The regular season has been completed. As part of our weekly project where we evaluate the week-to-week performances of this offense (every week since 2008), it is important to start with the following summary:
The offense has never been better than it is in December of 2014. The run game is among the very best in the NFL and a devastating balance of zone and man blocking where the game is taken physically to the opponent regardless of defensive looks. The pass game is clearly the change-up pitch of this arsenal (by design), but it comes with an impressive precision-based attack that seems to leave almost no plays on the field. When you make a coverage mistake against the Dallas Cowboys (or, simply a coverage decision to allot fewer men in the secondary), Tony Romo is picking secondaries apart with ease.
The combination of the two is the rarified air that Dallas has enjoyed all season, but before that could never be found in their constant journeys through the wilderness: a balanced, logical, and powerful offense that can control games, frustrate opposing coaches, and take the league by the scruff of the neck. It is impressive in its power and its simplicity. It is repeatable and works in all conditions.
It is nearly at full health and includes many pieces that are at the prime of their careers. They have finally found an offense that offers nearly nothing to complain about or demand they improve upon.
In short, the Cowboys have an offense that can win the Super Bowl in 2014.
This, of course, has been hashed and rehashed in this space through this season long journey, but it can't be stressed enough. For years - really since 2007 in some form or fashion - we have been amazed that the Cowboys could have so much personnel and so many toys to play with on their offense without ever seeing it perform at the peak of the league. They have sometimes achieved gaudy numbers, but never the win totals or even the "game control" that we have seen in 2014. The frustration levels would percolate and the offense would not be able to take a game over, protect the defense, or even just call the same style of game on the road in those years over large stretches. We searched for solutions as the Cowboys themselves tried everything they could think of.
They tried slinging it around and staying in shotgun, 11 personnel exclusively. They tried "Romo-friendly" which seem liked a nice way of having him throw less dangerously. They tried a veteran line that mauled you and then a rookie line that was undersized to gain an athletic edge. There were dozens and dozens of trips up that hill that looked good in a mini-camp newspaper story about the new innovation attempts or that this will be the year of Martellus Bennett or Felix Jones (or both!).
But, somehow they have arrived here all in 2014. Credit Linehan. Credit the offensive line maturation process which started to show their ability in mid 2013, but we certainly didn't believe that Jason Garrett even enjoyed running the ball just 6 months ago. And to a certain extent, you could always defend that view because "that is the direction the NFL is headed" more and more each year. Credit DeMarco Murray and credit Tony Romo. Credit a team that has invested more in their offense than they probably should have, unless their offense was about to take over the league.
Sure, you might prefer Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning or even Russell Wilson (with those 2 or 3 ridiculous plays on 3rd Down that win games and his ability to beat you with his arm or legs) at QB to win 3 or 4 games and march right through to January. But, the reason I think the Cowboys have as good an offense as anybody is that they are not 100% reliant on a QB just performing a magic trick or two to succeed. That may seem like an insult to Romo, but it is not. He is part of a machine right now, in a way that is frankly a bit eerie to what Troy Aikman once was. He is not being asked to carry the team to victory with 45 passes. He is simply being asked to plunge a dagger into the opponent at several precise moments of the game and is throwing into favorable secondaries who have been allocated fewer troops because of the run. Then, he is killing them. Those other QBs are being asked to throw 40 times into full secondaries and to have the entire game leveraged on their arms. They can do it, but it is a much less repeatable exercise in the playoffs. It only takes one bad week and it can all end. It might not help his MVP case, but it makes the Cowboys more dangerous as a team.
Look at the proof from Romo's stand point on why this may have been his calling all along. Here is a list of all of the times since Romo/Garrett have begun their QB/Coach relationship that Tony has thrown 35 passes in a game (and Dallas' corresponding record). EDIT: It should be noted that the average NFL team throws 34.9 passes per game in 2014:
|Games with 35+ Passes
Now, yes, some of those games have been effected by throwing less in the 4th Quarter because of the lead, but trust me, in studying this carefully, there is no disputing that the Cowboys have become the team that runs on 1st and 10. Over and over and over again.
In fact, let's prove that. Here is the 1st and 10 Run % and NFL Rank for the last 4 years:
|1st Down Run%
By the way, the mark of nearly 71% in 2014 is not only a NFL 4-year high, but the next highest was below 64%. So, 128 team seasons in the last 4 years, and the Cowboys run rate on 1st and 10 this season (and, of course, the low pass rate) is off the charts extreme in the other direction. And, as you might expect, no team goes from 32nd to 1st in 2 seasons without a major overhaul of everything.
Yet, here are Tony Romo and Jason Garrett sipping ice tea and wondering why everyone doubted them. It has been a crazy 2014.
On one hand, as I stated Monday in the Morning After Column, I blame myself for not anticipating 2014. On the other hand, I think we should all wrap our heads around how "out of nowhere" this massive turnaround for the offense has been.
