Monday, December 01, 2014

Decoding Linehan - Week 12 - Eagles

Head coach Jason Garrett of the Dallas Cowboys, center, assistant coach Scott Linehan and Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys talk in the first half against the New York Giants at AT&T Stadium on October 19, 2014 in Arlington, Texas. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
The Cowboys offense is starting to battle a normal amount of self-doubt which arises through the course of the season.  If you look at football as a complex game of chess where there are moves and counters that are constantly being presented back and forth between a team and its opponents, then you can see the mental gymnastics that accompany the march through a campaign.
The more you study coaches and their battle plans, the more you see how teams use the successes or failures of previous opponents to give them clues on what a particular offense destroys or struggles against.  This is the "groupthink" gauntlet that a schedule can often present, where coaches must tailor their attacks in a casserole of "what has worked against these guys" and "what we have to work with against them."
So, as we try to analyze how teams deal with Scott Linehan each week, and conversely, how he attacks them, we can see that much of what the Cowboys did on 3rd Down in the first 7 weeks was tied to the 6-1 start.  In fact, you could argue - as I did at the time - that much of what we are attributing to the success of the running game and the "opportunistic defense" was really just exceptional - and seemingly unsustainable - 3rd Down play.
We saw this against the Eagles, where the Cowboys again went 4 for 12 on the money down and had too many drives end with heads hung down as they walked back to the sideline.  All your work on the early downs is fantastic, but most every drive there is a critical make-or-break moment, which the contenders convert to keep drives alive.
That is not to suggest that the running game wasn't awesome in the first 2 months, because it was - and to an extent - still is.  But, the narrative at the time was that they are running the ball and keeping it away from the opponent and therefore the defense doesn't have to play and look at how little the defense is even on the field.  I was making some of those very points, but perhaps not making them loudly enough.  From Week 7, here were some of the thoughts on 3rd Down:
In 2014, Romo throws on 3rd Down have already moved the chains 40 times.  If you are curious how that ranks, know that he only was able to do that 48 times in all of 2013!  That is right.  Somehow, he was at about 3 throws a game that moved the chains all last year - and now is on a pace to basically double that.

Now, the team is better on 3rd Downs for a number of reasons - better running game is setting up shorter 3rd Down attempts, better running game is converting 3rd downs on the ground, better pass protection is allowing more time, etc.  But, for me, if you asked for one specific reason for the insane uptick in 3rd down production, I am going to tell you that somehow, they have figured out how to deploy their weapons in a way that attacks defenses without relying too much on Dez Bryant and Jason Witten.

So, we can look at 3rd Downs a few ways.  1) they are way more dependent on this 3rd Down conversion rate than we are willing to admit.  2) they were due for a bit of a market correction as the rate they were at was simply unsustainable.  and 3) it is only 1 week, Bob.  Let's see a few more teams slow down the Cowboys on 3rd Down.

