Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Decoding Linehan - Week 9 - Tampa Bay


I have always disagreed with those who suggest that the media delights in Cowboys disappointments.  It is a popular theory for those who believe the "media is out to get the Cowboys" or that the media should be blamed for any sort of story that shows the team in a less than dazzling view, but I have never believed it. 
Not because I am technically a member of the media and I want to defend my profession, but rather from experience, I would much rather discuss the daily events of a team that matters versus the alternative.  In 18 Cowboys seasons, I spend a lot of time dissecting football games and would much prefer they are relevant games that we will remember than the opposite.   I have never met a media member that wants to cover a team that is going nowhere.  It would be like purposely selecting a bad movie or book.
And, Sunday's loss in Tampa Bay felt like the opposite.  I don't think we will remember that game for very long. 
Nevertheless, we break it down, first from the offensive standpoint.  This offense needs its Quarterback in the most desperate of ways.  Yes, there are times recorded in football history where a team wins without its QB1, but clearly, the Cowboys in 2015 are not going to be one of them.  They will be listed with those teams that could not win anything without him.  That is not exactly an attribute you would aspire to, but it is what it is.  They went 0-7 without Tony Romo in 2015 (so far), meaning that in 22 games without Romo over the years, they have gone 6-16, with 4 of the 6 wins going in the win column of Jon Kitna (4-5 in reserve duty in Dallas).  Otherwise, the Cowboys are 2-11 when Romo is unavailable.
And the latest to attempt and then fail at finding his way to the win column is Matt Cassel.  I recommended him over Brandon Weeden because I believed the ceiling of a Cassel performance was much higher than a Weeden game (although they seem to have similar floors).  And we mention ceilings and floors because with Cassel, the Cowboys alternated between what we would describe as "exceptional" (anything above 400 yards offense) and "unacceptable" (anything below 320 yards in total offense.  In fact, not only were there 2 games of 4 for Cassel that were below 320, but in both cases, they were actually at 220 or below.  
That production - or lack, thereof - is about as low as it goes.  
GamePts ScoredTotal YdsRush Yds1st Downs3D Cons
L NYG20460233276
L SEA12220129144
L PHI27411134258
L TB621642124
There is almost no pattern to follow.  Two really impressive offensive games from a production standpoint (of course, both had devastating Pick-6's) and two of the most brutally bad production days, all alternating back and forth from the Cassel Cowboys.
Since Romo has taken over the franchise, there have been 10 games out of 147 where the Cowboys produced fewer than 240 yards of offense.  The QBs of record for those 10 games?  Tony Romo (3 in 125 starts), Brad Johnson (3 in 4), Matt Cassel (2 in 4), Stephen McGee, and Jon Kitna.  
Nobody disputes Romo is good, in fact, he is better than that.  But, it is rather clear that of his peer group - which is an amazingly difficult peer group to get into (only 8 QBs who were starters in Week 7 of 2006 have been starters up until now) - he is down near the bottom in attendance with Carson Palmer (who he leads only because of Palmer's 9 game holdout in 2011).
QBStarts since Wk 7 2006
Eli Manning 149
Philip Rivers148
Drew Brees148
Ben Roethlisberger135
Tom Brady134
Peyton Manning133
Tony Romo125
Carson Palmer120*
Again, Romo's appreciation level is as high as it has ever been.  But, it is worth noting that if a QB misses time in 5 of the last 8 years (of varying lengths), the franchise probably needs to take their QB strategy moving forward very seriously.   And I am not JUST talking about his successor.  It is possible that teams that employ either Manning brother, Drew Brees, or Phil Rivers have not had to spend much time pondering the backup QB of their QB.  But the Cowboys, as Tony Romo plays his "Age 35" season, clearly need to consider what is looming around the next corner.   His health history and his style of play require him to take a considerable amount of punishment and with that comes the likelihood of more absences.  
Said another way: I am left to wonder how much of this season's disastrous results are directly linked to the Cowboys hopes that 2 injury-prone stars, Romo and Sean Lee, have once again had availability issues.  They are both organizational favorites and fan favorites, but this sport doesn't play favorites when it comes to the weekly durability tests.  I would never suggest that the Cowboys should move on from either of them, but they likely should be as mindful as any team in the sport when it comes to employing competent understudies at both spots.  They should simply build it into their budget moving forward.  
