How has the Cowboys offense changed since the first time they faced the Redskins in the season opener?
I have found that one of the best ways to judge the state of my favorite team in any given season is by looking at the division games. Because Dallas plays the same teams twice every year, division games provide a quick yet effective comparison and contrast, allowing us to see how the respective teams have progressed, regressed, altered their philosophies, adjusted to injuries, etc. A terrific example of this is the contests against the Eagles last year. The first of these was a close, tightly-fought contest that could have gone either way; Eagles fans loudly proclaimed that theirs was the better team, not unjustifiably. By season's end, however, the Cowboys were clearly the superior squad; a dominating defensive performance was followed by playoff win in which Dallas was better in all three phases of the game. In retrospect, it seems that these results were probably attributable to the fact that Philadelphia had regressed more than Dallas had progressed, and that the Cowboys braintrust based their offseason plan on the latter assessment--but that's a subject for another post.
The division schedule this season has been a bit peculiar. The Cowboys have been slated to play the Giants and Eagles twice in four games. The two Redskins contests, however, were located at opposite ends of the schedule. In a normal season, this would almost assuredly mean that the teams, and perhaps the outcome, would be very different between the first and second tilt. But this year has been anything but normal. In fact, as Dave has noted, the first Redskins game feels like it happened a season ago, in a far-off time, with a different coach, a different QB, and different expectations. Nevertheless, to see where the Cowboys are, as the first snows fall here in the Northeast, it can be instructive to look back to that muggy night in September to see what has changed. In this post, I'd like to look at what has shifted (or stayed the same) on offense since Game One; in another post, I'll look at what is altered on defense.
If you'll recall, Dallas went into that game without two of their starting offensive linemen, Kyle Kosier and Marc Columbo. The resultant offensive line malaise has ended up plaguing the Cowboys all season. Consequently, the gameplan instituted against the Redskins--which, at the time, seemed to be a temporary adjustment to a singular, extreme situation--has in fact ended up as 2010's prevailing offensive strategy: protect the quarterback (at that time, Romo) by calling passing plays with shorter drops so he can get the ball out quickly, and hopefully staying out of obvious pass rush situations. Then, once this has been established, take occasional shots downfield. This strategy was a departure from the past three seasons, during which Tony Romo boasted the highest yards-per-pass rating of any NFL quarterback--indeed, of almost any QB who has ever played the game.
This strategy, while sensible, played directly into the offense's primary weakness, their inability to avoid the "drive killer." Indeed, in the first contest against Washington, several promising second-half drives were terminated or placed in jeopardy by crushing offensive penalties. As a result, they managed only one score (although they also missed a FG and, as we have tried to forget, had a last-second TD called back because of penalty) and lost a game they dominated in terms of raw statistics. As I suggested above, this strategy has, in some part, become the Cowboys' 2010 guiding offensive philosophy, largely because the OL has been overmatched for the better part of the season. Through the Minnesota game, this proved to be like playing with fire, as Dallas consistently racked up double-digit penalties that continued to amputate their offensive production. Ironically, they finally righted the penalty ship, only to see Romo lost for the season.
Since recovering from the loss of Romo--a resurgence coinciding with the promotion of Jason Garrett--the Cowboys have been riding their "dink-and-dunk" offensive strategy with surprising success. They still have an O-line that, with the obvious exception of the Indianapolis game, have struggled to run the ball consistently by lining up and beating the men across the line of scrimmage. But, by a combination of formation and schematic derring-do, they have generated enough yards on the ground to accomplish their overriding strategy: avoiding too many obvious pass rush situations. This is partly because they have managed to limit the number of drive killing penalties and sacks.
More importantly, however, is that they have avoided the third drive-killer that plagued them in 2010: the inability to convert third downs. This year, even with a significantly poorer running game, an offensive line that has fallen off considerably, and a backup quarterback, the Cowboys have converted third downs at a slightly higher rate than in '09. This strongly affects their ability to score. In 2009, as OCC has elegantly demonstrated, Dallas had ZERO touchdown drives in which they converted two or more third downs. This year, they have already amassed six such drives--both the Houston and Minnesota games featured TD drives in which the Cowboys converted three first downs; against the Lions, one Dallas TD drive converted three first downs, and then scored on a fourth.
What I'm suggesting is that I'd expect Redskins II to bear a strong resemblance to Redskins I in terms of game plan--but to be quite different in terms of execution. Although the Dallas offense has appeared to constrict, using less of the field in the past couple of weeks, particularly since Dez Bryant went out with an ankle injury, the Redskins defense has fallen off more considerably of late, in no small part due to losing its best player, safety LaRon Landry, for the season. Looking at the remaining players, the key would seem to be negating the mismatch that served to define the first contest: the Dallas RT (in this case, the creaky-legged Marc Columbo) against Washington's dynamic OLB, Brian Orakpo. In the first game, as I pointed out in my post-game analysis, the Cowboys offensive strategy was founded upon helping Barron with Orakpo, which they did in myriad ways: lining up one (or two) tight ends on Barron's side, deploying Jason Witten into the backfield to help pass block in shotgun formations, and running predominately to the left, away from Barron. I concluded that post with the following plea:
And, Marc Columbo, wherever you are: pleeeease come back to your '09 pre-injury form. The season's riding on it, buddy.
Clearly, Columbo hasn't--and that's one of many reasons the 2010 has gone into the tank. That said, I don't expect Columbo to struggle as mightily as Barron did--Columbo's a fighter who would sooner have his finger gnawed off than give up a sack. Gameness aside, he'll be overmatched and will require some similar strategic assistance if the second Redskins tilt is to end differently than the first.
My guess is he'll get the help he needs, and that Dallas, freed from the drive-killers that doomed them in 2009 and into this year, will be able to sustain drives and put more than seven points on the board this time around.