Originally posted on Fox Sports Southwest  |  Last updated 1/4/12

MINNEAPOLIS - JANUARY 17: Tony Romo #9 of the Dallas Cowboys passes against the Minnesota Vikings in the first quarter of the NFC Divisional Playoff Game at Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome on January 17, 2010 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
The Cowboys' seasons have ended in somewhat similar fashion over the last several years. Admittedly, the records have been different and the details do vary some, but it seems that invariably, when the season does end, it ends in a way that is reminiscent of Cowboys failures past. Since Tony Romo's bobbled hold in Seattle, each subsequent season-ender was decided with the Cowboys offense looking at its lineman as a major culprit and what should be a major objective moving forward. In 2007, it was an offensive line that did not hold up in the 4th quarter against a strong Giants front. The most damaging indictment was on the game's final play that the go-to receiver, Jason Witten, was forced to stay in and help block so Tony Romo was not sacked to end the season. In the aftermath, concerns of the offensive line were everywhere. In 2008, losing three out of four in the month of December ended a tumultuous year. Down the stretch, with losses in Pittsburgh, at home against Baltimore, and at Philadelphia, the line crumbled again. Before December, the Cowboys allowed the 8th fewest sacks in the league. But after December 1, no team in the NFL allowed more sacks than the Cowboys did (13). The concerns with the offensive line where there for all to see. In 2009, the Cowboys had a wonderful year along the offensive line. Without question, it was the finest year of pass protection and run production the organization has had in the last decade. All went according to plan until they advanced to play the strong front of the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome in the divisional round of the playoffs. Six sacks later, the Cowboys were bruised, beaten, and eliminated. Anyone who watched that game would be hard pressed to suggest the Cowboys line did their job very well. In 2010, the breakdown happened earlier in the season, with Tennessee sacking Romo six times as once again Marc Colombo and Leonard Davis looked old and slow. Two weeks later, Romo was lost for the season as the Giants were able to slam him to the turf and break his collarbone. Any doubt about the OL's pass protection ability was difficult to confirm with sack totals, because they only allowed 31 the whole season. But, observers started to see that Jason Garrett was continuing to alter these totals with play calling. Short passes, many behind the line of scrimmage, were his best remedy for pass protection breakdowns. If Romo (or his healthy QB) could get rid of the ball before his OL was beaten, they could keep any stretchers from being needed. And in 2011, with the season on the line, the line collapsed again in December. The team was 7-4 entering the final month of the year and had allowed only 20 sacks in 11 games. At times, it was preventive play calling and at other times, the offensive line started to show that it was getting better with many new, young components. Tyron Smith, Phil Costa, and Bill Nagy were now starters and team put an incredible amount of faith and belief in their ability to protect and form holes for the running game. But then came December, where only the Chicago Bears allowed more sacks to their QBs than the Cowboys. Nineteen sacks in five games (and countless others escaped by Romo), and a running game that plummeted to 25th in the league due to an injury to DeMarco Murray and the line unable to get a push against the tough lines in New York and Arizona. It is the same old situation at the moment of truth. An offensive line that does not protect and serve, but rather an offensive line that prevents the offense from having enough time and space to get the ball to its difference makers. One shudders to think what Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith would have been able to accomplish if Tony Romo's offensive lines were to replace the fabulous lines of the 1990s. Nowhere is this more apparent than against familiar divisional foes, especially on the road. In eight home games, the Cowboys allowed 11 sacks. In eight road games, they suffered 28. And now that we've established the problems in December and the problems on the road, we understand how tough it is going to be when they have to play a December game on the road against the New York Giants. A few weeks ago, we discussed at great length the "game plan for road games" that Jason Garrett has used. I encourage you to review that piece that originally ran after the game at Arizona. Since 2008, when the Cowboys face a road test against an opponent with a notable defensive front, Garrett enters the game with very little faith in his line (for obvious reasons). He then attempts to protect them by calling almost no run plays (save for shotgun runs on 3rd and long to get his punter some space) and no pass plays that require time and