one linebacker the Cowboys had on the roster in 2012, Ernie Sims.

Cowboys’ fit: Assuming Carter plays the “Will,” the Cowboys may have a hole to fill here (and vice versa if Kiffin uses Carter as the “Sam.” If Dan Connor (6’2’’ 242 pounds) ends up starting for Kiffin, he’ll almost assuredly play this position and Carter will play the weak side.

CB: 6’0’’ 193 pounds

Due to Kiffin’s emphasis on Cover 2, his cornerbacks don’t turn and run in man coverage as much as in other defenses. Playing near the line, they need to be able to press and play the run, meaning they’re typically tall, although perhaps not as heavy as many believe.

Cowboys’ fit: Although there are questions about how Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne can transition to Kiffin’s scheme, I think they’ll be just fine. Carr has great size at 6’0’’ 210 pounds, and it isn’t as if they’ll be in Cover 2 every play. Even at 5’11’’ 185 pounds, Claiborne isn’t that far off from Kiffin’s prototypical cornerbacks over the years.

S: 6’0’’ 207 pounds

Since Kiffin generally plays with two-deep alignments and dares offenses to run, his safeties don’t need to be excessively big, but rangy.

Cowboys’ fit: The Cowboys could have an issue here since starters Gerald Sensabaugh and Barry Church are both at least 212 pounds and don’t necessarily excel in deep coverage. Kiffin has made it work with big safeties like John Lynch in the past, however, but the ’Boys still might need to look for a faster safety of the future in this upcoming draft.

We so often hear that teams need to find “their guys” that fit into their particular schemes, and that’s true; certain players are tailored to play in specific ways. However, the job of any coordinator is to mold their scheme to fit the skill sets of the current personnel. It’s certainly preferable to have a roster full of players built for a particular scheme, but creating that is a whole lot more challenging than slightly altering the scheme to fit the most talented players on the team.

When all is said and done, the success of Kiffin’s tenure in Dallas will be determined by how well he can manage this delicate balancing act, acquiring “his” guys while still being flexible with his scheme to accommodate what he already has.

DEFENSIVE BREAKDOWN: Dallas Cowboys felt that Ryan’s schemes and philosophy were inconsistent

Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan talks to Cleveland Browns punter Reggie Hodges and Cleveland Browns kicker Phil Dawson - The Boys Are Back blog

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones promised last week that he would consult outside counsel on his team before making decisions on the future.

The reviews of now-fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan weren’t good, despite him having to play with an injury-riddled unit.

The Cowboys found that his schemes and philosophy at times were unsound. They also felt he was inconsistent in his attack, considering he blitzed too much in his first season and got burned because of poor play in the secondary. The Cowboys gave up 3,906 passing yards in 2011, the second-most allowed in team history.

They made moves in the off-season to upgrade the personnel, namely the addition of cover corners Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. They sought to improve the pass defense, so Ryan could play his aggressive style.

Yet, Ryan rarely blitzed and chose to play conservatively in 2012 as opponents averaged 355.4 yards per game, the most in team history The Cowboys allowed an average of 22.4 points per game. They had 34 sacks, seven interceptions and nine forced fumbles. The 16 turnovers were a franchise low.

A few of names to keep in mind as possible replacements for Ryan are Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who has experienced running the 3-4 and 4-3 defense, former Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel, a 3-4 guru, and former Bears coach Lovie Smith, who is a 4-3 coach.

THE HALF GRAND SCHEME: Decision to play Zone vs. Man, yields 560 yards from Dallas Cowboys defense

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan walks the sideline during the game against the New Orleans Saints - The Boys Are Back blog

Here are more thoughts from Sunday’s game with the Saints and how it might affect the Cowboys’ game plan moving forward this week in Washington with the division on the line.

Zone Or Man

Much like all of you I watch the games but have the same questions of why this team plays certain schemes over others. When this club opened training camp last July, I was excited by the prospects of Rob Ryan having the potential to play more man coverage with Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Mike Jenkins. There were plenty of days in Oxnard where we did see Carr and Claiborne when he was on the field running with Bryant and Austin.  

These corners just seemed better suited to play this style of defense than playing seven yards off and driving on the ball. As the season has progressed, Ryan still has Carr and Claiborne in the lineup but you have observed him using them more in zone coverage. In studying my notes from the Saints game, I wrote the word “Zone” several times and plenty of those notes were after Brees had a completion down the field. There is a side of me that believes that all the injuries across this defense has taken away a lot of the packages that Ryan would like to run. Generally when you play zone, you are trying to protect or hide a flaw. Safety play, corners that can’t really cover, or lack of a pass rush.

Let’s be real honest here when we look at this defense, DeMarcus Ware is one of your best players but these injuries that he is playing with have reduced him to a player that is similar to say Victor Butler. I really don’t mean that as a slam on Butler but when he is in the game, you get an occasional pressure, maybe a sack or a tackle that results in a three yard gain. It’s okay work but it’s not Ware when healthy. Ryan and this staff are trying to do things to keep this defense from totally falling apart and I understand as you read this, you are saying could it get any worse, they gave up over 560 yards?

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees throws against the Dallas Cowboys - The Boys Are Back blog

I understand in theory what Ryan is trying to do here but there were points in the Saints game in the second half where he did play some man coverage with his secondary and the results were favorable helping him get off the field which gave me hope that he could play more of it. There are very few offenses in this league that can present the problems the Saints are going to cause you matchup wise. It’s a league of big plays and they make a ton of them.

Sure I would like to see Ryan play more man coverage and make these receivers fight for contested balls because I really believe he has players that can do that but again I understand what he is trying to protect here. This is not an easy job he has here with the current state of this defense and Ware not healthy makes it even more difficult. Ryan is not the idiot that the majority of you believe, but he is one if he runs into me in the hallway at Valley Ranch and asks me what I think he should do scheme wise. Then you should question him.

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Lance Moore (16) dives into the end zone for a touchdown - The Boys Are Back blog

Courtesy: Bryan Broaddus | Football Analyst/Scout

Editors note: This subject was raised, by me, on the Dallas Cowboys forum Monday. Check it out:

http://boards.dallascowboys.com/topic/9869-rant-rob-ryan-wake-up-dude-this-defensive-scheme-is-a-joke/

CORNERBACK ATTACK: Dallas Cowboys will need Morris Claiborne to beat Saints

Dallas Cowboys CB Morris Claiborne scores on a 50 yard fumble recovery vs Philadelphia Eagles - The Boys Are Back blog

The Dallas Cowboys were able to get by in pass coverage last week without Morris Claiborne against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

They’ll need him this week against the New Orleans Saints.

Ben Roethlisberger was still showing the effects of a rib injury that kept him sidelined for three weeks over the Thanksgiving holiday. His passes lacked their usual crispness against the Cowboys, sailing high, low and behind his receivers a good portion of the afternoon.

That’s never been a problem for Saints quarterback Drew Brees, one of the most accurate passers ever to play the game. He has completed 65.57 percent of his career throws, second best in NFL history. He hits his receivers in stride, which allows them to add yardage after the catch.

The Saints rank second in the NFL in passing, and Brees leads all quarterbacks with 4,335 yards. All four of his primary targets at wide receiver — Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore and Joseph Morgan — have 100-yard receiving games this season, as does tight end Jimmy Graham.

In addition, Darren Sproles leads NFL running backs with 60 receptions, and fellow halfback Pierre Thomas ranks third in the NFL in yards after the catch at 10.1.

The Saints force defenses to cover every patch of earth on the football field. Brees has Henderson deep, Graham on seam routes and Colston and Moore on slants and outs all day.

If a defense elects to sit back in zones, Brees will feed Sproles and Thomas with screens and swings — so even your defensive ends need to be involved in pass coverage.

The way to beat the Saints is to keep Brees and this explosive passing attack off the field, and opponents have done a superb job of that this season.

New Orleans has only played offense an average of 28 minutes per game this season, which explains why they are out of the playoff hunt at 6-8.

But for those 28 minutes, the Cowboys are going to need Claiborne, Brandon Carr, Mike Jenkins, Sterling Moore and Michael Coe on their A games. The Saints are going to give them a workout.

Brees has thrown 50 passes in a game three times this season. He has a 400-yard passing game and seven 300-yard games. His 36 touchdown passes lead the league, and he’s been sacked only 24 times.

Bring your track shoes.

RELATED: Claiborne expects to play Sunday against Saints

Morris Claiborne said that as of Wednesday, he feels fine and he expects to play on Sunday against the Saints. He said he passed his concussion tests and was cleared.

He knows the Cowboys will need every defensive back they can get against Drew Brees and his five big-play targets, although he was encouraged by the secondary’s showing without him against the Steelers last week.

“I feel like it’s way better the depth that we have, and the guys that are behind someone, they’re still playing,” said Claiborne, who practiced Wednesday. “So if someone were to happen to get out – for instance, I didn’t play last week, but we had a guy who could step in, and we didn’t lose anything.”

Claiborne said he is impressed by the way the team continues to find players who can come in and play. Cornerbacks Michael Coe and Sterling Moore each played days after arriving, and safety Eric Frampton has taken on a big role since originally being signed to help the special teams depth.

“Everybody comes in with some football smarts,” Claiborne said. “To get in here and to focus, to be able to learn this defense, you see guys staying after, just trying to get help and learn their position. It lets us know that it’s important to them because it’s important to us.”

