Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Splash Plays - Week 7 - New York Giants

It is truly the most extreme of situations when you concede 16 points in the first 16 minutes of the game, and yet, you feel that the defense has done a strong job at minimizing damage.  But, that is the case on Sunday when 3 of the 4 Giants' early scoring drives started at or inside the Dallas 31 yard line.

Turnovers caused what the coaches refer to as "sudden change" and to the Cowboys credit, they responded well enough to keep the team within striking distance.  And that continued later in the game when 2 4th Quarter Giants' drives were just for 3 points as opposed to the 7 that would have ended the team's chances.

The defensive philosophy on Sunday emerged into a very curious one based on the success that the Giants were having (or in this case, not having).  New York was not moving the ball well, and so Dallas seemed to play more as an accomplice to the crime, as opposed to any sort of driving force.

They hardly applied pressure to Eli Manning again.  Just 1 sack, and even that was more of a situation where DeMarcus Ware gobbled up Manning after Eli was flushed up in the pocket.  In his final visit to Texas Stadium in 2008, Manning was sacked 8 times by the Dallas front (1 sack every 5.3 attempts).  Now, after 8 games since that incident, the Cowboys have finally matched those 8 sacks - but in 295 pass attempts (1 sack every 37 attempts).  

But, in the past, we have seen the Cowboys try everything else they could think of to try to get to Eli with blitzes.  However, in 2012, we have not seen this.  And on Sunday, it was the most extreme numbers to date.  We only found 2 times in the game where the Cowboys brought a blitzer in 31 passing situations (6%).  Given that we now have 2 meetings between the teams since the Cowboys have signed their 2 new corners, we seem to have evidence here that this is how Rob Ryan believes you can minimize damage against the Giants.

And, through those 2 meetings, one could admit that the strength of the Giants attack has been dulled from the last few years.  Victor Cruz has been ineffective, the running game has not bothered Dallas much, and overall, they did not find a normal number of plays down the field of the explosive variety.  The Giants had been averaging a league-leading 5 explosives per game.  On this day, they only had 2.  Of course, they didn't need many given the generosity of the Cowboys offense.

It is fair to say that the two top performers defensively were Jay Ratliff and Morris Claiborne.  Both affected the game with frequent plays of note, and Ratliff troubled the interior of the Giants line all afternoon.  As for Claiborne, it is early, but he sure seems like he might possess that rare strain that everyone hopes for in the NFL, and that is he might be a ball hawk.

The ball hawk is very hard to find, but after years of tracking those types of takeaways - interceptions, strips - it appears clear that it is something that a player either possesses or doesn't.  Charles Tillman, Ed Reed, Charles Woodson, Antoine Winfield, and Troy Polamalu all are of that species, and some of those players have changed teams and have still been great at taking the ball away.  It doesn't seem to be a trait that is learned, although coaches talk like it can be taught.

Regardless of whether you think it can be emphasized and improved upon (I have not seen statistical data to support that), it does seem desirable to acquire players who look to take the ball.  And now, 2 months into his career as a professional, we are starting to see signs that Mo could be that type of guy.

Each week, we see plays where Claiborne is around the ball.  And then, we see him come up with it.  As a rookie, that is most impressive because that should be where he is most tentative, but with his disallowed strip versus the Bears, his interception at Carolina, and his plays around the ball against New York (including a fumble recovery) is showing me a pattern.  He is confident and has a swagger about his game that should get you excited.  They paid dearly to select Claiborne, but through 7 games, the speed with which he has settled in is most encouraging.


Let's take a look at the "Splash Plays" from Week 7 vs the Giants:

Splash Plays are key impact plays from the defense.  Usually, they are obvious, but there are some that blur the line.  I have listed time and play of each one for those who want to double check my work.

For more, read a detailed explanation of this study here:  What is a Splash Play?


1-14:162/8/O22RatliffTackle For Loss
1-12:481/10/D23ColemanTackle For Loss
1-11:583/10/D23Claiborne3D Pass Defended
1-7:523/16/D45RatliffRun Stuff
1-2:171/10/O15CarterRun Stuff
1-0:052/7/D13SpencerRun Stuff
2-11:371/10/O39ColemanForced Fumble
2-11:371/10/O39ClaiborneFumble Recovery
2-8:413/4/O31ScandrickPass Defended
2-0:313/7/O23WareRun Stuff
3-8:213/9/O22Carr3D Pass Defended
3-0:523/2/D46SensabaughBig Hit
4-11:043/5/D28Claiborne3rd Down Stop
4-5:303/5/D28Hatcher/SpencerRun Stuff

Sunday also featured another rarity for the Cowboys, a big hit in the secondary that led to a big play.  In 2011, I found just 1 hit in the secondary that broke up a pass (Abe Elam vs Philadelphia in December). Already this season, the Cowboys have 3, including Gerald Sensabaugh's hit on Cruz on Sunday where Danny McCray picked off the pass from Sensabaugh's rear.

Sensabaugh is not renowned for his physicality, and even famously passed on hits in 2010 on a few occasions, so to see him throwing his body around now is a sign of progress.  He joins Anthony Spencer (Seattle) and Brandon Carr (Tampa Bay) as Cowboys who have knocked a pass away with a big hit to the body of a receiver.

Up to date season standings - after the next game, I will make sure we get a "per snap" ratio:

Team Total102



Blitzing played almost no role whatsoever in Sunday's game.  It is clear the Cowboys want to flood the secondary with defenders to make Eli search for an open man.  And, to their credit, he seemed to have plenty of difficulty spotting that open man on this occasion.

Here are the two big plays of over 20 yards for the Giants.

1-13:383/9/O21Manning Pass to Randle, +56 4
4-14:461/10/O15Manning deep to Nicks, +294

And, here are the two biggest Cowboys plays of the game that involved a pass rush.  Again, no signs of any sort of blitz.

2-0:491/10/D20Manning Sacked by Ware4
3-0:523/2/D46Manning Intercepted by McCray4

Pass Rushers Against New York- 31 pass rush/blitz situations:

Pass Rushers1st D2nd D3rd D4th DTotal
3 Rush03104
4 Rush10510025
5 Rush01102
6 Rush00000
7 Rush00000

Not much to look at here, but nevertheless, here is the blitzing chart.  One should wonder if the Cowboys adjusted their plan based on the score, but honestly, your first instinct would be to guess that being way behind would result in more blitzes.  We didn't see that at all.

The game by game pressure numbers:

Wk 1 - NYG: 11/37 - 30%
Wk 2 - SEA: 10/26 - 38%
Wk 3 - TB:  12/32 - 37%
Wk 4 - CHI: 12/27 - 44%
Wk 5 - BAL: 10/27 - 37%
Wk 6 - CAR:  9/39 - 23%
Wk 7 - NYG: 2/31 - 6%

Totals:  66/229 - 29%

It is all about incremental growth, and it seems that the Cowboys defense has done a pretty strong job through 7 games.  But, every week in this league is a test, and the Atlanta Falcons have a fantastic offense right now.  Having just watched them carve up Philadelphia with a very impressive deep-shallow game that utilizes the entire field, we know that Dallas will need all hands on deck and playing at a very high level of performance.

