Dallas Cowboys Turnovers: Whose Fault Are They, Anyway?

Tom Pennington

Much has been made of Tony Romo's thirteen interceptions in 2012, with particular focus placed on his last two home games, against Chicago (five picks) and New York (four). With our fave team's signal caller in the midst of a career-worst year, we must ask: are all these turnovers Romo's fault?

Earlier in the week, as I was preparing my usual post- game "by the number" post, it became apparent that, although there were lost of interesting (and even gaudy) numbers from the Giants game, there was only one number that really mattered: six. As in the number of turnovers Dallas had - which served as one half of another key number, -4, which was the Cowboys turnover differential. That ignominious statistic gave them an NFC-worst minus eleven differential (league-wide, this puts them ahead of only the Chiefs astonishing minus eighteen).

Since Sunday's thriller/ debacle/ game of inches/ near miraculous comeback/ heartbreaker, I have heard and read a couple of interesting commentaries regarding Dallas' turnover problems. On the local ESPN radio station's weekly "film don't lie" segment, former Cowboys scout Glen "Stretch" Smith, who still has some good cnnections in the Dallas clubhouse, absolved Tony Romo of blame for three of his four interceptions. On the first, he declared, Dez Bryant failed to adjust his route to the necessary in-cut, allowing the safety to make a play on the ball. On the second, Miles Austin failed to "become a defender" and make a play on the ball. On the fourth pick, Romo was under immediate pressure and, because it was fourth down, had to try to make a play. Smith then levied blame on Romo for the third pick, a ridiculously athletic play by New York defensive end Jean Pierre-Paul.

On one level, this echoed what I heard from Trent Dilfer on ESPN's wrap-up of Sunday's action. Dilfer noted that a lot of the blame for Romo's huge 2012 interception total can (and should) be placed on his receivers. Not only did Dilfer see the first interception the same way Smith did (i.e., that it was Dez's fault), but also noted that the majority of Romo's interceptions came on throws to Bryant and Ogletree rather than to his more trusted targets, Austin and all-world tight end Jason Witten.

This got me thinking. "Who," I wondered, "was the intended target on each of Romo's picks this season, and to what degree can we establish blame for each? Finally," I thought, "does Dilfer's assertion hold water for the entire season, or was it merely a less-than-fully-informed assertion?" Because great minds think alike, one of our trusty BTBers, the ever-resourceful ScarletO, had clearly been ruminating upon the same problem. In a recent FanPost, S.O. ponders the Cowboys' inconsistency, offering some sweet charts in support of his argument. Some of the results that I found most interesting were found in this table:

Player (2012)

Receptions

Targets

Yards

INT's

TD's

Passer rating per receiver

Miles Austin

34

58

561

2

4

99.86

Dez Bryant

41

62

488

4

2

73.86

Jason Witten

51

72

487

2

1

82.35

Felix Jones

12

19

111

1

0

57.13

DeMarco Murray

17

18

118

0

0

93.99

Kevin Ogletree

21

38

248

4

2

53.29

Total

176

267

2013

13

9

79.38

The numbers that jumped out at me came from the interceptions column. As Scarlet O notes, on passes intended for Witten, Austin, and Murray, Romo's interception percentage is 2.7, which accords nicely with his 2.8 career interception rate. On passes intended for either Bryant or Kevin Ogletree, however, Romo has racked up an 8.0 interception percentage. Admittedly, the sample size is small, but the numbers suggest that the slew of picks that has threatened to ruin the 2012 campaign before it really has had a chance to get started might in fact be due to problems at receiver and support the claim that turnovers, especially interceptions, are, in reality, a team rather than an individual statistic.

To answer this question more definitively, I decided to take a look at each of Romo's thirteen picks this year, starting with the Week One Wednesday opener.

Interception 1: @ NYG; 10:46 2Q. On third and eight from the Cowboys 40, the offense operates out of a spread formation, with three wideouts (and Felix Jones split out right) and Jason Witten flexed left. Because its a passing down, the Giants align Pierre-Paul where he can get the biggest mismatch: over Cook, the backup center now thrust into starting duty. JPP collapses the pocket so Romo can't step into his pass, which ends up being off-balance. Official reports have it intended for Ogletree, but I wonder if he actually meant it for Austin, who was running a deeper post and had space between the Giants safeties. Fault: Not crystal clear, but I think this one is on Romo.

Interception 2: @ SEA; 6:34 1Q. After a play in which Bryant inexplicably dropped a pass right in his hands, Dallas faces second and ten from the Seahawks 24. They show two tight ends, and split John Phillips out wide right. As with the first interception, Romo is under pressure almost immediately, this time from a weak-side blitz coming from his left. As he has done so many times in his career when under pressure, number nine looks to Witten, who is running an underneath crossing route from right to left - an area vacated by blitzing Seahawks. Because Romo has to slide in the pocket to avoid the rush, the play takes a while to develop and, by the time Romo is ready to throw, Witten has ventured close to where Bryant is running an in-cut at the left numbers. Seattle corner Brandon Browner is able to peel off of Bryant and pick the pass intended for Witten. A lot of confusing circumstances, but Romo violates one of the effective quarterbacking's cardinal rules: never throw across your body into coverage. Fault: Romo

Interception 3: TB; 14:15 1Q. Before most of the crowd has found their seats, Romo throws a pick. This time its third and 15, and the Cowboys line up in four-wide, with Dwayne Harris as the fourth WR. The Cowboys call a play that asks all four WRs to run 15-yard hooks, while Witten, who is aligned tight right, to run a shallower cross. Bryant, split left, gets outside his man, Aqib Talib, which puts the (now former) Bucs CB in ideal position to peel off of Dez and step in front of the pass intended for Austin. Its difficult to determine who's at fault here. Romo's pass might have been a bit late (he had to slide to his left to find Austin), but there also appear to have been some spacing issues, as Austin and Bryant ended their respective patterns in close proximity. Fault: Three-way tie, between Romo, Bryant and Austin.

Interception 4: CHI; 2:46 2Q. Facing a third and ten (the down and distance on these is beginning to sound familiar, no?), Jason Garrett deploys his troops in a three-wide set, with Witten, Austin and Ogletree bunched tightly on the right and Dez all alone on the left side. Perhaps taking a page from the Seahawks book, the Bears call a weakside blitz, which forces the Cowboys to go to hot routes, and to the vacated side ot the field, where Bryant is. However, Romo reads that Tillman will play off, and Bryant (incorrectly) reads that he will continue to press, which calls for the "go" route that Bryant ends up running. Romo throws to point Dez should be for the "stop" route, and Tillman, who backed off from his press coverage just before the snap, is the only player within five yards of the ball. Fault: this one's on Bryant.

Interception 5: CHI; 8:17 3Q. Down by ten points, the Cowboys are driving to make the game close, and find themselves in second and 12 at the Bears' 18-yard line. They again send out three receivers, with Austin in the right slot between Witten and Ogletree, who occupy the safety on 'Tree's side. Facing single coverage, number 85 gets open and receives a perfect pass from Romo...only to have it bounce off his hands and into the waiting arms of Chicago defensive back Major Wright. Fault: Ogletree, without doubt.

Interception 6: CHI; 6:25 3Q. Still down 17-7, the Cowboys set up shop after a DeMarcus Ware strip-sack. On first and ten, they show run, deploying "22" personnel (two backs and two tight ends), with Romo under center. Romo once again experiences interior pressure as soon as he drops back. This time, its Bears DT Henry Melton, who abused Mackenzie Bernadeau and appears to punch the ball from Romo's grasp. Because Romo's hand splays out as the ball comes free, it was declared an interception (and it could well be), although it still looks to me more like a fumble. At any rate, the ball lands right in Lance Briggs' mitts, and he returns it for a game-sealing pick-six. Fault: Romo, but with the caveat that its probably a fumble, and fumbles have been shown to be largely random occurrences.

Interception 7: CHI; 8:37 4Q. In a familiar refrain, Dallas is once again in a long yardage situation: second and 15. They line up in much the same formation as the first two Bears interceptions: three wide, with Witten next to Doug Free, Austin in the right slot, Ogletree split wide right, and Dez alone on the left. Chicago safety D.J. Moore is line up over Austin - a favorable matchup- but the Bears seem to be playing a zone. Its hard to tell exactly what happened here; either Moore was in man coverage in a zone scheme or he did an excellent job jumping out of his zone as the ball was thrown. Watching the replay, the color man for the game, John Gruden, suggested that Austin ran a lazy route, and should have "crossed Moore's face" rather than running behind him, so that Moore cold be positioned between Austin and the ball. Fault: I'm inclined to believe Gruden, but also think Romo delivered the ball late, which allowed Moore to recover and to make the play. I'll split it between Romo and Austin.

Interception 8: CHI; 5:57 4Q. For once, Dallas is in a more manageable situation, facing second and seven. They again deploy in a three-wide formation, but with Austin in the left slot, inside Bryant. On the right side, WItten and Ogletree both run vertical routes, with 'Tree running down the sideline and Witten curving his inside once he clears the linebacker. This is a typical route combination against a cover-2, as it forces the safety, Major Wright, to make a decision about who to cover. In this case, it appears that Witten takes his route too far outside, such that Wright doesn't have to cover as much ground. As a result, he's able to cut in front of Ogletree on the sideline and make the pick. Fault: Although Witten didn't force the safety to respect his route, I'm still putting this on Romo, who should be reading the safety and whose pass seemed late in arriving.

