Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Decoding Linehan - Divisional Playoffs - Green Bay

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant (88) and Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (82) walk off the field after the Cowboys' 26-21 loss during the Dallas Cowboys vs. the Green Bay Packers.
So much in your memory about the Divisional loss at Lambeau Field will go back to the overturn.  It should.  It was somewhere between a improper ruling of a bad rule and a proper ruling of a bad rule.  Either way, the NFL likely will take action and attempt to fix things moving forward, but there is no way to bring Sunday back.
Regardless, as we spent an awful amount of time on back on Monday morning, in a piece you might review here, there were missed opportunities all day.  And to look at the job of Scott Linehan and the Cowboys offensive game-plan, it is fair to wonder if they would do things differently if they had the chance.
I think it is important to consider the game you are playing, rather than the game you planned to play.  That means that you scout your opponent, anticipate situations and ideas, and then call the game accordingly.  One thing this staff has done so well this year is, shortly into the game, they will see something that requires a reversal of ideas - positively or negatively.  If the opponent has shown they are ready for your plan or incapable of dealing with it, then you attack that accordingly.
So, as I leave this final game of the year, I am still stuck in hypothetical parallel approaches to the end of both the 1st and 2nd half.  This isn't to say that what the Cowboys did was the worst idea ever, but was there a better opportunity?
1st Half: With :40 to play, the Cowboys receive a very favorable spot from the officials that gives them what we believe to be a 1st down at the Packers' 26 yard line.  They call timeout, because with a 1st down at the 26, they are now thinking "touchdown" on this drive (as they should).
During the timeout, the booth reviews the spot and sees that it was incorrect, which now means 3rd and 1.  Here is where Romo kills out of a play (which we wonder about) and it is followed by the botched snap and the throw into the boundary of the end zone for an incomplete pass that stops the clock and forces a field goal attempt of 45 yards - which then becomes a 50-yarder with a false start.
For me, it comes back to that 3rd and 1.  Green Bay had 7 in the box, Dallas had 6 up front and Murray.  Regardless of what the play call was (EDIT 5:05pm: I asked Jason Witten today what the play call was and he confirmed it was a run/pass option that Tony opted into the pass when he didn't like the numbers in the defensive box), I submit to you that this has to be a situation where I make Green Bay do something they really never did - stop Murray on a critical short yardage situation.  Murray got the ball Sunday in 4 short yardage spots and easily converted all 4.  There are no guarantees in football, but if during the timeout, the idea is to use 2 runs to move the chains and then reassess, then my field goal gets closer and closer, the touchdown remains in play - and most importantly, the Packers do not have time to respond.
That is the big takeaway from this game for me.  The coaches seemed to understand all year that the best defense is to keep the ball away from the opposition.  But Sunday, twice, in critical spots, they seemed to forget this idea - and both times it seemed that their win probabilities were hurt with strategic choices.
Now, you never plan for a field goal to suffer a false start and a block, but you do have to look at 3rd and 1 from the 26 and weigh the odds of throwing to the end zone versus doing something Green Bay has not given any indication they can stop.  That was a chance to go in 17-7 that turned into 14-10.  6-point swings are massive, and play calling (and QB play-killing) are under review here.
2nd Half: This one is more controversial and will no doubt get people ready to comment below.  REMEMBER: when a play is called, we don't know the outcome.  So, outcome based logic cannot be used when we discuss the choice on 4th and 2 with 4:42 left in the game.  All we know is what we knew at the time.  And what we knew at the time is that this feels like the NBA late game situation where neither defense looks capable of a stop and that whoever gets the ball last - Rodgers or Romo - is likely going to win.
If I may back up 2 plays, 2nd and 8 from the Green Bay 38 with 6:28 to go, the Cowboys are taking the entire play clock down.  It seems that they know they are going in to take the lead and to not leave anytime left for Rodgers.  But, they use S02, which has been their calling card for the last 2 months, but it also has been leaking sacks in the playoffs.  Teams are now challenging the protection when the backfield is empty more than ever.  And, in this critical spot, Romo - a QB being so careful about making dangerous throws in these playoffs - held the ball for 7 seconds before finally being sacked.  You can tell he doesn't want to throw the ball away and stop the clock, but he can't take a sack there.  More importantly, should 2nd and 8 be more Murray?  2 carries ago, he ran for 30 yards and remember the killshot drive in Seattle which was all Murray after midfield?
