The Cowboys outlasted the Browns thanks to a second half in which they overcame a 13-0 halftime deficit to eke out an overtime victory. How did they turn the game around? A look at some of the game's significant numbers helps tells the tale.
Sunday's contest against the AFC's weakest offered two differing tales: the first featured a deformed, hunchbacked monstrosity, shambling and putrescent; the second a battle-hardened warrior, resplendent in the afternoon's fading light, tilting with and ultimately besting a worthy (or at least an evenly-matched) foe. As might be expected, the numbers from the game reflect these disparate narratives. With that in mind, let's look at this half by half.
The first half went about as badly as might be imagined. The numbers:
68: Yards of offense in the first half. The Cowboys had five first half possessions, all of which ended in a punt. The longest of these was the last of the half, netting 32 yards. But it bogged down as soon as the Cowboys crossed midfield, ending with two incompletes and a sack.
4: The number of times Dallas faced a of third down of 4 or fewer yards. On three of these occasions, the Cowboys lined up in shotgun. Two of these were third and one, and they lined up in shotgun both times. This is indicative of the trust the offensive braintrust has in the offensive line to open up holes - they no longer even bother giving the opposing defense a look that suggests that they might run. Given this, why would opposing defensive coordinators feel that they need to account for the run?
50: Number of penalty yards the Cowboys were given on the fourth-quarter drive that tied the game and sent it into overtime. This was the result of two penalties, both of which came on passes that weren't particularly close to being completed. The first was due to T.J. Ward's overly enthusiastic shoulder to Kevin Ogletree's head; the second was a pass interference on Sheldon Brown's excessive contact on a first down deep ball to Dwayne Harris. If not for these calls, the Cowboys would have had a very difficult time getting the ball so deeply into the comfortable area of Dan Bailey's range.
7: Sacks on Romo, for 56 yards in losses (to this must be added the ten quarterback hits Cleveland amassed). This was a career-high sack total for Romo- and at least one more was called back due to penalty on Sheldon Brown (and Cleveland also registered six tackles for loss; the Browns clearly had very little trouble getting penetration). The sacks were distributed widely across the Cleveland defense; eight guys had at least half a sack. What's disturbing about this is that the Cowboys' game plan had evidently made it a high priority to protect Romo - on many plays, they kept tight ends and backs in to block. Yet, the Browns not only supplied relentless pressure, especially in the first half, but rarely had to send the house to do so.
53: Cowboys rushing yardage, on 19 carries, which translates to 2.8 per carry. We can attribute the Cowboys trouble running the ball to the injuries and positional musical chairs, but Sunday's rushing output is actually very consistent with what has been happening all season - both in terms of total yards and YPC - regardless of who's been manning the O-line positions or been toting the rock. Indeed, if we take away one of DeMarco Murray's carries - the flukey 48-yard run in week one at New York - both Murray and Felix Jones have 74 carries on the season, for 282 and 278 yards, respectively. That's 3.8 yards per carry, which suggests that Dallas' rushing woes are about this collection of linemen more than they are about who might be the ball-carrier.
6.3: Yards per pass attempt, which was the Cowboys' second-lowest average this season, besting only the 6.28 YPA in the week two loss at Seattle. After two consecutive games wherein the Dallas passing game offered hints that it might be on the upswing (with YPAs of 9.17 against Atlanta and 8.04 versus Philly), they took a significant step backward. This seems to correlate directly to the injuries and shuffling on the offensive line, which our own Tom Ryle carefully documented; since these aren't likely to be corrected by Thursday's game, it appears we'll have to wait at least a two weeks for a chance at any kind of upward spike.
When the Cowboys came out in the second half, their fortunes began to shift. They moved the ball much more effectively, and the defense began to play with a fire that we didn't see in the first 30 minutes. Some more numbers:
5: Number of scoring drives in the second half and overtime (in eight total drives). The Cowboys' three unsuccessful second-half drives were more the result of unusual plays or questionable strategies than they were of Cleveland's dominance. To wit:
- After Spencer's critical strip-sack, Romo fumbled when hit from behind.