The Falcons feature weapons at all skill positions and will test the Dallas corners for sure.  But, it is pretty tough to take to much issue with the defensive job they did against the Giants in 2012, home and away.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Decoding Garrett - Week 7 - New York Giants

Today, let's start with our concluding point:  Tony Romo is playing some of the worst football of his career.

After a 4 interception performance against the Giants, not only does he take over the league lead in interceptions, but he does it by a healthy margin with 13.  3 others have 10 picks, the likes of Matt Cassel, Brandon Weeden, and Andy Dalton.

Interceptions are not the be-all, end-all of Quarterbacking, but to have elite QB rating numbers and efficiency, you are going to have to have 2 to 3 times as many touchdowns as interceptions.  Drew Brees has thrown plenty of picks in the last 5 seasons (72), but when you have 167 touchdowns during that same stretch (+95), odds are pretty good that you are having success.

Heck, the all-time interception king is Brett Favre, with a likely untouchable total of 336, but given his equally all-time leading touchdown totals of 508, was seen as much more good than bad (+172).

Romo is +73 for his career, but a painful -4 for his season.  And his 13 picks is already the 3rd most of his 7-year career.  After always being amongst the league leaders in QB rating with numbers in the mid to high 90s, he finds himself below Jay Cutler and right next to Michael Vick in 2012, with a 78 QB rating (very close to Quincy Carter's 71-type numbers).

Even worse, Romo-apologists like me are so perplexed by his performance that a slam-dunk decision about getting his contract extension done now looks like a confusing dilemma moving forward after the last few duds in front of the home audience.

What is happening to one of the more efficient QBs of this era?  In almost all metrics, since he has come into the league, he is no worst than 5th when it comes to QB rating behind Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning.  That is the entire list.  Anyone else?  And Romo has them on statistical metrics of the individual variety.

It is tough to narrow down specifically what is happening, and honestly, to blame one aspect of the offense is to let others off the hook.  But, the following items are true.

*  Romo has turned the ball over more than anyone in the sport this year
*  Romo has 0 TDs and 5 interceptions on 3rd and 4th downs
*  Romo has the 33rd worst QB rating on 3rd Down of 34 qualifying QBs (Skelton, Arz)

Those are the 3 most disconcerting numbers to this point.  On 1st and 2nd down, he hasn't been great, but he hasn't been horrible, either.

But, 3rd Down.  And what, pray tell, do the Cowboys do almost exclusively on 3rd Down?  They run their shotgun-spread-them-out offense.

This year, Romo from shotgun is hitting 2 Touchdowns and 8 interceptions.  Add to this 12 sacks from this alignment, and you see that many, many bad things are happening with 20 negative plays and just 2 Touchdowns to compensate.

From under center, we see 7 Touchdowns and 5 interceptions, with only 1 sack against.  This number is far from great, but again, at least it qualifies for acceptable.

Now, how do those numbers jive with Sunday?  Actually, all of the sacks came out of shotgun.  But, on Sunday, 3 of the 4 interceptions came from under center.  Which means, that Romo's ratio was far more impressive (7 TDs, 2  INTs) before the issues were completely different on Sunday.

On Sunday, believe it or not, the Cowboys ideas were sound.  They tried to run their offense from under center.  They took smart shots down the field from a play-calling department (1st and 10) and they were sabotaged by the execution of their quarterback throwing into coverage and their receivers perhaps not bailing out their QB with sound routes or challenging the ball a little better (in the case of the Corey Webster pick).

They even tried to stay with the run for a reasonable amount of time - of course, later in the game, they would concede that 3rd and 1 and 4th and 1 were no place for running plays.  But, when the Jason Pierre Paul interception hit - resulting off a simple screen play - the game plan had to be disassembled because they were down 23-0.

Romo does not have very good pass protection, and the Giants were making sure to demonstrate that almost at will on Sunday.  On Thursday, I want to break that down and find out which pass protectors are having the most trouble (that might be a real challenge).  But, given that very few teams give up fewer sacks than the Cowboys, we cannot say that this is the exclusive issue, can we?  When Rodgers has taken 28 sacks and yet has a 21 TD/4 INT ratio, is it fair to blame this mess all on the offensive line for 13 Romo sacks?  On the other hand, maybe Rodgers is the exception, because the other list of QBs who are sacked a lot are also a list of losing QBs and high INT QBs.

Over the course of his career, Romo is better under the center with a 101.5 rating, versus a 91.5 rating from shotgun.  But, there is nothing wrong with 91, so either way he has been quite proficient no matter  how they align their offense.

But, in 2012, everything has gone south.  Surely, it is mostly based on 2 games (Chicago and New York) and we shouldn't over-react to a small sample size when we have 7 seasons to look at.  He is one of the most efficient QBs in this entire generation, but something is desperately wrong.

Getting DeMarco Murray back would really help.  Better pass protection would help.  Romo fighting the urge to do too much would help.

But, I wonder how the play-calling will react to this.  Will they now go in an offensive shell and try to win a game 17-14?  Or will they trust the philosophy and simply try to clean up the poor decisions and execution?

Data from Week 7 vs New York Giants

Starting Field PositionD 26
1st Down Run-Pass8-30
2nd Down Avg Distance to Go5.96
2nd Down Run-Pass7-21
3rd Down Avg Distance to Go6.43
3rd Down Run-Pass1-15
3rd Down Conversions7-14, 50%

We are going to look at a lot of data, but I am not sure how much of it is useful in a game where a team falls behind so early.  You do wonder about how a team can look so poorly within their first 15 plays.  But, for the life of me, it seems that the play calls were generally sound, the execution was what was horrid.


Here are the passing charts to see what was being accomplished on Sunday.

Blue is a completion. Red is incomplete. Yellow is a touchdown, and Black is an interception. The passes are lines from where Romo released the pass to where the pass was caught. This shows you his release point and where he likes to throw when he slides in the pocket.

Clearly, there was almost nothing over the top to be found by the Giants.

1st Half

2nd Half -

Here is a chart dedicated to the huge day for Jason Witten, below:  

Drive Starters - The 1st play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan. How committed is he to the run or pass when the team comes off the sideline? We track it each week here -

Wk 1-At New York: 9 Drives - 5 Run/4 Pass
Wk 2-At Seattle: 9 Drives - 3 Run/6 Pass
Wk 3-Tampa Bay: 13 Drives - 7 Run/6 Pass
Wk 4-Chicago: 11 Drives - 3 Run/8 Pass
Wk 5-At Baltimore: 10 Drives - 8 Run/2 Pass
Wk 6-At Carolina 10 Drives - 6 Run/4 Pass
Wk 7-New York: 14 Drives - 4 Run/10 Pass
Season: 76 Drives 36 Run/40 Pass - 47% Run

2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run/102 Pass 44% Run


Shotgun snaps are fine on 3rd Down and in the 2 minute drill. But, we track this stat from week to week to make sure the Cowboys aren't getting too lazy in using it. They are not efficient enough to run it as their base, and with a 15%/85% run/pass split across the league, there is no way the defense respects your running game. When shotgun totals are high, the Cowboys are generally behind, scared of their offensive line, or frustrated. High Shotgun numbers are not this team's calling card for success.

There is no question that in this particular game, it was going to be a situation where the game-plan was scrapped, and the shotgun was primarily used.  Honestly, I expected more than 48 when predicting the final numbers on Sunday.

