The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cowboys beat Giants in thriller, but loss of Dez Bryant could be devastating

First and 10

Dez Bryant gets his foot tended to Sunday night. (Brandon Wade/AP Photo)


The Dallas Cowboys, in effect, chose wide receiver Dez Bryant over tailback DeMarco Murray in the offseason. They used their franchise-player tag to essentially keep Bryant off the unrestricted free agent market. Murray, without the franchise tag, exited for Philadelphia via free agency.

Now the Cowboys will have to attempt to get by in the coming weeks without Bryant as well Murray.

Bryant missed much of Sunday night’s comeback victory over the New York Giants with an injury to his right foot. The Cowboys announced following the game that Bryant has a broken bone in the foot, is expected to undergo surgery and will be sidelined for an estimated 4-6 weeks.

Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was one of the league’s most indispensable players last season. Bryant’s injury only increases the burden on him.

[Eli Manning lost the game before Tony Romo won it]

Romo was very good in crunch time Sunday, pulling out a win on a night when plenty went wrong for the Cowboys. They had three turnovers, to zero for the Giants. The Cowboys trailed, 23-13, in the fourth quarter. No matter. Romo threw a pair of late touchdown passes to tight end Jason Witten, including an 11-yarder with seven seconds to play, and the Cowboys prevailed, 27-26.

“That was a tough night as far as just a lot of things,” Romo said in a postgame interview with NBC. “We didn’t play great in a lot of areas. Obviously [protecting] the ball was the biggest one. But ultimately at the end of the day, it comes down to the final eight minutes every single week. And either you’re comfortable in those situations or you’re not. Our team strives to be very comfortable and we work at that a lot. And you’ve got to believe. You’ve just got to be comfortable and go play.”

The Giants helped out with an ill-fated play call and decision by quarterback Eli Manning in the final two minutes. They led, 23-20, and had a third-down play from the Dallas 1-yard line. The Cowboys were out of timeouts. But the Giants tried a pass instead of running the football. Manning, under pressure, threw the ball away for a clock-stopping incompletion instead of taking a sack that would have kept the clock running.

[Fantasy Football: 3 smart replacements for Dez Bryant]

The Giants kicked a field goal to up their lead to 26-20. But after failing to keep the clock running, they gave the ball back to Romo and the Cowboys with plenty of time left. The Dallas offense took the field with 1:29 to go. Even without Bryant, Romo crafted the winning drive.

“Every week in the NFL that you win, it feels great, especially when you’re down, I don’t know what, 10 [points] with not much time on the clock,” Romo told NBC. “So it’s a great win against a great opponent who played really well tonight. We’ve got to be better next week.”


1. Mariota shines in first game

Marcus Mariota’s NFL debut could not have been much better.

In what was supposed to be a duel of prized rookie quarterbacks, Mariota and the Tennessee Titans won in a runaway Sunday. Mariota completed 13 of 16 passes for 209 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions as the Titans beat Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 42-14.

Mariota joins Fran Tarkenton as the only rookies ever to have four touchdown passes in Week 1. Mariota had a perfect passer rating of 158.3, making him the first rookie ever to do that in a season-opening game with at least 14 passing attempts.

[Mariota among Week 1’s top highlights]

Remember how Winston, taken one spot ahead of Mariota with the first overall selection in this year’s NFL draft, was supposed to be the more NFL-ready quarterback after playing in a pro-style offense at Florida State? Remember how Mariota was supposed to face a significant learning curve because he needed to adjust to such seemingly ordinary things as being in a huddle and lining up under center? None of that seemed to be the case Sunday.

But leave it to Mariota to have sounded the proper note of caution.

“It’s a good start for us,” he said at his postgame news conference. “But it’s just the first game. We’ve got to continue to get better and not focus on stats.”

Robert Griffin III had a dazzling opening-day debut in New Orleans as a rookie, taken second overall in that year’s draft, for the Washington Redskins in 2012. He went on to be that season’s NFL offensive rookie of the year. That is an ever-fading memory now. He was on the inactive list Sunday as the Redskins’ third-string quarterback.

The Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton began his NFL career with a 422-yard passing performance at Arizona in 2011. He threw for 432 yards the following week against the Green Bay Packers. Newton is far from an NFL failure. But it also would be difficult to argue that he has ascended into being one of the league’s top quarterbacks. He was the NFL’s 26th-rated passer last season.

