FanPost

Did the Cowboys bump into their identity?

The term "Romo friendly" was first bandied about the halls of Valley Ranch in 2009, when Jerry Jones noted that the Cowboys needed to find ways to make Tony Romo's job easier. Dallas released Terrell Owens during that off season after trading away a first round draft pick (and two others) to acquire Roy Williams during the 2008 regular season.

Coming into the game against Carolina, Romo had a passer rating of 44.8 on third down. That passer rating was one of the worst in the league. Compare that pathetic passer rating to Romo's rating on third down in 2011: 101.5.

What has changed?

The easy answer is that Laurent Robinson left for the Jacksonville Jaguars after the 2011 season. That would not tell the whole story, however, as rarely are there easy answers in analyzing this team.

SEASON

3rd and 1-5 pass attempts

3rd and 6+ pass attempts

COMPLETION %

TD

INT

SACKS

2011

57

94

58.94

13

4

12

2012 (projected)

61

101

62.30

0

11

8

Projecting the third down numbers for a full 16 game schedule, the Cowboys are on pace to attempt about 11 more passes on third down in 2012 as compared to 2011. Despite the loss of Laurent Robinson, Romo has actually completed a significantly greater percentage of his passes on third down. Considering the early struggles of the offensive line, it is incredible that Tony is also on track to suffer fewer sacks on third down in 2012 than he did in 2011.

The drop in passer rating can almost solely be attributed to the projected increase in interceptions tossed on third down and the abject failure to throw a touchdown pass though six games in 2012 on third down.

While Robinson's absence may account for fewer touchdown passes (he had 11 touchdown receptions in 2011), Laurent only had two touchdown receptions through the first six games last season, and but one was on third down (versus Seattle). Robinson had three other touchdown catches on third down in addition to the catch he made versus Seattle: against Buffalo, Washington, and Tampa Bay.

Analyzing the numbers in a little more depth, it is apparent that the Cowboys are not successful on deeper pass attempts. The Cowboys are on pace to attempt about the same number of passes on deep routes, and about one more intermediate pass per game in comparison to last season.

SEASON

Pass thrown 11-20 yards (completion %)

Pass thrown 21-30 yards (completion %)

Pass thrown 31-40 yards (completion %)

TD

INT

2011

116 (56.9%)

37 (40.5%)

15 (46.7%)

19

9

2012 (projected)

131 (55.1%)

35 (15.4%)

11 (25.0%)

11

16

Again, the problem with interceptions and the significant decrease in touchdown passes contributes heavily to the Cowboys woes, but notice the completion percentage on passes thrown over 20 yards down the field. Romo is experiencing a precipitous drop in accuracy when flinging the ball down the field.

There could be several factors at play:

1. Defenses are consciously trying to take away deep passes with coverage schemes such as two-deep safeties (Tampa-two coverage).

2. Romo is lacking the time to make the deep pass that he successfully made last season.

3. The Cowboys are not threatening teams downfield either due to play calling or personnel.

4. Tony is not playing as well as he did last season.

While the fourth option is possible, the fact that he is completing a higher percentage of his passes, albeit shorter ones, makes this option unlikely. Considering the big play potential that Dez Bryant and Miles Austin possess, it is doubtful that the Dallas personnel is responsible for the drop in the deep ball.

It is probably a combination of the remaining options. Because of the struggles faced by the Cowboys in pass protection, the play calling has favored shorter, quicker passes. In addition, teams such as Carolina deployed more two-deep coverage to slow down the Dallas downfield attack, and force the Cowboys to run the ball.

When teams deployed this defense to the 90's Cowboys, Emmitt ripped them to shreds. Without a proven power running game, this Dallas team is inviting teams to drop into deep coverage. The Buccaneers, Bears, and Ravens played this type of coverage quite often, daring Romo to throw the ball downfield, and Romo, for the most part, has been deadly throwing the ball short.

SEASON

Pass thrown 1-10 yards (completion %)

TD

INT

2011

277 (71.1%)

11

3

2012 (projected)

283 (81.1%)

11

8

Note that the 2012 numbers are projected, so interceptions thrown to Dez when he misreads a blitz adjustment, and Ogletree, when the ball bounces off of his body, will be augmented. Eliminate those two interceptions, and Tony's numbers are almost identical to last season, except he is more accurate.

But with such success on short passes, why is third down still a problem?

Breaking down the third down pass attempts and the picture becomes a little clearer. The passer rating for 3rd and 8+ in 2011 was 110.01, while the same situation in 2012 has produced a passer rating of 37.78.

SEASON

3rd and 8-10 attempts

3rd and 11+ attempts

COMPLETION %

TD

INT

SACKS

2011

37

34

61.97

5

1

4

2012 (projected)

45

35

56.67

0

11

3

As opposed to previous versions of this Cowboys team, this team struggles to pick up third and long situations and hit on deep passes. Considering the struggles this team has demonstrated running the ball and collecting offensive penalties, it is remarkable that Dallas is still 3-3.

Against Carolina, however, the Cowboys had more success in the run game and trimmed the offensive penalties. That resulted in more manageable third down attempts.

CAROLINA

3rd and 1-7 attempts (conversion %)

3rd and 8+ attempts (conversion %)

Run

2 (50%)

1 (0%)*

Pass

10 (80%)

3 (33%)^

*This running play was to Tanner with the clock running at the end of the game to set up a field goal.

^This sole pass conversion of a third and long went to Austin for 36 yards and set up the sole touchdown on the next play.

Those manageable third down conversions resulted in better numbers for Romo:

CAR v SEAS

1ST DOWN PASSER RATING

2ND DOWN PASSER RATING

3RD DOWN PASSER RATING

WKS 1-6

107.7

89.2

44.8

WK 7

112.5

83.5

100.0

Could it be that that the Cowboys have discovered the formula for winning in 2012?

By reducing penalties and running on early downs to set up third downs of 7 or fewer yards, the Cowboys won on third down. With great timeliness, KD mentioned this not so long ago (http://www.bloggingtheboys.com/2012/10/18/3518960/dallas-cowboys-losing-games-on-third-down).

This defense is good enough to play small-ball until either the offensive line gels to provide time for Romo to take shots down field, or opposing defenses creep their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage to slow down the running game. A few "takeovers" could even lead to consecutive wins.

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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