Perhaps the most vital moment of Sunday's one-sided affair was after the Cowboys forced New England to punt with 1:18 left in the half. Somehow, they had played the Patriots to a 3-3 tie for 26 minutes before succumbing to a Tom Brady QB sneak which put the Champs up 10-3.
Still, just get to halftime within 1 score and perhaps something can happen in the 2nd half. The defense was doing the very unlikely job of holding down the Patriots and even frustrating their attack. It was very impressive work. They had held Tom Brady and company to 10 points and 4 punts.
After having the punt fair caught by Cole Beasley at the 13-yard line and with 1:12 left to play in the half, the Cowboys had a chance to kill the half with one first down. Offense is very difficult these days, but they simply had to avoid a 3-and-out and they would go to the half within a touchdown.
Instead, Beasley dropped a 1st down pass. Ron Leary was taken to school on 2nd down and Jabaal Sheard sacked Brandon Weeden. 3rd Down and 18 was the give up draw play, and with only 13 seconds off the clock, the Patriots would get yet another chance. They would score on a field goal before the half, then take the 2nd half kickoff and put in a touchdown.
Just like that, the game went from 10-3 and manageable to 20-3 and impossible without the offense touching the ball.
And much of it can be traced back to the dreaded 3-and-out.
3 and outs were something the Cowboys avoided with great ease in 2014. They finished 3rd in the NFL (Miami and Green Bay were #1 and #2) when they had their full compliment of weapons, but with each week another weapon disappears (Lance Dunbar is the latest) and the 3-and-outs start stacking up. They are now 30th in the league (Philadelphia - up tempo 3 and outs! - and Buffalo are #31 and #32) in 2015 and stacked up 6 more of them against the Patriots.
Last year they had 28 3-and-outs all year in 179 drives (15.6%). This year, we are at 15 in 55 drives (27.3%). The NFL Average over the last few years is roughly 20%. Here is a view of the carnage by week. You might notice the trend of fewer weapons (and Romo) is having exactly the effect you would think would have:
Of course, this is merely the result and not the cause. The causes are easier to recognize, but harder to solve. We know why the Cowboys cannot move the ball very well. Let's recount them here:
1) - They are not running the ball with any level of consistency. The raw numbers are there, for sure. But, they are reliant on a few big runs against Atlanta and New Orleans to push those numbers up. The down-by-down battering ram is not what it was. So, instead of 2nd and 6, there is a lot more of 2nd and 9 facing this offense. It seems like it is all tied to the passing attack being so pedestrian, that defenses are scheming away the strength of the zone running game by pushing numbers forward, but either way, it is making the running game look average.
This seems to be a real polarizing issue because Brandon Weeden seems to be giving everything he has to the cause and is well-liked in most circles, but there does come a point where we have to flip on the All-22s and see if the QB is leaving plays on the field. When opportunities are rare, it is even more vital to seize them. Here is one life-long NFL man's view from yesterday:
These opinions are rather easily verifiable if we are all looking at the same plays. So let's.
1st Drive from Sunday, the Cowboys try this rollout to Weeden where Devin Street is up at the 40. The throw was out of bounds and I have heard colleagues state that Street "can't get open". Unfortunately, these pictures do not agree:
Let's also check the end zone camera to see if Weeden's view disagrees. This is what we call "NFL Open". You simply must be able to make this throw.
Now, on to the very next play. 3rd and 8, the Cowboys want to hit Terrance Williams down the sideline on a "Go" and simply see if he can get a step on his man.
Williams wins his route and has a step on his man. This is an easy throw in the NFL - in fact, this is the throw that Tim Tebow made his money on (Man coverage but trailing the WR with loft and touch into space). The Safety won't get there if the ball is right. But, he overthrows the spot, is late on delivery, and the opportunity is wasted.
I would have to concur with Mr Casserly that just examining the 1st drive verifies that receivers are available and throws aren't being made.
Here is one bonus picture from the final throw of the game from Weeden. It is 4th down and Terrance Williams absolutely fakes his man out of his jock:
Incomplete pass. Really poor work.
