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 runs17 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
Run-Pass31-34Starting Field PositionD 291st Down Run-Pass17-102nd Down Avg Distance to Go8.082nd Down Run-Pass9-143rd Down Avg Distance to Go5.713rd Down Run-Pass3-113rd 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.
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 Run4 Pass
Wk 2-At Seattle: 9 Drives - 3 Run6 Pass
Wk 3-Tampa Bay: 13 Drives - 7 Run6 Pass
Wk 4-Chicago: 11 Drives - 3 Run8 Pass
Wk 5-At Baltimore: 10 Drives - 8 Run2 Pass
Wk 6-At Carolina 10 Drives - 6 Run4 Pass
Season: 62 Drives 32 Run30 Pass - 52 Run
2011 Total: 181 Drives - 79 Run102 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 1585 runpass 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: 1554 27.7
Wk 2 - Sea: 2956 52
Wk 3 - TB: 3463 54
Wk 4 - Chi: 5068 74
Wk 5 - Balt: 1979 24
Wk 6 - Car: 2264 34
2012 Season Total: 179384 47
2011 Total - 4451012 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 thePersonnel Groupings here.
Totals by Personnel Groups:
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 3rd4th 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.