On top of that, Claiborne said the new players have fit in personality-wise.

“Everybody that comes in here, it seems like he connects with us right like that,” Claiborne said. “I think the coaching staff does a great job of the guys they select to be in the locker room.”

COWBOYS AND KIDS: Players made their annual visits to area hospitals

Jacson Creel, 3,(cq) high fives Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (94) at Cook Children's Hospital in Fort Worth - The Boys Are Back blog

On Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys beat the Pittsburgh Steelers to move into a first-place tie in the NFC East.

On Monday, the Cowboys got a special reward for their effort.

Team members made their annual visits to area hospitals — Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth and, in Dallas, Children’s Medical Center, Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children and Medical City Children’s Hospital.

"With a win or a loss, it’s going to be great for us," said linebacker Sean Lee, one of 10 players who visited Medical City.

"With a loss, it cheers us up. With a win, we’re excited to come in anyway. It’s really a great perspective for us to come in and see these kids [who] show us that anything we’re dealing with doesn’t compare to what they’re dealing with."

Dallas Cowboys practice squad wide receiver Tim Benford (16) visits with Alex Lisenby, 8, and his dad Kent, right, at Cook Children's Hospital in Fort Worth - The Boys Are Back blog

DeMarcus Ware and Morris Claiborne, both fathers of young children, acknowledged that their trip to Cook Children’s had even deeper significance than in previous years in light of Friday’s mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school.

"You’ve got to hold them a little tighter," Ware said. "You look at the kids, that’s where the real joy is … it’s the closest to praising God.

"You never know what they’re going through. Just spreading that touch to them and letting them know that someone out there cares for them, that’s what life’s about."

It was rookie Claiborne’s first time to join about 20 teammates in signing autographs, distributing gifts and visiting young patients.

"You never know what people are going through and the impact that you can make on those kids just from them seeing you," Claiborne said. "It’s great."

Landry Noble, 2, slaps hands with Dallas Cowboys guard Derrick Dockery (76) at Cook Children's Hospital in Fort Worth - The Boys Are Back blog

Quarterback Tony Romo was one of 28 players who visited Children’s Medical Center in Dallas. He met bright-eyed Tia, 7, an Argyle native who was scheduled to have heart surgery later in the day.

"She is adorable," Romo said. "She has personality. We will really be praying for her as she goes through surgery."

Tia’s parents, Nicole and John Hackett, passed out pink "Team Tia" shirts to the players, including Romo.

"It’s phenomenal," Nicole Hackett said of the players’ visit. "This is a great way to relax a little bit, take a deep breath and have some smiles."

Romo acknowledged that being a new father makes him a little more sensitive to the importance of the annual hospital visits.

"As a father, it changes you a little, just a sense of how much you really care," Romo said. "We are blessed to be able to do what we do. We play a game for a living. The thing a lot of us take advantage of is health, to be able to walk. To come here and see kids who can’t do that — it makes you want to make them smile and brighten their day a little bit, especially this time of year."

Dallas Cowboys running back Felix Jones (28) visits with Tera Harris and McKayla, 3, at Cook Children's Hospital in Fort Worth - The Boys Are Back blog

Running back DeMarco Murray agreed, although he showed no mercy in beating one of the children in a game of Connect 4. Romo lost to the same child.

But Murray is a self-proclaimed Connect 4 expert. He downloaded the app on his phone and plays all the time.

"It’s great to be able to come out here and bless kids," said Murray, who also spent time painting with a girl. "It gives you a spark, not only about football but about life.

"It makes you so thankful."

REVERSAL OF FORTUNES: Dallas Cowboys’ cornerback exchange worthy of a second look

Dallas Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr (39) scores a touchdown off an interception - The Boys Are Back blog

IRVING — After fielding a worse pass defense in 2010 and 2011 than in any other two-year span in team history, the Dallas Cowboys finally had enough and made a number of moves to revamp the secondary in the off-season.

The two biggest players in the overhaul were cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Terence Newman.

Carr, 26, regarded as the best player in free agency by defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, was signed to a whopping five-year, $50.1 million contract to come from the Kansas City Chiefs and become the shutdown cornerback the team has coveted since the departure of Deion Sanders.

Newman, 34, who never fully lived up to expectations as a former 2003 first-round pick of the Cowboys and became the primary scapegoat for the team’s secondary woes, was unceremoniously dumped because of his salary, declining play, age and injury history.

When the Cowboys (6-6) face the Cincinnati Bengals (7-5) Sunday, Newman and Carr will be on the same field together for the first time since the off-season moves.

The statistics say the Bengals, who signed Newman to a reduced one-year, $825,000 contract shortly after being released by the Cowboys, got the better end of the salary cap deal so far.

Revitalized and motivated to prove the Dallas Cowboys wrong, the nine-year year veteran has more tackles than Carr as well as more pass deflections and more interceptions.

And according to Stats Inc., Newman has also given up fewer touchdowns and fewer completions, despite the same amount of targets.

Still, the Cowboys are pleased with the moves.

"Terence was a really, really good player for this team for a long time," coach Jason Garrett said. "We just felt as an organization that it was the right time for us to make a move there and to move on and go in a different direction. I told him when I talked to him, ‘You’re going to be playing for a long time and just keep doing what you’re doing.’ He’s playing very well right now."

From the Cowboys’ point of view, the individual statistics only tell part of the story. The pass defense is statistically better than it was last season at this point despite a plethora of injuries.

Carr was just one of two important off-season moves made by the Cowboys, who also drafted Morris Claiborne with the sixth overall pick.

Carr also went from being given the task of covering the opponent’s top receiver all over the field at the beginning of the season to being used at safety and in the slot because of injuries.

"Brandon Carr, he’s been a really good player for us," Garrett said. “At different times, we’ve had him in different spots, assuming different roles. He’s played some safety for us. I think he’s playing well.”

Carr said his play has been "up and down" because he has been moved around, because so many different guys have been in and out of the lineup with injuries and because everyone is still getting used to each other.

He also knows that his "up and down" play has already drawn criticism because of the $50.1 million contract that had people expecting Deion Sanders-like production.

"They can say what they want to say, I can handle the scrutiny," Carr said. “I have been dealing with that since I came into the NFL. It hasn’t deterred me from anything. Everybody is entitled to an opinion. I’m in a position where I’m fair game to everybody. I can handle whatever they have to say. I know it’s out there. All I can do is come every day, keep getting better and keep working.”

Cincinnati Bengals CB Terence Newman chases Denver Bronco after catch - The Boys Are Back blog

For Newman, the scrutiny, criticism and subsequent release resulted in some bitterness.

He was once considered a foundation building block for the future of the Cowboys along with quarterback Tony Romo, tight end Jason Witten and linebacker DeMarcus Ware.

Newman was admittedly disappointed he didn’t get a goodbye from owner Jerry Jones when he was informed of his release in March.

He said he knew the decision was coming and worked out at the Cowboys facility every day in the off-season so they could tell him face to face when the moment arrived.

Garrett handled the goodbye with Newman, who hopes to see Jones and exchange pleasantries before the game.

“I mean a person can be bitter all they want, but it’s not going to change anything,” Newman said. "I’m happy, playing pretty well, winning football games, so that’s my No. 1 focus. There’s no reason for me to be bitter. It’s months and months after the fact. It is what it is."

Newman, who played with injured ribs in 2010 and then through toe, neck and hamstring injuries that affected his play last year, said the change in scenery and fresh start has been good for him.

He chose the Bengals because of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who held the same position in Dallas when he was drafted in 2003.

“This definitely was a place that I wanted to come because obviously I had a relationship with him,” Newman said. "I knew what to expect and I knew it would be the best opportunity for me to jump-start and get back to playing the football that I had been playing in previous years."

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said Newman has been a big part of a defense that has the Bengals in the thick of the wild-card playoff chase.

Unlike the inconsistent Cowboys, the Bengals are riding a four-game winning streak behind a defense that’s allowed just one offensive touchdown in the past three games combined.

“His ability to know what’s important. I think getting back with Mike has been great for him, because day in and day out he knows he’s going to get coached from sunup to sundown as all of our guys do when they walk in this building,” Lewis said. “I think that was something he felt comfortable with.”

From a bitter departure to a comfortable reunion — at least until kickoff.

FRONT AND CENTER: Josh Brent says he’s making a name for the Cowboys defense, not necessarily himself

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Josh Brent is making a name for himself in the defense. Every time he starts, he makes something happen.

“Making a name for this defense, the Dallas Cowboys defense” the third-year nose tackle said Sunday night after his forced fumble helped the Cowboys wrap up a 38-33 victory against the Philadelphia Eagles. “That’s what it’s about – show everybody how we can play, and this is how we need to play from here on out.”

Dallas Cowboys NT Josh Brent is a rising star on the defense - The Boys Are Back blog

Brent, starting in place of injured Pro Bowl veteran Jay Ratliff, knocked the ball out of the grip of Eagles rookie running back Bryce Brown in the fourth quarter. Morris Claiborne picked it up and ran it in from 50 yards, giving the Cowboys a 38-27 lead.

“I was just trying to make the tackle, just wrapping up, happened to force the ball loose,” Brent said. “Mo picked it up for six.”

Josh Brent can be called one of the Cowboys’ rising stars. He knows other rising stars when he sees them.

