Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Explosives - The Cowboys Achilles Heel

When examining a defense and its ability to win games - rather than lose them, one must always keep track of the NFL statistic known as the "explosive".

The explosive is defined in NFL circles as a play of over 20 yards. Over the years, it can also be listed as "runs over 10 yards and passes over 20 yards", but I believe in recent years it has been adjusted by many free thinkers in the game as simply "any plays over 20 yards". These plays are absolute killers and the Cowboys were victims of explosives over and over in 2010.

As you can expect, the teams that are near the bottom of the league each year in explosives surrendered by their defense generally are watching the playoffs on television. This was mostly true in 2010, however, the anomaly of all anomalies was the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks made the playoffs at 7-9 and even more shockingly won a game. But, I think it is fair to suggest that we should not base too many success formulas on the 2010 Seattle Seahawks. Many years could pass before another 7-9 team makes the playoffs and takes down the defending Super Bowl Champions.

The following chart will show the bottom 5 teams in the league, the Cowboys, the Browns (Rob Ryan's last stop), the NFL Average, and then the #1 team for surrendering the fewest explosive plays in 2010:

NFL Average59

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Those numbers demonstrate the Cowboys achilles heel. Heck, in one game alone, Eli Manning and the Giants carved the Cowboys up for 10 plays of 20 yards or more. 10! And the Steelers conceded just 36 all season long. And before you start telling me the Cowboys need better Cornerbacks (Sign Nmandi, Sign Nmandi!), just note that the Steelers are perhaps the closest thing the NFL has to a dynasty right now as they were a few plays from winning their 3rd Super Bowl in 6 seasons a few months back. And who were their 3 Corners last season? Bryant McFadden, William Gay, and Ike Taylor. You could make the case that corner is the weakest element of that Steelers defense. And yet they allow the fewest explosives and the fewest points time after time.

Let's do the same chart again, but just with pass explosives in 2010:

NFL Average48

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If you are wondering how it broke down under the two coaches, as the Cowboys were considerate enough to divide their season into two equal parts under their two coaches; 8 games under Wade Phillips (37 explosives conceded - that is right, in 8 games, the Cowboys gave up more explosive plays than the Steelers did in 16) and 8 games under Jason Garrett/Paul Pasqualoni (32 explosives conceded).

If you factor in the final 3 games of the Wade Phillips Era - which many believe started when Tony Romo was injured against the Giants and continued until the final gun in Green Bay (and had the Jacksonville game in between) - where the Cowboys conceded 10 explosives against the Giants, 7 more against Jacksonville, and 5 more against Green Bay for a total of 22 explosives conceded in about 10 Quarters of football, then you see why some of us accuse a great deal of the Cowboys roster giving less than a full effort at the very end. Those 3 games constitute easily the worst stretch of defensive football all year long. And it isn't really even close. Were they trying to get their coach fired? Well, let's put it this way - they were certainly not playing to save him.

When you allow 436 points in a season, it should be quite clear what is the major issue here. The previous franchise record for points conceded in a season was 405 (in 2004). The NFL Average for a Playoff team in 2010 was 312 points against. So, somehow, this figure claims the Cowboys were allowing 124 points beyond playoff contention, or nearly 8 points per game.

To slow that down, you must keep explosives down. Way down. And to do that, 7 yard slants cannot turn into 60 yards. A WR screen behind the line of scrimmage cannot go for 32. And of course, DeSean Jackson cannot catch 60 yard passes on the 1st play from scrimmage because you have secondary confusion.

And I suppose all of this reminds me why there are a number of things that need to happen in this offseason; A full chance for Rob Ryan to install and teach his defense, a fair amount of positional competition, and an influx of new talent via free agency and the draft. Since the Cowboys used 3 of their top 4 "premium picks" on offense and the 4th player is on the mend from a knee injury, it looks like the draft is not going to be the answer.

In the days and weeks to come, we shall break down some of the conceded explosives to see where the Cowboys need to improve, although I am pretty sure we already have a pretty good idea of where it needs to begin.

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