December 2009. Week 13. Critical matchup at home against San Diego for the Cowboys. Down 10-3, the Cowboys have marched from their own 27-yard line all the way down the field in 12 plays. 11 of the 12 plays were runs, and the 12th play was an incomplete pass. They have driven the entire field without ever completing a pass. This is a real show of strength against one of the best defensive fronts in football.
1 yard to go. 2nd and goal from the 1 yard line. Dive play where Marion Barber, behind FB Deon Anderson, is stopped just short of the goal-line. 3rd and goal, another Barber dive is again stopped just short. 4th and goal. "23" personnel for the 3rd straight play. This time, Felix Jones is deep and Marion Barber is lined up as the fullback. The Cowboys give again to Barber and the 4th down play is the worst of them all. 3 cracks from the 1 fail, and the Cowboys lose 20-17.
A topic that has been discussed at great length in just about every circle of the Cowboys' kingdom this week has been red zone problems. There is no doubt that the inefficiency of this offense can be traced on some level to the inability of the team to produce as many points as their yardage indicates they are earning.
Countless coaches - including Bill Parcells who hammered this point home in many Cowboys' press briefings - would tell us that a football team needs to get 7 points for every 100 yards of offense in a given game. Anything less would draw our attention to the efficiency of the offense. Yards are yards, until you get to the 1-yard line. Then you need that yard. And the Cowboys have constantly failed there in recent seasons.
Since the start of the 2009 season, the Cowboys have had 40 plays from the 1-yard line. 36 inches from a touchdown, many times with the outcome of the game hanging in the balance. On only 13 occasions were the Cowboys able to punch it in for a Touchdown. 13 of 40 is an absurdly low success rate of 32% when a team has to only make 3 feet or less to break the plane of the goal-line.
Passing the ball for the Touchdown has become the route to success on most occasions - although to be fair, neither has been converting at a high enough level.. Normally from play action from a heavy personnel set, the Cowboys have converted 7 Touchdowns on 17 pass attempts (41%) for scores from the 1 since 2009. This, of course, means that amazingly, just 6 of 23 run attempts (26%) have been punched in from the 1-yard line. That success rate is almost comically bad.
So, after the deflating sequence in the Seattle game where Dallas had 3 cracks at the 1 and failed to find the endzone. It is maddening and sends many to their keyboards to voice another dissertation about how Jason Garrett lacks imagination and the ability to lead this Dallas squad any further. But, I think it goes back to that issue that has been haunting the Cowboys for a long, long time: No faith in their offensive line. And after switching out the members of the offensive line, it appears that their power down by the goal-line is still just a dream rather than a reality.
Since the start of 2010, there have been 31 snaps from the 1 yard line. During that stretch, the Cowboys have scored just 11 Touchdowns in 31 attempts from the 1 (35%).
Below, you will see the "23" package, which has been used in 20 of the last 31 snaps from the 1 yard line by Jason Garrett. 7 of the 20 plays resulted in Touchdowns (3 run TDs, 4 pass TDs). "23" is the biggest personnel group in the arsenal. 3 TEs, a FB, and a RB. It amounts to 8 OL-types and a lead blocker to help get the RB just 1 yard. And it has not done the job. 35% success rate.
The following is a chart that shows the 31 snaps from the 1-yard line since Week 1 2010 for the Cowboys offense:
|23||21||7||11-3 TDs||10-4 TDs|
|S11||4||3||1-1 TD||3-2 TDs|
|Totals||31||11||16-5 TDs||15-6 TDs|
I think the chart shows something that may seem counter-intuititve to those of us who value power football. The Cowboys, at least in this sample size, are not capable of showing any strength for that last important yard; especially in "power" formations that feature multiple TEs and FBs.
And, the evidence does concede that Barber was the best choice in these running situations. Marion Barber was the best at 5-12 from the 1-yard line on run plays, but the Cowboys weren't going to keep a RB for strictly short yardage at his salary. Tashard Choice was 1-6 and the only other runner to get a crack before 2011 in this study. This season, Felix Jones is 1-2 and DeMarco Murray is 0-1.
