What a strange trip it has been in the front half of 2015. Nobody would ever wish to experience a season in which there have been 3 different quarterbacks and some even calling for a fourth. Nor, would anyone wish for a season in which there will be at minimum 56 days between wins. It definitely resembles the 2010 season in many ways - Romo hurt in a divisional game, long losing streak that they can't shake - but unlike the last days of Wade Phillips, the Jason Garrett regime has just received its contract extension and mandate to move forward for years to come.
Sometimes, it just isn't your year.
Whether that is the case or not, it is interesting when studying the QB position to run the experiments of what works with the offense being similar for each QB.
Now, at the halfway point, we have 2 starts for Tony Romo, 3 starts for Brandon Weeden, and 3 starts for Matt Cassel. Circumstances have been different for each, as Romo and Cassel had small patches of Dez, whereas Weeden had no opportunity to play with the spectacular Bryant.
At RB, both Romo and Weeden were QB when Joseph Randle was the lead dog. Almost immediately after Cassel entered the huddle, Randle was injured, never to return. Whether it is a pure function of Darren McFadden's magic touch or whether Cassel makes teams defend differently or both, we can debate. What we can't debate is the rushing yards per game have shot up from about 110 to 165 almost overnight. And that includes a game against the Seahawks and another against the Eagles which easily represent two of the stiffest run fronts they will face all season long.
Here is a look at the team over the first half of the season as it is separated by starting QB:
I think it is very interesting that both Weeden and Cassel have played in 3 games and have both thrown exactly 91 passes. Weeden has actually thrown for 9 more yards as he is 91 attempts for 604 yards while Cassel is 91 attempts for 595. But, look at those offensive yards per game. With Romo, they are at about 400 yards. With Weeden, it is 315 per game - near the lowest in football, and with Cassel it is at 363 - right at the league average.
So, with Romo, the offense looks elite. With Weeden it looks league's worst. And with Cassel, it looks like a league average offense. And yet, most of the difference between Weeden and Cassel appears to be a better running game which may have very little to do with Cassel. Maybe it has more to do with Dez Bryant being available (sort of) in the Seattle game and seemingly back to form against the Eagles.
Offense is a complex study and with moving variables - Randle/McFadden, Weeden/Cassel, Dez/No Dez - it makes for a sometimes complicated job to sort through causes and effects.
Regardless, against the Eagles, the offense did a pretty solid job in the game where they ran for 134 yards, passed for 299, and scored 27. They scored on four of their last five offensive drives, but...the other drive was the dreaded Pick-6. So, the theme continues - much more productive offense in last stretch, but the slightest offensive mistake dooms the team (partly because the defense can never return the favor, it seems).
Since we are at the half-way point, let's look at how the Running backs have performed over the first half of the year. I am often asked about blocking schemes and although I am certainly no offensive-line specialist, I do enjoy the hybrid types of blocking that we see from this offensive line and really all lines across the league. Almost nobody is exclusive man or zone blocking anymore, and they mix it up to keep defenses off balance.
There are many advanced ways to look at this, but in an effort to keep it simple, I have simply divided each run this season into either a man-blocking scheme (pulling linemen, etc) or zone-blocking (all blockers moving in concert in a given direction).
Going into the season, it was generally concluded that Randle was a better fit in zone runs and that McFadden might be a better man-blocking RB. In fact, I spent some time in the summer researching a prevailing story-line in Oakland from 2012 and 2013 where the Raiders were trying to force zone-runs on McFadden and then backed off because the results were poor and blamed for hurting his performances.
88 - 352
25 - 111
63 - 285
13 - 30
7 - 17
3 - 21
158 - 654
40 - 162
At one point this summer, I was asked to place over/under bids on Randle and McFadden. I put 900 yards as Randle's number and 600 on McFadden. Looks like McFadden has a chance to make my views look pretty silly if he can keep this up. Randle? A mysterious demise to say the least. And Christine Michael? He didn't even play a snap on Sunday. Bizarre, to say the least.
