Slow Starts Putting Dallas Cowboys In Early Hole

Ronald Martinez - Getty Images

The Cowboys are having a problem scoring this season, and it is particularly bad in the first quarter. The slow start to games so far is literally the beginning of the problems plaguing Dallas this season.

Here is a number for you: 1.8. That is the average number of points scored by the Dallas Cowboys in the first quarter of each of their four games this season.

In case you not interested in doing a bit of algebra to figure out how those points were accumulated, that number comes from one touchdown scored against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And it leads to another number: 29. That is where Dallas ranks in the NFL in first quarter points, ahead of only the Philadelphia Eagles, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Kansas City Chiefs. It does figure, given that Dallas is ranked number 30 in total points per game.

Oh, and while we are talking about order, how about the fact that the other team has scored first in every game the Cowboys have played this year?

Are you sensing a pattern here? Dallas is getting off to a dismally slow start in all of their games. On average, they do not score until the fourth possession (and that does not include the instant turnover to begin the Seattle Seahawks game), and they have not scored on a first or second possession all season long.

Forgive me for bringing up some fairly cliched observations, but it is easier to play from ahead than behind, and trailing puts pressure on the team. The Cowboys have basically wound up in a hole every game this season - some deeper than others - and twice have not made it out.

While the opposition (which has included three of the top four NFL rushing defenses, measured in yards allowed per game, and the number one overall defense in the Seahawks) has to be taken into account, I think the biggest issue has been poor execution by the Cowboys. Since the disturbingly anomalous performance against the Giants, the team has just not been effective. Dropped or errant passes, nonexistent running lanes and far too many unforced penalties have repeatedly led to long yardage situtations on second and third down (you might want to include first down for all the times that has wound up as fifteen to go). And when you wind up with second or third and long, you usually follow that up with a punt formation.

It is a case of failure breeding failure. The first play from scrimmage goes for no yardage, and the percentages for success go rapidly downward. That celebrated first and 30 touchdown against the Giants was not the way things usually happen in the NFL.

This of course is interlocked with the ever-present highly irritated pachyderm in the room, the offensive line. Jason Garrett has been trying to reestablish the running game ever since someone forgot to load it on the plane for the flight to Seattle. While most people express a justified concern for the health of Tony Romo behind the line, I would argue that DeMarco Murray may be the player whose game is suffering the most. Far too often, he is meeting the first tackler on his side of the line. Even his one truly outstanding play, the 48 yard scamper against the Giants, started with contact behind the line. Murray had a good game even without that play, but there are still too many negative runs when you go back and look at the play by play. Since then, there have been very few positive runs, and running game production has fallen steadily, culminating with a pitiful 41 yards (24 for Murray) against the Bears.

When the team comes out and the first two or three running plays go nowhere, the offense becomes one dimensional, which plays into the hands of the opposing defense. Failure breeds failure. More players drop into coverage because there is no fear of the ground game and Garrett is pretty much forced into calling passes to at least try to make the first down. You start seeing Romo make a bad throw, or have a route run incorrectly, with the same results: Bad, as in incompletion, or terrible, as in interception.

It factors in with the lack of success in returning the kicks. Dallas repeatedly has to start deep in its end of the field. This is the riskiest place to pass, of course, leading to things like pick sixes. When you have to start in the shadow of your own end zone and you cannot advance the ball on the ground, your playbook shrinks and the initiative can go over to the defense.

This is exactly what is happening to the Cowboys. They have to find solutions for this problem coming out of the bye week, especially going on the road against the Baltimore Ravens, another pretty stout defense.

Things are not entirely hopeless. Despite the overall ugliness of the Monday Night Football debacle, the team did solve one long standing issue, at least for the night, and that was penalties. With only two flags dropped on Dallas, for ten total yards, and none on an offensive lineman, they did show that they could overcome at least one problem, and one that was mostly a matter of execution.

And then there is that old leveler, regression to the mean. Dallas has talented players, and with players like Romo, Murray, Jason Witten, Miles Austin, and Dez Bryant, they are way overdue to hit on a big play or two early in a game. They did make some very impressive plays against the Giants, and as long as they don't quit trying, things could fall into place again.

The actual solution is going to rest on the players, not the coaches, at least from my viewpoint. This is about eleven players all doing their jobs correctly at the same time. Jason Garrett and company can draw up all the plays they want, but the coaches cannot go out and block, pass, run, or catch. The player have to start making a difference. From the very beginning.

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