As we sift through the rubble of another late-season failure, we are constantly reminded that the defense was hit with circumstances that nearly made their tasks impossible by the end of the year. The inside linebackers were different, the safeties were different, and the defensive line was different than what left training camp. Only the 2 outside linebackers and the 2 starting cornerbacks resembled the actual play of August and September.
Meanwhile, there is no such convenient excuses for the offense. The 11 starters who started Week 16 were the exact same 11 players who played the majority of the snaps of the season opener in New York. I say it that way because we all remember Phil Costa took the first 3 snaps of the season at center and then barely played again the rest of the year (he took a total of 126 snaps, Ryan Cook played 837 at center).
Otherwise, it was Romo with Murray and Vickers; Witten, Bryant, and Austin as the main targets; and Smith, Livings, Bernadeau, and Free across the front. They were beat up and the receivers could not finish the game, but 11 of the 11 players from Week 1 were there and ready in Week 16 in Washington.
And, in fairness, the offense played some of its better football late in the season when the defense was holding on for dear life. But that ended in Washington, where the Cowboys had one of their worst offensive performances at just the wrong time.
But, let's be careful how we label this one. Because there is a real difference between the season-view of certain failures and Sunday's failure. Many times this season, the offensive line and the running game betrayed them. Other times, the game plan seemed overly conservative or careful. Still others, there was no pass protection to speak of.
But, in this particular game, the coaches will look at the tape and they will see evidence of things that will drive them absolutely crazy.
For instance, in the volatile running game results that were predictably poor all season, the Cowboys ran the ball with great effectiveness in Washington. Without the aid of only 1 run of over 10 yards, the Cowboys found consistent running in small, but useful chunks all game long. 4.5 yards per carry in a divisional road game was almost too good to be true. It was the 3rd best results of their season (only at New York and at Baltimore were better) and I am quite sure that they all would have signed up for those results before the game started.
Further, the average starting field position of each drive was 2nd best for the season. They was only one other game all season (Tampa Bay) where the Cowboys were given the ball at an average better spot than their own 33 yard line.
They ran the ball well. They "stayed ahead of the chains". They were balanced up and further, they were actually quite efficient on 3rd Downs. Further, they played a team that passed for only 100 yards.
Most weeks, indicators like all of these would point to a Cowboys offense that was healthy and probably had plenty of success. The symptoms point to a game that was probably won.
And almost none of it mattered because they were sabotaged by taking a -3 in the turnover margin. And of those 3 picks, almost all of the blame of the throws must go to the Quarterback and the fact that he was done in by a coach (Jim Haslett) who beat him with strong corner play on Dez Bryant and very little else that was remarkable - save for an insatiable thirst to bring pressure all day long.
We detailed the issues on Monday Morning in our "Morning After" column, where it seems they were betrayed by Tony Romo.
Playing an opponent for the 2nd time and being a veteran QB who had "seen it all", Romo had to be able to back off the pressure by making the Redskins pay. Instead, it was a constant battle against the play clock to get his troops deployed and then to get the snap off before what appeared to often be a rather panicked few seconds of avoiding blitzers.
The Redskins blitzed at every opportunity.In fact, for the game, they blitzed in 25 of 39 passing scenarios and 24 of 34 when the Cowboys were in shotgun. They blitzed and blitzed. And on 2nd down, Jim Haslett sent pressure on 8 of 11 passes, and on 3rd Down it was 10 out of 12. They dared the Cowboys to beat them, and the Cowboys did not. Instead, the 3 interceptions - each for different reasons, but all 3 were deadly - proved to be more than the team could overcome.
I repeat what I have said before: This is NOT like the other end of season failures where everything could be blamed. This was a game that after further examination remains one in which so many things went better than expected that the game simply came down to one team protecting the football and one team did not.
Let us remind again what that number means:
But, in the end, they lost because they took a -3 in their biggest game of the year. With 116 games in Cowboys history in which they were a -3 in turnover differential, the Cowboys record falls to a 10-104-2 record. And in the Romo-era? Well, the record is now 1-15. In other words, you don't win games when you turn the ball over that much.Further, we can expand it beyond the Cowboys. In the entire NFL since 2010, the record for teams winning a game in which they are a "-3" in turnover ratio is 7-149. That means you have roughly a 4 chance of winning any game in which you are that careless with the football.
