The autopsy for the 2015 Dallas Cowboys will spend quite a bit of time on that fateful Thanksgiving Day. The day started with optimism as Carolina rolled into town, but the Cowboys believed that their season was just beginning. If they had not lost a regular season game with Tony Romo as their starter since Thanksgiving 2014, why shouldn't there be plenty of dreaming about going on a run?
And then, in the quickest and most demonstrative way possible, the Cowboys were shown that 2015 is clearly not their year and their optimism was snuffed out before the game was one minute old.
Looking back at the game requires multiple views - the first view is the angle of how poorly the performance was from Romo. You would be hard pressed to find him play a more ineffective game in his 127 career starts. There are many ways to easily suggest that there were extenuating circumstances that resulted in this performance, but nevertheless, he was really at his all-time worst. And for that reason, it is almost impossible to evaluate any other components of the game. Romo's 1st half performance destroyed any chance for the team to have a chance to win that game and the details of the Cowboys game-plan for Thursday were never revealed after he threw 3 interceptions in the first half - with 2 of them run all the way back for touchdowns and the other resulted in an easy field goal.
He never looked right physically and mentally, and that, of course, leads us to the other view - which was that he was hurt again on what appeared to be a rather "normal" NFL sack in terms of the impact of the hit. When Thomas Davis sacked him on his left shoulder again, it seemed as if the clavicle was not fully healed and therefore the slightest impact was going to send him back to the start of his previous injury. This is where we saw the real danger of rushing him back. If you get too ambitious, he might be one hit away from the entire year ending.
Evidently, that is what happened.
It just isn't the Cowboys' year.
In the last decade, the Cowboys have had teams score defensive touchdowns on them many times. In fact, on five other occasions since 2006, the Cowboys have given up multiple defensive touchdowns in the same game (Buffalo 2007, Philadelphia 2008, Arizona 2010, Detroit 2011, and Chicago 2012). But 2015 now holds the dubious distinction of the most defensive touchdowns conceded in a single season during the Tony Romo-era. And, before you blame it all on back-up QB play, understand that 3 of the 5 defensive touchdowns occurred with Romo at the helm.
Basically, one way to look at it is that the Cowboys have given away 5 touchdowns to the opponent's in 11 games this year, after only 5 touchdowns in the previous 3 years combined - form 2012-2014 over a span of 48 games.
That is very bad.
Then, if you add all of the devastating defensive touchdowns on "giveaways conceded" to the incredibly low number of Cowboys takeaways and you have what you have here. A lost season which never really looked right.
Romo spoke after the game about his mental sharpness and ability to see coverages and make decisions in the blink of an eye. This is his job, but there is almost no way to replicate it without playing the position against top-level competition at full speed. He is a very good player, but you would have to agree with that self-assessment that his brain was not "in shape". Let's examine what he meant.
Inside the green circle, please find Carolina safety Kurt Coleman. Watch him in the video below. The Panthers are showing 2-high. But, the Cowboys have 4 players in route and the Panthers are suggesting that they are rushing 6. Do the math. If the Cowboys are sending out 4, and the Panthers only have 5 not rushing, this is going to mean that everyone on the right is in man coverage, because surely, they are using the safety to deal with Dez on the left, right?
Wrong. Watch Coleman at the snap. He never budges. Romo assumes he is providing help on Dez. He is wrong. He is assuming that Witten is in man coverage and that this route will be wide open. Wrong, again.
I am not sure I can recall a player just freezing for the first 3 seconds of a play like Coleman did. But, what a great way to sucker Romo on what is his first downfield throw of the game. Maybe holding still causes Romo to never see him? Bizarre and effective. And a touchdown.
The other pick 6 also has an interesting component. Here is the presnap adjustments that Romo is going through - we have seen this a dozen times a game every week. But, watch Luke Kuechly. Did he hear a call that he knew? He may be completely bluffing here, but look how he knows the alert to call and goes bananas getting it out to everyone. Then watch him slowly step back repeatedly into his drop. He thinks he knows the play.