This game was a complete inability to sustain drives and to generate any sort of rhythm.  This comes from running the ball with complete ineffectiveness to the tune of 21 runs for just 42 yards.  They could not get anything done and while much of the praise was assigned to Darren McFadden during his 3-week run of success, now many of his runs on Sunday looked like a RB who did not have just a whole lot of decisiveness or burst.
This, while just one game, leads many of us, who noted how rare a string of effective performances were in his last 5 seasons, to wonder if he has encountered any sort of wall that might be further exposed with 2 games in 5 days coming up here before a decent break after Thanksgiving.  With Tampa Bay's front 4 and exceptional linebackers, the Cowboys running game was very disappointing.  
The team got behind schedule or behind the sticks, as they say, and that required some pinpoint throws and proper catches.  And on Sunday, as noted yesterday, Dez Bryant played one of the less impressive games of his career.  
I might argue this is one of his better days of throwing the ball.  Cassel ripped a few throws right on the money to Witten down the seam, Escobar on a beauty, and to Terrance Williams on a Dig route that suggested that with just a little running game and a few catches from 88, this was at least an average offensive day.  In other words, despite what I said above about a Romo strategy moving forward, I think Cassel is a reasonable backup QB and I wonder how things might have been different if he had been acquired back in the spring when he was available rather than trying to get him up to speed in mid October.  He is confident and can actually run your offense.  He is not Romo, but he can at least cause the team to look like they are doing some of the same things.  Weeden did not do that.
This week, the Cowboys were rather inefficient in just about every personnel grouping that they tried.  I might argue that 21 personnel was decent enough, but even S11 where they achieved over half of their yards, they were still at a very low yards per play and it should not take 26 throws to come up with 107 yards.
With or without Romo, this whole operation is predicated on the idea that with 3-4 first rounders (depending on what you consider the curious case of La'el Collins) you better be able to get something going on the ground against a team that is not what you would consider one of the great Buccaneers teams of our generation.  As you can see, they ran the ball from under center on 18 occasions and achieved a grand total of 37 yards.  That is a brutal day for any offensive line - not just this one.  Very disappointing.
You will see below that the Bucs loaded up the blitz on a number of occasions and dared the Cowboys to beat them down the field.  This is why Dez Bryant had man coverage on a few occasions.  And that is why it was vital that the Cowboys made them pay to back them off defensively.  They did not and so they played right into the hands of Lovie Smith.  
Here is the season profile - although some of these season-long numbers seem a bit worthless with 3 different QBs to consider.  Usually, we can see patterns, but you know, 2015 has been something peculiar.  I am not sure there are patterns to see this year.
Like I said at the top, I am looking forward to seeing the return of Tony Romo and to see what happens to this offense, although the super powers that have been promised do seem a bit optimistic from many corners of the Cowboys world.  Everyone knows he is a very good QB, and that might be all it takes, but to expect a guy with a 2-month layoff and what might be a dicey health situation to come in here and cure all that ails this operation is incredibly hopeful.
For me, I look for the return of a guy who simply can get the Cowboys in the right play.  So little of that has happened in these last 7 weeks where the Cowboys run a play that seems doomed from presnap - only because the QB has too confusion going on in his head to make sure he does the right thing.  Meanwhile, Romo seems to have graduated to that spot where he is the offensive coordinator.  He knows the plays and he knows the looks that cause trouble and he knows what to check into.  These things are vital and something he can do well.
Now, of course, there are humbling experiences for top-level QBs around every corner.  Peyton Manning is replaced now, and Aaron Rodgers, last year's MVP, is being asked to "figure out" this mess he is looking at right now.  What that means is even with your guy under center, this league is very, very difficult.
Add to that the idea that Miami's defense has some fantastic personnel and then Carolina on a short week needs no introduction.  Yes, it is true, because of the poor NFC East, there is still actually a chance for this offense as of right now.  But that assumes a lot.  It assumes Romo is sharp, healthy, and able to - without any real chance at knocking off rust - hit the ground running and fix everything.
If he can, maybe he could be a real MVP candidate in 6 weeks.  If he can't, then 2015 is truly a lost year.  
And then, there is this:
Wow.  He is not downplaying this.

No comments: