Cowboys playing with fire to throw deep
NOV 20, 2012 8:16a ET
We know that this team has the fewest 10 play drives in the NFL. Of the Cowboys 112 drives, only 11 have lasted 10 plays. That is lower than every team in the league, with the league average at 17 and the league leaders up at 25 (New England).
This statistic doesn't go well with the previous one, but the Cowboys also have the worst starting field position in the league following kickoffs. In fact, they are the only team in football that doesn't at least average the 20 yard line after kickoffs (19.8). That stat is amazing, and if you always have long fields and cannot string long drives together, that is a horrid combination.
Other horrible characteristics of a 5-5 team include being 2nd only to Washington in "Penalties Accepted Against". Washington has been called for 88, Dallas 83, and the league average is at 64. What is worse? Dallas has actually been called for 97 penalties, while Washington has been called for just 95. So, if you count those flags that have been declined by the opponent, the Cowboys are the worst in the league.
Another statistic that is tracked in the league that Dallas does poorly in is rush percentage. This statistic tracks your run play percentages and it gives us a look at which teams are able to run the football and which are not. Of course, as a game develops, score can often dictate play-calling, and in the end, this stat doesn't always paint a full picture. But, 3 of the top 4 running teams are Seattle, San Francisco, and Houston - also 3 of the top 4 teams in performance this year. Washington and Kansas City also run the ball a ton, too.
Fewest runs? Oakland, Detroit, Arizona, New Orleans, and Dallas. The Cowboys have run the ball 233 times this season in 661 plays for a run/pass ratio of 35/65. Seattle is #1 at 55/45 run/pass on the year, and that hardly surprises anyone.
And the Cowboys are 32nd in average yards per run. 3.57 is 32nd of 32, which verifies the decision making in a league where the average run is 4.21 and the league leaders are at 5.48 (San Francisco).
So, they seldom run the ball, and when they do, they run it for the shortest gains (and often pick up penalties). So, if you ever wanted to understand why this offensive line is thought of as being absolutely sub-par, there it is.
Then, in pass protection, evidence is a bit more difficult to confirm, because as I have written a number of times, a coach can tailor his offense around poor pass protection. It is a choice he must make to coach to avoid sacks or coach to push the ball down the field. If he calls short passes, there will be almost no sacks because those routes take less than 2 seconds. But, if a route is down the field, he needs pass protection which then can lead to sacks.
And that is why I think we have seen a change in attack from Jason Garrett and Tony Romo. Whether they maintain this stance on Thursday will be telling, but I believe that the two decided (likely after the Atlanta game) that they must risk the QB's health and OL's pass protection skills and begin taking more shots down the field.
The conclusion must be that their offense was just not creating any plays because they were being so careful and avoiding risk (See: Garrett Risk Aversion theory). They weren't running the ball without DeMarco Murray and they weren't getting anything but short passes to protect the QB. So, they were trying shallow routes, but the defense was sitting on these short routes (since they scout Dallas) and this led to smaller windows and the chance for more interceptions.
There was only one chance this team had to make the playoffs: Scrap the caution in the passing game. At least until Murray could return and possibly restore balance, they would have to do 2 things. 1) stop trying to have balance and 2) start throwing the ball down the field more and back off the secondary.
Throw the ball down the field. Test the pass protection. Take some hits. And ask Romo to make things up on the fly and win the game himself. One mistake might be too many, but they clearly decided that nothing else was working.
Murray has been out since the Baltimore game and I hesitate to call him a savior of any sort. It was my belief that he was losing confidence quickly after the horrible experience in the Tampa Bay and Chicago games that included an absurd 18 negative runs in 29 carries. And as you may recall, he tore up the Ravens defense early but then has been lost since halftime of that game back on October 14th and the Cowboys haven't seen him since.
After that, they played Carolina, New York, and Atlanta and the offense never looked strong. But, in the Atlanta and New York games, they did find some small success when they scrapped their balanced offensive philosophy (under center/shotgun and run/pass) and just went into their full 2-minute drill offense. It was a small sample, but I believe it led to this conclusion.
In the 5 games since Murray has been missing, the Cowboys have gradually thrown caution to the wind and despite the fact that it is not fundamentally sound, have become more and more interested in a straight shotgun offense.
The results? In 146 snaps in "Shotgun 11" personnel, they have gained 965 yards, or 6.61 yards per snap. In the 178 other snaps since Murray has been gone, they have gained 759 yards, or 4.26 yards per snap. Knowing the league average for yards per play is 5.44, you can see how telling these stats truly are.
In the 5 games, their S11 has averaged 6.3, 6.3, 10.1, 5.3, and 5.2. Meanwhile, every other package combined has averaged 4.4, 4.3, 3.4, 5.6, and 2.5. That is right. 2.5 yards per play in 29 snaps against Cleveland for everything that was not S11.
It is not efficient. It is not challenging for the defense at all to defend. It invites more blitzes and more pressure on Tony Romo. It doesn't stress the safeties at all. It is not smart football. It may get your QB hurt. I would advise strongly against it, and more importantly, I am guessing any coach would think it was a really bad idea.
It is all they have right now that is working. Their under-center offense against Cleveland (see below) was an abomination.
