The objective of any offense is production, not style points or aesthetics. So, when we are looking at how Jason Garrett's offense went about its business, we should be careful not to nitpick because we don't like how it looks. If they can get away with playing outside the normal perimeters of "fundamentally sound" or "conventionally proper" offense and still put up points and wins, then there is no issue - see Mike McCarthy up in Green Bay many weeks, where he seems to not mind not having a running game or much pass protection and also doesn't seem to mind his QB taking a number of hits every Sunday.
Where it breaks down, of course, is when the results are not there. Then, we all want to figure out why it doesn't work and pick apart strategies and concepts and wonder why they do the things that they do.
This is a flawed offense and it has been since the start of camp in my estimation. This means that they are not where they are because of an injury or a bad circumstance. The fact is, they have always hoped that they could develop an offensive line from the scrap heap and their work suggests that simply has not happened. They thought a new offensive line coach and a full commitment to a zone running game would really make things happen in a positive nature, but that did not work either.
To properly ever be the juggernaut offense that they fancy themselves, and that their skill position players would suggest they should be, they simply need to address the offensive line. This is not a breaking news story nor is it a guess. In fact, they don't even argue this point anymore, but what remains unclear is why they did not arrive at this conclusion sooner - as in the offseason after 2010 or 2011.
However, to place all blame for an offense that has fallen short would not be fair. There is no question that the availability of DeMarco Murray makes a tremendous difference as well. That is because one of his greatest characteristics appears to be the fact that he can make something out of a run where nothing is available a few times a game. Take his 3rd and 1 carry on Sunday night against the Eagles where there was simply nothing there, but he bounced it outside on his own and went for 27 yards in a key play.
His presence during the debacles against the Seahawks, Buccaneers, and the Bears on the ground tell us he is not enough to overcome the offensive line being over-run every week, but there are weeks where he can make everything alright. Incidentally, I don't feel confident that the game in Cincinnati will be the same as Sunday. The Bengals are just a handful most weeks, and Geno Atkins might be the best player in the NFL that you have not spent much time watching. He is a true beast in the middle and we know the Cowboys don't handle interior defensive forces very well.
That being said, the effects of Murray being back clearly made a big difference in Sunday's game against the Eagles. After 2 weeks of horrendous production from the offense in traditional (non-shotgun) formations, the offense resurged with the threat of run or pass. They found just 48 yards against Cleveland and 31 yards against Washington from under center, but rallied with 189 yards against the Eagles when they were NOT in shotgun.
This, is a direct result of 2 things: 1) playing the Eagles who aren't stopping anyone, anywhere these days. and 2) the idea that Murray puts fear in the minds of linebackers and safeties who cannot just sit on the fact that the Cowboys are passing in every situation no matter what. The Cowboys don't always have to run to get the results. They have to run to put indecision in the mind of the defense, which then leads to results.
This is what new fans of the sport don't see. They see a 1 yard gain on a running play and declare that running the ball never yields results. But, we know that running plays make passing so much easier for a QB - just ask Robert Griffin.
The other trend that is clear is that the Cowboys coaching staff, which seldom gets complimented for offensive concepts these days, is doing a real fine job of finding creative ways to get Dez Bryant the football. Later in the week, I want to show exactly which routes he is running and how he is getting his production, but for now, allow me to say that they are avoiding double teams by running many shorter routes and are occupying linebackers underneath by dragging him across the field and it is clear that this concept scares defenses and draws all sorts of attention.
It is worth noting that the team is now notorious for slow starts and that trend has not changed. The public seems to want to focus on tired cliches like "they aren't ready to play", which I think is vague and unprovable. I have argued on this site that it has more to do with their game plans trying to run a conventional offense early in the game, and then at some point (often in the mid-2nd Quarter) they scrap all of the plans and go to shotgun.
However, another trend that is linked to that is the number of balls that go to Bryant early in the game. Of the 103 balls thrown to him on the season, only 16 of them have come in the 1st Quarter. In fact, the Cowboys get Bryant the ball more and more as the game goes on. By Quarter, he is thrown to the most in the 4th, then 3rd, then 2nd, and finally 1st. So, if your scoreboard suggest that you also score the most in that order, perhaps there is some linkage between the slow starts and the speed in which you find ways to utilize your biggest weapon.
Now, let's examine the win against the Eagles who would certainly be fun to play a few more times this season from an offensive standpoint, in particular.
