Posted: 12:00 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013
By Tom Ryle
The Dallas Cowboys did something that, I think, has gotten very little play in the media since the win against the Miami Dolphins: They got off to a very fast start. I first mentioned this in my post about the Cowboys' running game, but in replying to a couple of comments from boyman and Musiccitynorm, I realized that this was something that could be more significant this year than I had first realized.
To put it in precise and analytic terms, the only conclusion that can be arrived at in judging the way the Cowboys started games last year is: They sucked big time. As I noted in that previous post, Dallas never had a lead of 17 points the entire year. 17 points is a key number, because that is the boundary where the lead goes from two scores (two touchdowns with two point conversions) to a three-score lead. It is the point at which, in subjective terms, a team is starting to dominate an opponent. And it is a very difficult thing to overcome. If you get up on another team by 17 in the NFL, you are very likely to win. If you get a 7 point lead, you have no worse than a 70% chance of winning at any point in the game, based on some research put up a few years back at Advanced NFL Stats. Imagine how the chances improve if you can get that three-score lead.
Speaking of that 17 point differential, Dallas may not have gotten a lead that big at any time during the 2012 season, but they did trail by at least that much in four games, in the Seahawks, Bears, the second Giants and first Redskins games. All of which were losses.
Dallas also was bad at getting on the board first in games, only doing so six times. And it was only 3-3 in those games, partly because five of the six times they started with a field goal. The one time it scored a touchdown to take an initial lead: The last game of the season. And we remember how that turned out. In 2012, Dallas could not even hold a lead that over 70% of the time leads to a victory.
The Cowboys need to get much, much better at striking first and building on a lead. In the Miami game, this happened partly because of the help given by the defense (and the Miami offense's fumble on their first play from scrimmage). But Dallas did get a touchdown on that first turnover (again, with the help of a pass interference call). And went on to add two more scores before the Dolphins got on the board. It doesn't matter how you do it, as long as you take command of things.
Now, the Cowboys visit the Oakland Raiders, a team that is, well, not expected to be very good. DawnMacelli has a look at the upcoming opponent in the (recommended) fanposts section which sums things up. Dallas already has one game under its belt, and it is going to see the first action from the starters. While Jason Witten might be best advised to keep his spleen on the sidelines, I am sure he is going to go out there and may be looking to deliver a message (although Rolando McClain, who made the spleen-lacerating hit, is gone).
But the real story is going to be how the offensive brain trust of Jason Garrett, Bill Callahan and Tony Romo start things out. Last year's pre-season contest in Oakland was one of the more pitiful excuses for football I can recall. Now, with the advantage of an extra game and the new game preparation and play-calling procedures that you might have seen some mention of, they should be able to go out and move the ball well against an opponent that, based on all the reporting I have seen, should be overmatched. With Romo starting and Orton likely getting more action than he saw on Sunday, and with players like Witten, Dez Bryant, and Miles Austin running patterns, the passing game should be better. Add in the revived running attack and the availability of DeMarco Murray, and Dallas not only should be able to score early, it almost needs to. Monte Kiffin's defense will also be close to full strength, and even though this is just a pre-season game, it is also a chance to make a bit of a statement. An early lead of two or three scores would be ideal, with the Raiders' offense stymied and maybe a takeaway thrown in for good measure. After that, turn it over to the scrubs and don't worry about the final tally.
Why do I think this is important? It is just pre-season, after all.
Go back to those numbers from last year. This is a team that, for the most part, is just not familiar with going out and beating up on opponents. As a matter of fact, it is far more familiar with being on the receiving end of those beat-downs. The team needs to build a new tradition, start some new habits. Absorbing the psychological effect of getting ahead big and then being able to control things may be as important as learning a blocking assignment or who to double cover. A month ago, OCC made the same point in saying that the guys wearing the Star need to learn how to win again (which, ironically, is based on an article about the Oakland Raiders). The Cowboys need that winning attitude, and what better way to establish it than practicing it?
I can't offer any scientific validation for this, but I have long believed that what goes on between the ears is the most important thing that happens between the sidelines. And now, the Cowboys have taken the first step in installing that mindset that goes with and enables winning. They can build on that Friday.
They need to.