Wk 1 - NYG: 15/54 27.7%
Wk 2 - Sea: 29/56 52%
Wk 3 - TB: 34/63 54%
Wk 4 - Chi: 50/68 74%
Wk 5 - Balt: 19/79 24%
Wk 6 - Car: 22/64 34%
Wk 7 - NYG: 48/83 58%

2012 Season Total: 227/467 49%

2011 Total - 445/1012 43.9%

Here is the breakdown by groupings:

Before you study the data below, I would recommend that if the numbers for the groupings are unfamiliar, that you spend some time reading a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groupings here.

Totals by Personnel Groups:

PackagePlays RunYardsRunPass

* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.

23 personnel got plenty of work down at the goal-line twice for 6 snaps, and seemed to demonstrate that do not have the ability to get a yard.  This might be the best explanation why they did not attempt the run on 3rd and 1 or 4th and 1 later in the game.  This is not a physical offense and won't be until it is emphasized more by the organization.

Totals by Personnel Groups on 3rd/4th Down:


Overall, the offense found a lot of yards out there, but when 6 different drives end in turnovers, you really should have no chance. The fact that they did have a chance in the end and nearly pulled it off speaks more to the internal fight and the job of the defense.

But, from a standpoint of preparing all week and then going out and executing your plan, this has to be defined as a complete and total failure from the entire offensive unit.

In the last decade, there have been 61 occasions when one team has turned the ball over 6 times. The team doing the deed is 3-58. The exceptions were the Cowboys miracle in Buffalo (2007), the Bears winning in Arizona in the "They were who we thought they were" game, and a Jacksonville win in Cleveland in 2010.

It seems rather needless to say that this is the only statistic worth discussing from Sunday. Everything else were just numbers on a page.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Morning After: Giants 29, Cowboys 24

To write a column that properly captures all of the events of yesterday at Cowboys Stadium would be impossible. That is more than enough content for an entire book. In many ways, it seemed like there were 3 different games that occurred between the hours of 3:00 and 7:00 on Sunday afternoon. Some might even argue that the game was a microcosm of the present era of Dallas Cowboys football.

And I think they might be on to something there.

Yesterday, the foe of all foes visited town for their annual trip which generally ends in a victory. In fact, of their last 6 trips to North Texas, 5 of them ended with a similar strain of Giants smiles and a Cowboys' disaster site. The specifics vary, and surely the details of the 2012 incident will stick out like a sore thumb for a while, but the consistent strain remains largely the same - up and down the roster, the Giants are better. Not miles and miles better, but enough to win in the end.

The Cowboys certainly assisted in their own destruction yesterday. In fact, aside from the Giants front mounting another violent assault on Tony Romo, it is difficult to find players on the Giants' side who had exceptional ball games. The turnovers, like the last home game, 27 days prior, were enough to destroy any team's chances to win.

6 giveaways matches the most giveaways of any Cowboys team in the Jerry Jones era.  It has happened one other time, and once again we will reference the 2007 Monday Night Miracle in Buffalo.  The fact that I have referenced this game several times already this season indicates that the Cowboys are turning the ball over at a historic pace.

They have 19 giveaways this season - the same number they had the entire season of 2009 (you know, the last time they made the playoffs).  In all of 2011, they had 21 turnovers.  And yet, through 7 games, they have 19 - and that set's a pace for over 43 this year.

That number is so insanely high, that any defense of the Cowboys offense - from quarterback to coach, seems ridiculous.  There can be no excusing any segment of this offense when it comes to playing football the right way.  And the Cowboys are miles from doing that.

They properly sought big plays this week.  They looked at the evidence and rightfully believed that they were going to have to start pushing the ball back down the field.  So, they did.  And much like last time they tried this, they continuously turned the ball over.  That doesn't make the objective incorrect, it makes the execution incorrect.

Boy, was it ever.

Jimmy Johnson summed up what he had just seen in the post-game portion of Fox's studio show last night before Fox went off the air:  "The key to success in the NFL is not how many great plays you make, it's how few bad plays you make."

And for a veteran quarterback like Tony Romo, this is the type of game (especially with the close proximity to the Chicago game) that is completely inexcusable.  As a long-time believer in his abilities, I can understand his circumstances that are far below ideal these days.  They put a ton of their weight on his shoulders and ask for him to compensate for a number of issues, but that should not, in any way, alibi for a 3 turnovers in the early going that were all plays where the QB has to make either a better decision or a better throw.

And before we call out Dez Bryant for not crossing in front of the safety or Miles Austin for not competing harder with Corey Webster on the deep ball, let's point out one really big issue on both of those throws - they were both on 1st Down.  That tells you that a QB has to show that all of his experience and veteran "know how" has led us to a path in his road where he can clearly diagnose a situation properly.  He clearly knows when to take shots, but also when to make the proper decisions.  He cannot miss that safety.  And then, the throw has to be truer to its destination than most of Romo's throws early yesterday.  No matter how you slice it, his play in these last 2 home games - 2 Touchdowns and 9 Interceptions - cannot be rationalized nor accounted for.

The parallels of what is happening in Philadelphia should not be lost on any of us.  There, a 3-4 team has felt that they have had just about enough of their veteran quarterback's scene.  Of course, they have a coach who is on a short leash and a young QB who they have invested a valuable draft pick in, so there are some big differences, but Romo has to know that in this league, everyone's time is limited.  Even after one of his best seasons of his career, there cannot be clear understanding and patience for a QB who is in his 7th season of being a starting QB.

I don't want to be misunderstood here.  I think Romo has been asked to compensate for a very poor offensive line for so long that his ability to run this offense while trying to avoid a Justin Tuck or Jason Pierre-Paul body-slam is enough to short-circuit anyone's wiring, but if there is no middle ground between no throws downfield and 4 interceptions, then there is just no hope.

I received a text from a friend who is a hardcore Cowboys fan, and he articulated Romo pretty well last night:  "Romo is an enigma to me.  Within a game, he is basically the only reason the Cowboys have a reasonable chance of winning.  Yet, in the same moment, he is invariably the reason that they lose."

Seems pretty close to how many feel this morning.

But, what keeps hope alive and makes it difficult to give up and move on, is the way he battles.  And honestly, I think the 2012 Dallas Cowboys battle their tails off, for what it is worth.  And I am certainly ready to admit it isn't worth much.  But, I did see a team that was not giving up in Baltimore, and that same battle was clear yesterday.

In fact, as the game went along, the Cowboys worked their way back into the game.  Romo and his receivers began to hit on some big plays and methodically worked all the way back from 23-0 to a point where they were up 24-23.  It was surprising and impressive as the stadium had come alive with hope that they had turned things around.  Suddenly, Dallas had the lead and the ball late in the 3rd Quarter thanks to the rare takeaway caused by the even more rare big hit from Gerald Sensabaugh in the secondary.

And those good feelings lasted just mere seconds.  On Dallas' first play of that drive after the takeaway, Chris Canty shook off Nate Livings and drove Romo right into the turf to kill a drive.  The ensuing drive gave the Giants back the lead - one they would never lose again.

The next drive featured some progress, but was halted by 2 negative plays.  First, the pocket collapsed around Romo, largely due to Tuck bull rushing Doug Free right back into Romo and then Linval Joseph cleaning up after he beat Mackenzy Bernadeau for the sack.  Then, 2 plays later, Felix Jones loses the football in yet another giveaway that seemed quite unnecessary (it looked like it was knocked loose by Ryan Cook's rear end) and was painfully another 1st down mistake.