Including Bryce Brown, the Eagles rookie he forced the fumble against.

“Give him his just due,” Brent said of Brown, who rushed for 169 yards and two touchdowns. “It wasn’t all on the defense. He’s a pretty good back. Everybody talks about LeSean McCoy. I think he, definitely, since LeSean has been out has made a statement for himself and that offense.

“He and Nick Foles are two pretty good young players, and Philly, looking into the future, is going to be a good team.”

Dallas Cowboys NT Josh Brent vs New York Giants QB Eli Manning - The Boys Are Back blog

The Cowboys, too, think Brent is pretty good young player. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said the third-year player is a natural nose tackle, but athletic and can cover ground laterally.

“He’s a two-gapping nose tackle. That’s the body type,” Garrett said. “But he’s also a pretty good athlete. He can make plays from side to side. I think he’s grown every week. I think he’s taken advantage of the opportunity we’ve given him.”

Brent, a a seventh-round supplemental pick in 2010, was starting Sunday night for Jay Ratliff. He played in Ratliff’s place in the first four games of the season and recorded 15 tackles, a sack and two quarterback pressures.

But even when Ratliff came back, Brent continued to make plays. At Carolina, he had a quarterback pressure that resulted in an interception for Claiborne. At Atlanta, he split a sack with DeMarcus Ware. Against Cleveland, he broke up a pass. And on Thanksgiving, again starting for Ratliff, he had four tackles and a pressure.

“It’s a step forward always, when it’s a win,” Brent said, asked if he believes he has taken a step forward this year.

Brent came into Sunday’s game 10th on the team in tackles.

BACK IN THE SADDLE: Tony Romo makes history, Dallas Cowboys keep playoffs hope alive

Dallas Cowboys WR Dez Bryant scored twice Sunday night vs Eagles - The Boys Are Back blog

      Tony Romo knows what matters the most when it comes to the Dallas Cowboys. So while it’s nice to break Troy Aikman’s franchise record for career touchdown passes, he’s focused on getting his team to the playoffs.

      Romo threw three second-half touchdown passes to answer a strong game by Philadelphia’s rookie duo of Bryce Brown and Nick Foles, and the Cowboys sent the Eagles to their eighth straight loss with a 38-33 victory Sunday night.

      The first two scoring tosses from Romo erased seven-point deficits, including a 23-yarder to Dez Bryant that was vintage Romo and broke Aikman’s career mark of 165 TD passes. Romo scrambled to his right and threw back across the field to Bryant, who weaved through the Philadelphia defense to tie it at 17 in the third quarter.

      Romo tied it again at 24 on a throw to Miles Austin, and had one more answer after Brown and Foles led the Eagles to a go-ahead field goal. He threw deep to Bryant for 35 yards on third down, and Bryant found his way into the end zone again by taking a screen pass 6 yards just inside the pylon for a 31-27 lead with 5:40 remaining in the game.

      ”It’s about winning games,” said Romo, who was 10 of 10 in the second half and completed his last 12 passes. ”We desperately had to have this win tonight, and our team fought like heck to get a win.”

      The Eagles’ slide continued despite 169 yards rushing and two touchdowns from Brown a week after he set a team rookie record with 178 yards on the ground.

      After Romo’s go-ahead touchdown pass, Dallas went up by 11 when Morris Claiborne returned a fumble by Brown 50 yards for a touchdown.

      Dallas Cowboys vs. Philadelphia Eagles  at Cowboys Stadium 2012-2013 - The Boys Are Back blog

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          TEXAS HOLD-EM: Weeden must know when to be aggressive, conservative (RIVAL HEADLINE)

          Cleveland Browns coach Pat Shurmur - The Boys Are Back blog

          BEREA, Ohio — Cleveland Browns coach Pat Shurmur minced no words Wednesday afternoon when asked what quarterback Brandon Weeden needs to do better in these last seven games.

          "Don’t throw interceptions. Done. End of story," said Shurmur. "I want to be right to the point."

          But he still doesn’t want Weeden to lose the gunslinger mentality that he brought with him from Oklahoma State.

          "The essence of a quarterback is you have to be a good decision-maker," Shurmur said. "And you decide when it’s important to try to be aggressive with a throw and then it’s also important to then be smart with the football. I’ve looked at all of those interceptions and there are times when he could’ve made better decisions. There’s of course things that have happened where a ball bounces off a guy’s chest. So you look at all of those things. You don’t want to play anxious football, but you also have to be smart."

          He said despite Weeden’s chances, he still believes in him wholeheartedly.

          "I think he’s got a chance to be an outstanding player. I don’t think there’s any question about it," Shurmur said. "He’s got to lead us to victories and don’t throw interceptions."

          He said Weeden sees defenses well and understands concepts.

          Shurmur addressed a number of other topics in his press conference Wednesday afternoon:

          On Greg Little addressing the team on Monday about making sacrifices: "I knew he was going to do it. He called me and asked if he could talk in the first team meeting. I thought his comments were very insightful and I was glad he did it. I’ve always appreciated Greg because he’s a competitor. He’s a tough guy. He’s fun to work with because he listens."

          On Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo: "The game is never over when he’s got the ball in his hand. He’s got outstanding weapons to throw the football to. Jason Witten leads all tight ends with 66 receptions, he’s got explosive players on the outside, they run the ball well and he’s proven he can win games in this league. He makes big-time plays and that’s what makes him dangerous."

          • He said tight end Ben Watson is the honorary fourth game captain this week.

          On right tackle Mitchell Schwartz: "I expected him to be a very good player from day one because he was the starter. I’m extremely hopeful he’s going to be a good player for a long time."

          • He said Trent Richardson told him his ribs feel better after the bye week.

          On whether certain players will get more playing time after the bye-week evaluation: "Maybe yes, maybe no. Probably maybe yes."

          On Josh Cribbs: "We know what kind of an impact he has on special teams, which can’t go unnoticed. He does more than just the average punt returner and kick returner, because he’s involved in all of the coverage units and he’s an outstanding competitor in that phase and I really appreciate it."

          On Cowboys rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne: "We spent a lot of time evaluating him, had him in, he was one of the guys we talked to quite a bit. He’s an outstanding player. He plays very well in bump-and-run. He challenges all the time. A guy that challenges and is very talented has a chance to be successful."

          Courtesy: Mary Kay Cabot | The Plain Dealer

          SHORT TERM MEMORY: Morris Claiborne will see better days

          937843800

          PHILADELPHIA — Morris Claiborne remembered the last time he was penalized five times in a game: Never.

          In his last year at LSU, Claiborne was penalized just once.

          On Sunday afternoon, the Dallas Cowboys’ rookie cornerback was flagged twice for being offsides and three times for holding a wide receiver. He also gave up a touchdown, on an incredible one-handed catch by Riley Cooper in the first quarter.

          But Claiborne is a talented player who had a bad day during the Cowboys’ 38-23 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.

          "I think that I had a rough game out there and did not play my best," Claiborne said. "I got a lot of penalties called on me and I just have to learn from that. I just need to go back and get it fixed."

          When opposing teams watch tape of the rookie, they see he’s pressing receivers and not getting much deep help. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan trusts his rookie corner to make plays in the passing game, and that’s the smart thing to do.

          After Claiborne struggled Sunday, you begin to wonder if more teams will take advantage.

          The Cowboys can’t afford for Claiborne to lose confidence, and that doesn’t seem to be the case judging from his reaction in the locker room. He was joking with Brandon Carr, who picked up his first Cowboys interception and first career interception return for a touchdown, that he will end the 2012 season with more turnovers.

          "I have seen him grow on the field and as a man off the field," Carr said. "I expect big things from him his whole career."

          The word "turnovers" is a delicate one around the Cowboys these days. The conversation can quickly take a turn to focus on the word "takeover" instead.

          Ryan wants his defense to take over games, and getting turnovers will do it. This team doesn’t get enough of them, but with the season on the line the Cowboys responded with Carr’s pick and a fumble recovery for a touchdown by Jason Hatcher to close the show.

          There should have been a few more. Orlando Scandrick let two balls bounce off him that could have easily been picks.

          Dallas Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick (32) gets a finger on a Nick Foles (9) pass - The Boys Are Back blog

          At one point during Claiborne’s day, Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin screamed at the rookie as he laid on the ground after being penalized again for holding.

          After Claiborne got up, nose tackle Jay Ratliff said something to the rookie.

          It’s all love. Or tough love.

          "They were just picking me up and pushing me to just make the next play," Claiborne said. "It lifted me up and I just kept going. I just left it all out on the field. I play good angry and I knew I needed to make up for some penalties and was able to do that."

          Claiborne has to fix his issues quickly because the Cowboys have a feeling they can make a run in the second half of the season.

          It seems inexcusable to get two offsides calls as a cornerback, but Claiborne is trying to press receivers quickly and redirect their routes.

          "I got a little caught up in it," he said. "Just trying to get down and get my hands on [the receiver], and the refs said he was yelling at me, but hell I didn’t hear him."

          Three of Claiborne’s five penalties led to scores — two touchdowns and a field goal. There was another costly penalty, in which he was called for holding a receiver on the other side of the field that negated an interception by Anthony Spencer.

          "That really kind of dropped me," Claiborne said. "I can’t believe he called it."

