With a few more days before the Giants game arrives, our Decoding Linehan series has a chance to summarize what we have seen from the first 10 weeks of the season.
From pretty much every perspective, the offense has performed at a very high level. If anybody had suggested at training camp that the very worst rushing performance of the first 10 weeks would have been a game in which the Cowboys only ran for 92 yards on 25 carries (as they did against Arizona), and the worst rushing performance in a game in which Tony Romo played would be 23 carries for 126 yards (San Francisco), then I believe we would have had that person examined by a physician. Just to be clear, there were eleven (11!) games in 2013 where the Cowboys rushed for fewer than 92 yards.
In fact, look at the Rushing output per-game in the last 5 seasons here in Dallas. I think stunning is a reasonable adjective here:
You can suggest that you saw this coming all along, but that would put you in the vast minority. It has been suggested that, "of course, they drafted 3 OL in the 1st round in the last 4 years", but you can see that the first several years of Tyron Smith and even the first year of Travis Frederick had not caused the running game to approach the tipping point.
Was it the hiring to Scott Linehan? Was it the health of Tony Romo? Was it someone at Valley Ranch popping in a tape of the 1992 Cowboys?
Everyone will have their story, but if you want to know what the Cowboys have done this year that has put them in a spot to win the NFC East in the 3rd week in November - despite almost nobody thinking they could 3 months ago - it has to be the ability for this team to run you into the ground. They have moved to 2nd in the league, behind only Seattle, in rushing yards and with Russell Wilson averaging almost 60 yards on the ground a game, you can see how the Cowboys have the traditional run domination category to themselves. Ground and pound with no misdirection or sleight of hand.
Add that to the very efficient 3rd Down situation, which has been down recently, but still has them 2nd in the NFL (only slightly behind New Orleans). So, the Cowboys are running to 3rd Down, and then having less yardage to overcome. At that point, with "3rd and manageable", the offense has moved the chains with great precision. They outperform the league from nearly every distance when it comes to 3rd Downs as this graphic will show:
Please note the above numbers are all the percentage of success.
Anytime you can consistently outperform the league average on 3rd Down from pretty much every distance, you have to be excited.
Could the Cowboys fix 2 major offensive problems from the last several 8-8 seasons? Run the ball and convert 3rd Downs? Yes and Yes.
Meanwhile, their giveaways are near league average and their red zone conversions are well above league average. So, in summary, the Cowboys offense has been fantastic and has sustainable characteristics that suggest they are not doing this by smoke and mirrors or fluke. This style should work in the cold weather of winter and they should be suited to finish the season as they have started.
On top of that, they are also enjoying near-perfect offensive health. We hesitate to celebrate that because disaster could be one snap away, but compared to many teams, the Cowboys' offense has been a picture of health. Let's hope that continues.
The other thing I wanted to look at today was the Cowboys season production by personnel grouping. This shows us their identity, and again, the findings are pretty impressive.
But, to look at them, I did something I don't always do. I subtracted all "2-Min Drill scenarios" from the totals. That is because the 2-min drill for me should be treated as its own entity. It is only one personnel grouping and only used during he final minutes of each half and in the rare situations where you are down big. Incidentally, according to my figures, the Cowboys have had 64 snaps in the 2-minunte offense for 453 yards. They are all from Shotgun-11 personnel, so if you want to see the total picture, just add 64-453 to the S11 columns.
I decided to take them out just because I want to see the offense without that effect to see what they like to run when the situation is neutral. Or in other words, when the clock nor the score dictate play-calling, what is Scott Linehan calling?
Here is the season total (minus 2-minute offense) to show you what we are talking about (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.):
And then the same numbers, but instead of total yards, we assembled them by Yards Per Snap:
I think both of the above charts demonstrate that again, the Cowboys may have finally figured out "12" personnel. We can be cynical about how many years they have been trying this and how many picks they have spent to make it happen, but the proof is now arriving each week that Jason Witten plus James Hanna and Gavin Escobar is crossing defenses into unfavorable situations. The idea behind tight ends were versatile players who on some plays are pass catchers (WRs) and on other plays they are blockers (OL). They will never be as dangerous as a great WR not never as effective a blocker as a proper linemen, but they can do both well enough to stress a defense.
12 or 13 personnel (multiple tight ends) makes the defense wonder what is coming at them. If they defend the pass by putting more defensive backs on the field, the offense can run right at an undersized defense. If they leave the LBs on to try to run with tight ends, then you try to throw them out of that. It is balance and it is how your play action game can feed, too.
Here is a pie chart that shows how the pie is cut up by personnel group based on snaps - look how 3WR sets are about 42% and multiple tight end sets are 40%. Balance!!!
And the same goes for the pie chart as sliced by yards accumulated so far this season (minus 2-minute offense). Again, everything seems rather balanced and the shotgun/under center numbers are in the preferred spots:
This is the part of the entry where I would normally make radical suggestions on how to fix things and areas that need massive improvement. But, the fact is that in 2014, the only advice this team needs for the offense in the final 6 weeks is to A) keep doing what you are doing and B) keep your QB upright.
Everything else is working well and it is a question of maintaining the excellence. In other words, from an offensive standpoint, this is a group that should be able to get into the postseason and be very dangerous to anybody who wishes to take them on. I do believe the Cowboys should aspire to deal with blitzing better and avoid having to use their backup QB, but overall, there is little to complain about on this offense. They have really knocked it out of the park in the first 10 weeks.
Scott Linehan has been the fresh set of eyes on the offense and if there was a coordinator of the year in the NFL, I would be running his campaign for the award. He has made sense of an offense that has frustrated observers for years and their inability to perform on all cylinders.
Now, keep it going down the stretch is the big test.