That gift turned into 3 more points for the Giants, and they held a 29-24 lead with 3:31 left to play.

Dallas again drove down the field and appeared to be lining up a magnificent escape, but on the first snap after the 2 minute warning, Romo was sacked again.  Tuck lined up in the A-gap to Cook's right and split the center-right guard tandem as if neither were paying attention to knock Romo to the turf again.  This play was nullified by a penalty in the secondary, but it again speaks to the Cowboys deficiencies up front.

A few more completions to Austin and Witten, and the Cowboys are at the 19 yard line, facing a 2nd down and 1.  On that play, the Cowboys threw another out to Witten, but this one fell incomplete as Witten hit the sound technician on the sideline.  On 3rd and 1, Romo sees a match-up in the corner with Kevin Ogletree against Prince Amukamara, but the battle between the two resulted in the ball falling incomplete.  Clearly, the more efficient decision might have been to run a play that moves the chains, but Garrett and Romo had a play on that allowed Romo to make a decision based on what he saw.  He went for it.  The flag on the play was picked up, so now the game comes down to 1 play (we thought).

On 4th down, the Giants did what they always seem to do.  They get a pass rush with just 4 guys.  The benefits of having a defensive front that can whip your rival's offensive line without even having to blitz are infinite.  And on this occasion, Osi Umenyiora defeats Doug Free with ease, causing Free to hold and still was beaten.  From there, Romo is now back-peddaling and running for his life, causing a 4th down desperation heave that was intercepted by Stevie Brown.  Had the ball been incomplete, it was a turnover on downs anyway and if it had found a Cowboy, the holding penalty on Free would have negated it.

Somehow, though, the Cowboys still had a chance.

They were able to force a punt and they took over one final time with :44 to play.  Amazingly, it was their 15th drive of the game, one that would take them over 80 offensive plays for the game.  They drove the field again, to a point where they could throw to the end-zone from the Giants 37 yard line.

What happened next will certainly be the signature play of not only this game, and perhaps not only this season, but maybe even the entire career of Dez Bryant.  He is a player of such ability and impact that his special plays seem more special than others, and his mistakes seem more memorable.  As he put a double move on his man and streaked to the end-zone, it seemed unthinkable that the Giants had presented him with enough space to have a chance.  He and Brown both launch for the ball at the same time and Dez would not be denied.  He caught it with ease and turned his body in such a way where the Giants had no chance to knock it loose.  The stadium erupts like maybe it never has before as he fell to the turf.  The Cowboys appeared to have pulled off a miracle comeback against their biggest tormentors.

Until they showed the replay.

The fingers of his right hand touched the end line.  His palm was in.  His fingernails were not.  If he only falls on his hip, he is in - which is easy for someone to say from their couch.  But, he breaks his fall with his hand, and the hand nullifies the play.  One year after the "lost in the lights" no brainer pass to Austin, we now have this to make a fan base shake its head.

It is just too cruel.  Too cruel to Dez, who obviously wants to be the dominant Cowboy receiver that everyone wants him to be - but something always seems to keep that from happening.  Too cruel to Romo who just about escaped one of his worst days with one of his more courageous comebacks.  And maybe just too cruel to this franchise who have demonstrated time and time again that they can fight to the final gun with these Giants, but whether it is the 2007 playoff game, or ever doggone game in the new stadium in Arlington, they play just well enough to lose.

There was time after the reversal for 2 last plays, but after Romo's last desperation shot sailed out of the back of the endzone - the Giants 3 man rush still saw Pierre-Paul hit Romo's arm at the time of delivery - and the loss was now a part of the long-term torture that the Giants continue to put on Dallas.

Despite the close nature of the outcome, it makes you question everything.  It makes you question how this keeps happening.  And why your Quarterback is regressing.  And whether he is your QB for years to come.  And why your franchise doesn't realize why the Giants seem to own them - which seems to be the continuous domination by their defensive line on your feeble offensive line.  When the chips are down and the game is 3 hours long, they can always get to your QB when they need to.

But, in the end, there were simply to many mistakes.  When you lose a home game in which you never make the opposition's offense prove anything (Eli Manning's QB Rating was also 58 - just like Romo), you blame yourself.

This team, one of the great teases of this NFL era, has written yet another chapter in its very frustrating story.

"The key to success in the NFL is not how many great plays you make, it's how few bad plays you make."

Friday, October 26, 2012

On Sean Lee and the New York Giants...

The Cowboys received some devastating news earlier in the week when they discovered that they would be without the services of Sean Lee for the remainder of the year. This means, with the hamstring of 2010, the thumb of 2011, and now the toe of 2012, he will have missed games in all 3 seasons of his young and promising career, and will enter his 4th and final year of his rookie contract (4 years - $3.49m) without ever proving he could make it through an entire season with perfect attendance.

Add that to the 2008 season at Penn State that was missed entirely (ACL) and the 2009 that was partially missed (ankle), and we have 5 straight seasons where health has zapped Sean Lee of playing time.  It appears we clearly have an idea of his potential fatal flaw that keeps him from being a 1st round pick in the draft and a clear cut "perfect middle linebacker" in the pros.

There is no question that his play has been stellar enough that the Cowboys rightfully see his positives as enough to secure a gigantic extension before the start of the 2013 season, but just know that he plays at a level of physicality that you shouldn't be surprised if he misses a few games every year as part of his scouting report.

Now, that the Cowboys realize that they must compensate for his absence, they find themselves in a similar spot as the Jets (Darrell Revis), the Ravens (Ladarius Webb/Ray Lewis), the Falcons (Brent Grimes), the Redskins (Brian Orakpo/Adam Carriker), the Panthers (Chris Gamble/Jon Beason), and the Texans (Brian Cushing) - teams also losing one or two of their best defenders for the entire season due to injury.  It is the nature of the sport.

The good news, for the Cowboys, is that they actually are somewhat prepared for this injury loss.  Unlike other spots on the roster, when they signed Dan Connor as an insurance policy to cover the development of Bruce Carter, they placed a player on their roster who has 19 starts in the last 2 seasons in Carolina.  He cannot do what Sean Lee can do from a speed standpoint, but on 1st and 2nd down he can fill the running lanes at a satisfactory level.

The major drop-off will be that Sean Lee can play as a 3-down LB - a rarity in the NFL - where he can play the run game and the nickel defense pass game at a similar level of excellence.  Connor is merely adequate against the run and not much of a coverage option.  Therefore, the signing of Ernie Sims this week - a player who has disappointed at two different stops in his career - is clearly their plan in nickel situations as early as Sunday against the Giants.  It will take two players to replace Lee, and it is possible that his mental grasp of all things on the defense will not be filled by anyone at the same level. It is not a creation of the media to state that Lee knows the scheme as well as anyone short of the coaches, and that might not be something that is available from Connor, Sims, or Carter at this point.

