Tony Romo's Sunday afternoon, in a nutshell
For Ol' Rabble, Sunday was a good news-bad news affair. He secured the best seats he's ever had for an NFL game (a couple of rows behind Miss Price, who never once sat or stopped screaming), but had to endure the ignominy of yet another defeat in the Arizona desert, to a particularly unimpressive iteration of one of professional sports' most woebegone franchises.
I know a lot of time, energy and column inches will be spent discussing the events of the game's final seconds, but this is merely a distraction. Yes, those precious seconds could have been negotiated less clumsily. But the real issue in this game (and, in fact, of the last month) is the inability of the offense to get in synch. Since they started so smoothly against Buffalo, the Cowboys' offense has shaked and sputtered, relying with increasing frequency on their Jedi QB, Romo-Wan Tonobi, to extract positive plays from the midst of chaos. Without Romo ducking and dodging to avoid oncoming rushers to make ridiculous plays, the Cowboys would never have been in position to attempt a game-clinching field goal.
How so? Lets take a look at the numbers, after the jump...
1: Patrick Peterson's punt return yardage, on one return. Also the number of Mat McBriar punts that failed to land inside the twenty. Also McBriar's number. Before the game, a lot of media types were offering "keys to the game" stories claiming the key matchup was Peterson vs. the Aussie punter. If so, McBriar won, hands down. The Cowboys plan was to land punts within five yards of the sideline in order to hem in Peterson; McBriar executed it to perfection. Four of his five punts landed inside the twenty; after McBriar's boots, Arizona started drives at their 11, 10, 3, 20 (afer Peterson's one yard return) and 5. A nice day's work.
5: Sacks given up, the most surrendered by Dallas this season. Curiously, 20 of the team's 25 sacks given up have come on the road; Sunday's total eclipses the four-sack games suffered at New York, Washington and Philadelphia. But sacks are more than just big plays; before the 2010 season began, O.C.C. authored an excellent series on "drive killers." The third of these is sacks, which are a formidable impediment to offensive success. At the time, Cool wrote:
The chances of a team scoring a TD after being sacked are very slim. Last season, only 5.3% of TD drives survived a sack, i.e a sack was recorded on only 60 TD drives out of 1,139 in the 2009 regular season. TheCowboys' TD-drive sack rate [in 2009] is 2.5% (1 of 40).
With that in mind, lets take a look at the larger ramifications of Arizona's five sacks by looking at each of the Cowboys' eleven drives:
- Drive 1 (1Q) None. Drive fizzled after two consecutive incompletes.
- Drive 2 (1Q): None. Missed FG after incompletion on 3rd and 2.
- Drive 3 (1Q): SACK #1 Romo sacked on 1st and 10, and offense cannot recover. Cowboys punt, wasting a huge 69-yard Felix Jones kickoff return.
- Drive 4 (2Q): SACK #2: Romo sacked on 3rd and 13, forcing punt.
- Drive 5 (2Q): None. 31-yard FG drive ties game 3-3.
- Drive 6 (2Q): None. 33-yard TD drive gives Cows 10-3 lead.
- Drive 7 (2Q) SACK #3: Romo sacked on 2nd and 10 to end the first half
- Drive 8 (3Q) SACK #4: Romo sacked on 1st and 10 at Arizona 17, leading to FG and 13-6 lead.
- Drive 9 (4Q): SACK #5: Romo sacked on 3rd and 5, leading to punt.
- Drive 10 (4Q) None. Romo throws to Phillips for 4 yards on 3rd and 5, causing Dallas to punt.
- Drive 11 (4Q): None. Final drive of regulation, ending in missed FG.
From this, we can see that sacks led directly to punts, with the lone exception of a red-zone sack that all but guaranteed three instead of seven. Wanna know why the Cowboys scored only 13 points? Look no further than the offensive line's protection problems...
37: the Cowboys longest drive, other than the 65-yard FG drive in the 3rd quarter. Because of the sacks (and the relentless pass rush that generated them), as well as their inability to get the running game rolling, the Cowboys offense has great difficulty sustaining drives. Several promising series ground to a halt, largely because Dallas couldn't manage to string together consecutive explosive plays. Look at their drive chart.
2: Missed field goals by Dan Bailey. After the Miami game, Jason Garrett told reporters that the Cowboys strategy on their final drive was just to get close enough for Bailey, because they had complete faith in his ability to make the clutch kick. On Sunday, they clearly employed the same strategy; however, this time, Bailey wasn't automatic (thus failing to live up to the moniker O.C.C. has given him, "Darth Bailey"). The Cowboys kicker entered the game having made 26 straight field goals, but yanked his first attempt and then, with seven seconds left, his last one.
This brings up a question: when all the chips are on the table, if you keep going to the same guy, even if he's superman, what happens on those rare occasions when he isn't perfect? Consider: if Baily had had a two-miss game against the 49ers, or even a one-miss game in any of the Cowboys other close wins, (Washington x2 or Miami), they would have been losses. Its a risky game Garrett's playing here, but I'm not sure, given the performance of his offensive line, that he has much choice.