And remember, when Jason Garrett was doing one of his tennis court press conferences in sunny Oxnard back in July, he addressed the fact that the difference between a disastrous 3rd Down season and an average 3rd Down season is simply one more conversion a game.  That is certainly a very "Bull Durham" approach to statistics, but it is pretty close to the truth.  But, the Cowboys are basically on course for an uptick of 2 per game, which takes them from the bottom group in the league to #1.  And if they are going to be converting on 3rd Downs at a level above the annual leaders in Denver (Peyton Manning) and New Orleans (Drew Brees), then you can best believe that opponents who see Dallas on the schedule are going to burn the midnight oil to try to figure out ways to slow them down.
Ah, yes, the 1 week sample size.  Well, now it is 5 weeks.  The league was getting smoked by the Cowboys to the tune of 57.4% in the first 7 weeks on 3rd Down - 1st in the league by a healthy margin - and now in the last 5 weeks has taken the Cowboys down to 34.5%, which is 25th in football during that span, well below league average and pretty much right where they were in 2013 before the great Linehan rolled in to save us.
Behold, the ugly reality of the post-Haslett visit:
Again, it was unsustainable at 57%.  Only one team in the last 5 years of NFL football - the 2011 New Orleans Saints - spent an entire season over 50%.  So, to think that the Cowboys were just going to take over the league and it would be the new normal around here is not respecting the chess game give-and-take relationship of how NFL defensive minds would start to sort out what the Cowboys "like to do" and maybe more importantly, what "they don't like to deal with."
Oh, and the other convenient explanation of 3rd Down performance is that the Cowboys might not be in the same distance situations that they were back when they were successful.  Here is a chart that shows the average 3rd Down-to-go distance for each of the first 12 games:
The Blue line is the Cowboys distance to go each week and the Green Line is the average distance for the season of 7.04 yards per 3rd Down.  As you can see, it fluctuates from week to week quite a bit.  But, if I may, I have taken the liberty to calculate the season from Weeks 1-7 and then 8-12.
From Weeks 1-7, the Cowboys average distance to go when they were #1 in the league in 3rd Down conversions was 7.42.  Then, Weeks 8-12, when they are #25 in the league, they average distance is 6.46.
Your eyes do not deceive you - they are actually a yard closer per 3rd Down than they were, yet their conversions have dropped from 57% to 34%.
Explanations?  Are they being defended differently?  Well, yes, the opposition is blitzing more on 3rd Downs, but not substantially more.  They were being blitzed and beating it.  Now, they just don't nearly as often.  Are they running less effectively on short downs and distances? Well, yes, but not enough to make this much of a difference.  Is Romo worse on 3rd Downs?  Well, yes, but it isn't like he is bad now.  He is still sitting at a QB rating on 3rd Down of 113 for the year and has already passed for 52 1st downs on 3rd Down which is already 4 more than he did an entire season in 2013.  Over this shorter sample he has perhaps simply returned to normal.  They are still #2 in the NFL, but now at a more reasonable 48%.  If they stay there, they likely go to the playoffs.  But, that would require the 3rd Down offense to break out of its 5 week pattern.
That has to be the top concern in the offensive meetings right now, right?  What were the Cowboys doing then that they are not doing now?  The best explanations that can really be seen is that the Cowboys are going through the ebbs and flows of a long season.  When they are red-hot and "in the zone", they can't be beaten.  They win in Seattle with 10 different 3rd Down conversions (including a 3rd and 20 for the ages).  But, against Philadelphia, they only convert 4 3rd Downs and the punter gets too much work.
On the season, they are still on pace for a fantastic year, but it has to be incredibly disconcerting that the best 7 3rd Down games on an individual basis this year are the first 7:  1) NYG-H, 2) Seattle, 3) Tenn, 4) NO, 5) Houston, 6) SF, and 7) St Louis.  While the bottom 5 are each of the last 5: 12) Ari, 11) NYG-A, 10) Phil, 9) Jacksonville, and 8) Washington.
That can't be a coincidence.
Did the clock strike midnight on an incredible, out-of-character hot streak?  Chicago will start the final quarter of the season and this stat could not control more of their fate.
They call it the money down for a reason.  And on Thanksgiving Day, the Cowboys had an interception, 2 sacks (including a chaotic premature snap), a tackle for loss on a toss to Lance Dunbar, a few passes where the QB and receivers looked confused, and a no-call that looked like a pretty clear pass interference.  Each play has its own story, but the cumulative totals continued a troubling trend that must get turned around quickly.
What they have been doing still works.  They just need that throw and that catch at that moment.  It sounds simple and it is.  Especially when it is working.
Offensive Participation:
The offensive line played its worst game of the year, which we will detail better on Wednesday when we do Xs and Os with the All-22s.  That said, once again, it must be noted how perfect the offensive health has been this year.  They had perfect attendance yet again and if you want to know my explanation for the December reputation this team has built over the last several years, I tie most of it to attrition and the fact that health has always caught up to the Cowboys by December.  This year, (knock on wood), they have played almost the entire year with almost everyone on their offense available.  Yes, they have missed a few for pieces for a game here and there, but I think you would be hard pressed to find a year where the 11 on the offense was this available for this long.  Attrition cannot be blamed if this offense is not successful in December - assuming the QBs health can look more like it did in the Giants game rather than how he looked 4 days later.  Otherwise, all their regulars played the whole way.