This is a big loss for the Cowboys, but I really feel that this is a premium player at a less-than-premium spot on the field from a Xs and Os standpoint.  If you lose an outside linebacker for the season in a 3-4 or a corner, you are at a premium spot where the opposition can directly attack all night.  Middle linebackers can be exposed, but only in certain spots.  You can "scheme around" some of the issues that are presented if you so choose, but I honestly think the Cowboys can be ok with Connor/Sims filling that spot for now.  Will they be tested?  Of course.  Will there be a drop off?  Yes.  But, they are veterans who likely will battle back and they will hold their own.


Meanwhile, here come the New York Giants.  A team that has never lost in Arlington, Texas, with a 3-0 record, an autograph in the visiting locker-room, a broken collarbone for Tony Romo, and an extremely frustrated Cowboys bunch who cannot understand what they are doing wrong.

The Giants are clearly the biggest thorn in the side of this generation of Cowboys.  No team has talked more trash about the Cowboys and then followed it up with yet another humbling of Romo, Ware, and company.  This has been going on since the Romo administration took over during a blowout loss on a Monday Night where Drew Bledsoe received the hook at halftime, and continued through 2 more demoralizing defeats last December.

The Cowboys have had their moments - mostly in New York - but from that night in 2006 until now, Eli Manning and the Giants have scored the last laugh on an often enough basis head to head that all doubt has been removed on comparisons between franchises. Then, if that argument sustains too long, their 8 playoff wins and 2 Lombardi trophies since Romo vs Eli has begun has slammed every door shut on any peeps of defense from Texas.

It has been a road-bump that the Cowboys cannot overcome, and it gets even more frustrating when you consider that Jerry Jones has drawn inspiration from the "Wildcard to World Champ" path that the Giants have taken for each Super Bowl they have won under Tom Coughlin.  That long-shot bet that the Giants have won twice leads Jones to believe that his franchise might be as close as that 3rd down pass to Miles Austin that was lost in the lights.  

We have certainly documented how Eli Manning enjoys playing the Cowboys and if it wasn't for Victor Cruz' trouble securing keep passes on opening night, Eli might have had a different fate when Dallas upset the Giants in New York to launch the season.

But, the Giants have certainly rallied with 5 out of 6 wins.  Some have been comebacks of the most dramatic fashion, and nearly all of the wins are against teams that will not play in the post-season, but their one pounding of San Francisco in California was enough to show any who questioned whether the Giants still have the ability to go win a huge game on a big stage.  And honestly, after 2 Super Bowls with this core, who is still questioning that?

The have the most explosive plays in the NFL with 35.  They have the best field position in the NFL.  They have been in the opponent's red zone more than anyone in the NFL.  They have allowed the fewest sacks.  And have generated the 3rd most points.

You might want to read that last paragraph again to let that all sink in.

They don't turn the ball over much and they don't commit many penalties.  Basically, if you want to beat the Giants, you have to do it without much help from them.  And you have to score points.

Now, before we turn them into some super power with no weaknesses, we should also point out their defense gives up a ton of big plays and a half-ton of points, too.  They allow long drives and long touchdowns.

But, their defense gets most serious when you are deep in their territory.  They are #1 in the NFL in goal-to-goal efficiency.  Meaning, you don't get Touchdowns against them from inside the 10 very often.  For a team that concedes 6.4 yards per play, that is a neat trick.

Their personnel is much more squared away in the secondary than they were on opening night, and will absolutely attempt to cause issues for Romo on Sunday.  And, the Cowboys will no doubt have some big-game jitters early.

This should be plenty of fun.  And if they can find a win, a season sweep of the Giants can put them up in the front seat of the divisional race.


My only problem with Spencer is that he said that he was not doing his best that year, not preparing or playing hard enough.  He is having a good year.   But, will he go back to not trying his best all the time…..every down.  Does he really love to play football? 
 My other question is …..I am starting to get the feeling that we are targeting Dez all the time to keep him from losing it on the sideline.   Reminds me of Romo having to throw to TO all the time?   Does it look like we are targeting Dez too much?  Is this to keep Dez and jerry happy?
 Bob Woodyard

First, on Dez:  If that is actually a reason to throw the ball to Dez - to keep him from getting mad - then we have bigger issues about who is running this thing than ever before.  You throw to Dez because he is a beast, and he gives you a chance to get yardage in big chunks.  This is a great chance for him to show he is the equal to Hakeem Nicks, a player he has often been compared to because of their similar age and physical frames, but also a player who has made a much greater impact in big moments than Bryant.

Now, Spencer:  That quote he made after the 2010 season about noticing he could have played harder, was a moment where an athlete self-evaluated and then told the media what he saw.  We want these guys to be honest, but when they are, we sometimes don't actually hear what they are saying.  I talked to Spencer about this topic and he said he was watching the film and thought he could give more and do more on the field.  That is honest of anyone.  I read old columns and see things I wish I did differently or better.  It doesn't mean he wasn't trying or I am not trying as I write this.

But, because of that quote, people think he might be a dog, playing for a contract.  I don't agree.  First, in the NFL, just about every year for every player is a contract year.  Alex Rodriguez will get paid a ton of money by someone for 5 more years - whether he plays or not.  That is baseball.  Right now, in the NFL, most players know that 2013 is not secured for them.  Ask Doug Free or Miles Austin.  They know what their cap number is.  They know that only they can make themselves "uncuttable".

And, now, with the coaches film at our disposal, we can watch Spencer.  And I do.  He runs to the ball through the whistle constantly.  He has no dog in his play.  And I haven't seen it since Rob Ryan has been here.  He saw a weakness in his game and he fixed it.  That is called maturity.  But, perhaps, he shouldn't say it out loud because then people take that comment and run with it, even if it is misinterpreted.


Byron wants to discuss my Sean Lee statements:

I completely understand what you were saying as it relates to the ILB position within the 3/4 defense.  But what I was trying to explain was that Lee doesn't have just any normal role within THIS 3/4. Go back and see how Carolina gashed Dallas up the middle once Lee was on the sideline.  Also, in that position within that scheme, it is often that an ILB will have a TE man to man.  I saw a few routes up the seam go uncovered while Conner was on the field.  Also, one of the most impressive plays I have seen all year was when Cam was scrambling, trying to juke Lee, and he was step for step with the agile QB.  I respect your work, and love your attention to detail as it pertains to game planning and schemes.  

These are very fair points.  I hope I didn't give the impression Lee won't be missed.  I am simply saying that it is a spot where the Cowboys at least have "replacement level" options there.  The drop-off will be felt, but the question is to what extent.


Here is Shane with thoughts about my piece on Jason Garrett from Wednesday:

Okay, Bob, 
The other day you all were talking about Jason Garrett being conservative or the conservative offense and I had a question then, but didn't pull the trigger then.  However, I just heard the segment with Moose and the conservative subject was again brought up.  So, my question is this:  is the West Coast offense considered a conservative offense?  Wasn't this what the Niners were using during DJ's time with the Cowboys?  And I know you had, if you'll permit NFL primetime moment, a BEAST like Jerry Rice and they could threaten deep, big plays and what not.  And I profess to knowing little to nothing about offenses and philosophies therein, but it seems to be that despite these big play threats, the offense is more of a short, maybe "dink and dunk" (if that's not too incorrect) type system.  It seems conservative to me, and could we not do that here?  Or is that an impossibility or extreme difficulty due to our personnel and/or coaches or because the NFL would diffuse the West Coast nowadays?  Does anyone use that offense currently?   