Data from Week 12 vs Philadelphia
|Starting Field Position||D 26|
|1st Down Run-Pass||17-9|
|2nd Down Avg Distance to Go||8.2|
|2nd Down Run-Pass||10-10|
|3rd Down Avg Distance to Go||6.2|
|3rd Down Run-Pass||4-10|
|3rd Down Conversions||9-14, 64%|
The big story looking at these numbers is clear. For only the 2nd time in 12 games, the Cowboys ran the ball more than they passed. Only the Baltimore game was similar - and as you might recall, that was the game where they ran for miles. It was also the last game they had DeMarco Murray available.
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 difference in halves, as Romo's 2nd half was nothing short of fantastic:
1st Half -
Here, you will notice we are missing red lines in the 2nd half. And that, is because there were not any. Romo was on fire and going to Dez and Miles with play action and methodical drives that resembled a sound offense.
2nd Half -
And now, the throw chart for passes to Dez Bryant - He was 6-6 and many of them shallow routes where he can use his strength to overpower defensive backs. A slant, a stop, a hitch, and a drag route were all there, as well as a pump and go down the sideline for the long catch, and a back shoulder fade. This idea that they have "dumbed down" his responsibilities and that this has somehow led to his breakout is, in fact, a dumb theory that is not founded in fact.
Wk 1-At New York: 9 Drives - 5 Run/4 Pass
Wk 2-At Seattle: 9 Drives - 3 Run/6 Pass
Wk 3-Tampa Bay: 13 Drives - 7 Run/6 Pass
Wk 4-Chicago: 11 Drives - 3 Run/8 Pass
Wk 5-At Baltimore: 10 Drives - 8 Run/2 Pass
Wk 6-At Carolina 10 Drives - 6 Run/4 Pass
Wk 7-New York: 14 Drives - 4 Run/10 Pass
Wk 8-At Atlanta: 9 Drives - 4 Run/5 Pass
Wk 9-At Philadelphia: 10 Drives - 6 Run/4 Pass
Wk 10-Cleveland: 13 Drives - 5 Run/8 Pass
Wk 11-Washington: 12 Drives - 3 Run/9 Pass
Wk 12-Philadelphia: 8 Drives - 5 Run/3 Pass
Season: 128 Drives* 59 Run/69 Pass - 46% Run
* This statistic doesn't count the 1-play kneel down drives (there are 4 so far this year).
2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run/102 Pass 44% Run
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.
Wk 1 - at NYG: 15/54 27.7%
Wk 2 - at Sea: 29/56 52%
Wk 3 - TB: 34/63 54%
Wk 4 - Chi: 50/68 74%
Wk 5 - at Balt: 19/79 24%
Wk 6 - at Car: 22/64 34%
Wk 7 - NYG: 48/83 58%
Wk 8 - at Atl: 29/54 54%
Wk 9 - at Phil: 17/54 31%
Wk 10 - Cle: 52/76 68%
Wk 11 - Wash: 62/75 83%
Wk 12 - Phil: 24/62 38%
2012 Season Total: 411/788 52%
2011 Total - 445/1012 43.9%
Here is the breakdown by groupings:
Before you study the data below, I would recommend that if the numbers for the groupings are unfamiliar, that you spend some time reading a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groupings here.
Totals by Personnel Groups:
And here, we see how yardage numbers and most statistics can be taken out of context if we don't watch the game. Just by looking at the box-score, you would think the Cowboys offensive was ultra productive. If you watched the game, you know that most of these yards and points were a result of the Redskins playing far more conservative defense later in the game because they had a gigantic lead.
* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.
Totals by Personnel Groups on 3rd/4th Down:
Murray is back, and so is balance and effectiveness in the offense. 189 yards from under center shows what this offense can be. But, we also want to consider the opponents and understand that the Eagles do not compare to what is coming in the next few weeks.
The Cowboys must now deal with 2 of the more physical teams and defenses on their schedule from the AFC North with the Bengals and the Steelers.
If they are in any position to run the ball 30 times in either of those games, there is a chance the Cowboys can keep their playoff hopes alive.
Unfortunately, very few people are expecting that. They will have a chance against the Bengals and Steelers to silence their critics and show that the offense is improving. But, just 1 week after calling them as lost as I have ever seen them offensively, I think it is prudent to wait before we declare they are back as a dynamic attack.
Let's see them prove it in Cincinnati, and then, if they can, we can get optimistic about their direction when they have the ball.