PASSING CHART - My buddy John Daigle has designed this passing chart each week.  Each color represents the possession number listed in the key. The numbers are separated by the half. If you were to start from the bottom and work your way up, you would be tracking that possession from beginning to end. The dotted-lines are incompletions. Large gaps between throws are mostly YAC or carries.
Week 13 Summary
You may recall in the Morning After Piece from Friday that I discussed that the Eagles game was Romo's lowest rated performance since the first game in the new stadium against the Giants back in 2009.  John, who makes our charts decided to go back and chart that game, too, to put them side by side.  Impressive work!
Tony Romo - Week 2, 2009                                      Tony Romo - Week 13, 2014

I wasn't expecting to see much from those charts this week, but it is interesting to see how little the Cowboys threw at the middle of the field against the Eagles.  Almost everything to the perimeter.  I bet a Mark Sanchez chart would be just the opposite, with almost everything down the middle.  We shall see tomorrow.
DRIVE STARTERS - The 1st play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan. How committed is he to the run or pass when the team comes off the sideline? We track it each week here.

2013 Total: 176 Drives - 84 Run/92 Pass - 47% Run
2012 Total: 173 Drives - 76 Run/97 Pass - 44% Run
2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run/102 Pass - 44% Run
* This statistic doesn't count the 1-play kneel down drives.
Lots of shotgun snaps can often mean they spent plenty of time behind.  That was certainly the case on Thanksgiving.

2013 Total: 566/945 - 59.8% Shotgun
2012 Total: 565/1038 - 54% Shotgun
2011 Total: 445/1012 - 43.9% Shotgun
TOTALS BY PERSONNEL GROUPS (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.)
 The run totals this game are not very good, but I think the story it tells is based on no big runs.  Every game, the Cowboys are able to pop a few which brings the average up.  They weren't bad on the ground, but they never broke one for more than 8 yards.  Thus, the average and the totals are all down.
* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.
Against the Eagles, they tried play-action, but the Eagles were sitting on it each time and Romo had to check down.
Wk 1: 1/5, 9 Yds, 3 INT, 1 FD
Wk 2: 4/5, 39 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 FD
Wk 3: 3/3, 88 Yds, 1 TD, 2 FD
Wk 4: 6/8, 76 Yds, 1 TD, 4 FD
Wk 5: 2/4, 38 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 FD
Wk 6: 1/4, 47 Yds, 1 Sack, 1 FD
Wk 7: 3/5, 55 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 TD, 1 FD
Wk 8: 5/6, 92 Yds, 1 TD, 2 FD
Wk 9: 1/1, 1 Yd
Wk 10: 2/3, 21 Yds, 1 FD
Wk 12: 4/4, 86 Yds, 4 FD
Wk 13: 2/3, 11 Yds, 1 FD
2014 Total: 34/51, 66 Cmp%, 563 Yds, 5 TD, 3 INT, 21 FD, 4 Sack

BLITZING Romo - Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 33 Passes against Philadelphia
Did the Eagles blitz?  Yes.  But, only on 3rd Downs (mostly).
Wk 1: SF Blitzed Dallas 1/40 - Blitzed 2.5%
Wk 2: TEN Blitzed Dallas 12/33 - Blitzed 36%
Wk 3: STL Blitzed Dallas 11/23 - Blitzed 47%
Wk 4: NO Blitzed Dallas 11/32 - Blitzed 34%
Wk 5: HOU Blitzed Dallas 11/42 - Blitzed 26%
Wk 6: SEA Blitzed Dallas 5/33 - Blitzed 15%
Wk 7: NYG Blitzed Dallas 5/25 - Blitzed 20%
Wk 8: WAS Blitzed Dallas 21/40 – Blitzed 52%
Wk 9: AZ Blitzed Dallas 13/36 - Blitzed 36%
Wk 10: JAX Blitzed Dallas 6/29 - Blitzed 20%
Wk 12: NYG Blitzed Dallas 3/27 - Blitzed 11%
Wk 13: PHI Blitzed Dallas 8/33 - Blitzed 24%
2014 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 107/393 - Blitzed 27%
2013 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 210/616 - Blitzed 34%

This game was a mess. The defense put the offense in a hole. Then, the QB played his worst game of the year and never looked himself. 3rd Downs were off and they never looked close to comfortable.
That said, 8-4 and in perfect health should be the theme as they go to Chicago. They still can run the ball, they still love their personnel, and they are still right in the mix.
Linehan, Romo, and the crew are having their confidence tested, but they should rely on the body of work over 12 weeks to tell them that they are a good group who are capable of impressive things. They will have another shot at standing up to the Eagles, but must channel all of their energy into dealing with a Chicago team that is certainly dangerous in this setting.
The offense better be prepared to score 28-35 to win this game, and that will require some real impressive 3rd Down work.
Shake it off. This is no time to panic.

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