If this is the season the Dallas Cowboys finally change their bad-to-mediocre fortunes of late and become real winners again, then they got started off right with a tide-turning and possibly image-altering performance in a 36-31 season-opening victory against the New York Giants.
Certainly, if Sunday night was any indication, it won’t come easy and it will be a struggle all the way.
Not only did the Cowboys nearly blow a 27-10 lead before staving off a Giants comeback to secure the victory, but they also had to sweat out a first-half injury to quarterback Tony Romo and a fourth-quarter injury to receiver Dez Bryant.
Both returned to the game and were on hand to celebrate the Cowboys’ first-ever win against the rival Giants at AT&T Stadium. They had lost four straight since the $1.2 billion facility opened in 2009.
What likely had the Cowboys and the 85,348 fans most excited was the greedy play of a defense that played without tackle Jay Ratliff and defensive end Anthony Spencer.
The Cowboys forced six turnovers, capped by a 49-yard interception return by cornerback Brandon Carr to ice the game with 1:50 left in the fourth quarter. The Cowboys had three interceptions and three forced fumbles, including turnovers on the first two possessions of the game.
“Turnovers were the story of the game,” coach Jason Garrett said. “It’s been a huge emphasis from minute one. It’s good to see taking from the practice field to the first game of the season. Taking the the ball away is the No. 1 ingredient to winning games in this league. It has been for 100 years. It’s been a huge emphasis in practice. It’s infectious. It’s contagious.”
Defensive end DeMarcus Ware got things started with an interception on the first play of the game. Safety Will Allen had the other interception. Safety Barry Church had a forced fumble and also returned a fumble 27 yards for a touchdown. Rookie linebacker DeVonte Holloman recovered a muffed punt.
It was the most turnovers by a Cowboys defense since 2003 and matched the most given up by the Giants in 25 years.
And while the unit had its moments in allowing Giants quarterback Eli Manning to pass for 450 yards and four touchdowns to go along with three interceptions, the wave of turnovers was certain evidence that the firing of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and the hiring of Monte Kiffin in the off-season was taking hold.
The Cowboys forced 16 turnovers in just 16 games last season.
“Kiff is fantastic,” Garrett said. “He is one of the best coaches ever in this league. He has had a huge emphasis on our team in the short time he has been here. Made a huge impact on the game tonight.”
Also key to the Cowboys’ hopes of ending a three-year playoff-less streak and making a postseason run in 2013 will be the play of Romo, who signed a six-year, $108 million contract extension in the off-season.
He wasn’t spectacular, especially early on, when the Cowboys couldn’t take advantage of the early turnovers and repeatedly bogged down in the red zone.
But Romo again showed his toughness by returning in the second half after suffering a rib injury and getting the wind knocked out of him late in the second quarter.
Romo also proved to be efficient, completing 36 of 49 passes for 263 yards and touchdowns of 15 and 4 yards to tight end Jason Witten.
“You got to be out there to play,” Romo said of his injury. “I’m going to be fine. Mine’s not anything crazy.”
He will undergo X-rays today.
Romo said the offense was limited by the Giants’ defense that was bent on limiting the big play. He focused on playing mistake-free and just taking the underneath routes the Giants were giving. Miles Austin led the way with 10 catches for 72 yards. Witten had eight catches for 70 yards.
“As a quarterback you want to attack,” Romo said. “You had to throw it in front of them and accept what the defense has given you. We did a good job and it produced a win.”
Romo’s only mistake was a first-quarter interception that was caused by rookie receiver Terrance Williams running the wrong route, allowing safety Ryan Mundy to pick it off and return it 91 yards.
Running back DeMarco Murray, who had 86 yards on 20 carries and caught eight passes for 39 yards, arguably made the play of the game by hustling to make the tackle at the 1-yard line.
The Cowboys’ defense forced a field goal on the ensuing Giants drive.
“We always talk about finishing the play on defense,” Garrett said. “That applies to everybody. That was a big play in the game to hold them to a field goal. The defense did a great job. That doesn’t happen if DeMarco doesn’t make that play.”
Owner Jerry Jones was ecstatic to get the season-opening win and get back ownership of his building again. He said the addition of Kiffin and the move to change the name of the stadium from Cowboys Stadium to AT&T Stadium made the difference. He added that if Kiffin continues to produce turnovers he might get a statue out front like Tom Landry.
“I’m going to do whatever it takes to beat these Giants,” a giddy Jones said. “I changed the name of the stadium, so we’ll do whatever comes up next to get that done, but Kiffin’s a good place to start right out there with him. We’ve got a pretty fine coach with a statue out there. He might can be right in the same vein.”