But, this research project does appear to give us one nugget of goodness. 4 times in 2010, the team lined up in S11 and they scored TDs on 3 of the 4 occasions. Could you imagine the outrage if they get to the 1 and then try to run the shotgun offense out there and fail? I admit that I would lead that charge before I did the research. But, now, seeing how poorly this team is able to get that most important yard on the field, I am tempted to make sure Jason Garrett reads this study and considers the findings. They are two-fold: 1) using traditional means, what they are trying is not working. Not even close. And 2) albeit with a small sample size (4 tries), the Cowboys are best at spreading the defense out and either passing or running out of shotgun. Shotgun TDs from the 1 against Jacksonville, Detroit, and Philadelphia in 2010 seem to at least give us something to consider. Only 1 failure (Washington in Week 14) can be found in the data. 3 out of 4 is impressive. 8 out of 27 with all other formations is not.
Now, here is the chart for 2011 only. In the first 8 games, there have been 9 occasions for a snap at the opponent's 1 yard line. So far, they are 4 out of 9 from the 1 yard line. But, I still think we are not seeing much improvement.
|Totals||9||4||3-1 TD||6-3 TDs|
Let's look at each of the nine plays. I have made a reel of all 9 snaps on video for you to look at as we go. You can see them all by clicking on this link.
1. Week 1 at Jets - Play #47 - 1/G/1 - "23" - Following a review that ruled Sean Lee's interception was out at the 1, the Cowboys run "23" without a FB on the roster. Enter Josh Brent as the new short yardage FB. Martin Rucker and John Phillips at TE on the left, Witten on the right. Play Action fake to Jones for the dive and only Witten is in the route. LB David Harris stays with Romo so there is no other option. Romo throws the ball out of the end-zone because it is 1st Down. INCOMPLETE
2. Week 1 at Jets - Play #48 - 2/G/1 - "13" - On this play, the Cowboys have Miles Austin outside Rucker on the right. This weapon keeps the Jets' DBs honest and Revis sets up over Austin. Rucker off RT and Witten off LT. Phillips lines up at FB. Now, the stretch play to the left with the zone blocking technique up front. Jones takes the handoff and 70-Mike Devito shoves LG Bill Nagy back. However, the play goes wide enough that Felix follows a convoy of Doug Free, Witten, and Phillips into the end zone. This is the one and only rushing TD in 9 plays from the 1 in 2011. TOUCHDOWN
3. Week 4 vs Lions - Play #18 - 4/G/1 - "23" - This may be the play that has spooked the Cowboys and their fans the most. The Cowboys showed a lot of courage - or stupidity - on this play as they attempted to ram the ball right into the jaws of the stout Detroit defensive front. And not only the front, but right at RT and rookie Tyron Smith who was attempting to block Ndamukong Suh and to give FB Josh Brent a chance to dig out the LB for Felix Jones. Everyone blocks straight up and Brent is supposed to clear a gap. But, Smith gets defeated soundly by Suh and turned, so Brent decides to help out on Suh. By this point, Will LB Ashlee Palmer is there to close down Jones and Corey Williams arrives to further doom the play. It looks like Jones runs into Brent and the play is over - as is the possession. TURNOVER ON DOWNS
4. Week 4 vs Lions - Play #44 - 1/G/1 - "23" - After Kevin Ogletree's reception is ruled by replay to be down at the 1, the Cowboys have another scenario on the goal-line against Detroit. This time, perhaps their run earlier in the game (above) was in the head of the Detroit LBs, because 55-Tulloch runs right by Jason Witten to bite on the play fake. This time, Kosier is defeated at the line, but the play fake puts Phillips and Witten in route. Since nobody covers Witten, this is an easy TD for Romo to hit on what appeared to be a route of Detroit at the time. TOUCHDOWN
5. Week 5 at Patriots - Play #35 - 2/G/1 - "23" - Right before the half in Foxboro, the Cowboys are faced with 2nd and Goal. Here, they try Witten and Bennett on the right of Smith and Phillips on the left. The play calls for a play fake right with Witten dragging across the OL to the left. The play is almost doomed because of all of the chaos on the line of scrimmage as Smith is being tossed back at the snap by Vince Wilfork. Witten, Smith, and Josh Brent almost all collide, but Witten jumps through and navigates to the flat where he is found by Romo and just crosses the goal-line. A tricky play that is executed, but perhaps demonstrates to the coaches that again that this offensive line cannot win a goal-line pushing match against a solid front. TOUCHDOWN
