The problems with the 2015 Dallas Cowboys offense are present. They are not the same offense they were in 2014 for a number of reasons. Those reasons, for simplicity sake are named Tony Romo (has missed 9 of 16 Quarters), Dez Bryant (has missed 13 of 16), and DeMarco Murray (16/16). Two of those are mending as we speak and plan on returning, the other one wishes he could return based on his first four weeks in Philadelphia.
When you look at the production of the Cowboys offense under Scott Linehan in 2015, you will see that many of the numbers have regressed. What might surprise you though is that the numbers are not dropping to the bottom of the league.
15th - 1st Down Efficiency (Plays of 4+ yds) - 2nd in 2014
14th - Big Play offense (Plays of 10+ yds) - 11th in 2014
16th - Average Rushing Yards Per Game - 2nd in 2014
The numbers are all down, but what needs to be realized here is that the numbers are not near the league bottom. When you compare the Cowboys to the 2014 offense, you are chasing the ghosts of a team that did something that was pretty singular. That is a worthy chase, but one that was likely going to be difficult to duplicate regardless of what was tried.
But, let's be perfectly clear here. This team is getting league-average offense. Even with Brandon Weeden and Joseph Randle, the offense they are receiving from pretty much every statistic is right near league average.
At the Quarter pole of the season, there are a few stats that are under the league average that are disconcerting. They include:
25th - 3rd Down Conversion Percentage - 2nd in 2014
29th - Average Starting Field Position - 10th in 2014
Those are really the only 2 statistics that they are not near league average. And as you know, the offense has almost nothing to do with their average starting field position. It is entirely a function of A) special teams and B) the defenses ability to get turnovers. So, the fact that the Cowboys are dealing with a continuously long field again and again is not really on them.
Now, 3rd downs are an issue. They have converted just 14 of 41 3rd down attempts for a disappointing 34%. This is where Tony Romo and Dez Bryant were pretty special last year and the Cowboys were up near the top of the league in 3rd Downs all year and finished 2nd only to New Orleans with 47% conversions all year.
But, the league average is 39%. The Cowboys are 34%. To get to league average, the team would only need to have converted 2 more of those 41 chances this year. And that can be easily traced back to the issues the Cowboys are having on "3rd and 1" this year. The NFL Average for "3rd and 1" in 2015 is 65% conversions. So far, the Cowboys have had 5 cracks at "3rd and 1" and have converted on just once. 20%. If they simply hit the league average for that short gimme, then that entire 3rd down department would be right at league average.
So, my summary on all of these numbers are the following: Even without #9, #29, and #88 from last season, through 4 games, the Cowboys offense has fallen from elite, but right to league average. Don't confuse that with what your mind might be telling you. They are not "well below" average. They are not an awful offense right now. They are an average one.
That distinction would be reserved for San Francisco right now. The 49ers have 48 points this season in 4 games. Jacksonville, Miami, Detroit, and Chicago are all awful offenses right now, and all 5 of those teams have had their Quarterbacks for most or all of the action (Jay Cutler missed a start).
The Cowboys have played more with Brandon Weeden than Tony Romo and still remain right at league average in nearly every single category. In other words, whether it pleases the eye test or not, don't confuse what they are throwing out right now with an offense with awful. The pieces that remain behind say that in most categories, they rank about 16th - the middle point of the NFL.
It isn't awful. It is average.
DATA FOR WEEK 4 at New Orleans
For yet another week, the Cowboys had to start each possession 80 yards from pay dirt, and were well below the target on 3rd down conversions.
We can argue the root cause of this frustrating cycle they are in because they are not getting the production on 1st and 2nd down and then put too much on the shoulders of Weeden on 3rd down. Tony Romo can work magic tricks on 3rd down, but Weeden is certainly not that kind of guy. What you ask of him is to protect the ball and not sabotage a game and through 2 starts and his relief appearance in Philadelphia, he has not turned the ball over - save for the interception vs the Falcons. Overall, that is pretty decent.
Above, please find the throwing chart of Weeden in New Orleans. As you can see, there is still plenty of safe throws, but in this game, the Cowboys were determined to push the ball down the field in a more vertical sense, although safely to the boundaries. NBC had a graphic on Sunday night that illuminated the fact that Weeden doesn't throw to his left. He did on Sunday, but most of these were the multiple repeated fades to Williams in the end zone.