Garrett and Romo are likely discussing today if they should proceed down this path. The Cowboys threw more deep passes on Sunday than in any other game this year, but their QB took a beating. Was it worth it? And can they continue to play with this fire?
They might tell each-other that this is just until DeMarco can return next week (hopefully). But, they also have to stay alive so his return actually matters.
They are clearly playing with fire, but I honestly am not sure they have a choice.
Data from Week 10 vs Cleveland
|Starting Field Position||D 26|
|1st Down Run-Pass||11-25|
|2nd Down Avg Distance to Go||8.38|
|2nd Down Run-Pass||5-21|
|3rd Down Avg Distance to Go||7.5|
|3rd Down Run-Pass||4-10|
|3rd Down Conversions||4-14, 29%|
Here are the passing charts to see what was being accomplished on Sunday.
Blue is a completion. Red is incomplete. Yellow is a touchdown, and Black is an interception. The passes are lines from where Romo released the pass to where the pass was caught. This shows you his release point and where he likes to throw when he slides in the pocket.
Notice all of the downfield throws. This has been missing for weeks. And each throw of that distance requires Romo to take a hit or two.
1st Half -
The 2nd half chart shows more deep shots, including the two deep throws they hit on to Dez Bryant.
2nd Half and Overtime -
Here is a chart dedicated to the day that Dez Bryant had. It appears he is now the focal point of this new initiative. Take risks to allow Dez to take over the game. And on Sunday, he did.
Dez Bryant -
Wk 1-At New York: 9 Drives - 5 Run/4 Pass
Wk 2-At Seattle: 9 Drives - 3 Run/6 Pass
Wk 3-Tampa Bay: 13 Drives - 7 Run/6 Pass
Wk 4-Chicago: 11 Drives - 3 Run/8 Pass
Wk 5-At Baltimore: 10 Drives - 8 Run/2 Pass
Wk 6-At Carolina 10 Drives - 6 Run/4 Pass
Wk 7-New York: 14 Drives - 4 Run/10 Pass
Wk 8-At Atlanta: 9 Drives - 4 Run/5 Pass
Wk 9-At Philadelphia: 10 Drives - 6 Run/4 Pass
Wk 10-Cleveland: 13 Drives - 5 Run/8 Pass
Season: 108 Drives* 51 Run/57 Pass - 47% Run
* This statistic doesn't count the 1-play kneel down drives (there are 4 so far this year).
2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run/102 Pass 44% Run
Shotgun snaps are fine on 3rd Down and in the 2 minute drill. But, we track this stat from week to week to make sure the Cowboys aren't getting too lazy in using it. They are not efficient enough to run it as their base, and with a 15%/85% run/pass split across the league, there is no way the defense respects your running game. When shotgun totals are high, the Cowboys are generally behind, scared of their offensive line, or frustrated. High Shotgun numbers are not this team's calling card for success.
Balance? What balance? I have never seen 68% before. That is insanely high. Like June Jones high.
Wk 1 - NYG: 15/54 27.7%
Wk 2 - Sea: 29/56 52%
Wk 3 - TB: 34/63 54%
Wk 4 - Chi: 50/68 74%
Wk 5 - Balt: 19/79 24%
Wk 6 - Car: 22/64 34%
Wk 7 - NYG: 48/83 58%
Wk 8 - Atl: 29/54 54%
Wk 9 - Phil: 17/54 31%
Wk 10 - Cle: 52/76 68%
2012 Season Total: 325/651 50%
2011 Total - 445/1012 43.9%
Here is the breakdown by groupings:
Before you study the data below, I would recommend that if the numbers for the groupings are unfamiliar, that you spend some time reading a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groupings here.
Totals by Personnel Groups:
And the numbers below explain the mess. The Cowboys tried 24 plays from under center on Sunday and gained a pathetic 48 yards. This is as bad as it gets.
If you want to know why they just scrapped their playbook, look no further than that.
* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.
Totals by Personnel Groups on 3rd/4th Down:
Their performance on 3rd Down was flat-out awful. 14 plays for 20 yards is ridiculous. I think we should see that Cleveland was bringing pressure and running more stunts on this money down and causing the Cowboys all sorts of stress. Even with their efficiency out of shotgun, they still need to stay out of 3rd Down and do their damage on 1st and 2nd Down. Because 3rd Down is not kind to them right now.
It is as out of balance and counter-intuitive as I have ever seen. It basically tells us what we already know: The Cowboys offensive line and the injury to DeMarco Murray has made them toss everything in the trash as they simply go to a survival mode.
I really doubt it can work for long, but if they can somehow get the next two home games against mediocre teams, maybe they can try to play fundamentally sound football in the final month. I am not sure I have ever seen this Cowboys offense in a more ridiculous state of desperation than they are right now. I highly doubt they (Jerry) will ever marginalize the importance of an offensive line again - but they are learning their lessons now.
In the meantime, at some point, they (Garrett and Romo) had to get honest with themselves. This team has to try something unconventional to survive through this stretch. Nothing else was close to working.
This is not a great option, but it might be the only one. All Shotgun, all the time. No complicated personnel switches and no play action. Why? Because run fakes don't work unless you have run success. This whole plan is one big Hail Mary that the next hit on Romo isn't his last of the year.
Just hold your breath that they don't get burned.
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