Aside from the very unique circumstances to the win in Cincinnati, we should not completely lose sight of the fact that the offense had the least productive outing in 2012. With just 288 total yards of offense (despite an above-average 70 snaps), the production was quite modest. In fact, the final 2 drives produced 118 yards, or the Cowboys offense would have flirted with a rare sub-250 day, which hasn't happened in a Tony Romo-started game since December of 2007. Those days are normally reserved for Brad Johnson, Stephen McGee, or Jon Kitna starts, and game plans that simply are constructed to avert risk from the moment the Cowboys run out of the tunnel.
All roads of explanation lead us back to the match-up at the line of scrimmage. I promise, I do not try to make every "Decoding Garrett" review about the fact that this team's offensive line cannot block with any regularity the teams on their schedule, but it seems to reveal itself as anyone observing a Cowboys game can see an offense that is constantly under siege.
And what makes matters worse, is that the Cowboys are not a horrible team at picking up blitzes. What this means is that teams do not trouble Romo on blitz plays any worse than they seem to bother a normal NFL offense. But, where the Cowboys really have failing grades across the board all season long seems to be the plays where the opponent is just rushing the front 4.
A successful offense must be able to block 4 pass rushers with 5 offensive linemen most (if not all) of the time. If a team cannot, it has two choices - both bad. Either leave their tight end and their running back in to help - this leaves 7 defensive players covering just 2 or 3 targets - or run routes that can develop in less than 2.5 seconds so as not to ask the offensive line to hold up. The trouble with the first option is nobody can get open because they are all doubled and the trouble with the latter is the defense reacts and pushes up to defend all shallow routes, making all openings smaller and smaller for a QB under duress to find.
As you can see, all of the fundamentally preferable options go out the window when 5-man protection (called "scat protection") is not an option. Most of the Bengals best scenarios of pass rush came when they rushed 4 or fewer men. The Cowboys try to trust their OL and get Witten and Murray out and open, but when they do, they are consistently disappointed by the fact that the line cannot hold up.
And, to make matters worse, keeping in a tight end to pass protect only works if you are helping tackles, in general. It is tough for Witten to assist Ryan Cook at center, unless you get real creative with slide protections, but that would then ask Witten to block an edge rusher 1-on-1 and that doesn't go very well, either.
Which leads us back to a familiar destination; this team cannot be the offensive force people want it to be without a better group of offensive linemen. I know this seems obvious and self-evident, but given that I have written stories like this since 2010 just about weekly with the same conclusions, you could argue that the Cowboys are a little slow to admit the obvious. This issue has not been solved by simply changing players and hoping change fixes it, nor can hiring a new coach to tell the same sub-standard players new techniques. At some point, you must hire elite talent to get elite results. Hopefully, the spring of 2013 goes better than the spring of 2012 on this front.
To often we try to quantify pass rush effect by merely looking at sacks, but I think the Cowboys teach us weekly to consider the issues that pressure cause Romo to navigate around simply to get off a throw. There were countless moments in this game and this season where Romo must work a magic trick so that he may find a brief opening to fire off a pass. If you watch other games, you may notice that this doesn't seem like a normal routine for most other QB's. My man, Tim, who makes the passing charts for this blog every week, wrote this on that topic:
I have a quick question if you don't mind. I've heard you mention the Cowboys struggle with explosive plays and I think even towards the bottom on the league. I know in the stats sheets it won't show this but for conversation sake is it possible to diminish what little explosive plays they have when Romo has to run around the entire field just to get off those throws? Doing these charts for past two seasons I've noticed so many times that Romo has to throw 13 yards just to earn 3 because he has drop back and scramble ten yards deep.Excellent point, Tim. In fairness, the Cowboys explosive plays (20 yards+) actually have been on quite an uptick in the 2nd half of the season, since they decided to risk harm to Romo and try to compete for a playoff spot by calling deeper pass plays. They have worked their way up to 50 explosive plays this season, which is right at the league average. The break out of Dez Bryant has certainly aided these numbers and the Cowboys are getting more plays going down the field when they have time.
It is a delicate balance, but Tim's point is worth visiting. Below, please find the passing chart from Sunday's 2nd half. These are all of the throws that Romo had against the Bengals in the 2nd stanza, and I want you to notice two things.