So Mariota’s NFL unveiling is to be celebrated and savored. It was memorably good. But it was only a first step, and nothing is certain about where his career goes from here. No one seems to know that better than him.

2. Perfect AFC East

Don’t look now but each of the four teams in the AFC East won its opener.

The Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and Buffalo Bills made significant moves in the offseason to attempt to close the gap on the New England Patriots.

The Jets won convincingly at home Sunday over the Cleveland Browns despite Johnny Manziel’s appearance at quarterback for the Browns. The Bills won in impressive fashion at home over the Indianapolis Colts.

The Patriots have had little trouble in the AFC East in recent years, winning six straight division titles. The last NFL teams to accomplish that were the Los Angeles Rams, Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings in the 1970s. The Patriots also have captured 12 of the past 14 division crowns.

Things might not be quite so easy this time around.

3. Colts’ issues

The Colts reached quarterback Andrew Luck’s first AFC title game last season before being overwhelmed by the Patriots in the game that produced the DeflateGate controversy. Indianapolis could not be accused of standing pat in the aftermath of that lopsided defeat, going on an offseason shopping spree that included the additions of veterans like tailback Frank Gore, wide receiver Andre Johnson, guard Todd Herremans and pass rusher Trent Cole.

The early returns were not at all promising Sunday in Buffalo as the Colts fell behind, 24-0, on their way to a 27-14 loss.

Gore was plagued by leg cramps and managed only 31 rushing yards on eight carries. Johnson had four catches for 24 yards. Top wideout T.Y. Hilton exited with what the Colts called a bruised left knee. He is scheduled to undergo an MRI exam.

Certainly it is far too early to judge whether the Colts’ offseason moves will be successful in helping Luck and the team to take the next step and be on even footing with the Patriots and other elite teams. But the opening-day transition for the team’s newcomers was far from seamless.

4. Suggs’s injury

The Baltimore Ravens provided the Patriots with their toughest competition during last season’s AFC playoffs, and they are a popular choice to be a top Super Bowl contender this season.

But things may have changed dramatically when they lost pass-rushing linebacker Terrell Suggs for the remainder of the season because of a torn Achilles’ tendon suffered in Sunday’s season-opening loss at Denver.

Suggs had 12 sacks last season as a pass-rushing complement to Elvis Dumervil, who had 17 sacks. Suggs’s absence potentially could allow opposing blockers to focus solely on Dumervil.

The Ravens must survive a tough early-season schedule that includes four more road games in the next six weeks. They must play at Pittsburgh and at Arizona during that stretch. And it certainly won’t get any easier for them without Suggs.

5. Mixed results for Manziel

Manziel put himself back into the quarterback conversation in Cleveland during the preseason after his unproductive rookie season and his offseason stay in a treatment facility.

Few expected that would translate into an opening-day appearance for Manziel. But that’s what happened when the Browns’ new starter, Josh McCown, exited Sunday’s game at the Meadowlands after suffering a concussion.

Manziel quickly produced some magic with an on-target throw to wide receiver Travis Benjamin for his first NFL touchdown pass, a 54-yard strike. But things unraveled for Manziel and the Browns from there. He committed a trio of second-half turnovers, throwing an interception and losing two fumbles, and the Browns lost, 31-10.

It was a mixed bag of a performance for Manziel, who has been plagued by a sore elbow recently and was on the shelf for a portion of the preseason. Now, with McCown subject to the league’s concussion protocol, it’s possible that the Browns will have to ready Manziel for a possible start at home this weekend against Mariota and the Titans.

6. Suh’s Dolphins debut lacks style points

The Miami Dolphins were far from dominant in their 17-10 win over the Redskins in their opener Sunday at FedEx Field. In a season of high hopes boosted by the offseason signing of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to a mega-deal, more was expected from the Dolphins in terms of style points.

But they weren’t complaining.

“It was great,” Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said afterward in the visitor’s locker room. “In a win, you don’t ever say happy or unhappy. You’re happy. You take it.”

Players echoed those sentiments.

“It’s tough to win a football game on the road in the NFL,” Suh said. “At the end of the day, if you get a win on the road, then you’re doing something good. We obviously want to play better than we did, have a better start, have a quicker start, faster start, things of that nature.”

Said second-year wide receiver Jarvis Landry: “It’s tough in the NFL to go on the road and win games. … I credit this whole team and this coaching staff for coming on the road and doing that.”