Then, at the snap, he carries Witten down the seam and then peels off to the Williams route at just the right moment. He knows there is a Dig Route underneath the seam. He has seen this on film, right? He knows the play.
This is masterful work here by the Panthers. The more you dig into it, you see that there are 2 sides to every play. Yes, below, Romo can be seen staring down Terrance Williams, but also understand that the Panthers are very good and in both of these Pick 6's, they might have won the game in the film room. Very impressive mental plan by Carolina to figure out what a rusty QB might try against them.
It makes you wonder - are the Cowboys too predictable? Are their audibles too easy to decode? After this game, I would be pretty concerned about my route combinations and signals at the line.
The 3rd Interception is not a great Carolina job. It is more a QB who is now forcing things, trying to get the game back on one play, and a rush of blood to the head decision that you would hope he would never do at this point of his career. But, things snowballed on Thursday.
Not much needs to be said on that one. Brutal decision. Maybe a perfect throw gets in there, but this is 1st and 10 and just not what they needed there.
Let's get to the numbers:
WEEKLY DATA - WK 11 - CAROLINA
Yards Per Play is a pretty simple statistic and you will be amazed to learn that despite all of the putrid offensive days you have witnessed from the various QBs this season for the Cowboys, Thursday was the worst of the bunch.
That's right. Somehow, despite all of the Weeden and Cassel, the Cowboys with 3.8 yards per play and just 210 yards overall set new lows in both categories for the entire season.
Think about how bad that must be. Worse than the New England game. Worse than the Tampa Bay game. Worse than the Seattle game! Amazing, but true. The reason, of course, is that they couldn't run the ball at all and then Romo couldn't connect on any pass down the field to speak of.
Here is proof of that:
ROMO THROW CHART - CAROLINA
That is as pedestrian an effort as Romo has ever put out there. Look at the blue dots. He literally never made a throw that was even 10 yards down the field and connected. In retrospect, it makes you wonder if he was even fit to play. And how Miami even happened.
PERSONNEL GROUPINGS - WEEK 11
Let's look at the run column in the top half of the chart to see how pathetic the running game was against Carolina. Now, that takes two teams - the defense of the Panthers had a lot to do with this, but wow. That is really, really awful.
The Cowboys ran 9 plays from under center and accumulated just 15 yards. And, then, of course, the game was so far out of hand that the rest of the game quickly degenerated into one shotgun throw after another. Despite those 36 shotgun snaps, and 54 overall, they still were barely able to get to 200 total yards of offense. Wow. How many times can we use the term "brutal" in one year?
The Panthers brought their fair share of pass rushes, but as you can see, the mental cat and mouse with Ron Rivera's crew takes its toll even when they are just bluffing. The Double A-Gap teams are such a grind. I wish the Cowboys defense did more of this.
Here it is by down:
And then the season-to-date numbers (although with all of the QB changes this year, I am not sure what season-long data accomplishes.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
When looking at the offense, there is plenty of room for frustrations. The coaching has been mediocre this year from an offensive point of view. And, the head coach deciding to kick field goals when you need touchdowns only adds to that frustration. Then, one of the worst challenges in NFL history in a game at home is even more inexcusable.
Then, you have your franchise QB losing this game single-handedly. I will almost never say that, but this is the rare exception where the man who has won so many games for you pretty much threw you out of this one before the halftime show. There is no way to overcome 3 1st half interceptions for 17 points when you are playing a Super Bowl contender.
Then, your offensive line betrayed you, yet again. The running game has been inconsistent and undependable. But, the pass protection has never been very good in 2015 - something we have mentioned that they were not great at in 2014, either.
I wanted to leave you with one last video from Thursday that ended Romo's season and with it, any remaining hope for December. This is a sack that does not look violent enough to knock a QB out for the year. But, what is going on here? How does a guy have 3 guys on him and then they all disappear and nobody has Thomas Davis???
Travis Frederick, La'el Collins, and Darren McFadden have some explaining to do here. Communication, or lack thereof, had the Cowboys protection looking like the Keystone Kops here.