Talking at an introductory press conference and actually making that a reality for your squad are two different things. It takes a determined man to call the plays and to emphasize it week in and week out.
2012 has been just the opposite for Jason Garrett.
This is where we can get in a conversation about what sort of play-calling balance leads to victory. I think the numbers demonstrate that when this team balances up their offense – both run/pass and under center/shotgun – they discover an offense that is actually quite versatile and explosive. That will be countered with the “chicken and egg” quandary of whether you win when you run or whether you run when you win.
Do the Cowboys win games when they run well? Most of the time. But, not on Sunday.
In fact, this entire conversation may ring hollow when we consider that the team lost this game on Sunday. On the other hand, it might prove that they were a few inches from a win against a team that had not lost to any NFC opponent since 2006 and had not lost any home game since 2010. They may not be the same Ravens anymore, but outcome-based analysis is always dangerous to engage in. Why did the Cowboys show so much determination to run the ball? In 36 1st down situations, they ran the ball 26 times (72%). Under Jason Garrett, that has never happened before. And the scoreboard was not affecting that decision, meaning that they were not running to kill the clock or bring home a lead. They were simply running the ball because that was what they selected off the call sheet.
The other more obvious reason that they were running the ball was that they were having early success. They kept doing it because at halftime, DeMarco Murray had 13 carries for 90 yards (6.9 per) and Felix Jones had 4 carries for 31 yards (7.8). If something is working, keep doing it.
There was only one since Bill Parcells left town (2007-) that this team ran the ball 40 times (at Indy, 2010). It was the 6th time the Cowboys have run for 200 yards in a game in these last 6 seasons. Many of those other performances were followed up with enough mediocrity that we ended up calling those big rushing days a fluke. So, before we get carried away with this notion that the Cowboys have figured something out, we better see what they do in Charlotte (the site of Tony Romo’s 1st professional start) – especially with DeMarco’s health status seemingly up in the air.
What was different on Sunday for the offensive line?
None other than the much-criticized center for the Cowboys, the undrafted youngster, Phil Costa. Costa has been both a good story and a source of consternation for the same reasons. He is a good story in that he was discovered, worked hard, and kept advancing until the Cowboys jettisoned Andre Gurode in his honor last September when they made the incredibly reckless decision to put Costa in the water to see if he could swim.
He couldn’t. In fact, the Bill Nagy/Phil Costa decisions of last September is one of the worst decisions that the front office has ever made (think about what that is saying). They even admitted as much last March when Jerry Jones took the blame and admitted that the Cowboys got “big boy-ed” because they were too weak and undersized in the interior. The major issue was that they just weren’t very strong inside, and when teams sense that you are weak on the offensive line, they make you win battles of strength by attacking at the snap and once you lose those battles often enough, then you line up in shotgun and stop trying to run the ball altogether.
So, the Cowboys went and signed two large guards – not high quality players, but certainly larger – but left center alone and in the hands of Costa. Young players require patience, especially in the offensive line where their development can take longer than other spots. But, Costa seemed like a lost cause to me.
I must admit that the Costa I saw on Sunday was the best I have ever seen. This was his first real action of the season as he missed almost all of training camp with a back issue and then played 3 plays in the Giants game before Ryan Cook was thrown into duty. We saw over 4 games that Cook had major mobility limitations and the zone blocking scheme requires a center who can move to that 2nd level and take on linebackers. We got a good look last week at what happens when your center cannot get to the LBs – lots of bad runs that are destroyed by untouched linebackers.
But, against the Ravens, we saw Costa as a force to be reckoned with. His mobility has always been fine, but his strength was his major issue. But, on Sunday, he looked like a new man. Strong, decisive, and even a bit nasty. He put players on the ground and drove linebackers out of the screen. I saw almost nothing to complain about, and a ton to be happy about. Heck, there were numerous occasions where he was laying on his man with a perfect pancake block. I didn’t know he had it in him.
Did Phil Costa find strength in the offseason? Will he be able to show us this performance again? And how much of his play made the running game instantly make sense? And if this is the start of something big, did the Cowboys patience in a young player pay off? Time will tell us plenty more soon enough.
Many will point out that the Ravens make many offenses look good on the ground, so let’s withhold judgement for now.
The above numbers are staggering. 1st down runs, 2nd down balance, and some solid work across the board. The offense left points on the field, but overall, these are the signs of winning football.
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.
Look at the throw that was picked off in the 2nd Quarter. It is nearly the exact same throw that was picked off in Seattle and in New York. I imagine this is the throw that makes everyone in the film room crazy. Throwing from outside the right hash to outside the left hash is the most dangerous throw that Romo attempts, and safeties thank him for trying it over and over again. His improvisational skills are tremendous, but part of that depends on impulse decisions. As that black line below shows, those impulses are not always sound.
In the 2nd half, we have much more red (incompletions). Also, not the yellow for the two touchdowns to Dez Bryant and the red right next to it that shows the missed 2-point conversion. That was their bread and butter.
2nd Half –
The chart below is just throws to Dez Bryant. He was a dominant weapon for most of the day, and like his #88 inspiration, Michael Irvin, most of it is from quick passes and then strength exhibitions after the catch. A strong, strong man indeed.
Drive Starters – The 1st play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan. How committed is he to the run or pass when the team comes off the sideline? We track it each week here – Look how they absolutely made a point to pound the rock on the 1st snap of nearly every play:
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.
As you can see, the situation in the game dictates the use of shotgun. The Cowboys use “Shotgun 11” as their “catch-up” mode and the more they run it, usually the worse the game is going.
Against the Ravens, we are again left to ask the questions – was this the plan all week in the game plan, or did they see what was working early and decided to follow the success with repetition?
It is no coincidence that the two best offensive performances were the games with shotgun simply a portion of the offense (30% or so) and not the majority of the offense.
Here is what we wrote last week about the absurd numbers against Chicago:
They ran just 4 plays from “12” and 3 plays out of “22” personnel. The Cowboys have seriously abandoned something that used to be what their identity because of offensive ineptitude.
Now look. 32 plays out of 12 personnel from under center. 32! For 202 yards. 20 more snaps from 21 and 13 personnel, for another 150 yards. 370+ yards from under center. This is how this team can be successful. Leave the finesse stuff in the garage.
And this proves that you don’t need to be in Shotgun on 3rd Down all of the time. Change up your tendencies. Don’t use it as a crutch. Use it as a weapon. They moved the chains 4 different times from under center on 3rd Down. That is physical football. We are running the ball right at you and let’s see you stop us.
Not finesse. Not scared. Physical, strong football.
It was a loss. There are no good losses. But, there are good things that can be discovered on bad days.
I think this offensive game-plan is the way to win. Sunday was extreme. You will not always get 200 yards or 40 running plays. But, you must show your opponent on film and in person that you are not a bunch of finesse football players. You will be happy to get in a street fight and push on them all day long.
You are happy to fire off the ball and slug them in the chops over and over. Part of this philosophy (if not all of it) is dependent on you following up those threats with actual demonstrations of strength.
But, you cannot show people how well you can run the ball if you never actually do it.
Sunday, Garrett and company flexed muscle to show us they have it inside them. Now, it needs to not be a rarity in the game-plan. With plenty more battles ahead against physical teams, this is promising news that will open up opportunities down the field.