Suh didn’t have a sack and was credited with only two tackles in his Dolphins debut after being signed to a six-year, $114 million contract in free agency.

“I’ve obviously played at FedEx Field before,” Suh said. “To me, obviously it’s great to be able to wear the uniform of the Miami Dolphins and we’ll just kind of go from there. For me, there was no jitters or nothing.”

Suh was involved in a pair of plays that drew the notice of some media members and other observers, given his history of being punished by the NFL for his on-field behavior. He stepped near the head of Redskins tailback Alfred Morris following one play, knocking off Morris’s helmet. He also twisted the helmet of Redskins right tackle Morgan Moses while Moses was blocking him during a play. Moses left the field after appearing to have been poked in the eye.

Suh said following the game that he did not recall either play.

“I tackled him plenty of times during the game,” he said of Morris. “So, no, I’m not really sure what you’re speaking of.”

Of the play involving Moses, Suh said: “I don’t know. The only guy that I saw got poked in the eye was my guy [Dolphins defensive end Derrick] Shelby.”

The NFL announced Monday it has reviewed the Suh-Morris play and has determined that it will not take disciplinary action against Suh. According to NFL spokesman Michael Signora, while “there was contact between the players, Suh’s action was not deemed a kick.”

Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw for 226 yards and a touchdown but Miami managed only 10 points of offense.

“We didn’t come out and execute well in the first half,” Tannehill said. “I don’t know how many plays we ran but it wasn’t very many. We had our chances. We got into third-and-short, fourth-and-short, and didn’t convert. Those are the ones you have to make count over the course of the game. But we fought through that.”

Landry had eight receptions for 53 yards and made the game’s biggest play on special teams, returning a punt 69 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. He said he’d been told all week to be ready to return punts if needed, but wasn’t informed by special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi until “right before the game” that he indeed would have those duties.

“I had knowledge that I’ll have a slight role in special teams in the punt return game,” Landry said. “Coach Rizzi gave me the green light and I went out there and made a few plays.”

The Dolphins didn’t exactly resemble the AFC contender they hope to be. But they did emerge with a record of 1-0. And that, they said, is what mattered.

“I think everybody had great expectations,” Ross said in the locker room. “I think we played a little sloppy. But I think when [it’s] your first game, away — a win is a win, man. It’s a hard thing to do.”

7. Good and bad for Pats

The Patriots’ performance in their 28-21 triumph over the Steelers in the NFL’s season-opening game Thursday night largely was overshadowed by the malfunction of Pittsburgh’s coach-to-coach communication system in the first half.

There was good and bad in what the Patriots did. There were issues on defense, as the Steelers were able to move the football both on the ground and through the air. New England’s rush defense seemed to miss its longtime anchor, departed defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. The Patriots’ secondary was not the same without cornerback Darrelle Revis, who left via free agency in the offseason.

But teams are able to win in today’s NFL without an overpowering defense, and the Patriots were efficient on offense. Tom Brady wasn’t sharp during the preseason. A four-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback should not be judged, of course, on meaningless exhibition games. But it did leave room to wonder how much the time and attention he’d devoted to the effort to overturn his four-game DeflateGate suspension affected Brady’s preparations for the season.

Brady’s play Thursday night certainly was unburdened, as he threw four touchdown passes and had 19 straight completions at one point.

“I thought our guys played hard,” Brady said Thursday night. “Obviously, there were a lot of things we could do better. So we’re going to get back to work. We’ve got 10 days before we go up to Buffalo [this coming Sunday] and that’s always a tough place to play. So we’ve got a lot of studying ahead and hopefully we’ll get a little rest this weekend and get back to work.”

As long as the Patriots have Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski in the lineup, they will be a threat to be among the final teams left playing in any season. The Steelers simply could not match up with Gronkowski, who had three touchdown catches. Brady’s other touchdown went to another tight end, Scott Chandler.

“They’re tough matchups down there because obviously their size and their ability to get open in one-on-one coverage,” Brady said. “So if you want to play zone, we have a lot of options. And when it’s one on one, you’ve got such big targets. … They’re big. They’re tough. They’re physical. Hopefully we can keep going. Four of four in the red area is a good place to start.”

8. League of suspicion

The NFL cleared the Patriots of any wrongdoing in the communications-system failure Thursday. But the mini-uproar over the episode, fueled when Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said following the game that such failures “always” happen when playing at New England, reinforced that it is a league of suspicion and paranoia, particularly when one team is involved.

