As is the case of any losing team that cannot find the path back, the 2015 Dallas Cowboys appear to be lost and without a compass.
One week, we talk about substandard QB play. The next week, we say that nobody is getting open. The next week, we say the defense can't be blamed. And the next week, the defense is almost completely to blame.
That week was this week. If the Cowboys could have mixed in a stop down the stretch of this game (much like the Atlanta game), they likely would have won. Instead, the Eagles - once Sean Lee exited the game on the first play of the 2nd half - found a few plays that the Cowboys had no answer for and ran them over and over again. After 3 punts on their first 3 possessions, the Eagles scored 3 touchdowns and 2 field goals in their final 7 drives and shoved the Cowboys right off the cliff of contention.
Much will be blamed on the Pick-6 that certainly did not help - as it should. But, in this game, the Cowboys again could not get in that stop that they needed. They also could not get that sack that they needed. And, of course, they also could not get that takeaway that they needed.
For the sixth time in 8 games, the Cowboys were shutout in the takeaway game. They continue to flirt with all-time lows and as you can see, in the last decade, they are so far beyond the next-worst season that it is getting silly.
The 2015 number is their pace. They actually only have 4 takeaways. They are currently on pace for single-digit takeaways which would definitely complete a first-to-worst in one year dubious accomplishment as it pertains to the NFC.
So, theories abound on where the takeaways are. Why aren't you making plays? Jason Garrett is now fielding these questions repeatedly and admitting that their season depends on it - Tony Romo, or not. They must get easier points and free possessions. Every team depends on this every year.
So, what happened? Why did the 2014 Cowboys lead the NFC in takeaways and the 2015 team is last? I am asked this repeatedly. So, here is a theory.
This theory actually has been pushed forward by my radio colleague, David Newbury, who loves the sport and looks at stats and film as much as I do. It goes like this:
In 2014, the NFL had 32,784 plays (which tells you that with 32 teams, each defense faces about 1,000 snaps a season). In that total, 19,094 passes occurred which resulted in 450 interceptions and 1,211 sacks if you total up the defensive accomplishments.
But, here is where game theory comes in - if you divide those 32,784 plays into 2 categories, you will see the stats begin to tell you a story. The categories are: 1) plays in which the defense is ahead by 4 points or more and 2) plays in which they are not. If you simply divide it into those two, you see how the game is different for a defense with a lead of more than a field goal.
So, now, look at those 32,784 plays divided into those categories:
Defense up 4+ Pts
Stay with me. There is a lot here. But, look, the top row is normal situations. The bottom row is what happens when you get to play defense against an offense that needs points. Look at the run/pass balance. When game is neutral, it is nearly a 50/50 run and pass split. When you fall behind it turns to 67/33.
Now, look at the number of passes for a team that is behind. Just 8,352 passes (43%) in a league that threw 19,094 times. But, that 43% accounted for 54% of all interceptions (241 of the 450) and almost 50% of all sacks. That is incredibly disproportionate and shows a few things.
1) - An offense is clearly forcing the ball into spaces more. They need points. They have to get more aggressive.
2) - Newbury has this one: "To me, it's more about the d line being able to go get the QB without worrying about stopping the run. The offense is forced to throw more and run less. They throw 67.4% of the time when losing by 4 pts or more. Look how balanced the offenses are when they are winning... And teams abandon play action and sprint outs when they are losing. The Qb stays in the pocket more, thus the d line knows where he's going to be before the balls snapped. Heck, think about what Romo went through when opposing defenses knew he had to throw the ball. Defenses weren't honoring the run. They were pinning their ears back to get to Romo."
So, if the numbers prove that you need a lead to get most of the turnovers in the league, then it stands to reason that we have been looking at takeaways wrong all this time. Maybe it isn't that teams are good because they get takeaways. Maybe it is that they get takeaways because they are good. Do certain teams always get takeaways because their offense puts them ahead and thus the opponent has to do things they are not comfortable doing?
How does this apply to the story of the 2014 and 2015 Cowboys?
In 2014, the Cowboys defense was on the field for 978 snaps. This year they have been on the field for 493 through 8 games. About the same exact pace. But, how much were they ahead last season versus this season? Let's look.
Snaps Ahead 4+
2014 - 978 snaps
2015 - 493 snaps
Wow. Look at that. At this pace, by the time Romo returns, the Cowboys may have been on the field in neutral (or negative) situations more in 2015 by November than they were all of last year. And, as you can see, they are almost never on the field with a lead. And, in those rare situations of being on the field with the lead, they have forced 2 of their 3 turnovers, even though it represents just 22.7% of their snaps.
