Fifteen games into the regular season, the Dallas Cowboys have earned their ticket to the postseason, and they are starting to gain recognition for the exceptional offensive year they have put together. Six members of their offense has been selected for the Pro Bowl, including all three of the first-round picks on the OL, plus Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and the man who has set the tone for the entire season, DeMarco Murray.
The reason it is so difficult to have a conversation about whether Tony Romo should win the NFL MVP is because it is a bit tricky to identify the MVP of his own offense. Romo, by the way, has put together the type of season that should get him in those conversations with Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady (and JJ Watt), but it is fair to ask if DeMarco Murray should, too. And, if Murray does lead the NFL in nearly every rushing statistic -- some by a very healthy margin such as the rushing title itself by 400-plus yards -- then we must ask how much of it is Murray and how much of it is the fantastic offensive line that has been assembled.
Regardless, we can surely all agree that while the individual awards are fun and rewarding, they honestly do not particularly matter as it pertains to the whole reason we play the games. The Cowboys' lone objective when they prepare for any opponent is the team accomplishment of a win, not the personal accolades that accompany a victory. Additionally, what makes the Cowboys such a formidable offensive threat is exactly why it is so difficult to identify a single focal point of the offense. They are sustainable as an offensive threat moving forward because they have a formula that does not over-leverage any one component.
In other words, they are the epitome of the powerful, merciless, balanced offense this "decoding" series started pleading for the day that Jason Garrett was given the head coaching job in 2010. The week he was given the job in November of 2010, I wrote the following about what was needed from the Garrett Cowboys in a column called "Expectations For The Garrett Era:
They are weak mentally. Adversity breaks them down. When the going gets tough, the Cowboys cave in and collapse. They must learn resolve and a steel mindset that welcomes a challenge and can overcome some bad luck. Nothing tells you about a team like their ability to deal with something that doesn't go their way. 3 weeks ago, their QB was lost and this team has yet to act like they are still interested in playing anymore. Listen, Gents, in the NFL, injuries are a fact of life. If your QB getting hurt makes your defense want to fold their tents for the season, then you have the wrong players on your team.But, a weak mentality is not all that needs to be fixed very quickly. A weak physical approach to football is even worse. And in 2010, we are seeing one of the very weakest Cowboys' teams that I can remember. Their inability to run the football is not a strategy issue. Sure, there are a few points of strategy in the run calls that could be debated. But what we have seen for the entire season is an offensive line that cannot win the battle at the point of attack. There is seldom a play when everyone up front is carrying out their assignment with the proper precision and strength. This is just not an offensive line that has ever taken a game by the scruff of the neck. You cannot win in the NFL if your offensive line can be bullied on a routine basis. And make no mistake: Pretty much every opponent has pushed the Cowboys' OL around. As I have said, run any scheme you want and if your OL is having the physical game taken to them, then it just won't matter which play you call. You cannot win.Football is a complicated game with a simple truth: In order to win, you need your guys to whip the rear of the player across from them.In short, on offense and defense, this team doesn't resemble a team that is ready for a street fight. Rather, they resemble a team that has been coddled and assured that they are entitled to something wonderful without having to earn it. The glamour of the Dallas Cowboys brand name has given them the impression that success is owed to them. They embody their label of being members of a "country club" where they would like to win, but it surely is not a matter of life or death.Like I said, Jason Garrett knows all of this. I think it is obvious with his actions in the first few days that pads must be put on at practice. Things must change. Discipline must be implemented. Privileges must be revoked. Fundamentals must be emphasized. And excuses must be removed.
And now, like a proud papa, one can stand back and see that it didn't happen quickly and it didn't happen immediately, but here it is. They have arrived -- some 4 years later -- at the spot where they can absolutely take over a game physically and destroy an opponent's will to play.
One way they are accomplishing this objective is by running on first down more than any team in football. The average NFL team this year has thrown 185 passes on first down. The NFL leaders in first-down passes include the Saints (234) and the Eagles (228). Meanwhile, the Cowboys rank 32, having thrown on 116 first-down passes this year. That means the Cowboys throw on first down about seven times a game. And if you deduct the two-minute drill? It is probably twice a half that they are throwing on first down.
Of course, that means more on the ground. The average NFL team this season has run 201 times on first down, with Jacksonville bringing up the rear in the NFL with 155 such plays. Dallas leads the league with 279. They also lead the league in production at 5.07 yards per rush. They run the most, they pass the least, and their production on the ground is the highest. But, here is the part I bet you don't know: They also lead the NFL in yards per first-down pass! They run fewer first-down pass plays than anyone else in the league, and because of that, they also out-produce everyone with 9.33 yards per pass.
So, No. 1 in yardage per play on first-down runs and passes? This means fewer third downs, and when they happen, shorter yardage to go for first downs.
And that is what we mean when we talk about sustainable offenses.
By the way, on first down, Murray's production has been down the last couple weeks. For 13 weeks, he averaged an absurd 5.78 yards per carry. The Colts and Eagles did nice jobs on first down, holding him to 95 yards on 33 carries, a pitiful 2.88-yard average. It seems clear that both teams were determined to stop the Cowboys' run on first down to control the game. And that is where the MVP argument crystallizes a bit for Romo. When holding Murray off the sheet, the team has scored 80 points by unleashing Dez Bryant and the Romo-led aerial attack again.But have they stopped running on first down and started slinging it around? No, they have run more. The powerful, merciless, balanced offense has arrived.
