To this point in the 2012 season, the Cowboys have struggled mightily to generate points. After six games, Dallas has amassed a grand total of 113 points. Thanks to a 29-point outburst at Baltimore, this figure no longer threatens to be a league worst mark; at 18.8, they are currently 24th among league teams in points per game (know that several teams have played seven games to this point). There are many reasons for this scoring drought: lack of success on third down, inability to convert drives into touchdowns, the lack of big plays, the failure to generate turnovers.
And, as usual, the BTB community is on the case. In the past weeks, the FanPost pages have seen some excellent takes on the numerous maladies currently being suffered by the Cowboys "O." More than one writer notes the troubling absence of deep passes in the Cowboys' arsenal of late. In a terrific post entitled "Your Cowboys and Play Action," Antonio Nickerson takes a look at the success Dallas had on the ground in the Ravens game - an in-game scenario that suggests the opposing defense will be ripe for play-action passes downfield - and wonders aloud "whither the deep ball?" As has been noted elsewhere, the Cowboys threw exactly one (one!) pass that traveled 20 or more yards in the air against the Ravens (and then duplicated that sorry number the following week at Carolina).
This is in stark contrast to the offense that Jason Garrett has run throughout his Cowboys tenure. As Antonio writes:
The thing that can be really baffling is that Jason Garrett andhave tested the down-field waters off of play action hundreds of times since they've been together. That's why it's hard to understand why Garrett has digressed so much in his down the field play-calling. This "explosive"...offense has been reduced to 25th in passing plays over 20 yards and 27th in pass plays over 40.
If you can stand it, watch the (must-see) video compilation that the good Mr. Nickerson has created from past seasons to see what he's referring to. Warning to the weak of heart: the dropoff ain't pretty.
Although A-Nick doesn't take a stab at the "wither the deep ball" question, other members do. In a recent post, our most consistently excellent FanPoster, ScarletO, offers a fascinating, detailed look at the Cowboys passing game, comparing it to last season. One of several areas where it fails to measure up, he notes, is in the completion percentage of passes 20 or more yards downfield. Want some more sobering statistics? On passes that travel from 21-30 yards, the completion percentage has plummeted from 40.5% to 15.4%. On passes from 31-40 yards, the dropoff is from 46.7% to 25%.
Because of this, ScarletO concludes, the Cowboys are much less likely to convert second- and third-and-long situations, so the offensive braintrust, recognizing this, has decided that one of the primary offensive priorities must be to avoid getting in such untenable down and distances if at all possible. Indeed, against Carolina, S.O. points out, they did manage to get in more manageable third down situations and, as a consequence, met with much greater success. Romo's third down QB rating in the first six games was 44.8. Against Carolina? 100.0, a number much more in alignment with the Romo we all know (and some of us still love).
Looking at these numbers, he arrives at an interesting conclusion: "Could it be that that the Cowboys have discovered the formula for winning in 2012?" I wonder if, in the interests in protecting both the ball and Tony Romo, the Cowboys have decided that, at least until the offensive line coheres more completely (and, with Phil Costa out for the forseeable future, this coherence will assuredly be delayed) the best chance they have to win is to play smallball, mixing runs with short, underneath passes - all in the interests of getting to survivable, make-able third downs.
This strategy makes good sense when a team had two other key elements in place: a defense upon which it can rely to make key stops and the ability to generate points via turnovers and special teams play. In another superb post earlier this month, the aforementioned Buckeye, Mr. O, makes a compelling case that the team's scoring is directly proportional to the amount of turnovers generated by the defense and the number of long returns made on special teams. S.O. uses 2010, the year Tony Romo half the season with a broke collarbone, as his test case. How, he asks, did Dallas finish seventh in the league in scoring in the midst of a lost season with out their starting signal-caller?
The answer? Turnovers and returns. Although that team was fairly universally awful, they notched seven return touchdowns and generated 30 turnovers (20 of them in the final eight, Romo-less, games). All of these were, or led to, easy points. 2010 is the aberration, however. In most other seasons, the Cowboys are below the NFL average in turnovers or return touchdowns per season. Yet, in spite of this fact, Dallas has managed to score more points than the NFL average since 2007. In other words, they are the kings of "hard points," getting the vast majority of their scoring from the offense. From this information, ScarletO concludes, "The Cowboys offense seems to be outperforming most NFL offenses, but cannot offset the differences in turnovers and returns to keep pace with the elite scoring teams in the NFL."
Combining S.O.'s two posts: if the Cowboys are going to win with a "smallball" offensive strategy, they're going to have to play more like the Bears, augmenting an inconsistent offensive output with defensive and special teams scores. Can they do it? Recent history -other than 2010 - hasn't been kind. But then history can and often has been re-written. It should be interesting to watch.