The Following is the 1st in an 11-part weekly series throughout the summer that will focus on the eleven plays that shaped 2011 for the Dallas Cowboys. Every game, about 130 actual plays happen and over the course of a season that number can exceed 2,000. But, we have selected 11 and will pick one each week and break it down from standpoint of "X's and O's" and see what we can learn looking back. We hope you enjoy.
At times, it can be described as the "fog of war". The idea is that things are happening so quickly on the field in a frantic NFL contest, that at the moment of truth, a perfectly prepared QB with miles of experience just forgets everything his training has prepared him for and has done something utterly unforgivable.
And that moment reared its head only about 2-3 times all year in 2011 for Tony Romo. But, wow, those were a few high profile moments where he forgot to take a deep breath and think it over.
Today, we examine just one play in a game that had moments everywhere.
Setup: Week 1 against the New York Jets was going to be a very difficult game for the Cowboys to lose. But, with a 24-10 lead in the 4th Quarter, the Cowboys were in a perfect position to win a game that they fought hard for.
What followed was a 4th Quarter that was about as excruciating as it would get all season long. Dallas surrendered a TD to the Jets on the very next drive on a long snag by Plaxico Burress. 24-17, 11:56 to play.
Then, the Cowboys hit Jason Witten for a huge gainer down the center of the field and Dallas looked poised to re-open a 14-point lead. But, on 3rd and Goal from the 2, Romo allowed points to be taken off the board by trying to get too aggressive on a scramble that turned into a fumble recovered by the Jets. Instead of a 10-point lead, it stays at 7. The game is starting to slip.
The defense stands tall with Danny McCray sacks and recovers a Mark Sanchez fumble, giving the Cowboys the ball on the Jets half of the field with under seven minutes to play. But, the Cowboys not only suffer a 3 and out, but one that includes 2 pre snap penalties. These penalties walk the Cowboys back to a 4th and 22 which is made all the worse with a blocked punt that is returned for a touchdown and the game that seemed to be close to in the bag is now tied with 5:00 to play.
Dallas then stalls on its next drive because they cannot convert a 3rd and 1 run as the left side of the line collapses (a theme of the night). So, the Jets take over with 2:16 left at their own 20 with a chance to go for the win. But, again, the Cowboys defense stands tall. Anthony Spencer with a 3rd Down sack forces a punt and now Dallas takes the ball at their own 41 with 0:59 to play. All they need is about 30 yards and they have plenty of time to get there, but only one timeout remains.
The Play: 0:59 - 1st and 10-Dal 41 - The Image below shows you that the Cowboys are in Shotgun, 11 personnel. This is their normal 2-minute drill posture, with double wides to the left of Romo, Felix Jones and Jason Witten flank Romo in the backfield. The Jets counter with dime personnel (6 DBs) and have their safeties at about middle depth, but clearly in a spot where they can drop at the snap. (click on any photo to get a larger view)
The next image shows you the entire field at the snap. It shows those 2 safeties bailing out to help on either side of the field. Brodney Pool is wasting no time to provide cover help over the top for Dez Bryant. This allows Darrelle Revis to start the play about 5 yards off Bryant, but then get on his inside hip and roll stride for stride against Bryant, who hasn't looked right health-wise since about the 1st Quarter. This is a rather clear read for a QB. Safety turns and runs, corner on the hip of the wide receiver. Unless you think a quick fade or comeback route can be had, this side of the field is a no-go. Once the safety has a few seconds to get over Bryant, there is absolutely nothing to throw at.
The image below shows the pass as it leaves Romo's hands. This is the spot where the decision is made and the throw is going to this side. And at the precise moment Romo let's the ball go, Revis senses that it is time to turn and find the ball. To his surprise, one might assume, the ball is coming right at him. Bryant is in no position to defend the pass, and Revis picks it off with great ease and returns the ball 20 yards.
Here is the end zone view of what was available at the moment the ball is arriving. Absolutely nothing. Interceptions are not easier in practice for an elite corner.
A few days after the game, Jason Garrett told the press what he saw on that play: Tony had a pretty good feel for what it was," Garrett said. "Revis had turned his back to Tony, and Tony had to move. He felt a little bit flushed from the left-hand side. I think he left like he could drive the ball up into the hole of the defense. They were playing what we call a two-man. There’s a half safety deep [Brodney Pool], and Revis was in trail technique. I think he thought he was going to be able to shoot it in there before Revis turned, and Tony being on the move and kind of throwing it on the run a little bit, I don’t think he threw the ball exactly where he wanted to and as soon as he threw it, Revis turned around and made the play. I don’t think the location was great. I think in hindsight, the decision was a little aggressive certainly for that situation. I don’t think it was miscommunication, though. It was more about location and decision-making."
Garrett's last statement summarizes what we are looking at here. "The decision was a little aggressive certainly for that situation." One would say that that is an amazing understatement. Again, it is late in the game and there is some urgency. But, this is where gun-slinging and growing up watching Brett Favre goes wrong. This is an inexcusable decision for a QB based on 4 very clear reasons. 1) Dez Bryant is clearly not healthy. 2) Darrelle Revis might be the best corner in football, so therefore, even if Bryant is healthy, you might want to consider other alternatives. 3) a safety was sitting over Dez the entire time, so there is really nothing there. And 4) most importantly, it is 1st Down.
And that is what this entire decision comes down to. You can take risky throws in the NFL. That is part of doing business. A QB thinks he sees something and will try to fit a ball into a tight place. But, the one thing a coach cannot live with and tolerate is needless risk taking. And forcing a ball to an injured player on 1st Down with the game on the line is just about one of the worst decisions Tony Romo has ever made. On 1st Down, if you don't have about a 75%-80% at the completion, you fire it out of bounds and live to use 2nd and 3rd Down. "A little aggressive" was likely not the wording used behind closed doors.
So, now, let's go back and see what caused Romo to move out of his pocket so early and take his other 2 receivers that were out to the left out of the play at the snap. Miles Austin and Kevin Ogletree were on the left. Austin who was in the slot was running a vertical route and Ogletree was on the outside and basically ran a route without much conviction about 8 yards before stopping and knowing he wasn't getting the ball.
Here, below, is an image of what Romo saw at the pre snap in terms of Jets pressure:
The Jets are showing a rush that has the Cowboys calling for a slide left technique in their blocking. That means, of course, that the 5 OL players are going to all take the guy to their left. You will notice that Tyron Smith (77) will grab the player over Kyle Kosier (63), leaving Kosier without anyone to block. But, Costa, Nagy, and Free all must get their men 1-on-1. Romo sees this and almost at the snap is headed to his right. This slide leaves Witten and Felix Jones to grab anything to Smith's right, and Witten gets on that job right at the snap as you see below. You can also see that Felix's guy to block is not actually rushing, he is waiting at a comfortable depth for either Felix to run a route (which he does not since he is in full pass protect) or to wait in shallow grounds for Romo to declare his intentions. This keeps Romo from having any room to scramble.
On some of these plays we break down, there will be a feeling that someone just "made a play" and defied the Xs and Os. In fact, later in this series, we need to break down one of the best plays of Romo's career where he did just that against Miami. But, in this breakdown, there is no question that this is a QB making the mistake of a rookie QB. It was not only impossible to defend for anyone who would wish to take that position, but it is also the one play in this game that determined the winner more than any other, in my estimation.
This is all on the QB. He did not make many poor plays in 2011, but this is one of his worst. And it is the one the national football experts seem to roll when they discuss his year. 31 TDs and 10 INTs should be a celebrated year. But, a few of those picks cost the Cowboys a chance at the playoffs early.
Here is the full play on video: