This would seem to be one of those games where it is important to understand that statistics are important but not the be-all, end-all for a coaching staff.
It is great to score 30 points. It is excellent to rack up 440 yards. Seven for 14 on third downs is magnificent most weeks and 3 for 4 in the red zone is exactly what we are looking for.
So, why do none of those numbers seem to matter too much this week as the Cowboys try to understand why they lost to the Los Angeles Rams at home in a game where very few thought that was a possibility?
Because -- you play to win the game. And if you walk away without the W, then all of the other numbers are just there on the page for people to look at.
Overall, the Cowboys offense can feel pretty good about a lot of the things that they accomplished on Sunday as they were able to run for 7 yards a carry and nearly 200 yards on the ground. They also passed for another 252 with a QB who threw three touchdowns.
So, how did they lose this thing?
Well, it was a game where field position mattered. The Rams were able to start drives on the Cowboys end of the field three different times. Twice from turnovers that the Cowboys handed over and a third when the kickoff return team set them up nicely. The Cowboys never started a drive -- not one -- of their 10 outside their own 25 yard line. That doesn't help.
And it doesn't help to take a -2 in the turnover department. The Cowboys are now 3-20 under Jason Garrett when they lose the turnover differential by two or more.
WEEKLY DATA BOX
Seven of 14 on third downs is usually going to turn out very well. Consistent with everything else, though, is this issue where they were 5-7 in the first half and then 2-7 in the second half. From that standpoint, the issues on third down resulted in drive after drive stalling in the second half as the Rams were cashing in on each drive -- if only for a field goal. That inability to answer for almost 25 minutes of game time without a single point is a real problem that the Cowboys would not be able to avoid.
The Cowboys are 20-52 on third downs this season for 38.5 percent. Do you know what the NFL average is through four weeks of third downs? 20-52, 38.5 percent. Exactly the same. They rank 17th.
Last year, they ranked 10th in the league at 42.3 percent. They also faced 11.8 third-down situations a game which was the fourth fewest in the league. What is the best way to win third downs? Never to face them. This year, they are back at 15th in the number of 3rd downs they face. And that is where they get in trouble.
As you can see, the "third and manageable" is still where it was (approximately). You allow the Cowboys to win first and second down to set up a new set of downs or third and short, they will be tough to beat. But, if you can plug up first down and get them chasing on third and 7+, they drop substantially to a spot where you aren't scared at all of them.
The NFL bats about 25 percent on 3rd and 7+. The best teams get to about 35 percent for a season (Detroit and Green Bay in 2016) and the worst teams were at 19 percent (New York Giants and Los Angeles Rams in 2016). Last year, Dak Prescott and this offense fit right in the middle at 26.4. That still allowed them to finish 10th in third downs overall because they killed third and manageable.
But, in 2017, they have fallen below 21 percent already to 5 of 24 for 20.8 percent. That ranks them 22nd in the league in this category where they struggle. I know that is a lot of numbers, but the bottom line is to stay out of long third downs for your best results.
DAK PRESCOTT THROW CHART
I want to come back to this throw chart in a bit, but it is getting more and more difficult to work the underneath routes because the safeties and linebackers know that is where you want to go. This is a pretty easy league to understand from the press box. One team has stuff they do well and the other team wants to take it away. From that standpoint, the Cowboys have put enough Dak Prescott offense out there to build up tendencies, and now the opponents are trying to force him to prove he can do other things.
Again, this is pretty clear stuff. Win the early downs with the best recipe for Cowboys success. Run the ball and play-action behind it to throw into high-percentage spots. That is the opposite of what third down affords. On 3rd down you are playing a defense that doesn't care if you run -- they are sitting back waiting for your familiar pass routes that they will defend with numbers.
Now, in the interest of time, allow me to say this: This is the result, not the cause. The cause is being unable to stay ahead of the sticks and on schedule. When you run well on early downs and take advantage of what the defense cannot defend, you have success. But, when they stop you on early downs, then you have to beat them in a more difficult manner. In other words, in 2016, the Cowboys were a dominant first-down team. They had success at an extremely high level for first-down runs. This year, they are average. They dropped from third in the NFL to 18th. Let that sink in.
THEY ARE A BELOW AVERAGE RUNNING TEAM ON 1ST DOWN THIS YEAR.
So, we are about to look at the third-down issues, but that is your real issue. Fifty percent of their runs on first down last year went for 4 yards or more. This year, they have dropped all the way to 41 percent when the league average is 42. This is all tied together. They don't win first down often enough anymore.
I should probably spend today on first downs, but instead, I want to look at the recipe to stop the Cowboys on third downs here with the videos:
This is a first down. First play of the game. The Cowboys are going to take a shot and find Dez Bryant for the biggest pass play of the day. But, look at the secondary. Look how few Rams are playing pass defense. This is what first down looks like for a QB. Everyone is possibly open.
Contrast that play above with this one. The Rams have seven guys in coverage against your five. They have you outnumbered long enough that before Dez Bryant can shake open, the pass protection has broken down and Dak gets sacked on this first-quarter third down.
Here is why you don't have much time. Jonathan Cooper versus Aaron Donald and then Michael Brockers is working over La'el Collins. The clock is ticking, the Rams have a stout front 4, and the ball has to come out quick. Dez doesn't have time to get open on a pivot route.
2Q -- 14:15 -- This is the touchdown to Zeke. Watch the Rams coverage. They will not allow Beasley or Witten to get open. This is the recipe. Third down, bracket Witten and Beasley. Make Dak find another solution. Roll coverage to Bryant and if Zeke is going to be able to do this, the Rams will live with it. As you may remember, this is how the game ended, too. Dump to Zeke and hope he can work a miracle underneath.
Heck of a job, but it is tough to live like this.
Here was that impressive display on third down at 5:43 of the second quarter where Dak has to leave the pocket and do what he does sometimes. This is really nice work after protection broke down, but you sure can't live like this very often. Again, watch the coverage underneath on Beasley and Witten.
It all starts because Cooper can't deal with Aaron Donald - nobody can, it seems. So, the clock is ticking. If you can't protect, you can't wait for guys to uncover. And this is why third downs are very difficult in this league.
Third and 11 here, first drive of the 3rd Quarter. Slant to Bryant and the ball is delivered a bit low. But, this is where I need Dez Bryant to make a catch. Sammy Watkins made this exact catch later in the game on the other side.
You can tell me about all the uncatchable balls that Dez has to deal with, but in a game like this, helping out your QB with a catch that doesn't hit you in the numbers would be pretty ideal here. Instead, here comes the punt team again.
Every third down has a different story to tell. Here is third and 7 at 5:25 of the third quater. The Rams are bringing a six-man blitz and the Cowboys have to get it blocked up -- Zeke does a nice job. So, now, as the pressure closes in, can Dak pick out the right target. Looks like Witten will be the guy who opens up at the sticks, but he tries to set up Beasley on the option route. But, Beasley does not go inside and instead has no angle and is pushed out at the boundary. Close, but not close enough. Punt.
Here we go again. Third and 6 at 1:42 of the third. He thinks he has Dez for a back-shoulder fade, but I don't really see much up there. The throw is safely out of bounds. Instead, Witten again looks like an option underneath. It just seems he doesn't have the patience on Witten sometimes. The Rams are blitzing, so they are betting that Prescott will unload the ball and concede the punt in situations like this. They appear right.
Third and 9. So many third-and-long situations! 11:12 in the 4th and this is likely where the Cowboys lost the game. As you can see, protection again is the issue and I am not sure what Dak saw.
Is he trying to throw it to Beasley? It doesn't matter because Zack Martin loses in protection to Brockers and Mark Barron picks this off. Prescott was hit way too much when trying to throw in this game. The Rams deserve a lot of credit, too, of course. There is nowhere to go with the football here. But, the interception is the worst possible outcome.
Final drive -- this is 3rd and 10 -- and he wants the out to Dez Bryant. Of course, Wade knows this and calls for his DE to drop into that path on the shallow line to make the throw more difficult. It sure looks like the comeback to Williams at the other sideline is more available from this laptop's view.
As you can see, Travis Frederick loses his LB pickup (with Cooper's help) and now Dak is trying to fit the ball over the DE and under the corner and in bounds into this tight window while being hit and with the whole game on the line. Should he make this throw? You would love to see it. But, could we ask him to do more difficult things? You have to get this protection right and the OL blew it. Prescott could not hit the window while being hit.
So, it comes down to 4th and 10. Watch the Rams. They all know this is the call. And Zeke tries to get there, but this is too tough to get to the sticks. Witten is open once he clears the linebacker.
You can also see the pass rushers moving to keep Dak in the pocket this time. Watch Witten on this play. He has to be the read. They are going to make him make a strong, courageous throw or this game ends.
I could certainly look at why first down is broken, too, right now, but I will mercifully leave that project for another day.
Somehow, they gained 440 yards, scored 30 points and converted seven third downs -- and I have just acted like they were awful offensively. That may be unfair, but I feel like it properly fits what Dallas is dealing with right now. They must manage their game better. It will make third down better and it will, of course, get back to owning the clock and feeling in control of games again.
But, for now, you can see, these third-down situations are partly on the QB. But, then the protection breaks down, the WR doesn't make a play, and the frustration grows. Opponents are sitting on the normal targets, because they know that is where they are normally looking. They have to change tendencies to change how they are defended. And, they need to get this turned around quickly.