6. Week 6 vs Rams - Play #13 - 3/G/1 - "23" - This is the first scenario with a FB - Tony Fiammetta and DeMarco Murray at RB. As you can see on the replay, it is alarming how nobody even considers the run fake on the Rams' defense. But, it appears MLB James Laurinaitis is out to lunch and this leaves 27-Quintin Mikell in the very unenviable position of trying to cover 2 men in the end zone. Fiammetta is shallow across the line and Witten goes deep. With only 1 defender, Romo waits for Mikell to choose and throws the other way. Again, the Cowboys are happy to accept a blown assignment for a score. TOUCHDOWN
7. Week 8 vs Seahawks - Play #22 - 1/G/1 - "23" - Here is the first real QB mistake that we see in this study. On this play, it seems rather clear that John Phillips is open for a large amount of time (by goal-line standards) as all Seattle LBs bit on the fake. Notice Montrae Holland pulling out to LT to help pass protect as well. Romo is locked on Witten here and it costs him an easy Touchdown to Phillips. Seattle is not going to let Witten out of their sight and Fiammetta is covered in the flat. After leaving Witten, he decides to fire it out of the back of the end zone and move to 2nd Down. That is a good decision, but a missed chance. INCOMPLETE
8. Week 8 vs Seahawks - Play #23 - 2/G/1 - "23" - This is a play that we have seen the Cowboys get away with a number of times under Garrett. This is not one of them. It is a power run to the right side - complete with the rare pulling guard on the goal-line and then as the entire play is going right, Romo pitches it to the weakside for the RB to run on his own to the left pylon. The idea is that the LBs will read the guard and all follow their reads. Instead, the play doesn't go as planned. Costa is blown up in the middle, but the play is designed for Murray to beat the unblocked DE (91-Cleamons) to the corner. It appears on the replay that Murray could still get to the corner and that Free and Witten have blocked the play properly. It is complete speculation, but I am curious if the offensive coaches feel this play could have worked if Murray did not cut back and just try to win the footrace to the corner. 0 YARD GAIN
9. Week 8 vs Seahawks - Play #24 - 3/G/1 - "23" - Now, the 3rd crack from the 1, and Garrett is not about to try another run. I really wonder not trying a simple power lead here as Fiammetta, Holland, and Murray were all added since the Detroit game, and frankly the running game looks 100% improved. To get 3 cracks from the 1 and just to run 2 passes and a trick run is easy to 2nd guess. But, Garrett wanted play action and the Seahawks blitzed a safety from over Witten's shoulder on the right. Then, their coverage of Murray and Witten quickly left Romo in a jam. He did well to avoid a sack, but the play was doomed. INCOMPLETE
There they are. 4 TDs in 9 attempts, but only 1 Rushing TD and almost a reluctance to even try a straight-up run.
Which leads me back to the idea of spreading out the defense and loosening up the middle. A shotgun run or even a QB draw would be an option, as would a number of pass routes. If the Cowboys were any good out of power sets, they should stay with them, but it seems their only success has been to Witten - and now the defense has been studying these scenarios and seem to be sitting on Romo's favorite target.
It would seem the evidence that ranges back 3 season indicates that a power run is something the coaches do not believe is possible. It seems silly to use that power run as the basis from a play action fake any longer.
Now that the NFL reviews all scoring plays in 2011, an opposing coach no longer has to choose whether or not to burn a challenge on a play that is either a TD or 1st and Goal at the 1-foot line. But, when playing the Cowboys, you can understand the league-wide reluctance to concede a TD rather than making Dallas prove they can punch it in.
They obviously really struggle to do so. 13 of 40 is a 3-year trend that must be fixed.