Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Decoding Linehan - Week 2 - Eagles

Sunday's win in Philadelphia came at a considerable price, but one of the positive characteristics that the game took on was the equal contributions from all phases of the team.  The offense contributed.  The defense did great work.  The special teams pulled plenty of weight and maybe made the play of the game.  46 players dressed and for a very rare occasion, all 46 played.  The offense alone had 21 players participate in a play from scrimmage including brand new Dallas Cowboys Charles Borwn (who actually was credited with a start as he played a few snaps as a 3rd tight end) and Brice Butler who was acquired via trade just Tuesday and was credited with 19 offensive snaps.
The offense accumulated 359 yards of total offense on Sunday, which is what we define as acceptable offensive production in this study.  Over the course of the 8 seasons we have traced the Cowboys offense, we generally have 3 tiers of performance from a yardage standpoint:  Poor (any game with less than 320 yards), average or acceptable (320-399), and great (400+).  These move slightly each year as things change, but as a general rule, 360 yards is roughly normal offensive yard production in the NFL over that span of time. 
Of course, how they get to that number can happen in many ways, and as of this particular moment in time, we clearly are concerning ourselves with trying to examine how well the Cowboys running game is replicating what it was able to accomplish last season in that dream season of 2014.
As we study the offense each week, what will make this project frustrating this year over others is the fact that in other years they were not trying to chase their own history.  In other years, Decoding Linehan (Or Decoding Callahan or Decoding Garrett) was always a year-to-year comparison with the season before of Cowboys offense.  This year, however, they are chasing the 2014 offense, which you could argue was the planets aligning in such a fashion that the odds of replicating it would be difficult regardless of circumstances.  But, without the key members that did the heavy lifting even available?  Without DeMarco Murray, Dez Bryant, and now, Tony Romo?  Impossible, of course.
In 2014, the Cowboys were ranked 1st in the league in runs on 1st down.  An absurd 71% of the time they ran the ball on 1st down.  They ran it on 1st down and you could not stop them from getting 5 yards.  Through 2 games, the Cowboys are 19th in that. 
In 2014, they were #2 in the league in 1st down efficiency.  This is the percentage of 1st down plays in which you get at least 4 yards which defines success on the play.    So far this year, they are 14th.  That means 2nd and 3rddown is now longer. 
In 2014, they ran for 147 yards per game which was 2nd and would have been 1st if Russell Wilson didn't run so much in Seattle.  This year, with 20thwith 96 yards per game of rushing.  20th, by the way is much closer to where they normally rank before 2014. 
So, as we go through the discussions of whether this is the same offense and whether they can run the ball like they did last year, we simply must understand that for now - even before the Romo injury - this was going to be impossible to match 2014.  DeMarco was simply at a different level of running back that what they currently have (as his contract indicates), and any offensive line advantage was going to be dependent on each player on that line playing better than last year.  Tough to do, given the level they played at.
Then, with Dez Bryant getting hurt in the very first week, any numerical advantage the Cowboys offense enjoyed in 2014 instantly vanished.  He demanded a double team, which gave the running game and the other receivers a better chance at success (as his contract indicates).  Now, a defense can play the Cowboys straight up and not have to deploy extra troops to 88 or anywhere, really.  This increases the odds for the opponent to slow down the zone runs.  This is not about Bill Callahan leaving town.  This is about blue-chip difference makers not being available.
But, as we know in the NFL, no opponent would or should ever sympathize or any show mercy with a team having a run of bad luck.  Everyone deals with their situation and now the Cowboys must deal with theirs.  And that might start with us recalibrating our expectation levels for the Cowboys offense and the running game.
And that was before Tony Romo was lost for 8-10 weeks.
Let's be honest - in the NFL, either you have your QB1 or you don't.  The contracts are astronomical and the performance level should be similar.  In the case of Tony Romo, it was a real pleasure watching his pre-snap in these two seasons because for whatever reason, his cognitive grasp of the Scott Linehan offense is at a level we have never seen before from Romo.  He has played at a level that seems similar or superior to every single QB in the game and now the Cowboys lose that for the majority (we assume) of the season.  All is not completely lost, but if this team had a chance to consistently score a hypothetical 90 (out of 100) or better on all of its tests, now, you would have to feel that the ceiling is about 80 and the goal should be somewhere around 75 (or as my parents would hope for - any passing grade will do). 
Below is the list of QB starts in the "Romo Era" that did not include Tony Romo, himself:

