In a recent pre-game post outlining the five keys to victory for the home team, I noted that the Cowboys would have to be patient, and play a close-to-the-vest waiting game before trying to win the contest in the fourth quarter. The key to remaining patient, of course, is to keep the score tight, and to protect the ball. For the better part of the first half last night, Dallas followed this blueprint. Once they fell behind by double digits, however, they began to throw caution to the wind. The result? Turnovers, which then snowballed, and a game that got out of hand.
Here are some thoughts, by the numbers:
3: The number of plays the starting offensive line has played together. All year. Including training camp. As all the experts are quick to remind us, cohesion is the key to offensive line play. The best lines aren't necessarily those with the best athletes or most imposing specimens; rather, they are the ones that have played together long enough to develop a second sense about what the guy next to them is going to do. With clear talent deficiencies, the only hope for a re-made Cowboys O-line was to log as many snaps together as possible in an effort at making up for lost (or, more properly, never had) time.
Thanks to a series of injuries to all three interior linemen, this never materialized. The starting five have played together exactly three snaps: the first three plays of the Giants game. What seemed to be a training camp annoyance is starting to look like the story of the season. Yes, Mackenzie Bernardeau is hurting us, but I can't help wonder what might have been had all five guys played every offseason snap together.
5: The number of interceptions thrown by Tony Romo. This will be the number all the talking heads on BSPN talk about all week. And, granted, he is now the owner of a couple of ignominious marks: the only active player with multiple 5-interception games, and the only guy ever to throw five picks on Monday Night Football on two occasions. To my mind, however, there are a couple of more significant "number 5s":
-As noted above, the number of Monday's starting offensive line who are playing in a different spot (or for a different team) than they did last season.
-The number of defensive starters who were out during the period when Bruce Carter was in the clubhouse having his hip examined. In the second and early third quarters, Kenyon Coleman, Jay Ratliff, Carter, Anthony Spencer and Barry Church were all out of the game. That's almost half of the starting unit. One thing that became clear in training camp was the team's vastly improved depth on the front seven, which I believe still to be the case. Even with better backups, losing five starters is going to negatively impact the defense's performance. On Monday, backups were exploited (Victor Butler was a clear liability against the run and Danny McCray struggled) and the unit wore down once it got behind. The good news? All the missing starters save Church are expected back after the bye week.
32: Dallas' league-wide ranking in points scored. Yep, our beloved 'Boys, with so many offensive weapons, are dead last in the NFL in scoring (coming in to the game, they were tied with Philadelphia, who managed to eke out 19 points in their win over the Giants). With 65 points in four games, they are scoring at just over 16 per. If not for some short fields gifted to them by the defense and special teams in the Tampa Bay game, which helped net thirteen of their sixteen points, it might be much worse.
53: The average rushing yards per game, when we subtract DeMarco Murray's electrifying 48-yard week one scamper. On the season, Murray has 61 carries for 237 yards, for a middling 3.9 yard average. If we take away his long run against the Giants (which, you'll recall, could easily have been a negative yardage play), his season totals come in at a cold 60 for 189, and a 3.15 clip. In the last two games, he's averaging 2.13 yards per carry. The dude's a legit beast, but I fear he's taking far too much punishment - certainly he is, for what he's getting from it - and have serious doubts about his ability to last the entire season continuing in this vein.
2:38: The time remaining in the first half when the Cowboys mounted their first scoring drive. After playing it close to the vest for the better part of the first half, the game threatened to get out of hand after Romo's initial interception, the pick six to Peanut Tillman. When the Cowboys got the ball back, Romo almost single-handedly engineered a scoring drive that got them back into the game just before halftime. While this was a great series to behold at the time, in retrospect I wonder if it offered number nine a negative lesson: to win this game, you're going to have to do this by yourself.