As you can see, the offense runs zone plays at about 79%/21% split with the production differences are minimal per run. 4.1 to 4.0 over the first 8 games. I will continue to keep these numbers to look for trends.
DATA - PHILADELPHIA - GAME 8
Interesting trends here as I mentioned yesterday in the Morning After piece that I thought the coaches tried to break tendencies somewhat with a lot more 1st down passing. As you can see, 17 passes on 1st down to 13 runs is much different than the traditional 70% run that this staff leans to.
The other issue that we need to continue to track is the 3rd down work. It is no secret that in games that feature Cole Beasley more, the overall team 3rd down percentage rises. He is such a 3rd down weapon that it gets awfully frustrating for anyone involved in Cowboys football when they go away from what works over and over. There may be a reason why Romo has turned to Beasley since 2013. Since then, he has been thrown at on 3rd down 48 times and has delivered either a 1st down or touchdown 33 times (29 of 48 for 60%). That compares quite favorably to Dez Bryant (33 of 76 for 43%) and Jason Witten (39 of 82 for 47%). Last week we spent a lot of time on the mysteries about why they stopped using him. It looks like they figured it out. You will take 8 of 16 on 3rd down all season long. Beasley delivered four of those conversions.
PERSONNEL GROUPINGS - WEEK 8
It is certainly interesting to see how different groupings work better or worse against different defenses. For the Eagles, it seems like attacking them with 11 personnel is the answer, whereas the Giants are attacked more with 12 or 13 personnel (multiple tight ends).
11 personnel - 1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR - generated almost 200 yards and when you add in the S01 and S02 sets which are a similar principle with so much empty backfields, it appears the Cowboys thought they could attack the secondary more as the Eagles are reluctant to play nickel or dime defense and they like to remain in base personnel to hinder running games. They do that, but you can find some appealing targets down the field. It was working until Jordan Hicks sniffed out an opportunity that sabotaged a solid day.
MATT CASSEL THROW CHART
If you will recall, Weeden never looked left. Now, we see Cassel repeatedly working the ball left and not really messing too much with the right side and Byron Maxwell this week. But, notice the purple dots which were the quick dumps to Beasley who was a force in the middle of the field.
Here is a look at how the Eagles chose to send rushers:
I think the strength of the Eagles remains their front 7. They are a real matchup for the Cowboys and lest we blame everything on the Pick-6, we should also point out that pass protection was just not where it needs to be. Tyron Smith is an amazing player, but Brandon Graham was very impressive against him on Sunday and turned the game with his two strip-sacks.
Four sack games against the Cowboys are quite rare. In fact, they almost went a full year between them. Do you know the last team to sack them four times? The Philadelphia Eagles, last Thanksgiving. Those darned birds.
It is interesting, because before Sunday, teams almost give up on trying to put pressure on the Cowboys and instead flood the shallow areas for coverage against Beasley and Witten. The Eagles did send the occasional blitzer, but they were able to do both. They are formidable up front.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
The biggest summary point is simple - The team is 2-6 and is really close to playing a long exhibition season with Tony Romo if they don't start winning quickly.
But, many of the metrics we want to see - running game success, 3rd down conversions, Yards per play, etc are really now on a 3-game run that we would generally find conducive to success. There is no reason to doubt that this goes right back to 400 yards per game when Romo arrives.
Bill Parcells is famous for many reasons, and his quotes are generally great. The one that is constantly referenced here:
He is right. 2-6 means you are 2-6. And yet, when you look at many characteristics of this operation, you still want to argue with the details and say, if this is a 2-6 team, then it seems to be the best 2-6 team in the NFL. This is a team that has many useable parts and the offense is just missing its QB.
That said, it just doesn't matter. They must get to the win column or nothing else matters.
So, yes, they are running the ball again in the last 3 weeks at standards of 2014. Yes, Dez Bryant is back and doing Dez Bryant things. Yes, Cole Beasley is making things make sense again. And yes, the offensive line can still bust open a hole or keep a play alive.
But, the only numbers that truly matter say "2-6". At the halfway point, their win total still sits at what it was on September 20th. Like the lost season of 2010, nothing else much matters right now.