-5: DeMarco Murray's rushing yardage in the second quarter, on three carries. I read several tweets complaining about Garrett giving up on the run. Indeed he did, and Murray's second quarter struggles suggest why. In fact, after attempting to establish the run on their first two drives, Dallas appeared to realize that they were going to need to go through the air to be successful. After the first quarter, Murray had seven carries for 10 yards--not exactly enough to persuade Garrett to go back to the run. Murray finished with 38 yards on 12 carries.
Remember when the rookie runner scampered for 601 yards in four games, averaging 8.01 a pop? With a running game to free up defenses for Romo, it appeared the Cowboys offense was ready to break out. In the past three games--all without Tony Fiammetta, it must be noted--Murray has totaled 198 yards, and his average has plummeted to 3.3 per carry. Sure, Fiammetta's absence is part of the problem, but I suspect the rest of the league has figured out what kind of plays Garrett wants to call for him, and has adjusted accordingly. For the Dallas offense to be multidimensional, Garrett will have to develop a counter-move.
43: yards of field position lost due to Orlando Scandrick's inability to avoid running up the back of a Cardinals special teamer. As the fourth quarter clock dwindled, the Dallas defense forced a punt. Dez Bryant caught the ball at the Dallas 40 and, in a brilliant play, rumbled and juked his way to the Cardinals' 25, all but guaranteeing a Cowboys victory. Alas, it was not to be; Orlando Scandrick bumped into the back of Michael Adams, forcing Dallas to start on their own 32. They did manage to drive to a potential winning FG, but its tough not to believe that, had Bryant's big play not been negated, they would have come away with points.
49: Arizona's total offensive output in the first half. The Cardinals mounted six first-half drives. Four of these were three-and-outs. One totaled six plays for eleven yards. The sixth was a 32-yard drive which, thanks to a missed Dallas FG, started in good field position. This was in direct contrast to their second-half output; in the third and fourth frames, as well as in overtime, Arizona had the ball five times, with the following results:
- 12 plays, 74 yards (FG)
- 6 plays, 79 yards (TD)
- 6 plays, 26 yards (punt)
- 3 plays, 4 yards
- 5 plays, 80 yards (game-winning TD)
In the second half and in overtime, Arizona had three drives that almost doubled their first-half output. I think Rob Ryan has done a terrific job restoring a bit of shine to this offense; clearly, they are capable of shutting down opposing offenses. But they have two troubling traits: 1) they tend to be a break-but-don't-bend unit (i.e., when they give up more than a three-and-out, they give up points); 2) they tend to get worse over the course of games. I don't have stats on this (I think I'll do a post on this in the next few days), but there have been an alarming number of games in which the Dallas defense has shut down the opposition early only to give up a lot of points and/ or yards late.
21: Mike Jenkins' number. The Cowboys seemed quite happy to welcome the 2008 first-rounder back to the lineup. For most of the game, he was lined up over Larry Fitzgerald (although Arizona schemed to get Fitz matched up against Scandrick and Newman in the second half). As a result, the Cardinals' best player was largely a non-factor, with four grabs on seven targets. On the other hand, Andre Roberts (the same receiver who burned the Cowboys when they last visited Arizona, on Christmas last year) grabbed six balls (on six targets) for a sweet 111 yards.
Most of Roberts' yardage was gained when he was lined up against the secondary's resident greybeard, Terence Newman. The 2003 first-rounder, who was stellar early in the season, is beginning to show the length of his teeth, especially late in games, when he's needed most. And that's exactly when Arizona put the bullseye on his back. On the first play of the fourth quarter, the Cards faced a second and four at their own 27. On a terrific playcall, Roberts ran a button-and go; Newman jumped on the button (run at the yard marker), and got burned for a 40-yard gainer. In overtime, Roberts beat him on a slant for a nice pick-up, then, after a holding penalty and a superb Scandrick play on a Beanie Wells run, T-New latched onto Roberts, who was the intended receiver on a poorly-thrown pass. The holding penalty freed Arizona from the chains of a potential 3rd and 19. Three plays (one of them a 16-yarder to Roberts, covered by Newman) later, the game was over.
Oh, and on the winning catch-and-run, LaRod Stephens-Howling ran right by T-New at midfield...
8: number of Dallas games this season decided by four or fewer points. The Cowboys record in these games is 4-4. As one BTB's leading statheads, Fan in Thick and Thin, has pointed out on numerous occasions, the NFL is a league in which luck plays a major part in determining final outcomes. This is exacerbated in close games, where a single bad bounce, tipped pass or questionable call can make a difference that it wouldn't in a 27-7 contest. As he says, "Winning close games isn’t a sign of fundamental improvement, blowing teams out is." As long as the Cowboys are going to struggle to score points, they are going to have games like this one, where they lose on what feels like an excruciating play--when they shouldn't be in position for that play to matter.
4: Game winning streak that ended as abruptly as Stephens-Howling, "the hyphen," took a swing pass down the right sideline for the winning score. In some ways, it might be a good thing that the streak is over. I realize that this may be an unpopular opinion, but I don't believe this team is good enough to win seven games in a row (that's the sort of thing dominant, 13-3 teams accomplish) but, with huge NFC East match-ups against the Giants and Eagles, that's what they'd have had to do to win this thing outright. Now, with the mercurial Football Gods satiated, we can hope for another mini-streak.
Right now, hope is a good thing. It better be, 'cause with the offense struggling this way, its all we've got.