That is why on 4th and 2, that fateful play where Romo goes to Bryant, I understand the logic of taking a chance with your best receiver on 1-on-1 coverage.  But, man, you have to know that a fade or go route on a day like Sunday where no downfield completions of 20+ yards in the air were happening for either QB, that the percentages argued that you move the chains with something short.  Now, Green Bay knew that, too.  And they were taking away Jason Witten, but Cole Beasley underneath is uncovered when his corner blitzes against a Cover 0 where if Beasley catches it, he may go all the way.
But, I prefer that he doesn't.  I prefer that he moves the chains and gets tackled by 42-Morgan Burnett at the 28.  Why?  Because if that happens, I submit that Green Bay never touches the ball again.  4:30 to play, 1st down at the Green Bay 28, and the Packers have just 1 timeout.  Murray, Murray, and Murray until that tired defense stops him (which they only did on that Peppers forced fumble).  They may not.
It is a matter of probabilities.  If no passes have been completed downfield by either team all day, on 4th and 2, that is taking a real chance.  It is a shot from deep behind the 3-point line when a lay-up may be available.  I am not saying they can't complete it (they did!), but we just need to know the best chances of extending the game might be elsewhere.
You are surely irate right now, because they "went for it" and scored a touchdown (that was not given), so there is no discussion to be had.  I agree, to a point, but with 4:30 to play and the Cowboys up either 1 or 3 (depending on the 2 point conversion), what are the odds that A) Aaron Rodgers throws his first interception in 500 throws, B) the Cowboys don't even allow a field goal, or C) there is enough time for Romo and the Cowboys to answer again?  Not great.  I believe once you crossed midfield, you had to start thinking that the game ends on this drive and if we can help it, there will be less than a minute left when the touchdown is scored.
Is this a cheap 2nd guess?  You may think so, but the very nature of a weekly column about Scott Linehan's performance each week is all about considering alternatives and solutions and offering a critical analysis of the offense.
On this day, where the QB rating was at the maximum (it does not measure sacks taken) and where the running game did not suffer a single negative run all afternoon, and where the NFL seemed to take away the most majestic 4th and 2 conversion anyone can remember, I think many are left to wonder what would have happened if the Cowboys simply forced the Packers to stop their power run game at the end of each half.
I suppose it is ironic, that in a year where they ran the ball more than anyone, I am sitting here arguing they should have run even more, but I think this situation called for it, mostly because their opponent was not able to ever prove they could stop it.
I want to reserve some of this for Xs and Os on Friday, but I was asked to address the play where Murray fumbled from the All-22's today, so I shall.  The question was whether after seeing the coaches view if we can call this an absolute missed Touchdown.  In other words, did this fumble cost Dallas the game, or is that another narrative that may not be founded in fact?
Well, let's take a look:
3Q/11:11 - 1/5/D41 - Murray right with pulling guards - Fumble.
Lots to look at here.  First, look at the feet of the deep safety up in the top left hand corner.  That is 21-Haha Clinton Dix.  He is worried about the 2 WRs on Romo's left.  I love when the Cowboys run this play to the weak side.  It is so effective and with the 2 pulling guards, it usually is difficult to stop.
78-Parnell, 84-Hanna, and 65-Leary all destroy their men.  72-Frederick seals off his guy with a great hip turn pivot.  That leaves only 70-Martin to clean up 56-Julius Peppers and this is a huge gain.  The play from Peppers is just outstanding and he puts a move on Martin that leaves the rookie in a 3 point stance as the strip is happening.  For all of Martin's accolades from a tremendous 1st year, he will see this missed block in his nightmares. How Peppers can keep outside contain and then make a play on the ball and actually knock it loose is on of those times you might just tip your cap to a player making a play.  Murray looks like the ball is held high and tight.
So, now, does Clinton Dix, the only possible tackler left, get Murray 15-25 yards downfield or is this a sure touchdown?  He has a chance, at least.  Perhaps if he gives up on coming forward and just tries to cut him off at the sideline.  But, as you can see, we have seen Murray bust that and with the safety on the opposite hash, it seems unlikely.  Look below to see how far away he is and across both hashes.