If this idea was at all hovering in Romo's pia mater, it was compounded when the Bears came out and scored on their opening drive of the second half. A game that Romo had managed to get close was quickly opened up, and it appeared that he began to press. Who can blame him? It was clear that the Cowboys offense wasn't going to be able to manage the kind of 13-play scoring drives wherein they chewed off little chunks of yardage and stay in safe down and distance situations. Such drives depend on consistent, reliable execution - such as sure-handed receivers always catching slants on third and six. That's not Dallas' game...so when they get behind, what choice does Romo have but to gun-sling a bit?
93: Anthony Spencer's number. Of all the missing defensive starters, the Dallas "D" missed Spencer most of all. This was most evident in two places: whenever the Bears ran to Victor Butler's side (Butler's inability to play the run forced Rob Ryan to bring Gerald Sensabaugh up to the line, which had down-the-road implications in the passing game) and then Cutler faded back to pass. Looking at the Cowboys defense sans Spencer, those Cowboys fans who complained when the received the franchise tag got a healthy dose of "be careful what you wish for." Is he a sack machine? No. But the dude is a very good player - an absolute beast against the run, and a better pass rusher than he is given credit for.
1999: The last time the Cowboys drafted offensive and defensive linemen in rounds 1-2 of the same draft (acquiring the uninspiring Ebenezer Ekuban and Solomon Page), a double-dip that they also executed the previous year, when they picked up a much better pair in Greg Ellis and Flozell Adams. In the past two drafts, Dallas has had an opportunity (and, I think, the desire) to go this route: in 2011, it looks like they were targeting Tyron Smith and hoping one of the top 5-techniques, perhaps an Adrian Clayborn, would drop to the early second round; in 2012, it looked like they would go for one of the top D-linemen (say a Fletcher Cox or Michael Brockers) and then dip into the historically rich treasure trove of second round interior linemen). In 2011, the D-linemen were snapped up long before Dallas' second round pick; last year, they traded up for Mo Claiborne.
Why bring up this history now? Because last night's whoopin' is not solely on the offensive line. Against a very poor Bears front, which had given up 11 sacks and 20 pressures in the first three contests, the Cowboys D-line generated almost no pressure. Jay Cutler was sacked twice - the first was a coverage sack (and a great strip by DeMarcus Ware); the second came in inconsequential garbage time, on the Bears second-to-last play - and pressured seldom. I've already discussed the effects of Spencer's absence; its clear that, other than Ware and, to a degree, Spencer, Dallas has no consistent pressure players. For a defense that will have to win games almost single-handed this season, this is not good news.
2003: Bill Parcells' first season as head coach. That year, you may recall, the Cowboys surprised us all by storming out to a 5-1 record, winning a couple of key games down the stretch, and securing a playoff berth despite having Quincy Carter and Troy Hambrick as their starting quarterback and running back, respectively. How did they do it? By playing it extremely close to the vest on offense and relying on the league's number one defense to keep games close enough to win. This formula worked for much of the season; the Cowboys were 9-0 when they had one or fewer turnovers. But, including the playoff loss to Carolina, they were 0-6 when they had two or more TOs. In late November/ early December losses to Miami and Philadelphia, turnovers allowed the game to snowball and their defense, so stout the rest of the season, was rolled, giving up 40 and 36 points, respectively.
In watching last night's debacle, I was reminded of the 2003 team, and of those back-to-back blowouts. Although this team certainly appears to be more "talented" than the 2003 edition (which started Willie Blade, Mario Edwards, Matt Lehr and Kurt Vollers), they will have to play a similar game - largely because they are so hamstrung by the offensive line. Going into Monday Night's tilt, it appeared that the coaching staff realized this, but turnovers caused them to toss out the gameplan. In 2003, the Cowboys were shut out in losses to Tampa Bay and New England, but Parcells' and his staff didn't open up the playbook in desperation, continuing to mix safe runs and short passes. By doing so, they were able to limit the damage and, instead of blowouts, held the final scores to 16-0 and 12-0, respectively.
Until they solve their O-line woes, the 2012 Cowboys would be wise to take a page from the Book of Parcells, circa 2003.