protection. It is a series of quick outs, screens, dump downs, and a passing offense that cannot stretch the field. This actually can work, but only if the team stays on schedule. If it ever gets into a 2nd or 3rd and long (which will happen often), then he has no choice but to ask his protection to hold up so that the Cowboys can move the chains. This risks his QB to taking another beating and invites blitzes and stunts to expose the line yet again. The Cowboys switch to almost exclusively shotgun, and the defense can then replace its run stoppers with more cover guys and Romo's job gets even more difficult. Garrett tried five traditional runs on Sunday from under center in the entire game. Five. And then, because the score had tilted against him at 14-0, the only other run play from under center tried for the remaining three quarters was the horrible QB sneak in the 4th quarter that never had a chance. Basically, the Cowboys OL never fired forward the entire night. They backed up in retreat as they attempted to keep the crumbling pocket alive for another second. So, given the cycle of repetition we are seeing year after year, where the offense can go as far as the line can take them, we can debate whether Garrett should show more faith in his offensive line or if he is just doing what should be done with his play calling. But, what can't be argued (I wouldn't think) is that the Cowboys must continue to make the OL its top priority. They are wasting the prime of a difficult to find QB who can play at a very high level by not providing him the protection in key moments like many of the successful QBs in this league enjoy. Put another way, it appears you can have all of the skill players in the world assembled, but unless you can figure out a way to protect your QB, it won't matter. Data from Week 16 at New York Run-Pass15-441st Down Run-Pass7-212nd Down Avg Distance to Go7.882nd Down Run-Pass5-133rd Down Avg Distance to Go7.583rd Down Run-Pass2-103rd Down Conversions4-12, 33 From a play-calling standpoint, despite wanting balance in the offense of runpass, it is clear that in similar road settings (at New England, at Philadelphia, at Arizona, at New York) the Cowboys abandon the run in the 1st quarter. Regardless of score, there is no reason a team cannot stick to their game plan better unless they realize they have no chance to run the ball in running situations. Drive Starters - First play of each drive can often reveal the intent of a coach to establish his game plan. Wk 1-At New York Jets: 13 Drives - 5 Run8 Pass Wk 2-At San Francisco: 10 Drives - 4 Run6 Pass Wk 3-Washington: 11 Drives - 5 Run6 Pass Wk 4-Detroit: 14 Drives - 7 Run7 Pass Wk 5-At New England: 11 Drives - 4 Run7 Pass Wk 6-St Louis: 11 Drives - 8 Run3 Pass Wk 7-At Philadelphia - 9 Drives - 2 Run7 Pass Wk 8-Seattle - 11 Drives - 4 Run7 Pass Wk 9-Buffalo - 10 Drives - 7 Run3 Pass Wk 10-At Washington - 14 Drives - 4 Run10 Pass Wk 11-Miami - 11 Drives - 5 Run6 Pass Wk 12-At Arizona - 11 Drives - 3 Run8 Pass Wk 13-New York - 12 Drives - 7 Run5 Pass Wk 14-At Tampa - 10 Drives - 5 Run5 Pass Wk 15-Philadelphia - 11 Drives - 5 Run6 Pass Wk 16-At New York - 12 Drives - 4 Run8 Pass Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run102 Pass 44 Run 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 RunYardsRunPass11101-00-0124131-13-1213000-00-021321--12-322393-90-023000-00-0S01000-00-0S02240-02-4S11452599-4436-215S12180-01-8Knee000-00-0Totals5929515-5344-242 Totals by Personnel Groups on 3rd4th Down: PackagePlaysYardsRunPassFDTD11101-00-00012000-00-00013000-00-00021000-00-00022000-00-00023000-00-000S01000-00-000S021-80-01--800S1111382-149-2440S12000-00-000Totals13303-1410-1640 Just look at how bad the offense was on 3rd Down when the pass protection is most vital. 10 passes for a total of 16 yards is horrendous. If you want one explanation, it is because Tony Romo knows he will not have a chance to go through his reads without a large defensive end trying to put him in the hospital. His eye level is down making sure he doesn't get blindsided instead of seeing his receivers down field. And it is tough to blame him too much. SHOTGUN SNAPS- 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 1585 runpass split across the league, there is no way the defense respects your running game. Wk 1 - NYJ: 2466 Wk 2 - SF: 3266 Wk 3 - Wash: 2762 Wk 4 - Det: 2975 Wk 5 - NE 3167 Wk 6 - StL 1060 Wk 7 - Phi 3949 Wk 8 - Sea 1959 Wk 9 - Buf 1561 Wk 10-Was 2473 Wk 11-Mia 2558 Wk 12-Arz 2967 Wk 13-NYG 2858 Wk 14-TB 2667 Wk 15-Phi 3966 Wk 16-NYG 4859 Total - 4451012 43.9 As you can see, the Cowboys were as one dimensional as it gets. Lots of shotgun is never good for a team. It usually says it is the final chance and they are well behind in the game. Last time the Cowboys ran so much shotgun? When Jacksonville crushed them in 2010. Next week, we will publish the season totals and look at things from a larger perspective for the 2011 campaign. And please email me at Sturm1310@aol.com if you have questions that I may clarify in an upcoming email blog.
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