Posted: 2:15 p.m. Monday, Sept. 16, 2013
Simply put, this article will offer a few scattered thought on Sunday's loss at Kansas City, organized loosely by numbers. As I was in attendance, I'll start with this:
116: The highest decibel level ever recorded at Arrowhead Stadium (14 less than the pain threshold and 10 more than a Boeing 747 landing). I'm not sure it ever reached anywhere near that record level yesterday, but it was definitely the loudest stadium I've ever been in. Moreover, the Chiefs fans are very smart about when they make noise. They wait until the opposing offense goes to the line, whereupon, they all bellow unceasingly and bang on the seats in front of them. Its percussive; I could literally feel the sound shake my body.
I have attended many Cowboys games, including playoffs and Super Bowls, and have never heard noise approaching that which was generated by the Chiefs fans. The comparative funereal pall of
Cowboys AT&T; Stadium is, frankly, embarrassing, and fails to put opposing offenses at any disadvantage whatsoever.
57: Alex Smith's total rushing yards, on eight carries. In the first half, the Chiefs failed to generate much of anything on offense, with the exception of Smith's ability to escape the pocket for sizeable gains. These especially hurt because he usually escaped a good pass rush that had him dead to rights; nowhere was this more painful than his 17-yard scramble on third and fifteen on the Chiefs' opening drive. Later in the series, he again escaped the pocket, picking up another 13 yards. All told, Smith ran for 40 of the Chiefs' 77 yards on that opening drive.
8: Jamaal Charles' rushing total, on eight carries, before the Chiefs' final drive. Take a look at Charles' rushing line for the game's first 56 minutes and ten seconds: 0;0;6;2;2;1;-1;-2. Clearly, the Cowboys front seven had totally shut him down and, other than the aforementioned Smith scrambles on Kansas City's first drive, had eliminate the Chief's running game. Then, on the last drive, Charles' totals changed diametrically. Let's take a look: 3;9;16;7 (called back due to penalty); 6;4;0;4;5. After averaging 1.0 per carry for the first 56 minutes, Charles toted the rock another nine times (including the run called back), averaging a cool six yards per carry.
2.0: The average per carry of Charles' Cowboys counterpart, DeMarco Murray, on twelve carries. Although there is much to admire about Murray (he is a fierce competitor who sets a physical tone for the offense), his game has begun to resemble Troy Hambrick's: big, bruising back without much vision, burst or wiggle. On those occasions when Murray does reach the second level (on receptions, for example), he struggles to elude the first defender. He's a one-cut runner whose cut doesn't accelerate particularly quickly. With this offensive line, which seems capable of opening windows that shut quickly, Murray often seems to slow to hit the window when its open.
25: The number of Murray's backup, Lance Dunbar. From where I was sitting on Sunday, Dunbar appeared to be a much more dynamic back. On his beautiful 12-yard scamper on the Cowboys initial second-half possession, Dunbar demonstrated the vision and quickness to exploit the cut-back lanes for which the zone blocking scheme has rightfully become famous. Perhaps more importantly, he seems more capable of hitting the small windows this O-line opens, with the acceleration to get through them before they rapidly close again.
To be clear here: I'm not saying that Dallas needs to start Dunbar. He's too small to do the dirty work at which Murray excels, and his critical fumble as the Cowboys were driving in the third quarter suggests that he cannot be trusted until he proves he can hold onto the rock. I am saying that Dunbar is the more dynamic back and, on an offense that, even in wideouts Dez Bryant and Miles Austin, seems to lack that home run gear, Dunbar is the guy who can put the most stress on defenses.
34: Shorthand for the defensive scheme the Chiefs run. On KD's podcast earlier int he week, I noted that this would be a good measuring stick for the Dallas offense, especially the offensive line, which has struggled mightily in recent years against the style of 3-4 defenses that send blitzers from a variety of angles and places on the field (ironically, this is exactly what the team envisioned when it hired Rob Ryan). Recall losses at Denver and Green Bay in 2009, when an otherwise potent offense was utterly stymied, in no small part because the Dallas O-line was easily confused by the rush games up front. We saw a different kind of struggle in 2011, at New England, where a retooled (and smaller) Dallas line was blown off the ball by the Patriots powerful down linemen. That was the afternoon in which Cowboys Nation decided that Phil Costa was insufficient, after witnessing him get ragdolled by Vince Wilfork for the duration of the contest. This scenario was repeated against Arizona's 3-4 in early December of that season.
