On Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia, the Cowboys were outgained and, for much of the game, outplayed by the Eagles. Late in the third quarter, however - in no small part to a sublime moment of Romo magic - they managed to "reverse the curse" of the 2012 season. Instead of turning the ball over and giving up cheapie touchdowns (the kind of lays that had been the hallmark of frustrating home losses to the Bears and Giants, Dallas accumulated some easy scores en route to their most comfortable victory of the 2012 campaign.
A quick look at the numbers:
2: Or, more properly, +2, which was the Cowboys;' turnover margin. Coming in to the game, Dallas was 31st in the league in takeaways, and almost as bad in overall turnover margin. But they flipped that season-long script, collecting a fumble and an interception (both for touchdowns). This was the second time in 2012 that the team generated a positive turnover margin, and the first time that they were +2 or greater. To add to the good news, the turnovers game late in a tight game, when they had the most impact. Not coincidentally, Dallas enjoyed its biggest margin of victory and this was the first game this season in which they won going away.
10%: The Eagles conversion percentage on third down (not counting conversions due to penalties). On Sunday, Philadelphia was 1-10 on third down, which continued a recent streak by the Cowboys defense of excelling on the "money down." Sandwiched around an up-and-down effort at Atlanta (the Falcons converted 7 of 14 third down attempts) were games in which Carolina was two of ten, the Giants went 3-15 and, now, the Eagles 1-10. In the last month, in other words, Cowboys' opponents are converting at a 26.5% clip, which is well below a league average hovering at about 38%. Currently, Dallas ranks fifth in the NFL in third-down conversion rate.
.750: The Cowboys winning percentage when they get 13 penalties. Four times this season, Dallas has racked up 13 penalties. Curiously, three of their four victories on the year have come from these flag-fests. On Sunday, that total was a bit deceptive; with so many penalties, you'd expect them to total over one hundred yards, but they came in at only 75, an average of 5.77 yards per penalty. Of the Cowboys 13 penalties, 12 were of the 5-yard variety, for infractions such as offside, encroachment, false start, or defensive holding.
On one hand, this is infuriating, because the vast majority of these are the result of unforced mental errors. That there were so many in that category suggests an undisciplined squad. On the other these numbers are encouraging; for the most part, the Cowboys managed to avoid the high-yardage flags - clipping, holding, pass interference - that tend to be drive killers. Want more sunshine? Such penalties are often result from a player being physically beat in his one-on-one match-up - think of a beaten offensive lineman holding a charging D-lineman to keep him off the quarterback. The dearth of these (the only such penalty, a pass interference call on Mo Claiborne, was questionable) suggests that the Cowboys were often in the right position to make the correct play.
47: The number of rushing yards the Cowboys gained on their first drive of the game, on eight carries (for a sweet 5.88 per carry average). While the running game provided diminishing returns as the game wore on, their ability to establish some early success helped Jason Garrett open up the playbook. Later in the game, he called several play action passes - something that has been noticeably absent from the Cowboys' arsenal all season - which were available to him thanks to the team's successful first quarter carrying of the rock.
54: Bruce Carter's number. Each week, we see Carter make impressive plays. But he's not just flashing rare athleticism. In the three games since Sean Lee was forced from the lineup due to a foot injury, Carter has assumed not only Lee's leadership mantle, calling plays and getting the defense aligned. He's also assumed Lee's production. racking up 24 tackles in the last three contests (giving him 42 stops for the season), with 5 tackles for loss and a pass defensed for good measure.
2011: The draft class that has given us Tyron Smith, Carter, and DeMarco Murray now has another potential player to add to its rolls: Dwayne Harris. The 2011 fifth-rounder was billed as a playmaker and now, after some time to increase his strength and speed, is showing the potential to do the same on the NFL level. Yesterday, his 78-yard punt return was one of the game's biggest plays, as it gave the Cowboys a two-touchdown lead, something they hadn't enjoyed since week one in New York.
190: The Cowboys' advantage in return yards (other than kickoffs), where they enjoyed a 194-4 advantage. Former Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells used to place great import on what he called "hidden yardage": the yards buried further down the box score that contribute to field position, short fields and point. On an afternoon in which Dallas was outgained in terms of total yardage (just as they had outgained their opponents in several losses this year), their colossal advantage in "hidden yardage" told a significant part of the story.
2:14: The time remaining in the third quarter when Romo, donning his Jedi cape, made the play that turned the game around. On third and five from the Dallas 39, he lined up in the shotgun, took the ball, and looked around for an open receiver. The Eagles ran a twist, with RE Trent Cole cutting inside and LT Fletcher Cox going outside. It works, and they seemingly meet at Romo who magically ducks both and runs forward, towards the line of scrimmage, with RDT Cullen Jenkins and LDE Jason Babin bearing down on him form behind. Somehow sensing them, he suddenly cuts to his right, making both miss (Jenkins flies over the prostrate Babin), and hits Miles Austin, who has managed to work his way open downfield.
Sure, Romo can be infuriating. But there's nobody in the league with the spidey-sense to make plays like that one (or, if you prefer, like this).
21: The number of points the Cowboys scored in the final quarter. In several losses this season, most notably against Chicago and at home to New York, the Cowboys have given up points in bunches, and quickly - often in one play. Once again, they reversed this curse, scoring suddenly (21 points in just over two and a half minutes) In the game's final fifteen minutes and change, they turned turning a 17-10 deficit into a 38-23 lead, thanks to the big play that had eluded them all season. To wit:
- on the last play of the third quarter, Romo hits Dez Bryant on post for a 30-yard touchdown to tie the game
- with 13:52 remaining in the fourth quarter, after an Eagles' three-and-out, Dwayne Harris returns a punt 78 yards
- two plays later, Brandon Carr shows nice hands, grabbing a caroming football and returning it for a 47-yard TD
- with under a minute left, Philadelphia takes over deep in its territory, and rookie signal caller Nick Foles is sandwiched by DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, fumbling into the end zone, where Jason Hatcher plays Johnny-on-the-spot, recovering for the TD.
Other than the first score on this list, the TD pass to Bryant, which came at the end of an eight-play drive, the rest of these were one-play scoring strikes. Although this game was fun, we must not kid ourselves. There was much on offense that didn't work, especially in the second and third quarters when the Eagles pass rush, which had been moribund in the extreme throughout 2012 (coming into the game, Philly had amassed a mere eleven sacks after leading the league last season) put tremendous pressure on Romo, sacking him on consecutive second-quarter plays. For the game, Romo was pressured on 17 of his 26 pass attempts, which comes out to 65.3% of all times he faded back. The second half began with consecutive three-and-outs, and looked doomed until Romo flipped the in-game script.
3: The number of phases that will have to contribute if the Cowboys are to repeat Sunday afternoon's result. For a team with an offense that has shown it can score only via sustained drives featuring a slew of six- to nine-yard gains - and is, accordingly, particularly susceptible to "drive killers," such quick strikes will be an absolute necessity if they are to turn this season around. This offense isn't explosive enough to score quickly, or in bundles. If the Cowboys are realistically to challenge the Giants for the division crown, therefore, they will need to play more in the Bears' vein, supplementing middling offensive production with a fair amount of "easy" scores.
It was precisely such scores, you may recall, that marked the beginning of Jason Garrett's tenure as head coach. Those games, against the Giants and Lions, provided a template for a team with average talent to win games - a template that has been rarely seen since. On Sunday, we saw it return. The question is: can a squad with markedly uneven talent continue to find the big-play magic it needs to notch "W"s? If so, November and December will be great fun. If not....