          Claiborne isn’t going to get benched as the season enters the late stages. He’s going to get chewed out for mistakes, but the confidence is high that he will make plays.

          Dallas Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne (24) deflected a pass intended for Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson - The Boys Are Back blog

          He gets another chance to prove himself next week against the Cleveland Browns.

          "I can’t take that as me being a young corner," he said. "Because I have to go out and play. I’m out here with all these veterans and they expect me to go out there and play. The rookie stuff, all of that stuff is overblown. I don’t take it as learning, I got to go out and play if we want to be the best secondary in this league, I can’t go out and play like that.

          "You won’t see another performance like that from me."

          PENALTY PROBLEMS PERSIST: Stephen Jones – ‘Whatever we’re doing is not working’

          Dallas Cowboys penalty flags - The Boys Are Back blog

          For the fourth time this season the Cowboys committed 13 penalties in a game.

          Oddly enough, the league’s second-most penalized team improved to 3-1 in those contests with a 38-23 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.

          It’s unrealistic to expect more wins if that trend continues and Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones address that topic on Monday.

          “We’ve got to stop the penalties,” Jones said on 105.3 The Fan [KRLD-FM]. “They’re inexcusable, yet we continue to have them. They kept drives alive for the Eagles a couple of times by being offsides. That’s just unacceptable.”

          Morris Claiborne, Jason Hatcher, Josh Brent and Anthony Spencer combined to go offside six times. Claiborne was also flagged for holding twice and pass interference once. John Phillips had two false starts, Doug Free had another and Orlando Scandrick was called for holding.

          In the end, the 13 penalties cost the Cowboys 75 yards and raised their season average to 8.2 penalties per game. Only the Washington Redskins (8.3) average more penalties per game.

          While dissecting the problem, Jones said the Cowboys coaching staff has to do more to find a solution before the penalties end up costing the club a chance at the postseason.

          “I know [Garrett] wants to do more. We talked about it,” Jones said. “We addressed it after the game. He’s going to get with Rob [Ryan] and we got to do more because whatever we’re doing is not working. They pulled [Jason] Hatcher out of the game after his second consecutive offsides, but it’s got to be more than that.

          “Somehow we got to get focused. For some reason, the guys continue to make those mistakes and at some point that’s going to cost us a game that may cost us our season.”

          Here’s a game-by-game breakdown of the Cowboys’ 74 penalties this season.

          Week 1: 13 penalties for 86 yards in win at Giants.

          Week 2: 5 penalties for 47 yards in loss at Seahawks.

          Week 3: 13 penalties for 105 yards in win over Buccaneers.

          Week 4: 2 penalties for 10 yards in loss to Bears.

          Week 6: 13 penalties for 82 yards in loss at Ravens.

          Week 7: 6 penalties for 43 yards in win at Panthers.

          Week 8: 2 penalties for 10 yards in loss to Giants.

          Week 9: 7 penalties for 50 yards in loss at Atlanta.

          Week 10: 13 penalties for 75 yards in win at Eagles.

          GLASS HALF FULL: Dallas Cowboys season-saving win over Eagles

          Dallas Cowboys running back Felix Jones (28) breaks through the Philadelphia Eagles defense - The Boys Are Back blog

          The Cowboys’ season is alive, but here is what they need

          If you prefer the glass-half-full approach, then consider the following:

          Sunday’s game was quite possibly the first of four straight against rookie quarterbacks for the Dallas defense. And while Nick Foles did record his first NFL touchdown on a deep pass to a wide, wide open Jeremy Maclin, Foles also contributed directly to two Cowboys touchdowns.

          Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden, Washington’s more formidable Robert Griffin III and Foles again (if Michael Vick is not back from a second-quarter concussion) are on deck for Dallas.

          Consider this as well:

          If Dallas can simply do as the odds makers will pick them to do — that is, beat the Browns and Redskins at home over the next 10 days — New York’s division lead will be one-half game on the Cowboys the next time the Giants take the field.

          That’s almost certainly the case if the Cowboys are to entertain wild-card hopes. Even a hot Dallas team won’t catch the Chicago-Green Bay runner-up, and Seattle ran its record to 6-4 Sunday. The Seahawks, 1 1/2 games ahead of Dallas for the final wild card, also own the tiebreaker on the Cowboys’ from Week Two.

          Add to that the fact that in order to get into contention for anything — wild card or East title — the Cowboys probably need to run off four straight wins against the Eagles (twice), Browns and Redskins. Maybe you’re inspired by the fact this team won four in a row last November (before riding its first-place lead into the ground by going 1-4 down the stretch).

          Mostly, the Cowboys have to accept the fact that there’s plenty of work to do just to reach the level of respectability. And that this was the only possible way to finish the week to avoid cashing in their chips for the season as the Eagles appear to have done at 3-6.

          Cowboys rookie, in terrible game, does something right

          Rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne felt compelled to address his Cowboys teammates after playing just his ninth NFL game.

          “I won’t have another game like that,” Claiborne promised his teammates.

          Just where did that game come from? Claiborne was burned for a touchdown and was penalized five times in the game. The Eagles scored four times against the Cowboys and each drive featured either a misplay or penalty on Claiborne.

          “I never had a game like that — ever,” Claiborne said. “Anywhere.”

          The Cowboys traded up into the Top 10 of the draft last April to claim Claiborne. He was a shutdown corner, a defensive game-breaker. But on this day, his penalties were breaking the Cowboys.

          Claiborne offered no excuses for his performance. He wouldn’t even buy into the notion that this game could be a learning experience for a rookie.

          There were other compelling reasons for the Cowboys to draft Claiborne beyond his skill. He displayed them Sunday night in his postgame news conference — his strength of character and accountability. Both traits have been AWOL at times at Valley Ranch over the last decade.

          Claiborne showed himself to be a stand-up guy — and this is a locker room that needs more of those players.

          You win in the NFL with players like Morris Claiborne. Even when he has a bad day.

          Garrett shows resolve and tinkers with offense

          Jason Garrett’s trying week began with a tough loss at Atlanta that dropped the Cowboys to 3-5 amid news that suspended New Orleans coach Sean Payton’s contract would likely be voided, leaving him free to sign with any team after the season.

          Immediately, because of Payton’s ties to the Cowboys, speculation had him replacing Garrett in Dallas.

          Then, in the middle of the week, Garrett’s mentor, former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, said on The Dan Patrick Show that Garrett “is probably coaching for his job the rest of the year.”

          Johnson, who led the Cowboys to back-to-back Super Bowl wins in the 1990s, also said he believes one of the reasons the Cowboys have underachieved for more than 15 years is that there’s a “country club” culture at Valley Ranch.

          Owner Jerry Jones said, “This was a really hard week for everybody,” but praised Garrett for not letting all the outside noise affect him.

          Though Garrett’s offense was only responsible for 17 of the Cowboys’ 38 points Sunday, the coach did break from the status quo and tinkered with his offensive game plan.

          Garrett had fullback Lawrence Vickers more involved. Vickers had touched the ball only five times coming into Sunday, but he had four touches against the Eagles for 29 yards.

          Also, Garrett called undrafted receiver Cole Beasley’s number in a key situation. On third-and-2 during the Cowboys’ opening drive, Tony Romo found Beasley for a 3-yard gain to give them a first down.

          Running game and Bruce Carter star

          The Cowboys ground game won’t get much credit. But for the first time since DeMarco Murray went down with an injury, this group was effective. The Cowboys rushed for 101 yards and averaged four yards a carry after averaging 56.3 and 2.6 in the previous three. Felix Jones rushed for 71 yards and scored his touchdown with a tough, 11-yard run on a screen pass.

          Bruce Carter continues to assert himself in Sean Lee’s absence. The second-year linebacker made plays from sideline to sideline and again led the Cowboys defense in tackles with 10, two of them for losses. Carter’s speed and toughness is evident on virtually every play. Charging him with play-calling responsibilities hasn’t slowed him down one bit.

          Trash talk by analysts and Mike Holmgren as new Cowboys coach?

          Anyone dropping out of the sky to spend any given Sunday morning watching the pre-game shows would have to think the Cowboys are the most relevant team in the NFL.

          — Even before the Cincinnati Bengals embarrassed the New York Giants, 31-13, which the Cowboys followed with a 38-23 victory over Philadelphia Eagles, CBS’ Bill Cowher, once a Super Bowl savvy coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers, declared the Big Blue dead in the NFC East. Honest. Keep in mind there usually isn’t much talk in the AFC network’s studio about NFC teams not playing on CBS.

          “The Dallas Cowboys will take over the Giants,” Cowher actually said on national television. “After today, the Cowboys [have] five of their next six games at home, and the New York Giants still have to play at Atlanta, at Baltimore, Green Bay and New Orleans. So I say the Dallas Cowboys overcome the Giants and win that division.”

          — Meanwhile, Jason La Canfora, the network’s information man, cited Mike Holmgren, once a Super Bowl winning coach in Green Bay and friend of Jerry Jones, as a willing successor to Jason Garrett should a vacancy occur. But, of course, Garrett doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, especially if Cowher is correct.

          — Predictably over on Fox, Jimmy Johnson continued his offensive aimed at owner Jerry Jones.