So, the average performance from your back-up QB during this stretch is 19 for 31, 218 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT for a rating of 78.7.  An average Tony Romo start during that same stretch is 22 for 34, 270 yards, 2 TDs, 0.9 INTs, and a passer rating of 96.4.
But, what stats have never done for us is show with great accuracy the effects of how one part of the offense feeds another.  For instance, if you have a good QB, how much more unlikely is it that the opponent stacks the box and forces you to stop running?  This is the long-running fight I have with people that don't value running the ball.  Good running makes passing so much easier.  And, good passing  also makes running easier.  It is a symphony of football where you are trying to make the defense unsure of what you are doing and therefore they can not deploy the adequate number of troops to stop everything you want to do.  If they sense you can only do one thing, then that will not function as well - even though it is not the fault of that specific portion of your attack.
One other item we wish to tackle is a question about what the Cowboys are doing tactically in their running game.  How are they distributing carries, what sort of plays are they running, and what is the success of each?  Well, here is what I have from the first two weeks:
RBZone PlaysMan Plays
21- Joseph Randle       - At Phil15 - 41 yds3 - 10yds
Season Totals28 - 91 yds7 - 25yds
RBZone PlaysMan Plays
20- Darren McFadden - At Phil9 - 29 yds1 - 2 yds
Season Totals15 - 45 yds1 - 2 yds
Combined Totals Season            43 - 136 yds 8 - 27 yds
So that should tell us a few things so far.  
1) The Cowboys run way more zone plays right now than man plays.  I don't have the specific numbers from last season, but I would guess it was 75%/25% zone blocking in 2014.  In 2015, it appears to be 85%/15% zone so far.  Very small sample sizes.
2) Randle is getting the most work, but neither is where they need to be.  Randle is at 3.4 a carry and McFadden is at 2.9.  Those are tough yards to get in these games, but now without Tony Romo, we should expect it to get more difficult to run, not less difficult.  Prepare for a 12-round fight every Sunday.
3) I think this bears pointing out: For my eyes when studying the Cowboys OL, they are not nearly as sharp as last season in the run game.  This should improve as we go, but like anything in this league, we should understand that the Cowboys opponents - ESPECIALLY IN THE NFC EAST - have spent all year trying to figure out how to slow this offense down.  That means they are working on techniques to deal with zone stretch runs.  The league is making adjustments and now the Cowboys must figure things out to get back to being the hammer and not the nail.
4) Joseph Randle has actually made these numbers look better than they are.  I witnessed plenty on further study of his runs in Philadelphia where he took negative runs and at least found a few positive yards.  For all of his underwhelming statistics from that game (18 carries for 51 yards), I thought he graded out pretty well.

Here are the numbers from Week 2 in Philadelphia that you can peruse as we go.  I would draw your attention to a few things that come quickly to mind and I will start with having you check the columns each week that indicate the average yards to go on 2nd down and 3rd down. 
For some reason, as football media and fans, we fixate on 3rd down conversions, but never ask the question about how far do we need to go on 3rd downs.  One of these weeks I will share with you the success rate on 3rd downs relative to the yards needed, but rest assured that 3rd and short is a coin flip, while 3rd and long (11+) is usually a 20% or so proposition.  So, when you are complaining about the lack of 3rd down conversions, you often should actually be complaining about how poor the offense was on 1st and 2nd down to always be facing a 3rd and long.  The defenses are too good in this league to constantly deal with a 3rd and 10.  And on Sunday, in the 10 3rd down situations the Cowboys faced - they were facing the average yards to go of 9.8.  That is dreadful and way to high for success. 
Also, the Red Zone TDs were 0-2.  That usually will cost you a game and the Cowboys having 1st and goal at the 1 and not getting anything out of it hurt.  But, the Eagles  were kind enough to give the Cowboys lots of turnovers and a free Special Teams TD to insure Dallas victory.

