Tony Romo showed rust. DeMarco Murray coughed up a fumble early that was returned for a touchdown. The defense had trouble keeping Vernon Davis out of the end zone and containing rookie running back Carlos Hyde in his NFL debut.
They trailed 28-3 at one point in the second half and only a couple of late touchdowns made the scoreboard look somewhat respectable for the Dallas Cowboys in their 28-17 season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
That appeared to signal that a disappointing season loomed ahead for the Cowboys, with a lame-duck coach and uninspired fan base that let opposing fans take over AT&T Stadium.
“We played horrible that game,” wide receiver Cole Beasley said. “It was terrible.”
Romo even admitted having some doubts after that game. He had gone through a limited training camp and played like a quarterback coming off a second back surgery.
Everybody, it seemed, was ready to write off the Cowboys for 2014. Sure, it was only one game, but the Cowboys weren’t getting the benefit of the doubt after three consecutive 8-8 seasons.
But one person within the organization viewed it differently. He saw something nobody else saw and, maybe, he was being overly optimistic about his team’s chances, considering he entered the season squarely on the hot seat.
“I’m the only guy around that I know who felt good after the San Francisco game,” coach Jason Garrett said. “When I watched that game in detail — and I told our team this — I said, ‘That game told me what we were capable of doing. But it also told me what we had to do as a football team.’
“They beat us handily, but we also did some positive things. We did a good job on defense, slowing them down. We ran the ball fairly well against a good defensive team. To me, if you get in there and you say, ‘Let’s take these plays away. Let’s not play that way to give good teams these kinds of opportunities. Let’s go play this way. Let’s defend the run. Let’s run the ball. Let’s take advantage of some opportunities in the passing game when we get some favorable looks to throw it. That’s the kind of team we can be.’
“I expressed that to our staff after the game. I expressed that to our team.”
The most important postgame conversation Garrett had was with Romo.
Romo had one of his worst days, completing 23 of 37 passes for 281 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. His 60.8 passer rating ranked as his worst since the season-ending loss at Washington in 2012.
“Playing in the first game of the year, I felt maybe I wasn’t as good as I once was,” Romo said. “That was tough. I didn’t physically feel right. Since then, with the stuff that I’ve done, it’s been great to see all the stuff technically that I’ve worked at came back when the physical stuff did.
“Then you just keep trying to get better. It’s been a really good year.”
All it took was Romo taking Wednesdays off and receiving pain-reducing injections before most games. It has paid off for Romo, who has responded by playing the best football of his career and leading the Cowboys to an NFC East title.
Romo reiterated last week the meeting with Garrett helped, saying, “It was just great to hear from the head coach that he felt very comfortable with what was going to happen going forward.”
That steadying approach served Garrett and the team well.
Most teams use wins as turning points in the season such as the Cowboys overcoming a 21-point deficit in St. Louis in Week 3, or knocking off the defending champion Seahawks in Seattle in Week 6.
But Garrett’s message resonated with the team that week and ended up setting the tone for a surprisingly successful season to date.
Romo and Murray have gone on to have MVP-type seasons. The defense has flourished despite having the makings of a ragtag group. Young players such as safety J.J. Wilcox and defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford are coming into their own, and afterthoughts such as linebacker Rolando McClain and defensive end Jeremy Mincey are playing at higher-than-anticipated levels.
“The defense has grown night and day,” safety Barry Church said. “We’ve jelled and learned how to play off the strengths and weaknesses of one another.”
In the end, it’s culminated in a division title and postseason berth, an opportunity they know doesn’t come along too often.
The Cowboys aren’t overlooking the Washington Redskins on Sunday, deciding to play their healthy starters. The team wants to keep the winning ways and momentum going in their direction, feeling it sets them up best for a longer postseason run.
After all, nobody is ready to call this a successful season yet.
“We’re not content to just get in,” cornerback Brandon Carr said. “We want to win this thing. We’ve gone through rough patches in our season, like the season opener, but every team goes through things like that.
“It’s the character that comes out if you can get through it and survive it. We have, and now we’ve got to keep the momentum going down the stretch. That’s what we plan to do.”
Drew Davison, 817-390-7760