So much of 2015 has been boiled down to having the Quarterback in the huddle. If this team is to go anywhere, it must have Tony Romo, right? Or, if not, it must have better QB play from the backups. This whole thing can be explained away by not having a QB do impressive QB things.
But, what about the situations where the QB has almost nothing to do with the play?
This is the case with the most basic of offensive football situations. 3rdand 1.
So much of football requires precise skill and big chunks of yardage. But, on 3rd and 1, when your entire possession relies on your ability to get 36 inches by generally utilizing brute strength, it is often just 22 men in a phone booth playing what amounts to a 2-second match of muscle.
You would assume that the Dallas Cowboys would be great at this. After all, who would you rather have on your side when you need a yard than Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Lael Collins, and Tyron Smith? All regarded as blue chip talents and lauded for what they accomplish, surely the Cowboys are well equipped to get 3rd and 1, even if the QB play makes 3rd and 10 next to impossible, right?
All season long, this team has struggled on 3rd downs, but just about all of these issues come back to the fact that not only are the Cowboys bad on 3rd and 1 - they are the worst. And, not even that says it strongly enough. They are dead last by a good ways.
On 17 occasions this season, the Cowboys have had 3rd and 1. Just to give you an idea of what the normal NFL team is doing in these situations, the league average on 3rd and 1 is converting 66% of the time. Oakland, Seattle, Philadelphia, and San Diego all convert 3rd and 1 at over 80%. On the other side, Baltimore and Green Bay are very poor in these scenarios and they only convert 50%. But, even those teams can look down their noses at the Cowboys.
Dallas has had 17 cracks at 3rd and 1 and have converted only 7 times for 41%. Broken down, they have passed 5 times and are 1 for 5 on 3rd and 1 passes (Romo twice, Weeden twice, Cassel once) and run 12 times in which they have converted on 6 of 12.
This is just awful any way you look at it. And it leads to many other issues that then creep in as you turn touchdowns into field goals with this inefficiency and field goals into punts. To make matters even worse, when you look carefully at this team's issues, we are led to believe they are generally poor on 3rd down because of QB play. By the way, it sure looked like that on Monday night as Cassel struggled on 3rddown, partly because Washington brought the Cover 0 blitzes to get right in his face.
While there is some truth to it, the fact is that the Cowboys are at least league-average when it comes to 3rd downs if you simply look at the numbers for 3rd and medium or 3rd and long - where it relies most on the QB's ability to be great. But, on 3rd and short, it is mostly his job to hand the ball off and get out of the way.
This, of course, does include a few exceptions: 1) the QB does have the ability to check into a different play if he sees big issues before the snap. And 2) some QBs, Cam Newton and Tom Brady both come to mind, are real threats on 3rd down to sneak the ball the 36 inches and just move the chains themselves. Even with Tony Romo healthy, this has seldom been a solution for the Cowboys. It is hard to recall very many conversions from Romo with a sneak.
So, when you pull the QB out of the mix, then you understand on 3rdand 1, you are trying to block 11 guys with 9 blockers. The ball carrier only needs a yard, but part of the math equation is the truth that there simply aren't enough guys to get you there.
Additionally, there are many (I am included in this group) that are driven crazy by knowing that Jason Garrett will not go for it on 4th and 1 to try to turn field goals into touchdowns when the odds are stacked against his team. But, to be fair to his decision making process, if the team is poor at 3rd and 1 - which they certainly are - why would there be optimism for 4th and 1?
Let's look at two crucial 3rd and 1 failures from Monday night.
Above is the 3rd and 1 in the 3rd Quarter at the Washington 15 yard line. This has been a great long drive, but the team needs 36 inches. As you can see, they go with 23 personnel which brings all 11 Redskins into the box. The Cowboys motion James Hanna and also have Tyler Clutts as lead blockers, but the real issue is an edge defender coming from the far left of the screen getting to McFadden quickly and grabbing him around the neck. You can also see that the play takes too long because the Redskins are flooding the gaps once they get the impression of the direction of the play.
Personally, I do not love the 23 personnel decision, but the Cowboys insist on it. I like spreading the defense out - Dez Bryant is on the sideline. Bryant attracts at least 2 defenders usually, but I suppose that would require the slightest hint that the QB might actually throw there. I also am a big fan at the FB dive here because the defense is keying on McFadden so often if you sneak it into the gut of the lead blocker, he has a chance - but again, the Cowboys have never considered giving Tyler Clutts the ball in a deceptive plan to get a yard. In 68 NFL games, Clutts has 0 NFL carries.
So, the Cowboys telegraph that McFadden is going to get the ball and trust their offensive line to hold off everyone, but as you can see, there are only 5 OL and 11 defenders. That means the tight ends have to be great, the lead blockers have to be great, and it has to hit quickly. You only need a yard, but it is not close to being a success.