If I had to guess, I think Murray takes it for 7.  Total guess, but there is my best answer.
Offensive Participation:
No Doug Free yet again as he was a casualty in Philadelphia and never played another snap in 2014.  We don't know what that caused as Parnell was never technically bad, but assignments were botched on the right side of the line as they deployed a backup right tackle and a rookie right guard (albeit a very good one).  It seems that most twists and stunts were targeting that side, although if the Detroit and Green Bay games had anything major in common, it appeared that the idea to isolate Ron Leary and attack him was being used regularly.  I think the Cowboys may have to consider how good Leary is and how much to invest in him or to keep looking for that spot.  He was no match for Mike Daniels on Sunday.

 Nothing to complain about, save for the total snaps.  It was a very low number of total plays as the Packers were possessing the ball quite a bit, too.  In fact, of the 18 games the Cowboys played this year, the 51 snaps was 18th.  They just didn't have the ball much and didn't keep it as they would prefer.
PASSING CHART - 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.
Divisional Round Summary
The white dotted line to the 5 yard line shall live in infamy.
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.
* This statistic doesn't count the 1-play kneel down drives.

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.)

Again, in every single personnel grouping they had success pounding the ball on the ground.  This wasn't Arizona they were playing.
* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.
WC: 1/1, -1 Yds, 1 Sack
DIV: 2/2, 13 Yds, 1 TD, 1 FD, 1 Sack
2014 Total: 46/67 (68 percent), 726 Yds, 7 TD, 4 INT, 29 FD, 8 sacks - QB Rating: 114.3
BLITZING Romo - Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 24 Passes against Green Bay
Green Bay is a pressure team and they were sending big numbers quite a bit.  That is their only way to survive and sometimes - see the Williams TD in the 2nd Quarter - it is how they lose.
And here are the full season numbers to date.
This is the first time in forever that I leave a Cowboys season without any sort of feeling that the offense underachieved.  They maxed out their abilities all year.
Their QB played his best year of his career and from December on, he hardly had a bad throw in six games.  He was remarkable and a legitimate MVP finalist.
Their OL was in charge of almost every game and every situation all year.  They also enjoyed almost perfect health.  They zone blocked, man blocked, and pass protected with impressive excellence.
Their RB led the NFL in rushing and stayed durable and healthy and punishing from start to finish.  He is going to make a lot of money and deserves it.  He is not some guy you just replace easily.
Their WR group is led by one of the most impressive players in the NFL who has grown properly into one of the true alpha males in the sport.  He certainly backs up his talk with a walk that is amazing.  He is joined by a deep threat who scores big plays, a slot receiver who is money at moving the chains, and a Hall of Fame tight end who either gets double teamed or he beats your guy.
They had no glaring issues this year.  They protected the ball better as the year went along, they varied their groupings and ideas, and they dominated the clock.  They converted 3rd Downs, they scored touchdowns in the red zone.  They scored on big plays.
In short, this was as good a complete offense as you will see in the NFL and easily could have contended for a Super Bowl if not for things out of their control.  We can 2nd guess a decision here and there, but it is next to impossible to 2nd guess the overall quality of this unit.
Quite a year for Scott Linehan and his side of the ball.

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