- Dallas ran up the middle three times after stopping Cleveland on their own one-yard line. Although this could be second-guessed in retrospect, it was the smart play at the time. Clearly, Jason Garrett didn't need to consult more than a single chapter (perhaps only a measly page) of his playbook for this drive.
- The Cowboys' first drive of overtime. After overcoming a second and twenty, the drive petered out and then died when Dez Bryant couldn't handle a pass on a third and two slant play - the result of failed execution moreso than being manhandled by the visiting team.
12: Number of catches for Dez Bryant, the second-highest total of his career (he had 13 at Baltimore in week five), for 145 yards, a career high. He also drew a couple of key defensive holding calls. Sure, he had a couple of key drops, including one on a slant pass to end the most promising first-half drive, but, perhaps for the first time in his short career, he gained strength and momentum as the game progressed. Indeed, nine of his twelve catches and 120 of his 145 yards came after halftime. Evidently, one of the coaching staffs' halftime adjustments was to make Bryant a priority in the passing game. And the dude came through...
93: Anthony Spencer's number. The least publicized member of the Cowboys' stellar linebacker corps was outstanding against the run all afternoon, tallying six tackles (with one for loss) and, although he was asked to drop into coverage too often for my taste, chipped in with one of the Cowboys' two sacks - but he made it the much-desired defensive trifecta: sack, strip, and fumble recovery. After being widely pooh-poohed in the offseason, Spencer has proven to be integral to Rob Ryan's defensive scheme. Each week, game by game, we see an uptick in the percentage chance that he'll be re-signed goes up.
78: Jermey Parnell's number. When the best player on the Dallas O-line, Tyron Smith, went down with an ankle injury after a late first quarter Lance Dunbar run, he was replaced by the untested Parnell, who had heretofore been relegated to special teams duty and a smattering of work as an extra "tight end" in heavy formations. Parnell struggled a bit; he had two holding penalties and gave up a sack, and perhaps more. But he got his game legs underneath him in the second half, showing fans (most of whom were saying "wait, who is that number 78?") why the Cowboys inked him to a three-year deal last year around draft time. With Smith likely to be sidelined for another week or two, it will be imperative that Parnell continue to play as he did in the second half if the Dallas offense is to avoid muddying about as they did in the first half against the Browns.
30: The number of Dallas first downs in the game, including a stunning ten from penalty. A week after the Cowboys helped along the struggling Eagles' offense by committing a slew of penalties, they were similarly gifted by the Browns. As a result, the Dallas offense tied their season high for first downs (they also had 30 in Baltimore).
Amazingly, the last time the Dallas offense had 30 first downs was week one of the 2008 season, against these selfsame Browns. The time before that? The 1999 week one overtime thriller at Washington. The fact that they have notched 30 FDs twice in 2012 demands further investigation. On one hand, we can credit them for a high level of productivity and ability to sustain drives; on the other, these historic numbers must be a reflection of their inability to generate big plays. Whatever the reason, two games with 30 first downs in the same season must be more than mere historical anomaly. From this vantage point, It looks to be at once a reflection of the offense's ability and its inability. How so, you say? Allow me to bring up one more statistical nugget...
50: The number of passes Romo attempted in the game. As with the 30 first downs, Romo has attempted 50 or more passes for the second time this season (he had 62 attempts in the loss to the Giants). The other games with 50 or more Romo PAs? The 2007 five-interception game at Buffalo, the home loss to the Giants in 2009, and the 2010 week two home loss to the Bears. Like games with 30 first downs, such 50-pass games tend to be historical aberrations, so the fact that there have now been two such passfests in 2012 is yet another reflection that the current Cowboys offense is particularly schizophrenic.
When I say this, I'm not talking about the striking disparity in their first and second-half performances. Rather, I refer to the ability of roughly half their starters to win match-ups and make clutch plays and the almost complete inability of the rest to do so. This squad is composed of five Jekylls and six Hydes (or is it six Jekylls and five Hydes?). In other words, like the title character in Robert Louis Stevenson's novella, the Dallas offense has a split personality, and both personalities are engaged in a fierce battle to determine which will become dominant.
Which will emerge? Will the good Dr. Jekyll win out by season's edge? I certainly hope so, but right now, the fearsome Hyde has the edge...