          On Cowboys woes since he split from coaching (and general managing?) the team, Johnson said: “This is bigger than coaching,” Johnson said. “Underachievers — that’s what we’ve called them for years. The Cowboys have one playoff win in 16 years regardless of who was coaching … Players answer to Jerry Jones, not the head coach. There is no fear there … The players are put up on a pedestal before they ever win a game. As a head coach, it’s a chore to keep these players focused, keep their feet on the ground and keep them hungry because there’s no fear.”

          — At ESPN, Keyshawn Johnson picked up on Jimmy Johnson’s fear factor theory with a personal account. “I played in Dallas and I played under Bill Parcells, and I witnessed a heated exchange between [Jones] and [Parcells]. And Jerry Jones walked away from that exchange with his head down. It wasn’t pleasant at all, in front of the team. [But] everybody knew that Bill was in charge. So the players acted accordingly. And that’s not the case with Jason Garrett.”

          Claiborne, Carter youngsters on the rise for Dallas Cowboys

          Dallas Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne (24) picks off a Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton - The Boys Are Back blog

          ATLANTA — If you are young and a member of the Dallas Cowboys, chances are something bad happened to you recently.

          That is, unless your name is Morris Claiborne or Bruce Carter.

          While clouds hang over the heads of youngsters plagued by either injuries (DeMarco Murray, Sean Lee), legal/family issues (Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith) or mistake-riddled play (Bryant), life for Claiborne and Carter just keeps getting better.

          Tonight, the Cowboys need the two sons of the South to shine in the Georgia Dome.

          Claiborne, a first-round pick from LSU, and fellow cornerback Brandon Carr will be charged with slowing down Atlanta’s dynamic receiving duo of Roddy White and Julio Jones.

          Coach Jason Garrett and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan agree Claiborne seems up to the tall task after watching him record five tackles, a pass breakup and a fumble recovery in last week’s loss to the Giants.

          Claiborne is the only Dallas defender to record turnovers in back-to-back games this season. Two weeks ago, he intercepted a pass in the end zone in the win at Carolina.

          “If you look at him over the course of the season, you’ve seen him grow physically and also in his demeanor and how aggressive he’s playing,” Garrett said. “There were a couple of plays against the Giants where he’s making tackles, and he’s really consciously trying to rip the ball out.

          “The ball didn’t come out, but his mentality is that of a playmaker. And in relation to the football on the back end, that’s a real positive for us. He’s grown right before our eyes.”

          Told Claiborne’s confidence level seems to increase each game, Ryan said, “Doesn’t it jump off the tape that way? The game is really starting to slow down for Mo. And he’s just going to get better and better.”

          The same can be said of Carter, a second-year inside linebacker from North Carolina who also excelled against the Giants, notching seven tackles, a tackle for loss and one pass breakup. With Lee out, Carter also called the defensive signals.

          Dallas Cowboys linebacker Bruce Carter (54) tackles New York Giants tight end Martellus Bennett - The Boys Are Back blog

          It was a remarkable performance, considering that a year ago last week, Carter made his NFL debut after starting his rookie season in the trainer’s room rehabbing a knee injury left over from his senior year.

          “It’s a whole lot different,” said Carter, who was limited to special-teams duty against Philadelphia on Oct. 30, 2011. “Last year, I was nervous playing in my first NFL game. This year, I’m really in the mix.”

          Garrett said Carter played “particularly well” against the Giants.

          “He handled his communication role and did a good job covering and running to the ball and making hits on the ball,” Garrett said.

          New York Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw (44) is tackled by Dallas Cowboys inside linebacker Bruce Carter (54) and nose tackle Jay Ratliff - The Boys Are Back blog

          Like Claiborne, Carter has a tough matchup tonight, facing future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez.

          “It’s going to be our biggest challenge of the season,” Carter said of facing the Falcons, who average nearly 30 points a game. “But we’ve got to go in there, stick together and fight our way through.”

          Count on Claiborne and Carter swinging to the very end.

          Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, left, rushes past Dallas Cowboys dedenders Bruce Carter, second from left, and Sean Lee - The Boys Are Back blog

          WIN-WIN CONTRACT SITUATION: Dallas cornerback "in a happy spot" in the Cowboys defense

          Dallas Cowboys CB Mike Jenkins vs New York Giants - The Boys Are Back blog

          Mike Jenkins was the subject of trade rumors during the off-season after his agent requested a trade, but the trade deadline came and went Thursday, and Jenkins still is on the Dallas Cowboys’ roster. Dallas never considered trading the cornerback despite having Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne as starters and Orlando Scandrick as their nickel back.

          "We need him," executive vice president Stephen Jones said Thursday. "We need corners in case something happens. We’ve only got four corners."

          Jenkins said Thursday he kept his mind off the trade deadline.

          "I figured if it was going to happen, I would have heard something by now," Jenkins said. "So I just tried to stay focused on the week, learning what I needed to learn for this week and just going on with the Cowboys."

          Jenkins has been a team player despite his reduced role on the defense, and he said he was not disappointed that he didn’t get a chance to go somewhere to start.

          "I’m happy," Jenkins said. "The situation, I’m past that right now. I’m just happy that they’re playing me. I’m getting to play. I can’t complain. Coaches are communicating. I’m not left out of anything. So I’m pretty set. I’m good. I’m in a happy spot."

          Jenkins missed the off-season work, training camp, the preseason and the season opener while recovering from reconstructive shoulder surgery. Since then, he has played only 85 of a possible 352 defensive plays, including but six snaps against Baltimore and one against Carolina. He also has played 22 special teams plays.

          Jenkins has been targeted eight times, allowing only three receptions for 82 yards and no touchdowns, according to STATS, Inc.

          "I feel like I’ve played pretty good," Jenkins said. "As far as the situation going in, I’ve been put in all around the field, just playing safety. I feel like I’m doing pretty good. I also feel like I can do a lot better, because I missed out from the preseason, and I just came straight into the season. I know there’s a lot of room for improvement."

          Jenkins’ versatility should help him in contract negotiations next spring. He is in the final year of his rookie contract after the Cowboys made him the 25th overall pick in 2008, and he likely will seek a place where he can compete for the starting job. He has 47 career starts.

          "Hopefully, a lot of guys see that I’m flexible," Jenkins said. "They can move me around. I can play anything. I think I have enough film as far as a corner standpoint. I just want people to know they can also move me around like the Charles Woodsons, put me in situations like that, and I can guard anybody on the field. So hopefully that helps me out in the future."

          RIVAL HEADLINE: Home loss to Giants leaves Cowboys dispirited and fans disgusted

          Tony Romo got past Chase Blackburn to score - The Boys Are Back blog

          ARLINGTON, Tex. — A dramatic finish would eventually unfold, but Dallas Cowboys fans wanted instant gratification Sunday. And after Tony Romo had thrown three interceptions and Dez Bryant had fumbled away a punt, a crowd announced at 94,067 also wanted its displeasure to be heard.

          “I would have booed us, too,” Romo said. “We deserved it at that time.”

          The Cowboys’ body language matched their sluggish start as they fell behind the Giants by 23 points early in the second quarter. Still, after the Cowboys nearly overcame that deficit, and six turnovers in all, the mood among them was that they had let the Giants escape with a 29-24 victory.

          The Cowboys thought they had won with 10 seconds to play, when Romo’s heave into the end zone was hauled in by Bryant and officials signaled a touchdown. But replays showed that Bryant’s right hand landed out of bounds and the call was reversed, giving the Cowboys (3-4) a season split with the Giants (6-2) and dropping Dallas into a tie for second with the Philadelphia Eagles in the N.F.C. East.

          The Giants also remained unbeaten at Cowboys Stadium, improving to 4-0 since it opened in 2009.

          “It hurts for you to know you played your heart out,” Dallas cornerback Brandon Carr said. “We got off to a late start. We woke up late. To have the game end the way it ended and to get it taken away from you, it hurts.”

          Dallas’s defense limited Eli Manning and the Giants, even with good field position, to five field goals and a rushing touchdown, and allowed only 293 yards. The Giants’ other score was provided by their own defense.

          “The emotions were crazy,” cornerback Morris Claiborne said. “We really wanted this game. But as a unit, as a team, we didn’t do enough, we didn’t make enough plays. We didn’t go that extra mile to get the job done.”

          Romo was 36 of 62 for 437 yards, ran for one touchdown and passed for another, but also threw four interceptions. Tight end Jason Witten caught 18 passes, a team record, but with a stunning comeback seemingly in reach, Dallas derailed itself with questionable play-calling.

          The Cowboys reached the Giants’ 28-yard line with 1 minute 27 seconds to play, and on first down Romo connected with Witten for a 9-yard gain. Needing only 1 yard for another set of downs, and with all three of their timeouts remaining, Dallas called three straight pass plays, and the series ended with Romo scrambling backward before heaving a desperation pass that was intercepted by Stevie Brown.

          “We had a couple of plays called,” Romo said. “It’s dictated off coverage. They’re going to have a free guy if we run it. So you could bang it up there, but at the same time you could be wasting a play. It is what it is.”

          The Giants’ victory is certain to fuel more criticism on how much of a home-field advantage the Cowboys really enjoy at their $1.2 billion stadium. They are now 14-13 since the retractable-domed structure opened in 2009 (compared with 14-14 on the road during that time). Cowboys management even addressed the issue last week with a letter to season-ticket holders, exhorting fans to make more noise, along with a new video that was shown on third downs to “help give our Dallas Cowboys a true home-field advantage.”