Of course that long pass to Butler down the left sideline off play action and the seam pass to Witten is the other blue completion past 10 yards. The 4th down TD to Williams is in yellow. Much better, but still, not much to write home about.
Sample sizes can be misleading at times, but it is interesting to see 86% RUN when Weeden was under center again and 93% when PASS when he is in shotgun.
Now, this certainly does set the trap on play-action when you want to go over the top to Brice Butler, but it also leaves almost no hesitation on those Linebackers and Safeties when they think a run is coming. I would love to see more balance.
You can see a more determined move to 12 personnel, but that was more of a 1st Quarter objective that they went away from after they were successful with it for the Touchdown drive (to be fair, the Saints helped that drive with countless penalties, too).
Several coaches I have talked to over the years have all stressed "drive starters" as a revealing characteristic of what a team wants to be about. They meet on the sideline and decide what they want to do in their next possession and just by tracking the first play, you can see what the team believes in. Last year, the Cowboys were over 70% run on their drive starters. This year, the number is lower, but circumstances have been quite a bit different this year as you know. Just something to keep an eye on.
PASS RUSHERS - SAINTS
How would Rob Ryan attack Brandon Weeden? Like he attacks everyone, with many variations of pass rushes. Ryan blitzed on 30% of occasions on Sunday night and even sent just 3 on a 3rd down to cross everything up. He definitely loves to do the opposite of what you are expecting - which is why 2nd down is his big blitz down, traditionally.
So, now, here is the Season to date numbers through 4 weeks. Again, the data is a bit muddled with Romo getting 2 starts and Weeden 2.
Let's also update a study a reader wanted us to do this season - and that is to track the zone plays to run plays for each of the runners. Here are those findings:
Zone Plays (79%)
Man Plays (21%)
21 - Joseph Randle at NO
9 - 24
2 - 2
Season to Date
47 - 202 (4.3)
12 - 27 (2.2)
Zone Plays (87%)
Man Plays (13%)
20 - D McFadden at NO
8 - 17
2 - 14
Season to Date
28 - 87 (3.1)
4 - 26 (6.5)
Zone Plays (82%)
Man Plays (18%)
Both Season to Date
75 - 289 (3.85)
16 - 53 (3.31)
So, in answer to that question we always receive - how much zone do they run? About 80% of all of their run plays are zone blocking. 20% or so involve man schemes. A hybrid rushing attack for sure, but much more of the zone variety
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
I am going to take away your top QB and your top WR and you are going to get 48 points in 2 games. You are going to get those 48 points without the benefit of any help from your defense or special teams. The offense is going to generate all 48 points on their own with no short fields at all. They are also going to run over 100 plays with only 1 turnover.
Would you take that? With Brandon Weeden at QB, your best WR is Terrance Williams, and your best RB is Joseph Randle. Would you take your chances with those performances locked in?
I would imagine anyone who had reasonable hopes for this group would say they would accept this and imagine it would be good enough for a 1-1 record. But, it wasn't good enough for a win.
Now, Lance Dunbar is lost for the year and that takes away one of the remaining weapons. Brice Butler is going to also miss action as wide outs with hamstring pulls are never back quickly.
Meanwhile, Terrance Williams, who admittedly is a big play guy who has delivered on many occasions during his career, has disappointed overall in his audition as a #1 WR. After dazzling in his skinny post clinic against Byron Maxwell in Week 2, he has required 27 passes to bring in 12 catches this season. Certainly not all are on him - although the drops are present every game - but 44% catch percentage is very, very poor. In fact, of players in the league with 10 catches, the only 2 worse than Williams are Allen Robinson (40%) in Jacksonville and Mike Evans (37%) in Tampa Bay. I am sure all 3 have thoughts on the quality of passes they are dealing with, but that is a very inefficient.
What this means is that the Cowboys are in a real bind offensively. They are limited and the options for Scott Linehan are decreasing. They now face a defensive mastermind on Sunday and will probably need 31 points to have a chance to compete.
If nothing else, your appreciation for how good Tony Romo really is should be growing quite a bit. I imagine everyone is comfortable with Dez Bryant's quality, but we still have readers that question Romo after all these years. An elongated absence generally fixes that issue. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Unfortunately, with at least 5 more games without him, Scott Linehan has immense challenges on his plate. He still awaits a rushing attack that can control the game and deliver some consistency. But, to get that, they need balance to their attack that backs off a defense.