Here we see the variations of personnel grouping and what was successful (or not) on Sunday.  The key here is to look at running production when the Cowboys are under center (any group without the "S" in front of the number) and also to look at play balance from under center.  These were two very impressive traits of last season's offense for Linehan, but we are clearly off to a rough start and it may not fix itself now with so man in the infirmary.  25 runs from under center and only 72 yards to account for it.  That simply is not going to work.  Also, from under center, the play calling was 25 runs/6 passes, meaning that if you are on the opposition's side, you are looking at 31 plays where Romo or Weeden are under center and you are seeing a run play 5 out of every 6 snaps.  I admire the Cowboys desire to run when you know they are running, but you can see how they may need to balance that up to have success without Romo or Dez.

The Eagles did not blitz much, but as we mentioned yesterday, one of those blitzes (on 2nd down) was the one which knocked Romo out of the game.  The only time they blitzed on 3rd down (out of 10 opportunities) was when Weeden burned them with the skinny post to Terrence Williams.  
Speaking of that, John Daigle made a passing chart this week which was the Terrence Williams vs Byron Maxwell heat map.  For reasons that nobody really knows, Maxwell played some seriously soft coverage against Williams and Williams ran the same deep slant/skinny post over and over again.  Look - these are merely the catches:

There were several more and when the opponent is playing a soft brand of man coverage you go back to the well until they stop it.  Maxwell cannot deal with Julio Jones, fine.  But, Terrance Williams is eating your lunch?  I never dreamed it would go like that on Sunday.  
And then, the kill shot.  
I mean, if Dez Bryant is going to abuse Bradley Fletcher, then ok.  But, if you are going to pay $63m to have Terrance Williams do this to Byron Maxwell all day on the same route, you might want to get a refund.  That is absurd.
The success of the Cowboys offense in 2014 was predicated on balance and power.  Hypothetically, to replicate that moving forward, you don't want the Cowboys in shotgun a ton.  That said, with the massive personnel issues, they may need to do whatever helps them find 21 points on a given Sunday.  Out of the gate, their numbers are up from last season.

This is clearly going to be tough sledding moving forward.  The offense now has to scheme a replacement for #9, #29, and #88 all at the same time.  Individually, it seems the Cowboys have reasonable ideas at each spot, but let's be honest - what team is going to survive dealing with all 3 replacements simultaneously?  
There were a few snaps in the 3rd Quarter after Romo was hurt where the field looked like a preseason game with Weeden under center, McFadden at RB, Escobar at TE (as Witten was dealing with one of his several sprains), Cole Beasley, Williams, and some guy named Brice Butler (I kid).  Mackenzy Bernadeau was even in at LG so you saw very little resemblance to the team that tried to make a Super Bowl run last winter.  
La'el Collins played quite a bit on Sunday and actually played one more snap than Bernadeau according to ProFootballFocus (43-42).  They count all snaps, not just official plays, by the way.  I thought Collins was the better player on Sunday and is the best left guard on their roster.  But, they are comfortable with Leary when he is healthy and are intent on bringing Collins along slowly.  Overall, he has a ceiling that is quite high.
This is now a test of your quality depth and front office.  You have draft picks taking over RB and WR and you may need your 2nd round backup TE to help share the load.  They have quality reserves and now the offense is being turned over to many of them until Thanksgiving.  We judge many statistics and metrics, but in the end, they just need to play well enough to win as many as they lose here for the next several weeks.  Yes, we will grade on a curve.  As the Cowboys must.  
Weeden is capable.  He has a big arm, but it sure seems like he is afraid to use it and also to stand in and take a hit.  But, then, he does prove us wrong and stands in and takes a hit in Philadelphia to help seal the game.  There will be a massive drop off, but he has been in the Linehan system for a long time, so now it is time to demonstrate his value to this league.  Luckily, they start with an Atlanta defense that should be less threatening than Arizona last year.  
We shall see soon enough. 

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