A few quick facts about the Cowboys offense in 2010 - not opinions, but facts:
* Nobody in the NFL runs fewer times on 1st Down than the Cowboys (38.7 - NFL Average 52.9)
* Only 2 teams in the NFL run fewer in the 1st Half than the Cowboys (33.8 - NFL Average 42.9)
* Nobody in the NFL runs fewer times overall than the Cowboys (33.6 - NFL Average 42.7)
If you were reading this about another team, wouldn't you think they need to draft some players who would help you run the ball in the next draft? A running back? Some offensive linemen? Of course, you would.
Well, this week, they play a team that doesn't allow a running game to get going historically. But, you are also coming off a game where your offensive line could not pass protect against the Titans (6 sacks) and the last time you went to the Metrodome, you could not pass protect either (6 sacks). With the noise in that building like it can be, do you really want to throw the ball 50 times again?
Marc Colombo played the worst game of his career last January in Minneapolis in many observer's opinion. I bet those same observers would suggest that last Sunday was his 2nd worst. Leonard Davis was horrendous against Jason Jones last Sunday as well.
The selection of this week's game plan is most vital for the coaching staff as they go against one of the most elite defenses in football. They are not a good defense. When they are playing as they can, they are a great defense. Health is a bit of an issue with them as well, but there is no stopping the Minnesota front 7. The Vikings are not in a great place right now at 1-3, but I submit that the defense has almost nothing to do with their struggles.
1) - Win 3rd Down - There is no mystery here as to one of the main objectives with the Cowboys. Tony Romo has seen his productivity on 3rd Down shoot up in the last few weeks, and we will need much more of that in Minnesota. 3rd Down has been great for Miles Austin (Romo's QB Rating to Austin is 152.1) and not great at all to Jason Witten (Romo's QB Rating to Witten on 3rd Down is 8.9). In this game in this stadium, precision is very important. This starts with making sure you have manageable 3rd Downs, and that starts with not throwing incomplete passes on 1st and 2nd Down. Add to all of that the strength of the Vikings defense is their ability to get off the field on 3rd Down.
2) - Offensive Line Needs to Step Up - This is simple. They were the single biggest reason why this team lost 34-3 to the Vikings in the playoffs. They are the single biggest reason they lost last week to Tennessee. The Right Guard and Right Tackle are all ready being sized up for potential replacements in the off-season if they do not demonstrate that they can still handle the job. If Ray Edwards, Kevin Williams, Pat Williams and Jared Allen eat them for dinner, the Cowboys season will be all but dead already. This is a severe test of their manhood and reputation. The great news is that they stepped up big time the last time we said this in Houston. But, why are we back here again so soon? Because the Offensive Line could not deal with the largely anonymous Titans Defensive front. One trend to watch is the following: We all realize that Colombo and Davis were not great in pass protection on Sunday, but why do the Cowboys no longer run the ball to the right? Let's watch this trend and see if it continues. Most of the big runs have all been to the left. The good news is Doug Free looks like a keeper. The bad news is there are many other holes in this dike.
3) - Romo Needs to Be the Best QB on the Field - In the game in January, Romo was so badly beaten up that by the 2nd half, you could tell that he was hearing footsteps and dumping the ball off quickly to running backs and tight ends rather than waiting for guys to get open down the field in the secondary. This, of course, makes everything more difficult because the pressure will just increase when you show you are a bit rattled. Obviously, he needs to be composed and make the most of his chances. And then his receivers need to make plays when they arise. On Sunday, both of his tight ends had a chance to make major receptions at the goal-line and neither of them made the play. Yes, they would be difficult catches, but Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett have the ability to make those catches so they can not waste chances in this game - there may not be very many against the Vikings at their place.
4) - Pound the Rock - This is sort of my hope rather than my belief that this is being drawn up. Why do I say that? The Cowboys tried so little to run the ball last January in the Metrodome that you were positive that they knew they couldn't do it. Most of the runs were out of shotgun or some sort of ambush situation rather than lining up and running the ball because that is what you do. Now, I will concede that the Vikings have spent the last 4 or 5 seasons as the top team in the league that you do NOT run the ball against with any sort of success. But, this year is different. The Saints and Dolphins both executed a ground and pound game that was very impressive in the interior against the Williams wall. But, those teams believe in their interior offensive line (funny, right? The Dolphins interior offensive line has Joe Berger and Cory Proctor - former Cowboys reserves!) and are dedicated to taking 3 or 4 yards a pop and continuing a slow methodical drive down the field rather than trying it twice - hitting a wall - and then giving up.
To demonstrate my point further, this is from last January's Decoding Garrett entry after the playoff loss:
3 times in the early going, the Cowboys had to decide what to do in short yardage.
Offensive Play #3 - 3/1/D37 - Cowboys try pitch left to Austin +8, FD
Offensive Play #6 - 3/1/O46 - Cowboys go S11, Pass to Crayton +12, FD
Offensive Play #16 - 4/1/O30 - Cowboys refuse 4/1, miss 48 yard FG
3 chances to demonstrate you can run on the Vikings, and due to past performance and the Vikings film, the Cowboys realize they shouldn't even try it. A concession made to the Vikings spoke volumes. Stunning news for those of us who fancied the Cowboys a true power run team. Sure, they are all about power on 2nd and 8, but a true power team is unstoppable in short yardage. And, the Cowboys may still be alive if they could simply get a yard. We will never know.
And, then the true indictment of the Offensive Line; 6 sacks of Tony Romo. Romo was running for his life, and because of that, I honestly felt that it was next to impossible to evaluate him fairly. There were elements of Romo's game I didn't care for - not the least of which was the appearance that he became far more interested in the pass rush than his receivers - but I was left wondering which QB in pro football would have found success under those circumstances. I would argue that there likely wouldn't have been one.
The reputation is set in stone - The Vikings stop the run. The Cowboys can run, but do not have conviction in their purpose to do so. Will they give it a real chance? With real commitment and conviction? It may be their only hope.
Summary: In the NFL in 2010, any team can win any game any where. So, can the Cowboys win in Minnesota? Of course. But, it will require a big effort from the offense. One that does not include a multitude of "minus" plays. The penalties have to be minimal. The giveaways have to be non-existent. The OL must give a proper account of themselves. And the QB has to be the best QB in the game. A tall order, but one that is there for the taking. And if they don't take it, the issues this team will face at 1-4 will be enough to make any member of the organization uncomfortable.