Again, my thoughts on the Tony Romo era continuing are not a secret, but there is no rationale anywhere for a team being able to compete and win when their most important player lays an egg at just the wrong moment like Romo did Sunday night in Washington.
And for that, it is pointless to defend his career right now. This is a time where he unfortunately played like his critics have claimed all along.
Data from Week 16 at Washington:
Run-Pass22-39Starting Field PositionD 33 1st Down Run-Pass13-15 2nd Down Avg Distance to Go6.35 2nd Down Run-Pass8-12 3rd Down Avg Distance to Go6.69 3rd4th Down Run-Pass1-12 3rd Down Conversions7-13, 54
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.
1st Half -
2nd Half -
Look how poorly the ball went out to the right flank. On good nights, that is where the Cowboys do most of their damage. But, look at all of the red over there. Nothing could get cooking. Rather, most of Romo's yards came on the favorite "Dig" route - the 15 yard deep in that is completed straight ahead and between the hash marks.
This chart shows balls thrown to Dez Bryant - he has won his battles with DeAngelo Hall over his short career, but on this night, there is no doubt the big mouthed corner got the decision.
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
Wk 7-New York: 14 Drives - 4 Run10 Pass
Wk 8-At Atlanta: 9 Drives - 4 Run5 Pass
Wk 9-At Philadelphia: 10 Drives - 6 Run4 Pass
Wk 10-Cleveland: 13 Drives - 5 Run8 Pass
Wk 11-Washington: 12 Drives - 3 Run9 Pass
Wk 12-Philadelphia: 8 Drives - 5 Run3 Pass
Wk 13-At Cincinnati: 10 Drives - 5 Run5 Pass
Wk 14-Pittsburgh: 12 Drives - 4 Run8 Pass
Wk 15-New Orleans: 12 Drives - 4 Run8 Pass
Wk 16-At Washington: 11 Drives - 4 Run7 Pass
Season: 173 Drives 76 Run97 Pass - 43.9 Run
This statistic doesn't count the 1-play kneel down drives (there are 6 this year).
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.
The Cowboys must decide what to do about this issue in 2013. The trend and differences from 2011 are startling.
Wk 1 - at NYG: 1554 27.7
Wk 2 - at Sea: 2956 52
Wk 3 - TB: 3463 54
Wk 4 - Chi: 5068 74
Wk 5 - at Balt: 1979 24
Wk 6 - at Car: 2264 34
Wk 7 - NYG: 4883 58
Wk 8 - at Atl: 2954 54
Wk 9 - at Phil: 1754 31
Wk 10 - Cle: 5276 68
Wk 11 - Wash: 6275 83
Wk 12 - Phil: 2462 38
Wk 13 - Cin: 4370 61
Wk 14 - Pit: 3563 55
Wk 15 - NO: 4256 75
Wk 16 - Wash: 3461 56
2012 Season Total: 5651038 54
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:
Now, as you look at the breakdown with personnel groupings, it is actually interesting to see how the Cowboys did not try a whole lot of deception. When they went under center, they were primarily running the ball - 27 snaps and 21 of those were running plays - all for good yardage.
And when they went to shotgun, they passed. 34 snaps and 33 were passes. This does make us ask if more could have been done to cross up the Redskins defense a bit with more balanced attacks either way.
If they are sending the house when you are in shotgun, do you have a chance to sneak a run through their blitz? Because if you can break through the blitz, there should be nothing but green grass.
- Knee Plays are not counted in play calls.
Totals by Personnel Groups on 3rd4th Down:
In the end, we find that this is a game where the statistics do not tell the whole story, unless you see that turnover margin that pretty much canceled out all of the good that was accomplished.
As a play caller, I have plenty of issues with Jason Garrett over the course of 6 seasons. But, in a one-game portrait, he did his job reasonably well. Did they try enough screen plays to take the pressure off the inside? No, but they did throw several passes out to the edge to beat the blitz - including the last interception. The throw betrayed the strategy.
Garrett deployed the troops, but his QB has to make great decisions. A coach cannot make them for him after he prepares him the best he can.
And in this game, I don't believe you can blame the offensive line, the play calling, or any other target.
This seems like the rare occasion where the Cowboys were just sabotaged by inferior QB play that was mostly based on a few decisions that did not value the ball enough or the game situation (the last INT was a risky throw on 1st Down).
Most Sundays, if Tony Romo is your QB, you are going to be alright. This game, with everything on the line, was not one of them.