3) - The Offense has lost all of its juice. This is a rather simple reality that may not have much of a solution except for healing. The Cowboys just don't have their explosive players available. Every offense has a few players who strike fear into the defense because they are game-breakers. Make one mistake - slip one time - and that could be the time he takes the ball to the house. Well, the Cowboys have lost Dez Bryant and Lance Dunbar. The two that instilled fear. Those who remain have not shown to be game-breakers. They are solid NFL players (Witten will go to the Hall of Fame), but when they beat you, it is generally for 12 yards, not 42. Nobody is dealing with fear when they prepare to play the current version of the Cowboys.
DATA FROM WEEK 5
So, let's check the data from this week to see if the numbers reveal anything that is unexpected.
Not really. It appears to be more of the same, to be honest. Please not the average starting field position. They are simply getting killed there with their average drive starting at their own 18. This, is a product of the defense, again, not generating any field position with takeaways or quick 3-and-outs. They now are dead last in the league in that category. In other words, the team isn't doing Weeden any favors.
Next, notice the 3rd down conversions which are again too low (40% is what we need to be average, 50% is going to win most games). Then, the 2 numbers that we cannot work around - Yards Per Play at just 4 is never going to get it done and 2 more giveaways meaning the team was a "-2" and we know what that means. You lose.
Lots of 3-and-outs. 264 yards of offense. 4 yards per play. And 2 turnovers. You could make the case with great ease that the Cowboys haven't been this bad on offense in a long time.
But, actually, they had 2 similar games last year offensively.
Last Thanksgiving, 267 yards and 3 turnovers against those Eagles. And, of course, Weeden vs Arizona last year, as well: 266 yards and 2 turnovers.
Let's now check the personnel packages to see what is being productive and we certainly are once again wondering how this team can carry on with the Jason Witten/Gavin Escobar experiment without occasionally making it work. The idea of 12 personnel is a good one and it creates matchup problems. It has been successful around the league for many years, but the Cowboys have never figured it out. On Sunday, they went to it 20 times (add 12, 13, S02, and S12 together) and found a mere 45 yards (2.25 yards per play). They likely went to it because "11" personnel is so thin, but there is almost nothing this team does well right now with 2 Tight Ends on the field, since Escobar is not thought of as much of a blocker and they certainly have not figured out how to feature him as a receiver. It is quite frustrating all around.
Here is the passing chart, this week featuring throws to the WRs on the field. 16 passes in all that generated 80 yards of offense. Just too much and not enough, if you know what I mean.
Now, let's see how the Patriots saw the pass rush on Sunday against Weeden. I think you will quickly see they didn't really blitz at all. Or if they did, it was to bring one and drop another. Never (once) sending more than 4 and often only bringing 3. This complimented their idea to double Witten and Beasley underneath.
I think 1 blitz in 44 attempts is going to set a record. Check out how it compares with the other games this season. Atlanta and New England have come to the same conclusions, get Weeden by covering where he likes to throw and make him find someone elsewhere.
Here are the shotgun numbers for the week, which of course are a result of being behind for the entire 2nd half and needing to generate offense quickly.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
Basically, we have covered this already. I think the Cowboys have to try something with Matt Cassel. I covered that in yesterday's piece at great length. This leads several to conclude I am putting this on Weeden, but that is not true. He is what he is. This isn't about blaming anyone.
I also want to make this point - the coaching staff must do better as well. There is absolutely no reasonable argument that tells you that Jason Garrett should be kicking a field goal from the 5-yard line in the 2nd half of a game where his offense hasn't put anything together all day. He had to go for the score to try to light that same spark I am talking about with a QB change. Sure it is desperate and maybe won't work, but what do you have to lose?
In other words, why are Garrett and Linehan still coaching this thing like they are the favorite? They aren't. And sometimes underdogs need to roll the dice and take a chance. Sometimes you need to be bold and riskier, because close to the vest is not working. Again, they will be underdogs moving forward, but for Pete's sake, cross up tendencies and try to ambush your opponent. You need to steal a TD or two to win these games and instead they are running on almost every 1st down until they are down double-digits and they are kicking a Field Goal on 4th and 2.
If "Fortune favors the bold", it is time the coaches stop "Laying up at the Masters." I am not suggesting it is one trick play after another, but the only thing more conservative than the QB play in the last 3 weeks might be the play-calling behind it. I am sure crossing up tendencies is a risky proposition if you are trying to cut down on the 3-and-outs, but these 3 games have taught us that the talent on hand cannot win a fair fight.
They are going to need help. The defense needs to help them. The special teams needs to help them. The infirmary needs to help them. And yes, the coaches need to help get through this as well.