          Instead, the crowd turned hostile toward the home team after Jason Pierre-Paul picked off Romo’s swing pass to running back Felix Jones and gave the Giants a 23-0 lead early in the second quarter. Romo was booed after every incompletion, and fans let Coach Jason Garrett know what they thought of his play-calling. Jerry Jones, the Cowboys’ owner, was also booed when he appeared on the video screen during a segment to promote breast cancer awareness.

          “I’m the boo-ster,” Jones said. “The fans had the same feeling I did, frustrated and mad we had dug ourselves a big hole.”

          He added: “I understand their frustration. I share their frustration.”

          NFC EAST RUNDOWN: Week #8 brings New York Giants vs. Dallas Cowboys rematch

          New-York-Giants-vs-Dallas-Cowboys rematch - The Boys Are Back blog

          Week 7 of the NFL season has concluded, having featured Eli Manning outdueling Robert Griffin III and the Cowboys crawling back to .500. Now there is a clear front-runner in the division with the other three teams battling it out for second.

          Below is a quick recap of the division records:

          New York Giants 5-2

          Philadelphia Eagles 3-3

          Dallas Cowboys 3-3

          Washington Redskins 3-4

          New York Giants:

          Every so often there will be certain games where you make your fair share of mistakes and your opponent is able to execute a number of big plays against you. The great teams react, respond and find a way to still get the victory. Over the past few years, the Giants have perfected the art of winning these types of games and last Sunday against the Redskins was no different.

          The Giants didn’t particularly play their best football against Washington. Eli Manning threw two costly interceptions, they only rushed for 64 yards and the New York defense surrendered nearly 500 total yards. But when it came down to having to make a play or leaving with a loss, the Giants were able to make a play.

          An interception by Stevie Brown in the third quarter led to an Ahmad Bradshaw touchdown to break a tie at 13. Then later in the fourth, after Robert Griffin III scored what seemed to be a game-winning touchdown with 1:27 left, Manning was able to pull off a miracle, a 77-yard touchdown pass to Victor Cruz with 19 seconds giving the Giants the win.

          Pointing out weaknesses on this Giant team is not the most difficult thing to do this season. However, finding a way to beat them has been a whole other story.

          Philadelphia Eagles

          The Eagles had a bye last weekend. At 3-3, they are entering a crucial part of their season. Will the turnover prone, let-anybody-in-the-game team show up? Or will the dangerous big-play offense accompany a relatively efficient defense?

          The Eagles will play their first game under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Juan Castillo having been fired despite a defense that was outplaying the offense.

          Dallas Cowboys:

          Did the Cowboys play their best game last Sunday against the Carolina Panthers? Probably not, but they came away with what they desperately needed, a victory. Without starting running back DeMarco Murray, Dallas’ rushing numbers were nothing special, but the commitment to the ground game seemed to take pressure off of the aerial attack.

          Tony Romo was able to avoid any costly turnovers, but the passing game still did not reach the efficiency level that many people have expected. Dez Bryant and Kevin Ogletree both dropped catchable passes at critical moments. Miles Austin, on the other hand, had a much bigger impact on the game. Austin had three big plays, one of which ended with him fumbling the ball away, and another with him in the end zone.

          But the Cowboys defense deserves a great deal of credit for the win. While they did give up almost 300 total yards to Cam Newton, they managed to hold the Panthers’ three talented running backs to a combined 48 yards. The defense also made key stops when they needed them most, which included Morris Claiborne’s first career interception, the first for the Dallas secondary this season.

          The Cowboys will likely need a better all-around effort to beat the New York Giants next week. But in a close game at Carolina, Dallas executed on a more consistent basis than its opponent, and it’s been quite a few weeks since that could be said.

          Washington Redskins:

          Last Sunday, the Redskins did what they have done all season: proved that they have a lot of fight in them. On paper, they may not be as talented as the New York Giants, but they hung in with the Super Bowl champions until the final seconds.

          RGIII had a couple of rare mistakes as the Giants’ pass-rush bothered him all game. He threw one critical interception and Jason Pierre-Paul stripped the ball from him for a lost fumble. But the rookie quarterback inspired hope when he brushed off the turnovers and played his best football at the end of the game, leading the Redskins down the field with less than two minutes to play. Griffin might have had his play of the season thus far when he kept a play alive by scrambling in the pocket for almost 12 seconds, avoiding tacklers to find a man down the field for a first down.

          Washington’s other rookie, Alfred Morris, once again ran for over 100 yards. The Redskins may not win the division, but they are certainly a threat to jeopardize other teams’ chances of taking the title every time they face them.

          Injuries:

          Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys received a few troubling injuries during their game against the Panthers. Starting center Phil Costa went down with a severe sprained ankle. The injury looked much worse live, but it will still keep him out for at least next week’s game against the Giants and perhaps longer. Sean Lee has ligament damage to his toe and is likely out for the season. DeMarco Murray is still recovering from a sprained foot. The timetable for his return is unknown, but he will probably sit out against the Giants.

          New York Giants: The Giants didn’t sustain any major injuries in their victory over the Washington Redskins. Prior to the game, they placed running back Da’Rel Scott on the short-term injury reserve, which will keep him out at least six weeks. Safety Kenny Phillips and defensive tackle Rocky Bernard are both considered to be questionable against the Cowboys this week.

          Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles had a bye last week and were fortunate enough to enter the break with all 22 starters healthy. Perhaps we will see a rejuvenated Philadelphia team coming out of their week off.  

          Washington Redskins: The team that has suffered the most from injuries in the NFC East took yet another brutal hit. Productive tight end Fred Davis tore his Achilles, ending his season. The Redskins brought back Chris Cooley to help replace him. Veteran linebacker London Fletcher also strained his hamstring and is questionable for next Sunday’s game against the Steelers. Wide Receiver Pierre Garcon still seems to be on the mend and is not expected to return next week. 

          Miscellaneous:

          • In terms of individual rushing yards, the Washington Redskins have the top two runners in the NFC East and they are both rookies. Alfred Morris is second in the league in rushing yards while Robert Griffin ranks first among quarterbacks in the NFL and is still ahead of every other NFC East running back outside of Morris. 

          • In terms of yards per game, it is hard to argue against the NFC East being the best offensive division in football. All four teams are in the top 10 in total offense, with New York at No. 2, Washington at No. 5, Philadelphia at No. 7 and Dallas at No. 10.

          • This week the New York Giants, who have the No. 3 ranked passing offense in football, will face off with the Dallas Cowboys, who have the No. 3 ranked passing defense in football.

          Week 8 Matchups:

          Atlanta Falcons @ Philadelphia Eagles

          Sunday, Oct. 28, Noon CT (FOX)

          Washington Redskins @ Pittsburgh Steelers

          Sunday, Oct. 28, 12:00 Noon CT (FOX)

          New York Giants @ Dallas Cowboys

          Sunday, Oct. 28, 3:25 CT (FOX)

          Editors Note: Check out the NFL 2012-2013 Schedule HERE

          EGGSHELL OFFENSE–BOMBSHELL DEFENSE: Dallas Cowboys leave Carolina with crucial win

          EGGSHELL OFFENSE–BOMBSHELL DEFENSE - Dallas Cowboys leave Carolina with crucial win - The Boys Are Back blog

          CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In the most pivotal sequence of the game, when the Cowboys took a late lead over the Panthers, it appeared head coach Jason Garrett was playing to not lose rather than to win.

          Ultimately, though, that’s really all Sunday was about, and Garrett’s conservative decision to settle for a late field goal turned out to be the right call. The Cowboys defense did its job twice, and the visiting Dallas Cowboys left Carolina with a win, keeping this young season out of the ditch by advancing to 3-3, far more palatable than 2-4.

          Facing a third-and-nine at the Carolina 15, Garrett elected to run the ball rather than force a pass, which the Panthers were loaded up to stop. While the call would’ve certainly been questioned had it backfired, the coach was sure it was the best decision at the time.

          “They wanted to play big-time coverage there,” Garrett said. “We wanted to preserve the opportunity there to kick that field goal. … We felt like that was a good answer against the shell coverage, three-man rush they were going to do. If they had done something else, we would’ve been in something else.

          Dan Bailey nailed the go-ahead kick from a manageable distance.

          The season has had its ups and downs, but having played just two games at home and four on the road, the Cowboys are not in an awful position. They will have to play better than they did today to win big games ahead. That starts with next week’s rematch of their season-opening upset of the defending champion Giants, now 5-2 and atop the NFC East by 1.5 games.

          If the Cowboys are to become a team with even the slightest shot at competing for a title, it’ll be through the kind of perseverance they showed Sunday. Things were less than perfect from the very beginning, when Bailey’s opening kickoff sailed out of bounds, but the defense kept the Panthers from establishing an early edge. Likewise, the Cowboys’ offense got only three first-half drives, going three-and-out once, settling for a field goal after an 18 play march another time, then losing the ball on a fumble, but the defense kept the game close.

          The Panthers struggled to run the ball all day, save for quarterback Cam Newton, and he was forced into several mistakes of his own when attempting to pass, none more damning than a second quarter interception in the end zone by Morris Claiborne, amazingly the first pick by a Cowboys defensive back this season.