Fast forward to Sunday. Would the newest iteration of the Cowboys O-line and, by extension, the offense, fare any better against a 3-4 featuring both a huge front three and, in defensive coordinator Bob Sutton (who came from the Jets, where he learned at Rex Ryan's knee), a scheme that stressed offenses by rushing from all angles? Although they did a fairly good job picking up the Chiefs' blitzes and zone dogs, the answer must be a resounding "no." As happened in Denver and Green Bay in 2009, Dallas lost a road game in which the defense gave up only 17 points. Which brings up:
21: The number of road games since Jason Garrett took over the offense in 2007 in which the Cowboys have failed to score 20 or more points. And here's the kicker: in those 21 games, the Cowboys are 4-17 with one of those a joke victory in 2010's final contest, a 14-13 win in Philadelphia with Stephen McGee at the helm. As Bob Sturm pointed out in his as-always brilliant take on the game, this speaks to the team;s tendency to get ultra-conservative when on the road against a good defense. All of the above games fit this description.
.833: Romo's completion percentage on his first 30 passes. At the point where number nine was stripped-sacked by the Chiefs' Ron Parker, he had enjoyed a very accurate afternoon, going 25 for 30 passing. In part due to their struggles against the Chiefs' 3-4, the Cowboys were playing small ball, getting the ball out quickly before Romo could be hit by free blitzers (he averaged a mere 6.2 yards per pass play, much lower than his career average). That strategy works beautifully when your quarterback has such an impressive completion percentage, and the team can move the ball, even without a running game. But wait...
.416: Romo's completion percentage after the strip-sack. As the game tightened, Romo suddenly became innacurate, often wildly so. On many passes, he appeared unable to extend through the throw, throwing low on short passes and floating deeper passes. Might the sack have reinjured a ribcage that required a pain-killing injection before the game? Whatever the case, Romo's precipitous decline neatly (and horribly coincided) with "winning time" - the last ten minutes of a tight game.
48: The distance of Kansas City punter Dustin Colquitt's game-changing punt. The Cowboys had taken a 10-7 lead and then stopped the Chiefs' next drive with a Jason Hatcher sack of Alex Smith. Momentum clearly resided on the Dallas sideline. Then Colquitt took Big Mo' away, turning the field with a sublime boot, which backspun and landed on the Cowboys five. From that point on, the second quarter saw the Cowboys operating in the shadow of their own end zone and, as a result, scaling back their playbook. Their next three possessions began at the Dallas 5, 10, and 10 yard lines, respectively.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs took over at the Cowboys 48, their own 45, and the Dallas 49. Thanks to terrific defense and special teams play (especially Orlando Scandrick's blocked kick), the Cowboys managed to emerge from this unfavorable field position war unscathed. Still, had Colquitt's punt obeyed the laws of physics and bounced into the end zone, we might well have seen Dallas, not Kansas City, enjoy the better second quarter field position - and, perhaps, extend their slim lead. This leads me to:
18.4: The Cowboys average starting field position for the game. It was not only in the second quarter that Dallas suffered from disadvantageous field position; they were staring at long fields all afternoon. Above, I noted that their strategy was to play small ball. That's a very difficult thing to do if the average scoring drive is to be more than 80 yards. To drive the length of the field, an offense needs one or more big plays. Indeed, look at the correlation between the team's four biggest plays and their scoring drives:
1. Dez Bryant 53-yard pass from Romo. Result: field goal
2. Dez Bryant 38-yard pass from Romo. Result: touchdown
3. Terrance Willaims 20-yard pass from Romo. Result: field goal
4. DeMarco Murray 17-yard pass form Romo. Result: field goal
In short, if the defense or special teams isn't going to give Dallas short fields, they will need big plays -some call them explosives - to generate points. On Sunday, they got precious few of these.