1) - that almost all of the successful plays were between the hash marks. Throws straight ahead that were able to penetrate the soft spots of the pass defense, but the throws down the field to the outside were not finding their spots.
2) - Romo's release point is nowhere near where it should be on almost every last throw. We don't discuss "release point" much, but when you watch practice or training camp, you know that plays are designed for ideal circumstances. When a QB drops back, he drops straight back (5 or 7 steps), goes through his read progressions, and then steps into and makes a throw. Where that spot on the field is, directly behind the center, is called the release point or where the QB wants to release the football. This is the offense's plan and the defense bases all of their pass rushes on using that same spot as their ideal destination. In defensive meetings, teams want to "change his release point".
This is almost always the case for Romo behind this line. He never can use the same release point twice. He has to spin, dance, side-step, push off, and then throw as someone is hanging on him. Defensive strategy is always to get a QB to have to move off of his release point, and with the Cowboys line in shambles (again), we have come to accept that this is how Romo must make throws.
But, understand, and note that when you watch a team like New England, their passing chart would have the lines all beginning from roughly the same point in the pocket. It would look like a flower with the same point on the stem, instead, as you note above, Romo is throwing from a different spot almost every single play.
The results are actually very good for what is being asked of him. But, know that this is not how the offense is designed to work, nor is it something any QB could pull off. But, in Dallas, we have been looking at a poor OL for so long, that we have forgotten that there is an alternative.
Again, after the performance Geno Atkins and the Bengals put on the Cowboys' OL, it is truly amazing that Dallas won this game.
Data from Week 13 at Cincinnati
|Starting Field Position||D 25|
|1st Down Run-Pass||10-18|
|2nd Down Avg Distance to Go||7.8|
|2nd Down Run-Pass||10-13|
|3rd Down Avg Distance to Go||5.8|
|3rd Down Run-Pass||4-15|
|3rd Down Conversions||11-19, 58%|
Amazingly, one of the most under-reported aspects of this season has been the phenomenal improvement on 3rd Down conversions. I am not flush with theories on this, but somehow, the Cowboys have passed every team in the NFL in 3rd Down conversions - except for the amazing New England Patriots. Sunday, we saw it again, that on 19 do-or-die situations, the Cowboys hit on nearly 60%. That raises their season to 2nd in the league at 45%.
I will continue to try to understand what has changed and what is working so much better, but clearly, they are doing something right because they are keeping drives alive when all other parts of their offense is not pulling its weight.
It is counter-intuitive, but that is keeping them in this playoff run. And quietly, demonstrating yet again that the Cowboys have a pretty strong player at the most important position.
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.
1st Half -
2nd Half - Scroll above for the chart of the 2nd half
Dez Bryant's passing chart - Where he was basically thrown a number of slants on the same side, a deep ball that Reggie Nelson was flagged for roughness, and then the DIG route for the touchdown. And now, we sit on pins and needles to see if Bryant's season is over.
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
Wk 13-Cincinnati: 10 Drives - 5 Run/5 Pass
Season: 138 Drives* 64 Run/74 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%
Wk 13 - Cin: 43/70 61%
2012 Season Total: 454/858 53%
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:
27 plays under center in a balanced offensive posture for a putrid 62 yards of production. We see this time and time again. The Cowboys only offensive production is through the shotgun and when they put the entire game on Romo with a few hard runs from Murray mixed in.
Totals by Personnel Groups on 3rd/4th Down:
Do not think, even for a second, that the offense did a good job on Sunday. Rather, they survived.
Two things cover a lot of stink right now, some timely 3rd Down conversions and of course, some magical moments late in games. Similar to the wins at Philadelphia and Cleveland, this is a win, but the efficiency of the offense is far from being satisfactory. Murray is back and the Cowboys pretty much had the same offensive personnel that they left training camp with (Cook for Costa/Arkin) and yet, it has been a pretty big failure all season long.
At 7-6, you could argue it has been a pretty impressive rally from this team to stay in contention given all of the poor things about this team.
But, we wonder what it must be like to enter a game trying to understand how to attack opposing defenses, rather than trying to game-plan around your own weaknesses - which seems to have been the strategy for this offense for quite a while.