How is the Cowboys running game going right now? Are they the power team from 2014 or are they still trying to figure out their 2015 identity? It depends on whom you ask -- and what your definition of running the ball is.
Of course their numbers are down year-to-year from the 2014 squad. That was never in question and it was only going to get worse when Tony Romo was hurt. The team was going to see a decline in their running game even if it was just as good as it was last year. Why? Because no Romo and no Dez Bryant were going to make teams defend the Cowboys differently.
And maybe, from that perspective, the running game is doing surprisingly well. Look at the year-to-year comparison based on the first 7 games of each of the last two Cowboys seasons:
Basically, all the numbers in 2014 were the best in the league. And all of the numbers in 2015 are around the bottom of the Top 10. So again, they are still very good, they just aren't as good.
But, that was absolutely to be expected with the realities of 2015. I would not suggest you should be happy to be 2-5, but just don't overreact because of some very explainable circumstances. There are real effects to every aspect of your offense when you lose Romo and Dez. But, that doesn't mean that your running game forgot how to accomplish things.
If I may, though, I would like to point out something that I don't particularly love, and that is the idea that if you looked at all five of these games without Romo, they all seem to have one odd thing in common -- that is the first quarter is where the Cowboys are an unstoppable ground force and then it dries up considerably. Look at this - the composite of the last 5 weeks on the ground by quarter:
Look at that -- 41 percent of the ground production is happening in the first quarter. Then, it drops off as the game goes on. Are adjustments being made? The game situation would suggest that maybe the Cowboys are running less as the game goes along, but as you can see, the Cowboys are still pretty dedicated to the ground game all the way until the fourth quarter where they have to make alterations.
Why are they so good at running the ball on the first two drives (7 yards a carry!) and then it drops off? With the exception of the Giants game, they don't look like they can run the ball at all in the second half of these games.
Now look at this - Here are the 10 biggest runs in the last 5 weeks (thanks, ProFootballReference.com):
Look how many of those 10 big runs happened in the 1st Quarter. 6! In fact, look how many are in the first 6 minutes of the game! All 6 of them. One of the others is a Matt Cassel scramble on a pass play, so this is a real trend that is a bit mysterious.
Do teams defend the Cowboys differently to start and then alter things as they see how feeble the pass game is? Do the Cowboys have runs on their script (the first 10-15 plays are all scripted during the weekly game-plan installation) and then, when they go off script in the 2nd Quarter they are losing production? This is a bit of a mystery, but not what you are looking for.
There is another trend I would like to look at here if we can.
I remember a conversation at training camp about the weapons Tony Romo had and that I believed that the underneath guys, Lance Dunbar and Cole Beasley would likely have breakout statistical years that might alter their place in the Cowboys offense and set them on to career-bests.
For Dunbar, that would take only 20 catches or so, as his previous high was 18 catches in 2014. Many of those came in the trip to Seattle last year and he has never been utilized much. And, by the time he was lost for the season in Week 4, he already had 21 catches and on pace for 84!
For Beasley, who had a career high of 39 catches in 2013, this year was equally productive in the first month. He had 18 catches after that same trip to New Orleans and seemed to be one of the only places Brandon Weeden was going to go with the football (with Jason Witten). The conversation in Oxnard had me optimistic about his big year, as I said I fully expect between 60-80 catches for Beasley as he became Tony Romo's new option on third down and in the offense that would perhaps take some numbers from Jason Witten, but it would surely help extend drives and make the Cowboys offense more dynamic. Now, with Dunbar out, it seemed they would look even more to Beasley to fill that void.
Then came the New England game, which became somewhat noteworthy because of the interesting (and perhaps obvious) approach by New England on how to handle the Cowboys offense without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. That was to double-team Jason Witten and Cole Beasley underneath and make Weeden prove he could go somewhere else with the ball. When he couldn't, the Cowboys became a 3-and-out machine.
As you will recall, after the bye week, the Cowboys went to a new QB who could see the secondary better and push the ball down the field. Matt Cassel did that and put out the most productive offensive day in New York (460 yards) that the Cowboys had all season. That day, however was colored with 3 interceptions that certainly altered the feelings about the production quite a bit. If this offense is going to function well, the dangerous throws need to be minimized. OK, that is fine. But, what has happened to Cole Beasley in these 2 weeks with Cassel at the helm?
Through the first five weeks, with Romo and Weeden, there was not a week where he had fewer than four targets and fewer than four catches. He always was making plays and in those first five weeks received 27 targets and made 22 catches for 214 yards. Not earth shattering numbers, but certainly on his way to a 70 catch and 700-yard season. Wouldn't everyone take that from your 3rd wide receiver?
Since then, the faucet has been turned off. Is it the coverage or the QB? Each can be discussed, but even with the return of Dez Bryant this week, the last two weeks of Cole Beasley read very similarly to the stats of Lance Dunbar (who is on injured reserve): 0 catches for 0 yards.
In fact, the most notable moment from the New York game was his fumbled punt late in the game and in this Seattle game there really wasn't a notable moment. In fact, over the course of these 2 weeks, with many situations that called for the option routes that he runs with great effectiveness and quickness, it seems the Cowboys are not even looking his way - two targets to Beasley in New York, just one, the bubble in the 4th Quarter that was a poor pass, against the Seahawks.