Well, without breaking down the scheme for 3,000 words, let's just say that there are remnants of the west coast offense everywhere in the NFL.  However, like everything, what we have today are evolved combinations of the ideas of Paul Brown, Bill Walsh, Mike Holmgren, and others along the way who believe in that west coast offense.   Since then, the minds of so many have taken the NFL to a whole different offensive level, but, sure, some of those principles exist still today.

But, when I speak of Garrett being a "pass-happy, conservative coach", I am not talking about the plays  in his offense - but rather his disposition when calling them.

I think his plays are aggressive, but I think his risk aversion on things like protecting his offensive line from itself is what I speak of.  When faced with a late game situation where you either go for a kill-shot or play it safe, he almost always defaults to the path of least risk.  This is sound reasoning, but at some point, you have to push your chips in the middle and bet on your guys.

It seems like when moments are big - with the exception of that same 3rd down against the Giants last December - he often does not seem to trust his guys as much as you might see from other coaches around the league.  It is all shades of grey, but I think he coaches different, and yes, more carefully, since he has become head coach.  When you are head coach, you are only judged on wins and losses, so you might see offensive play-calling a bit differently.


Here are our Mark Lane obscure facts for Cowboys-Giants.  Always a pleasure to read these:

Carolina is still relevant to this week’s encounter with the Giants, because the Dallas Cowboys have never won a game following a win over the Panthers. The average margin of defeat is 8.9 points. They've played four divisional games post Panthers with the Redskins being the most common opponent overall with two appearances. 
In 2000, after beating the Panthers in overtime on the road, the Cowboys played the Giants at the Meadowlands to lose 14-19, which is the box score from last week's game against Carolina. Infer what you will.  
Tom Landry and Jason Garrett both share the distinction of being Cowboys head coaches who once played for the New York Giants. Landry was a cornerback (1950-55), while Garrett was a backup quarterback (2000-03). 
Jason Garrett and Tom Couglin share a similarity in that both were once assistants with their respective teams before eventually becoming the head coach. (Coughlin coached WR's from '88 to '90 before returning in '04 as head coach).  
Presently, Osi Umenyiora and David Diehl are the only two Giants remaining who once were on the roster in Garrett’s final season with New York in 2003. 
Much is made about the Giants being undefeated thus far in Cowboys Stadium. Among stadiums built since 2000, the longest streak of a divisional opponent consecutively winning since the inaugural win is 5 seasons (Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field). The second longest is 4 seasons (Indianapolis Colts at Reliant Stadium).  
Currently, the Giants are in the midst of a similar slump to the Eagles, which is nothing new. The Giants didn’t beat the Eagles for the first six seasons in Giants Stadium starting in 1976. Concurrent with that were steady beatings by Dallas from 1976 to 1979.  
Too Tall Jones mentioned in a radio interview on Wednesday that the Cowboys rarely lost at home while he played there. He's right. The Cowboys record while Too Tall Jones was there from 1974 to 1989 (sans '79 when he pursued boxing) is 73-40. In fact, from December 2nd, 1979 to September 13th, 1982, the Cowboys won 18 consecutive contests at home.  
Since 2004, the Dallas Cowboys have featured five different starting quarterbacks, while the Giants have featured only two, and both were Super Bowl MVP’s. The other quarterback is Kurt Warner who played for the Giants only in 2004. 
Sunday will be Eli Manning's 15th straight game against the Cowboys, including playoffs. This will break a Giants record, as Phil Simms started 14 straight games against the Cowboys. Joe Theismann leads with 17 consecutive starts, including playoffs. Sonny Jurgensen has the most starts against the Dallas Cowboys with 22.  
Giants linebacker Michael Boley knocked Romo out of an October 25th game in Dallas back in 2010, but the Cowboys defense knocked Eli Manning out of a September 9th contest in 2007, forcing Jared Lorenzen to finish the game. 
Tony Romo has started 12 games against the Giants, including playoffs, with his longest streak being 4 games three separate times (12/3/06-01/13/08, 12/14/08-10/25/10, 12/11/11-10/28/12). Troy Aikman has not only started the most games against the Giants with 22, but he also holds the longest streak of consecutive games with 18 from 1989-1997.  
Speaking of Troy Aikman, he'll be calling the game for FOX with Thom Brennaman as play-by-play. This is the first time since 2003 that we’ve played a home rematch with the Giants and it’s been played on FOX. The Cowboys are 1-1 with the tandem of Brennaman and Aikman, FOX's backup #1 duo when Joe Buck does the World Series:  
2009: Falcons at Cowboys -- 37-21 2010: Cowboys at Vikings -- 21-24 
The last time Troy Aikman called a Cowboys game was in Week 3, when the Cowboys defeated the Buccaneers 16-7. However, the Cowboys have not won an Aikman-called contest with the Giants since Week 10 of 2010. The Cowboys have not won an Aikman-called contest at home since Week 6 of 2005. 
Great stuff, Mark.  As usual.  You are a man after my own heart.


For some reason, I have the Cowboys getting it right on Sunday.  I have Dallas winning 27-24.

Although, I confess, I am sure I have picked the Cowboys to win each of the last 3 trips the Giants have made to Arlington.

So, I guess I will never learn.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Xs and Os - Spencer vs Carolina

This week, I have been asked by a few of you to look at the great game that Anthony Spencer had on Sunday as he returned from an injury that had taken him out of the last few games.  He had not played since the 3rd game of the season against Tampa Bay and had been dealing with a strained pectoral injury.  I am no doctor, but someone who plays on the edge and makes tackles for a living is really going to need those chest muscles on Sunday, so there was plenty of concern that this might be an issue for quite a while.  

Very few Cowboys have such a polarizing effect on fans as Spencer does.  Fans want to find a proper bookend for DeMarcus Ware and look at Spencer as the baseline for the position who could be easily upgraded.  I remember calls last year that he simply be allowed to leave as a free agent and that we will just plug in Victor Butler or anyone and would be just fine.  The fact that he was (properly) franchised by the Cowboys last spring was enough to cause unrest in many corners of the fandom because surely a player like that isn't worth $8 million dollars.  

To me, not only is he worth $8 million, but I have been saying for quite a while that I am fine with them offering a contract like Doug Free's (4 years, $32 million) to Spencer and now only wonder if it would be accepted by Spencer and his agent, Jordan Woy.  Here are a few of the essays I have written on the Spencer situation from last winter here and then another one here where I was suggesting the franchise tag.  

He is certainly not a sack machine and likely never will be, but a day like Sunday shows you that he has things in his game that even Ware doesn't, and if the Cowboys lost him in free agency, they would have to spend their 1st Round pick on his replacement rather than upgrade other spots on their team that are not properly filled right now.  Spencer is a very strong outside linebacker who has versatility to do everything you ask of him.  We are caught up in sacks as the complete evaluation for a LB, and that is simply not proper.  He drops in coverage well, he defeats run plays consistently, he can rush the passer, and he is constantly running to the ball through the whistle, regardless of how far it is away. 

In a word, he is a guy that would cause many issues if you lost him.  

With that positioning statement out of the way, I wanted to look at this game where he was credited with 6 tackles and 1 sack.  But, what I thought was impressive were the plays in which he was not credited with anything, but his role in the play helped others make the stop.  So, of the following 5 plays we will look at, he will only be credited with a statistic on the final play.  Otherwise, these are all plays where nothing goes in the stats or box-score.  But, he played a major role in each one - all of them in the 2nd half.