          The Panthers led 7-3 at halftime, making Sunday’s game the 11th they have lost after leading through two quarters under second-year head coach Ron Rivera. Though the Panthers added another touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys had confidence in their defense to stop Newton late.

          “We trust our defense immensely,” Garrett said.

          On the Panthers’ ensuing possession, Newton appeared to extend the drive by converting a short fourth-down throw near midfield, but officials ruled Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan had signaled a timeout first. When the teams lined up again, Newton’s pass was incomplete, cornerback Morris Claiborne appearing to get away with a physical defensive play on a pass to Louis Murphy.

          The turn of events allowed the Cowboys to tack on another field goal, forcing Carolina to have to go the length of the field at the end. Though Newton appeared to have a shot on a deep ball to Brandon LaFell, the Cowboys defense prevailed.

          “We feel like we always have pressure on us, no matter what the lead is, no matter if we’re down,” Claiborne said. “We have a lot of pride in what we do to go out and try to get stops.”

          The defense will have to be at its best once again in seven days, needing a repeat of Sept. 5, when they limited Eli Manning and New York to just 17 points. They’ll need more help from the offense along the way, too, with a more sustained run game and better protection of the ball than was on display against the Panthers.

          Though this team hasn’t yet been able to sustain momentum, they continue to build reasons for hope.

          “I think each week you have to start fresh and work hard,” said Miles Austin, who was on the receiving end of the Cowboys’ only touchdown. “It’s going to be big. It’s obviously a huge week … they all are.”

          RIVAL HEADLINE: Carolina Panthers fall to the Dallas Cowboys 19-14

          RIVAL HEADLINE - Carolina Panthers fall to the Cowboys 19-14 - The Boys Are Back blog

          CHARLOTTE — The Panthers disappointing season took another bitter turn Sunday.

          Dan Bailey kicked two late field goals to give Dallas a 19-14 victory over the Panthers in Bank of America Stadium, dropping Carolina to 1-5 with a trip to Chicago looming next week.

          Trailing 16-14, the Panthers’ late attempt to drive for a winning score was thwarted twice on fourth down by the Cowboys.

          Facing a fourth-and-two at their own 39-yard line, the Panthers appeared to get the first down on a completion from Cam Newton to Greg Olsen but officials nullified the play, saying the Cowboys had called timeout before it began.

          After the timeout, Newton threw an incompletion to Louis Murphy who was hit by Dallas defender Morris Claiborne. Murphy and the Panthers thought it was pass interference but no call was made, turning the ball over to the Cowboys at the Carolina 39-yard line.

          It led to a 38-yard Bailey field goal with 53 seconds remaining.

          The Panthers got one more shot in the final 50 seconds but couldn’t get past midfield.

          Cam Newton completed 20 of 36 passes for 222 yards and one touchdown. He also led the team with 61 rushing yards.

          After a sluggish third quarter offensively, the Panthers found a spark late in the third quarter and turned it into a 75-yard drive that culminated with a two-yard touchdown run by Mike Tolbert that put the Panthers ahead 14-13 with 11:38 remaining.

          The Panthers started the drive with a no-huddle offense. Jonathan Stewart broke a 20-yard gain then Louis Murphy caught a 26-yard pass from Newton to move the Panthers to the Dallas 19-yard line.

          Two penalties against the Cowboys, an unnecessary roughness and a holding call, helped the Panthers keep the drive alive.

          The Cowboys took a 10-7 lead on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Tony Romo to Miles Austin midway through the third quarter. Romo threw a beautiful pass to the back corner of the end zone where Austin was defended by Panthers rookie Josh Norman.

          One play earlier, Austin and Romo had connected on a 36-yard pass to move the Cowboys into Carolina territory.

          Romo completed 24 of 34 passes for 227 yards and one touchdown.

          Dallas stretched its advantage to 13-7 on a 49-yard Dan Bailey field goal with 2:13 remaining in the third quarter.

          After wasting some earlier opportunities, the Panthers got a five-yard touchdown pass from Newton to Brandon LaFell with 14 seconds remaining in the second quarter to take a halftime 7-3 lead.

          The possession started with a takeaway when Thomas Davis knocked the ball free from Cowboys receiver Thomas Davis and it was recovered by linebacker Luke Kuechly, giving the Panthers possession at the Dallas 20-yard line after an illegal block penalty against Charles Godfrey.

          The Panthers squandered good field position in the first quarter, failing to score after starting their first two possessions at the 40 and 45-yard line, respectively.

          The Cowboys used a grinding 18-play, 91-yard drive to take a 3-0 early in the second quarter on a Bailey field goal. Dallas chewed up 10 minutes, 10 seconds with the possession. The Cowboys converted four third-downs on the drive before stalling at the Carolina 1-yard line.

          The Panthers finally mounted a drive of their own behind Newton’s running and throwing.

          Newton had a 24-yard scramble on third down to keep the drive alive at the Dallas 30-yard line. Two plays later, Newton kept the ball on a designed play and rumbled 21 yards to the Cowboys’ 7-yard line.

          But the drive died suddenly when Newton was intercepted in the end zone by Cowboys rookie Morris Claiborne. Newton was looking for receiver Louis Murphy in the end zone when he was hit as began his throw. The pass came up well short and Claiborne made a diving catch to end the Carolina threat.

          The Panthers were without starting middle linebacker Jon Beason and cornerback Chris Gamble, both inactive due to injuries. It was also their first game since losing Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil to a season-ending foot injury.

          Courtesy: Ron Green Jr | Charlotte Observer

          PEAKS AND VALLEYS: Dallas Cowboys lose heartbreaker but find hope, running game

          Dallas Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey (5) is consoled by tight end Jason Witten (82) after missing a 51 yard field goal that would have won the game - The Boys Are Back blog

          BALTIMORE — When Dan Bailey lined up the potential game-winning kick at M&T Bank Stadium Sunday, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones didn’t even bother to look.

          He had watched his team overcome 13 penalties for 82 yards, including four penalties for 40 yards on an 18-play, 80-yard touchdown drive just minutes earlier to get them within two points.

          A 4-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tony Romo to receiver Dez Bryant with 32 seconds to go was followed by a drop by Bryant on the 2-point conversion.

          Yet, Jones was undeterred in his faith.

          He had watched the Cowboys survive the loss of running back DeMarco Murray and defensive end Sean Lissemore to injuries, and battle at times without cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Mike Jenkins, Bryant and running back Felix Jones, who replaced Murray, because of injuries and dehydration. And yet they still battled back from an 11-point deficit.

          He had watched them overcome a Romo interception for the sixth consecutive game and an NFL record-tying 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Jacoby Jones.

          He watched Andre Holmes recover an onside kick with 30 seconds left in the game to set up the Bailey try.

          Dallas Cowboys WR Andre Holmes goes after an onside kick by Dan Bailey. The Cowboys recovered - The Boys Are Back blog

          Jones didn’t look because he had no doubt that Bailey would make it, sending the Cowboys to a seemingly season-changing victory over the Baltimore Ravens.

          Never mind that it was from 51 yards out and in front of 71,384 fans who hadn’t witnessed a home defeat since 2010. And never mind that clock management issues with Romo and coach Jason Garrett prevented the Cowboys from running another play to possibly get a closer kick for Bailey.

          Jones’ optimism proved futile when Bailey’s kick was wide left, giving the Ravens a 31-29 victory.

          "We had the play with the kicker," Jones said. "We didn’t get it done. That’s putting more than maybe we should on him. But with the wind at our backs and him kicking, I had it counted. I had no doubt he would make it. I literally looked away because I thought he would make the kick."

          It was Bailey’s first miss of the season. He was 8 for 8 before that try, including three earlier in the game from 42, 43 and 34 yards.

          "It’s not a good feeling," said Bailey, who made four game-winning field goals for the Cowboys as a rookie last season. "Everybody worked their butts off, and it came down to a kick, and it didn’t go in. I don’t know what else to say but it hurts."

          The pain of losing was felt throughout the locker room. It was their second consecutive loss as they fell to 2-3 and under .500 for the first time since last season.

          The Cowboys left Baltimore (5-1) with something they didn’t have coming into the game: a sense of pride, a sense of self-respect and a feeling of optimism for the rest of the season.

          They didn’t have any of that following the 34-18 loss to the Chicago Bears before last week’s bye.

          "I’m sick about losing this game," Jones said. "I feel good about this team. Even though we’re at 2-3, I feel good about the way we held up, stayed in there, fought. The way we did some things, executed, the way our offensive line played. There are some things I feel good about our future with, future being this year. I feel a lot more encouraged than I did after Chicago."

          Dallas rushed for 227 yards, the most ever against the Ravens. Murray had 13 carries for 95 yards before going out. Felix Jones had 18 carries for 92 yards, including a 22 yard touchdown run.

          Raven Jameel McClain tackles Dallas Cowboys RB Felix Jones - The Boys Are Back blog

          The Cowboys dominated time of possession as than ran 79 plays, which tied for the most in team history, set Nov. 12, 1978 at Green Bay, while holding the ball for more than 40 minutes.

          Coach Jason Garrett understands that fixing the penalties remains a huge issue. Dallas, however, had 13 penalties for third time this season, including a number of drive-killing pre-snap penalties that forced the Cowboys to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns on each of Bailey’s first three attempts.

          Those plays and the record kickoff return for the touchdown proved to be the difference in the game — despite clock mismanagement after the onside kick.