Here is the Beasley game-log through 7 weeks:
Wk1 - NYG
Wk2 - PHI
Wk3 - ATL
Wk4 - NO
Wk5 - NE
Wk6 - NYG
Wk7 - SEA
I say all of this because when the team cannot find easy throws that can move the chains (and 220 yards of total offense seems to indicate that they cannot), Beasley provides some real obvious spots where he can hurt teams in the open field. If the offense lacks juice, which they certainly seem to lack, then why are they going away from a guy that is difficult to corral? Also, this team still sits near the bottom of the NFL in 3rd down conversions without Romo. What was his bread and butter on 3rd downs? Witten and Beasley. In looking at the tape, it certainly doesn't seem like he is being double-teamed or even locked down.
But, you do see something different. First, the Cowboys are trying to use multiple tight ends quite a bit, so his snaps are down. But, over the last few weeks, it seems the Cowboys are either setting something up for Beasley, or they are just using him to try to clear out traffic - because a startling number of his routes are now of the vertical variety. That isn't a problem if they are ever going to use him vertically (something they have almost never done with Romo). But, if he is just trying to take traffic out of the middle of the field, then it isn't working. He is not involved in the offense and while that doesn't matter if things are working, when they couldn't hardly complete a pass to a wide receiver on Sunday, it would seem that easy throws to Beasley must not be easy if you don't have Tony Romo.
DATA - WEEK 8 - SEATTLE
It has been 2 years since the Cowboys have had a performance as poor as this one from a total yardage standpoint. 220 yards and 3.9 yards per play is brutal. In fact, on that yards per play statistic (3.9), you will find that in the Tony Romo era (2006-2015), that is the 5th worst performance in the decade.
The four games that were worse? Week 16 of 2011 when Stephen McGee took over after Romo was injured. The two Brad Johnson starts in 2008 when Romo broke his thumb. And, the final week of 2007 when Romo was pulled because the Cowboys had the #1 seed locked up in Washington and Brad Johnson was there that day, too.
In other words, it would probably be best to realize that Romo is great and his replacements have been pretty much "Not great" since he has been here. The worst offensive performances always coincide with his absences which is good and bad news, I suppose.
Otherwise, poor performances through the air lead to poor jobs on 3rd down. We should be clear here, Seattle is great and they do that to a lot of teams. But, rough day.
Here are the throws Matt Cassel made. Almost none were down the field and those were all predetermined "shots" to Dez Bryant.
In a nutshell, I cannot tell if they turned Matt Cassel into Brandon Weeden in 2 weeks, or if he did. But, what is the point of switching QBs if they are going to play identically? It is highly possible that he had a change of heart (3 Interceptions in 3 drives will do that to many a QB), but we are back to Weeden vs Atlanta here. This is too easy for anyone to defend. Child's play for the Seahawks.
Combine this chart with the repeated vertical routes of Williams and Beasley, and you can see why they hardly factored in the game on any level.
We mentioned last week how well the Cowboys controlled the offense with multiple tight end packages (12, 13, 22, and 23 personnel). Well, Seattle was made aware of that trend against the Giants and they came ready for a street fight. The Cowboys did hit a pass or two out of 12 personnel, but look at the runs. The Cowboys tried 14 runs with multiple tight ends in the game and were able to get just 29 yards. 14 for 29 in a strength versus strength matchup is simply not going to get it done.
That pushes you into 2nd and 3rd and long and now Matt Cassel is trying to decipher the Legion of Boom. Bad plan.
The Seahawks pretty much never brought pressure. They are not about mysteries over there. They basically tell you what they are about to do and then dare you to do something about it. No blitzing, almost no disguises. They are really something. I am not sure they have a Super Bowl offense this season, but the defense remains the industry gold standard.
On a week by week basis we see that without Tony Romo, the recipe is to rush 4 and make any spots downfield difficult to find. It seems to have worked well for every defense along the way.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS:
This is a mess. There is your summary.
We mentioned yesterday that they worked their way down the field and deep into Seattle territory 3 different times. And each time they tip-toed with such caution that they basically conceded until Dan Bailey ran on to kick again. That simply won't do.
The offense took a step forward in New York and then gave it all back against Seattle. It is important for everyone involved to remember that the last 3 games featured possibly the two best teams in the NFL and would have been great accomplishments to beat even with the Cowboys full compliment of players. In other words, they could have lost to New England and Seattle with Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. There is no shame in that. Those teams have been and are great for a reason.
Now, you play several teams that give you challenges, but are not the best in the business. Between now and Thanksgiving, the Cowboys play defenses that they should be able to put points up against and threaten. We are now going to start hearing reports about the return of Tony Romo, but the vital nature of the now indicates that his return will mean less and less with each defeat before it.
The good news is that the offensive line is offering pass protection and running opportunities - as well as La'el Collins highlights, but until Dez Bryant and the receivers can start to impact the game (more than a Lucky Whitehead sweep), this operation is going to continue to frustrate.
Unfortunately, Decoding Linehan is poorly named these days. Every defense in the league has done it with great ease. The Cowboys look passive on offense and completely reliant on a running game that is solid, but far from dominant against defenses loading up to slow them down.
It now falls to him to make the decoding more difficult. And that requires them to attack with what they have or die trying. This current careful approach isn't going to get them anywhere except into the Top 10 of the draft.