Play #1 - 

Here we go, 3rd and 1 from the Carolina 29.  The Panthers run this play in short yardage, and with a QB like Newton, this has a very high conversion percentage because it only needs 1 yard.

The play here is to not block Spencer, and then for Newton to read Spencer.  If Spencer crashes to Stewart, then Newton goes around him and gains yardage.  If Spencer sits on Newton, then the give to Stewart should gain a yard.  Simple.  Unless, Spencer can cause indecision by covering both options.

Spencer takes that step towards Stewart, so Newton thinks he has him.  And he will, but Spencer shares many of the same quickness traits for a big man as Newton does.  This requires a very quick start and stop ability that Spencer has, and he is merely bluffing Newton.  He then reverses his direction and is able to, as you see below, beat Newton back to the edge despite operating backwards and Newton is going forwards.

The picture above is fantastic.  Look how he turns Newton back inside into the teeth of the defense.  Here comes Conner and Sensabaugh to make the stop short of the marker.  Spencer did all of the work here, but did not receive even a mention in the play-by-play.  But, he absolutely ruined this play by his ability to not fall for Newton's trick - unlike Ware a bit earlier.

Play #2 - 

Here is another key 3rd down situation where the Cowboys want to get off the field.  3 man rush, and Spencer is going to beat RT Garry Williams to the edge before Williams is out of his stance.  

Wiliams is going to hold Spencer below by the back of the jersey and somehow avoid a clear hold.  Newton is flushed out quickly back to Spencer's side to avoid the sack from Spencer despite the hold.

Again, we see that Spencer's ability to keep running despite the complete change in direction puts him right on Newton all the way to nearly the sideline.  With some help to Ratliff, who never really rushed but rather seemed to be spying Newton, this play goes from a potential breaking of contain by Newton to a harmless throw away to get out of trouble and a subsequent punt.  

Again, another example of Spencer ruining a perfectly good 3rd Down situation for Carolina without any sort of statistical mark to prove it.  A player with less quickness and restart ability would perhaps have Newton into a scramble situation where he can move the chains without throwing the ball.  This is a real challenge when rushing the mobile QB.  Rushing him without losing contain.  Not easy, but the Cowboys did very well late in the game at making sure this was an objective.

Play #3 - 

Here, after having some great success running the read option at Ware, they decide to try Spencer on again.  The play is a read off of Spencer on whether Newton keeps or shovels ahead to Stewart who is cutting to RT.  The idea is either Newton can go outside Spencer or Stewart can cut back inside him.  This is a direct attack at the OLB on the right side, Spencer.

The picture below shows Spencer's bind.  His first priority has to be Newton, because he has some reinforcements on Stewart, but if Newton crosses his face to the outside, this can get very dangerous for a huge chunk of yardage.  

Again, Spencer does something that Newton is not used to.  He can cover both options very well.  This, of course, is why many people wonder about the option in the NFL - the recover ability of the linebackers on Sunday are superior to what they are used to seeing in college.  Spencer has the ability to chase Newton away from keeping, but still get back and close off an escape route for Stewart to the inside.  He makes it look easy, but it certainly is not.  

Bruce Carter is credited with the solo tackle, but it is another case of Spencer rejecting the Panthers idea.

Play #4 -

This is one that is tough to do justice with pictures, so if you still have the game, try to go find this play.

Newton is looking to get out on the move here by letting the edge rushers go past him and then get out on the run where he can do real damage.

Look below, and see Spencer to Newton's right, actually past Newton upfield.  At the very moment the picture is being taken, Newton is seeing that inviting path and Spencer is trying to slam on the brakes to get back and close off the path that Newton sees.  

And then, as Spencer shows back in the hole, Newton panics and throws the ball away quickly.  It goes down on the stat sheet as an incomplete pass, but Spencer again seems to be messing with Newton, showing him things to get him to believe something is available and then racing back to take it away.

Play #5 - 

And finally, the play that seals the game.  3rd and long and Newton needs a big play.  But, his offensive line was not holding up.  Spencer bulls right past Williams at Right Tackle and gets the sack.

This is only the 2nd time in 2 seasons under Rob Ryan where you can say the defense ended a close game with a splash play at the end.  Both have come from Anthony Spencer sacks - this one, and the sack against Washington in Week 3 of last year.

Pretty strong job and in some respects, a trial run for the upcoming dates with Robert Griffin III, as this team is going to have to deal with the read-keep options that Washington is rolling out 2 times every season.  It is vital to have strong play from the outside linebackers in these situations in particular.

There is nobody on the roster who comes close to Spencer's ability on the edge opposite Ware.  He is in his prime and he is a player who would be snapped up by a 3-4 team if he hit free agency.  An extension this past summer would have been cheaper, I suspect, but it still behooves them to get something done.  

We have seen what he does and what they miss when he is injured or gone.  

I think Sunday was just another example of his value to this team moving forward.  

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Decoding Garrett - Week 6 - At Carolina

It is difficult to find trends of success through 6 games from this Cowboys' offense.  In week 1, they did many things very well and looked balanced and competent.  Since then, the Garrett-Romo offense has been anything but consistent, with a horrendous performance in Seattle, near absence against Tampa Bay, a turnover machine versus Chicago, and then a power-running team against Baltimore.

In their 6th game at Carolina, they did show that they felt the Baltimore performance might have shown them their identity.  After running the ball over 40 times for over 200 yards against the Ravens, the Cowboys returned to that game plan against the Panthers, despite having no DeMarco Murray as the talisman.

They ran 17 of 27 snaps on 1st Down to set the tone.  They ran 9 more times on 2nd down in 23 opportunities.  Both percentages of 1st and 2nd down runs are setting up 3rd down distances that are quite reasonable and manageable.  Anytime your 3rd Down yards to go sit below 6 yards, you will take that every-time as a coach.  And the Cowboys have done that now 6 times under Garrett's command as a head coach - a span of 30 games.

Despite this efficiency and better balance, the Cowboys had an issue accumulating yardage again, as they barely eclipsed 300 yards of total offense.  This is the 3rd time this season that the Cowboys have played a game (Sea, TB) where the offense just couldn't find the amount of production that should be available.

So, why is this happening?  What have we learned from the first 6 games of data as it relates to the Cowboys offensive issues?

Well, we talked on Monday about Red Zone inefficiency.  It is very true and disconcerting that when you drive the ball down the field that you must cash in for 7 points.  But, if that was the only issue, then we this team would be like other Cowboys' seasons, where they are getting 400 yards per game and just can't finish drives.  That is an issue in 2012 - finishing drives with TDs - but that is not what we are discussing here.

What I am seeing as troublesome and dumbfounding is this:  The Cowboys offense is not finding explosive plays often enough right now.

We are now at a point where 16 of the 32 teams have had bye weeks, so numbers are normalizing and samples will be completely consistent here in a few more weeks.  But, as it stands, would you believe that the Cowboys sit 28th in the NFL in plays of over 20 yards?

With only 20 such plays (3 runs/17 passes), the Cowboys sit far below a team like the Giants who in 1 more game have 15 more plays of 20 yards or more.