If the league tells you that in general, you need a lead to get turnovers - and the defense is never put on the field in those situations (after a year where they seemed like they were always on the field with a lead and always got takeaways) - you can see how, once again, all theoretical roads lead back to the offense and maybe even the QB situation.
If opposing QBs are never asked to force throws then he never does. He also can get the ball out quickly because when you have a lead, you don't mind a punt. You play safe. He continues to take what you concede and bleed you slowly to death. Which, might be the theme of the 2015 Cowboys, "A slow bleed to death." I doubt they will use that for the season video.
DATA - WEEK 8 - Philadelphia
Once again, we see that the Cowboys were beaten up pretty badly by an offense that has not been a world beater and frankly, should have been taken down.
Look how poor the Eagles are when they are forced into 3rd downs and they put the ball in the hands of their QB. He is simply not playing at a very high level. Yet, the Cowboys were gashed on the ground, looked more tired as the night went on, and continued to worsen in the crucial late stages.
And, perhaps more disappointingly, they had another chance to feast on a backup tackle which has now happened pretty much every week since Greg Hardy returned. Against New England, left tackle Nate Solder fell in the the 2nd Quarter and was lost for the season. They were able to play Marcus Cannon as he tried left tackle with live ammunition. Then, the next week, Marshall Newhouse was the right tackle - no sacks conceded. Then, Russell Okung couldn't play left tackle for Seattle and was replaced by a guy named Alvin Bailey who also conceded no sacks. And then, this week, Dennis Kelly was making his first start at right tackle as Jason Peters couldn't go. Lane Johnson moved to left and Dennis Kelly played 78 snaps and gave up 0 sacks. So, you avoid Russell Okung and Jason Peters and the only thing you get is a Greg Hardy interception and and a Greg Hardy sack? 1 takeaway and 1 sack in 2 games against non-starters? And nothing from anyone not named Hardy?
SPLASH PLAYS - WEEK 8
That isn't to say the team isn't playing hard and making plays. Here is a list of the smaller plays that are being made. They are battling their tails off. This week we will point out that David Irving is a very promising piece on the inside and that Byron Jones continues to make some plays - although he was also attacked quite a bit.
Here are the season totals on the Splash Plays for the season. Again, there is Sean Lee, Greg Hardy, and Byron Jones at the top - 3 guys who played 0 snaps in 2014. The best splash player from last season was Tyrone Crawford and he had 15 last year after 8 games. I wish I knew why he seems to be far behind last year's quality.
You likely know where I am on Sam. Great college QB. Not great NFL QB. I think it would be awesome if the Eagles signed him long term - for the Cowboys. But, on Sunday, he likely quieted his critics by making enough throws to keep the Cowboys frustrated. Supplemented by plenty of play action, misdirection, and tempo, he made some plays including a beautiful throw on the wheel route to Murray down the right sideline.
DALLAS PASS RUSHERS
Again, the Eagles had no Jason Peters. You had to rock Bradford a few times. It just never really happened. They were close. But, that is clearly not good for much. They didn't blitz again - that is not what they do.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
0 Takeaways and they conceded the most yards of any game this season. They also gave up 8 explosive plays and when they needed to make sure they gave up nothing worse than a field goal in overtime, they couldn't tackle Jordan Matthews on a play they had seen a number of times all night with the man coverage breaking down and then a safety taking a ridiculously poor angle.
They have nobody getting to the QB not named Greg Hardy, regardless of whether or not the opponent has their offensive linemen available.
They appear to have a massive, massive problem at linebacker where Sean Lee is hurt again, Rolando McClain appears to be a burden, and the younger linebackers are attacked the moment they enter the game.
The Eagles had very poor field position all day and yet they put up 33 points, including 26 after halftime.
I think NBC gets this week's final word. They did a fantastic job of presenting the facts about this Rod Marinelli defense this season. Perhaps too much of the burden has been placed on them. The offense has not done its part. But, man, the defense was expected to do more than this. The Orlando Scandrick injury hurt, but this much? Look at what they presented on Sunday. Before the Eagles destroyed them late.
Please kindly add 192 more yards to that final column after Sunday.
Please add 19 more points to that final column.
You don't have to add anything to this one.
After absolving the defense from blame for many of the previous games, it appears the target is now back on them.