          The Cowboys were unable to get another play to get a little closer for Bailey. The play began with 26 seconds to go and was down to 16 seconds when Bryant caught a pass at the Baltimore 34. The Cowboys had a timeout, but they didn’t get to the line fast enough so Garrett let it run down to attempt the final missed kick with six seconds left.

          "We had guys who were trying to get off the pile and receivers needing to come back to the huddle," said Romo, who completed 225 of 36 passes for 261 yards in the game with one touchdown and one interception. "There just wasn’t enough time."

          But the Cowboys do have time to save their season and they are encouraged by their ability to fight back on Sunday — as evidenced by their converting a third-and-27 play, thanks to a litany of penalties, before Bryant’s score. A 17-yard pass to Bryant was followed by a 16-yarder to tight end Jason Witten to get the conversion.

          "I thought we fought really well through a lot of different adversities," Garrett said. "We battled. We continued to battle. Our team grew a lot in this game. At the end of the day, we have to finish the game. We have to win the game. We can learn from that. But I love how our team battle and believe we can grow from this game."

          Bryant was the last player to walk out the postgame locker room and was defiant in saying he and the Cowboys will be better going forward.

          "I feel this game has made us 10 times stronger than what we were. I know it’s something we can build off of," said Bryant, who caught a career-high 13 passes for 95 yards and two touchdowns in addition to the dropped two-pointer.

          Dez Bryant catches a touchdown pass against the Baltimore Ravens - The Boys Are Back blog

          POSTGAME ANALYSIS: Dez Bryant has best game as a pro, but time management ‘out of control’

          Dallas Cowboys RB Felix Jones scores vs Baltimore Ravens - The Boys Are Back blog

          The Dallas Cowboys had a chance to steal a victory in the final seconds but Dan Bailey’s 51-yard field-goal attempt sailed wide-left.

          Here are my five thoughts on the Cowboys’ 31-29 loss in Baltimore on Sunday.

          1.) The pre-snap penalties throughout the game and time management on the final drive was out of control. It wasn’t just the number of penalties but it’s when they occurred. In several red zone and third-down situations, false start calls stalled drives. That shouldn’t happen in Week 6. I’m not sure a team can win in a hostile environment when they’re making so many mistakes before the ball is snapped. Most of the blame goes on the players that committed the infractions but coaching and game-planning isn’t doing them any favors. Last week, Cowboys offensive line coach/offensive coordinator Bill Callahan said there was talk of simplifying the offense so Tony Romo didn’t have to do as much adjusting at the line of scrimmage. Ha! That clearly didn’t happen, especially on Dallas’ final touchdown drive. Romo barely got two plays off because of confusion at the line of scrimmage. The way the Cowboys managed the clock on their final drive prevented Bailey from having a closer attempt to win the game.

          These are four examples of costly pre-snap penalties the Cowboys committed in Baltimore.

          1-Early second quarter: Third-and-4 on Baltimore’s 12. Illegal Shift, 5-yard penalty.

          2-Early fourth quarter: First-and-10 on Baltimore’s 10. Illegal Shift, 5-yard penalty.

          3-Late fourth quarter: Third-and-1 on Dallas’ 29. Jeremy Parnell, false start, 5-yard penalty.

          4-Late fourth quarter: Third-and-22 on Baltimore’s 44. Kevin Ogletree, false start, 5-yard penalty.

          2.) Yes, the running game looked outstanding, but don’t be fooled. The Ravens aren’t the defense they once were. Fresh off of allowing the Chiefs to run for 214 yards, the Cowboys amassed 227 yards on the ground. Having Phil Costa back at center obviously helped and running behind Tyron Smith and Nate Livings on the left side continued to be Dallas’ best option. DeMarco Murray was dominant early, Felix Jones looked like a first-round pick for the first time this season and Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar each filled in nicely. Sorry, I need to see this more often to believe it was all because of what the Cowboys were doing.

          3.) Dez Bryant had a costly drop that would’ve tied the game on a two-point conversion, but he still played his best game as a Dallas Cowboy. Bryant caught all five passes thrown his way in the first half and finished with 13 catches on 15 targets. His two touchdown receptions showcased how his physical ability makes him one of the most difficult assignments for any defender. Bryant finished with 95 yards and a pair of scores after not recording a touchdown in the first four games of the year. There’s still a long way to go for Bryant to be a complete receiver, but dropping a two-point conversion pass with a defender draped on his back shouldn’t overshadow what he did before that play.

          4.) This loss wasn’t only significant because there was an opportunity to steal a game in arguably the league’s toughest road venue but because of how difficult the schedule lines up over the next four weeks. The Cowboys will not be favored in three of their next four games as they host the Giants before traveling to Atlanta and Philadelphia. Losing three of their next four would put the Cowboys at 3-6, not exactly the recipe for a playoff berth. And Dallas’ current 2-3 mark is much worse historically than had they won and been 3-2. Teams that start 3-2 have a 51 percent chance of reaching the playoffs. Teams that start 2-3 have a 21 percent chance. Not good for a team with a closing window.

          5.) My fifth thought is actually a combination of things. Hats off to Jason Witten. He has clearly put his dropped-passes issue in his rear-view mirror. Witten made two difficult grabs during the final touchdown-drive, including a diving catch on fourth-and-long. … How bad will the injury report look on Monday? Already without Anthony Spencer, Morris Claiborne exited with a left knee injury, DeMarco Murray barely played in the second half after sustaining a foot sprain and Sean Lissemore had his day ended with an ankle sprain in the first quarter. … Joe DeCamillis’ special teams unit isn’t the worst in the league but it’s also not very good. After the Cowboys cut Baltimore’s lead to 17-13, DeCamillis’ bunch allowed Jacoby Jones to return the ensuing kickoff untouched for 108-yard touchdown. The Cowboys get very little out of their own punt and kick returns, showcased by averages that rank among the NFL’s worst. They also allowed a punt to be blocked and returned for a touchdown in Seattle.

          Courtesy: Jon Machota | DMN

          ‘BOYS BYE WEEK BREAKDOWN: Dallas Cowboys defensive grades for Top 11 players

          The Dallas Cowboys vs Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Cowboys Stadium 2012 - Rob Ryan's defense comes up big - The Boys Are Back blog

          Although 11 defensive players get named as “starters” in a given week, the Dallas Cowboys have had 15 defensive players participate in at least 38 percent of the team’s snaps through Week 4. Here are the top 11. . .

          ILB Sean Lee: A

          Lee has recorded a tackle on 19.6 percent of his snaps in 2012, which is simply remarkable. In coverage, he has allowed only 5.0 yards-per-attempt.

          OLB DeMarcus Ware: A

          How high are the standards for Ware that some are arguing he’s having a down year? He’s on pace for 20 sacks. I don’t know about you, but that’s good enough for me.

          CB Brandon Carr: A-

          Carr got beat by Brandon Marshall on Monday night, but don’t panic. He allowed three catches, albeit a few big ones, but he’s still playing really well. On the season, only 42.9 percent of passes Carr’s way have been completed.

          OLB Anthony Spencer: B

          We saw Spencer’s value most on Monday night when he wasn’t playing. The player who drops into coverage more often than any 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL also has a higher pressure rate than Ware this season. As I told you in the preseason, the sacks will come. He’s still on pace for 11.

          ILB Bruce Carter: B

          Quietly, the Cowboys have one of the better inside linebacker duos in the NFL. Carter’s tackle rate of 12.4 percent isn’t at the level of Lee, but it’s still pretty darn good.

          CB Mike Jenkins: B

          Jenkins clearly has something to prove this year. You saw Rob Ryan give Jenkins some snaps at safety last week, and that should continue. It’s difficult to quantify Jenkins’ success since he’s been targeted only three times, but his coverage has been the best I’ve ever seen from him.

          NT Josh Brent: B-

          Brent has been really, really good against the run. You can see the difference in the push from the defensive line with Brent in the game as compared to Jay Ratliff. I love Ratliff’s tenacity and pass rush, but the Cowboys might be better served if they allow him to utilize it from the five-technique to allow Brent to stay at the nose.

          S Barry Church: B-

          Even though Church is out for the season, I’m putting him on the list because I really liked what I saw in the three games that he played. Opposing quarterbacks tested Church seven times, gaining just 30 total yards. I still think the Cowboys need to find a ball-hawking free safety in the draft, but Church could stick around if he recovers from his Achilles injury.

          CB Morris Claiborne: C+

          After three games in which he was barely even tested, Claiborne is finally going through some of the growing pains that rookie cornerbacks invariably experience. Claiborne has allowed 9.0 YPA on the 14 passes thrown his way this year, which isn’t a bad mark. He got schooled by Devin Hester on national television, though, so people will naturally believe he’s playing worse than what is actually the case.

          DE Jason Hatcher: C+

          After starting the season with a boom, Hatcher has cooled down over the past two weeks. He has the third-most pressures on the team behind Ware and Spencer, so I think there’s still a good chance he ends the season with five or more sacks.

          DE Tyrone Crawford: C+

          Crawford hasn’t been able to get a ton of pressure yet, but his tackle rate of 8.9 percent is good for a five-technique end. In comparison, Hatcher’s tackle rate is 6.5 percent.

          Just missed the list: DE Sean Lissemore, S Gerald Sensabaugh, OLB Victor Butler

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