0: Turnovers on the day, after tallying a whopping six the previous week. Six turnovers help to mask a lot of deficiencies. When two of them result in scores and others give Tony Romo and company excellent field position, they serve to create the illusion of a dynamic offense. Take those away, as happened on Sunday, and we see an offense that has struggled in both games, and in similar ways: to run the ball well, to score touchdowns from inside the red zone, to push the ball downfield, to get receivers open consistently.
2: The number of units that played well enough to win on Sunday. Both the defense and special teams played well enough to win. In particular, the defense was special during the third-quarter sequence during which the Cowboys turned the ball over on consecutive possessions, giving the Chiefs the ball at the Dallas 31 and 35, respectively. Somehow, Kiffin's boys managed to limit the Chiefs to a single field goal. The special teams also helped to delimit the Chiefs' scoring, as Orlando Scandrick blocked a field goal at the end of the first half, and to help the offense, with Dwayne Harris' nifty 22-yard punt return (the only real return opportunity he had all day, thanks to Colquitt's superb work)
2: Games thus far in 2013 that have been decided by a touchdown or less. This brings the number of such "close games" in Garrett's coaching tenure to 29, out of a total of 42 contests. Last November, I wrote a post in which I opined that the preponderance of close games is rapidly becoming Garrett's legacy. As a way of illustrating this, I noted that from 2006-08, 37.5% of Cowboys games were decided by a touchdown or less; since Garrett took over the coaching reins in 2010, a staggering 69% of their games have been "close." This is problematic; in an NFL landscape in which a close game can turn on a flukey, chance moment - a fumble, a controversial officials' ruling, a deflected pass, a slip on the turf - the best way to be a winning team is to avoid being in a situation wherein weather, a bad call, or just plain, dumb luck can determine the outcome.
The team's staggering number of close games is problematic in another regard: I believe the enduring image in the offensive coaches minds is that of Romo lying on the carpet after breaking his collarbone in 2010. They understand that, were this to happen again, it would signal the end of the season. As a result, they gameplan to ensure Romo's safety. With a shaky offensive line, this means more conservative gameplans, especially against good defenses. This means eschewing the kinds of slow-developing deep passes that generate points and, potentially, big leads.
In short, the team's strategy, since the offensive line overhaul of 2011, has been to keep the game close to give Romo (and, more importantly, Dan Bailey) a chance to win it at the end. This strategy has worked beautifully in some games (in 2011: Redskins at home, Dolphins on Thanksgiving; last season: wins over AFC North teams Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh). But its a risky strategy, with plenty of room for failure, as we have witnessed in the aforementioned Patriots and Cardinals games from 2011 as well as last year's game against Baltimore and, in many respects, the season-ender in Washington. We can now add Sunday's game to this list.
I understand the strategy, particularly as it pertains to keeping Romo upright for 16 games. But playing close games is the football version of Russian roulette. I'll conclude with an extended quote from my article last November:
The second "luckiest" sport is NFL football. Why? The number of players and how often they are on the field (basketball players log far more minutes that hockey or football players, thus skill plays a larger part); sample size (there are so few games in a football season, and so many fewer possessions than in, say, basketball, that there are fewer opportunities to bleach out luck and randomness); the way the game is scored (a team can be very successful and have nothing on the scoreboard to register that success - or play very poorly but get a couple of lucky bounces and have a lead).
Because of these factors, goofy plays - tipped passes, fumbles in heavy traffic, long touchdown passes wherein a defensive back slips after having solid coverage - have more value. Unlike sports with a lot of games (baseball) or many more possessions (basketball) or fewer players on the field, court. or rink, the weird plays in football factor more heavily in the final outcome. [Because football is the most "random" of professional sports in terms of chance occurrences that contribute to winning or losing, teams will tend to hover around .500 in close games, regardless of overall winning percentage.] With this in mind, what distinguishes a good team is not that it has "heart" and wins close games, but that it's good enough to blow out a fair amount of opponents, thus limiting the number of games it can lose due to a bad bounce, questionable penalty or blocked field goal at the buzzer.
The last time the Cowboys won a game by more than a touchdown? December 2011, with a 31-15 victory over a hapless Tampa Bay team. That was 21 games ago.