We should not underestimate the premise of nearly having full health for the 2014 Cowboys offense as one real explanation for things falling into place. Yes, it is true, that more injuries happen to defensive players than offensive players, and yes, it is also true, that more injuries happen when pass protecting than run blocking. But, even when you are the hammer and not the nail, things happen in this physical sport. And for whatever reason, this year, the Cowboys offense stayed almost fully healthy with 5 players cracking the 1,000 snap barrier: Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zach Martin, Jason Witten, and Ron Leary. Tony Romo and Dez Bryant were over 900, and DeMarco Murray and Terrence Williams were over 800. That is pretty much every regular but Doug Free who missed 5 starts but was adequately replaced by Jermey Parnell. Health is part of the equation, and the injury luck fairies have been kind to the Cowboys.
STATS FOR WEEK 17 AGAINST WASHINGTON
I recognize I have not spent too much time breaking down this game in particular, but I think that we can all see that again the offense did whatever it wanted in a macro sense. They certainly could clean up a few things in the red zone and Romo's pick was brutal, but overall they scored on all 5 of their first half drives before time expired and had their way with their initial game plan to deal with Jim Haslett (in his last game with Washington) with ease.
PASSING CHART - My buddy John Daigle has designed this passing chart each week. Each color represents the possession number listed in the key. The numbers are separated by the half. If you were to start from the bottom and work your way up, you would be tracking that possession from beginning to end. The dotted-lines are incompletions. Large gaps between throws are mostly YAC or carries.
Week 17 Summary
This throw chart is pretty clear what the Cowboys are all about. Short, short, short, kill-shot over the top when you get to frisky with your safeties. It is beautiful if you enjoyed the 1990s.
DRIVE STARTERS - The first 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.
Now, the season ending numbers. 72% run on drive starters! This is a team philosophy that was not deviated from. Congrats, coaching staff.
* This statistic doesn't count the 1-play kneel down drives.
TOTALS BY PERSONNEL GROUPS (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.)
* - Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.
Against the Eagles, they tried play-action, but the Eagles were sitting on it each time and Romo had to check down.
Wk 1: 1/5, 9 Yds, 3 INT, 1 FD
Wk 2: 4/5, 39 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 FD
Wk 3: 3/3, 88 Yds, 1 TD, 2 FD
Wk 4: 6/8, 76 Yds, 1 TD, 4 FD
Wk 5: 2/4, 38 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 FD
Wk 6: 1/4, 47 Yds, 1 Sack, 1 FD
Wk 7: 3/5, 55 Yds, 1 Sack, 2 TD, 1 FD
Wk 8: 5/6, 92 Yds, 1 TD, 2 FD
Wk 9: 1/1, 1 Yd
Wk 10: 2/3, 21 Yds, 1 FD
Wk 12: 4/4, 86 Yds, 4 FD
Wk 13: 2/3, 11 Yds, 1 FD
Wk 14: 5/6, 85 Yds, 4 FD, 1 Sack
Wk 15: 0/1, 1 Sack
Wk 16: 1/1, 11 Yds, 1 FD
Wk 17: 3/5, 55 Yds, 1 TD, 2 FD, 1 INT
2014 Total: 43/64 (67 percent), 714 Yds, 6 TD, 4 INT, 28 FD, 6 sacks - QB Rating: 109.7
BLITZING Romo - Pass Rushers Against Dallas - 35 Passes against Washington
SUMMARY AND LOOK AHEAD:
I want to break down some plays on Xs and Os (likely Friday), but for now, let's look ahead at what this offense has in front of it.
They now deal with the Detroit Lions and Ndamukong Suh who has a track record of being a nut, but he is also a fantastic football player who may be is as good as it gets on the DL in the NFL if you can't have JJ Watt. You do not block him with 1 player and you do not run inside with much success - especially if Nick Fairley is next to him (which he has not been for the 2nd half of the season and is a long-shot for Sunday).
The Lions play tons of "2 Shell" which is the Cover 2 look that sometimes has a safety dive-bombing in at the snap, but are more than happy to make you deal with a full secondary and depend on their front 6 to deal with your run. In the secondary, they have had success against high-powered offenses by playing with safeties deep and then man-underneath with a rather clear trail position technique which makes you fit the ball into tight spaces in the intermediate areas in the middle of the field. As you might have witnessed on Sunday, Aaron Rodgers did a decent job of doing just that on Sunday, without the benefit of any success over the top. Rodgers was completely shut down in their Week 3 game in Detroit with much of the same techniques being applied.
The difference between Green Bay and Dallas' attack is that the Packers are not generally as dedicated to running the ball (despite the game they just played) on Detroit as Dallas will be. And with Suh now back in the game after his suspension was lifted, the game will come down to that. Can the Cowboys run against the Detroit front with great success when nobody else has been able to do so?
The Lions are as stingy a team against the run as any team in football, having only allowed 2 games all year where an opponent runs for over 90 yards. They are #1 against the run, allowing just 69 yards a game against and are #1 at not allowing 4-yard carries, too. They are also #1 at chasing teams from trying to run at all as teams become 1-dimensional passing teams because they know they can't run it.
So, styles make fights, right? In a 1-game, winner-takes-all situation, this is where the game will be won or lost.
Can the power of the Cowboys defeat the power of the Lions? The Cowboys are going to stick to their season-long determination to find out. They are expecting that the Lions have not dealt with this level of power very often.
We will find out soon enough.