In weeks 1-13, the Cowboys ran on first down 69 percent of the time. Now, in weeks 14-15, when the defenses were determined to take Murray away, they have cranked it up to 80 percent runs on first down. Now, several first-down plays when they were up big on the Colts may have skewed that percentage, but the 45/11 run/pass the last few weeks on first down is telling the league "do whatever you want, we are still running the ball on first down and thereby controlling the clock and the game".
Again, sustainable, repeatable, championship power is present on this offense.
If this season ends up being remembered historically, I think the idea that might not get enough publicity is that the Cowboys have much better depth this year than any year in the recent past. The best examples to me are Jermey Parnell and Anthony Hitchens. Both were expected to be reserves this year, and both were forced to play. I will spend more time on Hitchens tomorrow, but the performance of Parnell, 28, has been very impressive. He played the entire game Sunday and, like just about every time he plays, he was hardly noticed. That, by the way, is a very good thing for an offensive linemen. Just blend in and do your job. If the Cowboys decide he's their starting right tackle next season, I am pretty sure could deal with that, although I think we should prefer that Doug Free return, if the price is right. The point is, Parnell has earned a real look for next year as your starter, and has been a real depth luxury this season as a reserve.
STATS FOR WEEK 16 AGAINST COLTS
Every stat you see above is ideal. The Colts were just a speed bump on the way to a division title.
DRIVE STARTERS - The first 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.
Please notice that the Cowboys have started drives with running plays 71 percent of the time in 2014, then compare that to that numbers below. Under Garrett, the Cowboys had never opened drives with running plays more than 47 percent of the time. Wow.
2013 Total: 176 Drives - 84 Run/92 Pass - 47 percent run
2012 Total: 173 Drives - 76 Run/97 Pass - 44 percent run
2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run/102 Pass - 44 percent run
* This statistic doesn't count the 1-play kneel down drives.
Lots of shotgun snaps can often mean a team has spent plenty of time behind. The Cowboys the last two weeks have played with the lead a lot, and the shotgun numbers have gone back down, nicely.
Again, the impacts of Linehan and the might of the personnel is on full display in this category. They don't play finesse anymore.
2013 Total: 566/945 - 59.8 percent shotgun
2012 Total: 565/1038 - 54 percent shotgun
2011 Total: 445/1012 - 43.9 percent 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.)
Note the plays above from under center -- any group that doesn't have "S" on it. Thirty-nine runs and three passes, but the three passes went for 50 yards. Run, run, run, pass!
* - 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
Wk 14: 5/6, 85 Yds, 4 FD, 1 Sack
Wk 15: 0/1, 1 Sack
Wk 16: 1/1, 11 Yds, 1 FD
2014 Total: 40/59 (67 percent), 659 Yds, 5 TD, 3 INT, 26 FD, 6 sacks - QB Rating: 112.1
BLITZING Romo - Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 25 Passes against Indianapolis
Wk 1: SF Blitzed Dallas 1/40 - Blitzed 2.5 percent
Wk 2: TEN Blitzed Dallas 12/33 - Blitzed 36 percent
Wk 3: STL Blitzed Dallas 11/23 - Blitzed 47 percent
Wk 4: NO Blitzed Dallas 11/32 - Blitzed 34 percent
Wk 5: HOU Blitzed Dallas 11/42 - Blitzed 26 percent
Wk 6: SEA Blitzed Dallas 5/33 - Blitzed 15 percent
Wk 7: NYG Blitzed Dallas 5/25 - Blitzed 20 percent
Wk 8: WAS Blitzed Dallas 21/40 – Blitzed 52 percent
Wk 9: AZ Blitzed Dallas 13/36 - Blitzed 36 percent
Wk 10: JAX Blitzed Dallas 6/29 - Blitzed 20 percent
Wk 12: NYG Blitzed Dallas 3/27 - Blitzed 11 percent
Wk 13: PHI Blitzed Dallas 8/33 - Blitzed 24 percent
Wk 14: CHI Blitzed Dallas 7/27 - Blitzed 25 percent
Wk 15: PHI Blitzed Dallas 8/35 - Blitzed 22 percent
Wk 16: IND Blitzed Dallas 10/25 - Blitzed 40 percent
2014 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 132/480 - Blitzed 27 percent
2013 Total: Opponents Blitzed Dallas 210/616 - Blitzed 34 percent
SUMMARY AND LOOK AHEAD:
This is a chance to take a deep breath and look around at the offense. Sure, there's one more game to play, but I hope the Cowboys treat it with the casual approach that I think it deserves. The Washington game likely has no bearing on the playoff picture, and anything that the Cowboys wanted to achieve in 2014's regular season has already been done - or, in the case of the bye week and the No. 1 or No. 2 seed, is no longer under their control.
Personally, I wouldn't play Tony Romo or DeMarco Murray in Washington. But I've been around here long enough to know that isn't how this organization usually operates. For me, this is a Brandon Weeden-Joseph Randle game, and it is the de facto bye week for my important pieces that need whatever off time they can get to prepare for what lies ahead.
And from here, what lies ahead is a real chance to be the team "nobody wants to play" in the postseason. And the reasons are what we talked about above. This isn't about Romo out-dueling Aaron Rodgers or Matthew Stafford or Russell Wilson. He doesn't have the same required of him as they do. Like Troy Aikman once upon a time, he finally has an offensive group around him that spreads the leverage and asks him to make some plays, but not all the plays. That is an advantageous position matched only by Seattle in this playoff field. Green Bay requires magic tricks from their QB, but Romo just needs to keep doing what he has done all season. Force the defense to stop the run, and then spring the trap over the top when he sees someone single-team defending Dez. It has worked thus far, and I am confident in can keep working.
There is no doubt this offense is capable of making significant noise in January. We certainly haven't been able to say that in years.