The Patriots have been punished twice by the league for competitive violations in the Spygate and DeflateGate cases. But they’re not the only team to have been punished for violations of the competitive rules. It only seems that way.

The league acted against the Browns and Atlanta Falcons during the offseason. The Falcons were found guilty of using artificial crowd noise at home games. Browns General Manager Ray Farmer violated a rule against in-game texting to the sideline.

The football-watching public outside those cities barely noticed. If the Patriots had committed either infraction, the debate undoubtedly would have raged on for years.

Here’s an excerpt from a November 2007 story that we wrote on the subject amid Spygate:

Current and former members of the league’s competition committee, the NFL’s primary rule-making body, say the committee spends time every offseason discussing issues related to charges of suspicious activities by certain teams during games. “We talk about it every year,” said Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome, a member of the committee.
According to others on the committee, those discussions in recent years have included allegations that teams were putting microphones on defensive players to record the audibles of opposing quarterbacks. That led to a rule that any player wearing a microphone during a game had to report it to the officials.
There were discussions about the work of a clock operator in at least one stadium perhaps favoring the home team, leading to the league taking over the appointment of the clock operators. There were discussions about charges of teams doctoring game footballs by placing them in dryers to heat them or vises to compress them. That led to a special ball being introduced for kicking situations and to last season’s rule that each team could supply the footballs that it would use on offense.

Giants co-owner John Mara, a member of the competition committee, said in that story: “I think those suspicions have been in existence for a number of years now, and no one ever had any proof. Now it’s getting more attention. I do think some things go on. I don’t think it’s a lot. I don’t think videotaping goes on anymore. It probably did before. A lot of people talked about it. The crowd noise being piped into domed stadiums, I don’t know. A lot of people claim it happens in certain places. It’s never been proven. That’s a hard one to prove. The bottom line is, the team with the better players and better coaching generally wins the game.”

9. Goodell’s record in court

The football-watching public barely noticed, but the NFL managed a victory in court last week.

The collusion lawsuit by the NFL Players Association, alleging that the league and owners improperly operated with a secret salary cap during the sport’s uncapped year in 2010, was dismissed by a federal judge. The case previously had been dismissed and then reinstated by a federal appeals court.

The dismissal of the collusion case, on the heels of the NFLPA’s triumph in federal court in getting Brady’s suspension overturned, illustrates why there is so much clamoring by outside observers for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to be ousted while little such sentiment seems to exist among those who employ him, the owners.

The collusion case potentially was worth billions of dollars. The union had estimated that the alleged secret salary cap had cost players $1 billion or more, which it said could have resulted in total damages of more than $3 billion under the terms of the sport’s collective bargaining agreement.

Some observers have maintained that Goodell and the league prevailed on the financial terms of the last labor deal. Former NFL player Sean Gilbert, who unsuccessfully challenged DeMaurice Smith for the union’s executive director job, was so convinced of the owner-friendliness of the labor deal that he wrote a book titled, “The $29 Million Tip,” referring to Goodell’s salary at the time. Gilbert said during his NFLPA candidacy that the CBA will end up transferring $10 billion from players to owners.

Goodell’s triumphs have come in areas directly affecting how much money the owners make. The league’s string of defeats as the union has contested disciplinary measures taken against players by Goodell and the NFL has been high-profile, but it has not had a direct effect on the bottom line for the league and the owners.

The owners appear ready to make changes to the disciplinary system. According to people familiar with the situation, the owners are prepared to discuss changing Goodell’s role in the disciplinary process and are ready to negotiate changes to the disciplinary system with the union in hopes of striking a deal by the end of the season. It appears the owners would like to extend the CBA, which currently runs through 2020, as part of that negotiation.

But even if Goodell’s role in the disciplinary process is reduced, his job apparently remains secure at this point in the minds of the owners.

10. Hoyer vs. Mallett, continued

Coach Bill O’Brien picked free-agent newcomer Brian Hoyer as the Houston Texans’ starter at quarterback entering the season ahead of Ryan Mallett.

It didn’t take O’Brien long to reconsider. He sat down a struggling Hoyer and went to Mallett late in Sunday’s 27-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Mallett led the Texans on a pair of late scoring drives, one touchdown and one field goal, and O’Brien declined to say after the game which quarterback is now his starter.

Hoyer kept the Browns in contention for much of last season before Cleveland gave Manziel a chance as the starter. Hoyer’s grip in the starting job in Houston appears to be even less secure.