Here is another. This followed the long pass to Dez to the 3 yard line. Surely this will be the go-ahead touchdown. They only need 3 yards. This is 3rd and Goal from the 1.
This time, it is 13 personnel. No Clutts, but also, no Dez! At the goal-line, no Dez? They elect Lucky Whitehead as a better asset, and Cassel motions him in. To do what?
Confusing, but as you can see, Doug Free loses his gap, and that means Jason Witten is left to deal with the massive Chris Baker and he loses, too. Again, a real mess at the point of attack that seems to cause us to question the actual concept and play design.
The play has to happen fast, because the longer it takes, the more defenders come streaming down hill. This is the argument for the QB sneak or the spread out offense with 3 or 4 receivers trying to pull defenders out of the box.
Regardless, this team is no 7 for 17 on 3rd and 1. 41% when the league average is 66%. If you just convert at that clip, it is possible this team has a much better feel for their entire 3rd down performance.
DATA - GAME 12 - WASHINGTON
If you look at the metrics from this Monday night game, most of the issues come down to the two vital offensive numbers - 3rd down efficiency and red zone efficiency.
Basically, the offense was as inefficient as it gets where they were 11% on 3rd downs and 25% in the red zone. You simply cannot win games in this situation with 1 TD for 4 Red Zone trips.
Add 3 giveaways and you can see that this was a very rare win when you do so many important things poorly. But, otherwise, Mrs Lincoln, the yards per play and the balance of the offense was not that bad.
MATT CASSEL THROW CHART
It might be worth pointing out that Cassel's issues have nothing to do with reluctance to pull the trigger. Look at all of the deeper throws (15+ yards). And, in many of these cases they found success, too. Lots of big plays down the field and many more near misses.
The people that think Weeden is comparable or even better than Cassel must just look at statistics, because the throws are not even close to comparable. Weeden could be replaced by any small college QB with the 5 yard passes he was throwing. Cassel, for his many faults and limitations, at least can run the same playbook as Tony Romo.
REDSKINS BLITZ SUMMARY
You can see that the idea since Tampa Bay has been for opponents to really blitz the Cowboys and not allow a QB to get comfortable back there. This is an interesting departure from the middle of the season which I would attribute to Dez Bryant's presence. Those weeks he was gone, the opponent was banking on the fact that nobody else could cause coverage issues. They were right.
RUSHERS BY DOWN
This is why you have to stay out of 3rd down. Look at when the Redskins are sending pressure. It is predictable, but when you go 1-9 on 3rd down, and you had 5 blitzes and 3 big blitzes, you can connect the dots. Add in 2 more 3rd and 1 run failures, and the inefficiencies are building.
I thought it was interesting how often the Cowboys went out of play-action on Monday night and how well that worked to find big shots down the field.
Again, Cassel hit some real big throws, but every single one of them was on 1st down and 10. And, it all came without the benefit of any quality runs with 12 or 13 personnel on Monday night. They had 10 runs for just 24 yards with that look out there and it was pretty weak.
But, when Cassel was going down the field on those play-action passes, the safeties were still divebombing the run fakes and getting caught, which leaves the corners isolated down the field.
This one the safety only takes one false step, but that is enough on a go-route to Dez to leave the corner all by himself. So again, Cassel on 1st down with a play-action fake - he is very good! Cassel on 3rd down with a 6 man blitz? Cassel looks like a back-up QB.
Down and distance matters very much.
6 runs and 6 passes to start the 12 possessions. The Cowboys see they can pass on 1st down and are trying to start more drives by not putting Cassel in bad spots.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
Basically, this team is going to go as far as the offense can take them. They have 4 games left and need to win 3 with an offense that has obvious limitations. This will require extending drives with 3rd down efficiency and then making sure you cash in on the red zone drives. 3rd downs have been problematic all year, and red zone efficiency has dropped from 2nd in the NFL in 2014 all the way to 28th. Only 15 of 34 Red Zone drives have ended up as 7 points. Just 44% after they cashed in on 33 of 51 last season for 65%. Each of those touchdowns make all the difference in the world.
They are going to take their shots to Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams down the field. They are going to try to continue to rely on a run-game that has seen production fall off in the last 4 weeks during a span of time where they have fallen to 3.4 after being up at 4.3 yards per carry in the first 8 weeks.
Last year in Green Bay, the Cowboys played bully football for much of the game and pushed the Packers defense around at the line of scrimmage. Green Bay needed some exception QB play and some help from the league's rulebook to escape, but they saw maybe the most physical performance of the Cowboys OL all year.
If the Cowboys wish to keep their hopes alive, they will need to reprise that without Tony Romo or DeMarco Murray in the huddle.