Last season, the Cowboys achieved 69 explosives, which was good - not great, but did tie them for 10th place in the league and were over the league average of 64.  This year, they are on pace for 53.

53!  That number is one that will often get you a Top 5 pick in the draft because your season has netted about 5 wins.

Now, back to Charlotte, where the Cowboys lost the explosive battle with the Panthers, 6-2. The only 2 big plays for the Cowboys were on back-to-back snaps in the 3rd Quarter where Tony Romo found Miles Austin for 36 yards on 3rd and long, then on the very next play found him for a 26 yard Touchdown pass.

It was so beautiful, and a demonstration of the power and quickness that is available for this offense.  It also was on display on opening night against the Giants, when the Cowboys opened the season with 5 explosives.  Since then, the faucet has trickled to almost nothing when it comes to big chunks of yardage.

Miles Austin is the player that is most explosive on this offense.  It might make sense when we consider his primary routes often seem deeper than Dez Bryant's, but I guess I was not aware until computing these numbers that Austin had 7 explosive plays, while nobody else on the team had more than 3.

Austin has 7, Witten, Murray, and Bryant all have 3 big plays, and Felix Jones and Kevin Ogletree each have 2.  Ogletree's both happened in the first 2 games and he has not really been heard from since.

Juxtaposed against all of this are numbers where the Cowboys sacks allowed are way down this year.  In fact, in terms of sacks allowed (9) and sacks allowed per pass play (3.8%), you have evidence that the Cowboys  are one of the best teams in the NFL at protecting the passer.  How can this be?  We know that the Cowboys often have a very difficult time protecting Romo.

How can we explain this?

And, are these numbers related?

I would like to write more about this down the road, but I believe that sacks and sacks allowed are some of the most misleading statistics in football. Yes, they are important and yes, they can mean something, but they don't always.

If you told a coach that the objective of the game is to not get your QB hit, we could easily set up a game plan that would avoid that.  Now, it won't score many points nor accumulate many yards or a win, most likely, but our QB will never get touched because we are going to throw quick passes that make pass protection simple.

Sacks allowed are not equally judged.  One team may have nothing but plays that take 3-4 seconds.  Another team gets the ball out quicker than June Jones does at SMU with throws at or behind the line of scrimmage much of the time.  The first team might give up 3 sacks, but they are taking 8 shots for explosives.  The second team gave up no sacks, but never stressed the safeties all day.

Which team has a better offensive line?

Leading us back to the Cowboys....

Are they, since Tampa Bay and Chicago, being far more careful with pass protection and pounding the ball more?  Running is good with benefits everywhere.  But, we must be careful that we don't take the explosive plays out of the offense by protecting the line from having to pass protect.

Tennessee should not have more explosive plays than Dallas.  Tampa Bay should not have 5 more explosive pass plays than the Cowboys.

I agree it is a delicate balance.  But as they find their identity, it is vital they find this middle ground between abandoning the run and abandoning the chance for big plays down the field.  In other words, your offense has to be more than slants, quick-out WR screens, and hooks to Jason Witten.

In this next stretch, let's see if Jason Garrett can find the right mix.

Data from Week 6 at Carolina

Starting Field PositionD 29
1st Down Run-Pass17-10
2nd Down Avg Distance to Go8.08
2nd Down Run-Pass9-14
3rd Down Avg Distance to Go5.71
3rd Down Run-Pass3-11
3rd Down Conversions6-14, 43%

All of these numbers are solid.  The Cowboys game plans from Baltimore and Carolina are strong and show that they were attempting to play a more physical brand of football in the early downs.


Here are the passing charts to see what was being accomplished on Sunday.

Blue is a completion. Red is incomplete. Yellow is a touchdown, and Black is an interception. The passes are lines from where Romo released the pass to where the pass was caught. This shows you his release point and where he likes to throw when he slides in the pocket.

Look at the passes down the field.  There were only 3 that went 10 yards or more in the 1st half.  Everything is underneath.

1st Half

The 2nd half got progressively better, with the home run to Austin in the end zone, but you can see that Romo is getting rid of the ball very quickly.  You cannot get big plays with 3 and 5 step drops, unless you are busting some big "YAC" plays - which this team counts upon.  But almost no deep throws again.

2nd Half -

All throws just to Miles Austin.

Like we said, he has 7 of the team's 20 explosives and leads everyone by plenty.  Romo was 5 of 9 going to Austin in this game, and you can see that they are looking for more plays down the field than anyone else with #19.

Drive Starters - The 1st play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan. How committed is he to the run or pass when the team comes off the sideline? We track it each week here -

Wk 1-At New York: 9 Drives - 5 Run/4 Pass
Wk 2-At Seattle: 9 Drives - 3 Run/6 Pass
Wk 3-Tampa Bay: 13 Drives - 7 Run/6 Pass
Wk 4-Chicago: 11 Drives - 3 Run/8 Pass
Wk 5-At Baltimore: 10 Drives - 8 Run/2 Pass
Wk 6-At Carolina 10 Drives - 6 Run/4 Pass
Season: 62 Drives 32 Run/30 Pass - 52% Run

2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run/102 Pass 44% Run


Shotgun snaps are fine on 3rd Down and in the 2 minute drill. But, we track this stat from week to week to make sure the Cowboys aren't getting too lazy in using it. They are not efficient enough to run it as their base, and with a 15%/85% run/pass split across the league, there is no way the defense respects your running game. When shotgun totals are high, the Cowboys are generally behind, scared of their offensive line, or frustrated. High Shotgun numbers are not this team's calling card for success.

As you can see, the situation in the game dictates the use of shotgun. The Cowboys use "Shotgun 11" as their "catch-up" mode and the more they run it, usually the worse the game is going.

Great balance the last two weeks, using shotgun only when necessary.

Wk 1 - NYG: 15/54 27.7%
Wk 2 - Sea: 29/56 52%
Wk 3 - TB: 34/63 54%
Wk 4 - Chi: 50/68 74%
Wk 5 - Balt: 19/79 24%
Wk 6 - Car: 22/64 34%

2012 Season Total: 179/384 47%

2011 Total - 445/1012 43.9%

Here is the breakdown by groupings:

Before you study the data below, I would recommend that if the numbers for the groupings are unfamiliar, that you spend some time reading a more expanded definition of the Personnel Groupings here.

Totals by Personnel Groups:

PackagePlays RunYardsRunPass

You can see they were running the ball plenty.  But, with no Murray and then no Costa, the big plays dried up on the ground.  But again, you are not running the ball to get big plays.  You are running the ball to open up big plays because you are sucking safeties and linebackers to the line of scrimmage.

This must introduce play-action over the top more often.  Look for that against the Giants.  This is why the presence of Murray is highly desired.

Totals by Personnel Groups on 3rd/4th Down:


They continue to search for productivity, efficiency, and most importantly, their identity as an offense.

It is much better than it was coming off the Chicago game.  They have versatility and a game plan that requires an opponent to respect all possibilities.

Now, they seek the bigger plays.

If they can find them, everything will fall into place.  But, if they stay at about 3 explosives per game, then we will continue to see a very difficult time trying to put points on the board.

And if you are not consistently going to score in the mid-to-high 20s, then you are really going to have a difficult time beating contenders.

And, look, here come 3 straight contenders on the schedule.