Interception 9: @ BAL; 2:27 2Q. On third and ten (the beat goes on), Garrett aligns his guys in three-wide (again), but with a twist: Witten lines up in the backfield, on Romo's right. In another twist, Ogletree is the slot man, on the right inside of Austin. As the Seahawks and Bears did, the Ravens bring weakside pressure, and Romo is immediatley flushed to his right. he is able to re-set, but his pass to Ogletree, running a deep post, is off target and picked by right corner Cary Williams, who peeled off of Dez Bryant at the throw and, conveniently, found himself in position to catch the errant toss. Announcer Brian Billick suggested that Romo and Ogletree share the blame. Romo's throw was inaccurate, but he expected Ogletree to "run through the catch," something that 'Tree failed to do here as well as on the final interception against Chicago. Fault: I'm giving both Romo and Ogletree half a pick.

Interception 10: NYG; 9:23 1Q. It’s first and 10 from the Dallas 45, and Jason Garrett opts to play it safe, calling for a two-tight end set in which both Witten and Phillips stay in to block, and only Austin and Bryant out in the pattern. Romo attempts a throw to Bryant who, based on the coverage, is supposed to run a hard in-cut. He fails to do so, and Giants safety Stevie Brown is able to step up for the interception. It was a somewhat tight window, but that's to be expected when two receivers go against eight coverage guys. Bryant didn't make the necessary adjustment; indeed, he told reporters after the game that he was off balance to the degree that he could not sharpen his route. Fault: This one's on Dez.

Interception 11: NYG; 5:57 1Q. On another first and 10, this time from their own 24, Dallas lines up in standard "21" personnel, with Felix Jones and Lawrence Vickers in an I formation. Witten sets next to Smith and Austin and Bryant are tightly bunched on the right side. They run a slight cross, with Dez running a deep post to occupy the single-high safety. Austin runs down the numbers, inside of New York corner Corey Webster. Romo’s throw is high and to the outside, however, so Webster is actually in better position to receive the ball. When Austin is unable to contest the pass, Webster gets the pick. Many pundits are saying that its Austin's responsibility to make a play or at least knock the ball away. With the safety occupied by Bryant, I don't see why the ball needed to be thrown to the sidelines. Fault: To me, this one's on Romo.

Interception 12: NYG; 13:15 Q2. Trailing 16-0, Dallas faces second and 7 from its own 34. They again line up in "12" personnel, with Phillips tight left and Witten flexed out right, in a bunch with Austin and Bryant. The design is a four-man pattern, with Jones as the safety valve. At the snap, Romo is under immediate pressure from Chris Canty, who destroys Nate Livings, so his only option is the dump-off. With Canty bearing down on him, Romo tries to loop his pass to Jones, but Giants wunderkind DE Jason Pierre-Paul senses Jones going out on the route, curtails his rush and makes a ridiculously athletic play, picking off the pass and returning it for a pick-six. Fault: No Cowboy is to blame. Sometimes a team can do everything right and the opposition makes a superb play.

Interception 13: NYG; 1:14 4Q. After a stirring comeback, the Cowboys have fallen behind again and now face a fourth and one at the Giants' 19. Not trusting the running game, Garrett goes three-wide, deploying Austin in the left slot, inside of Bryant. As we have seen too many times when compiling this list, Romo is immediately under intense pressure, and is forced to fade backwards and to his right, pursued by Giants D-linemen Osi Umenyiora, Canty and Linval Joseph. The Giants only rush four, and the remaining seven provide excellent coverage, so nobody's open. Both Austin and Witten see that Romo is in trouble and adjust their routes to the QB's side of the field (unsurprisingly, Bryant and Ogletree do not) Because its fourth down, he heaves a desperation pass in Witten;s direction, perhaps hoping for an interference penalty. The ball is short, however, and NY safety Stevie Brown comes up with his second interception. Fault: as with the above interception, much of this has to be put on New York's defense, as they played it perfectly. That said, the play was doomed by massive protection breakdowns. I'm putting this one of the Cowboys' O-line.

Some takeaways on the takeaways:

What homefield advantage? Ten of the thirteen picks have come at home. Obviously, the home stinkers against the Bears and Giants skew this horribly. But still: Is this because the Cowboys tend to play it closer to the vest on the road?

Third downs are troubling. When Romo threw the pick in Baltimore, the announcer noted that it was his fourth pick on third down, tops (or bottoms) in the NFL. For the season, Romo has zero TDs and five interceptions on third and fourth downs. What makes this more troubling is that, otherwise, Dallas has been superb on third downs in 2012, converting at a 43.9% clip (40/91), their best percentage since 2006 (48.8).

3-wide not so good. Eight of Romo's thirteen picks have come when the Cowboys are in three-wide formations (and only one when fullback Lawrence Vickers was in the game). Obviously, they are in this set more often when behind (and many of these picks came when the Cowboys trailed). But one has to wonder: when both Bryant and Ogletree are in the game, is the knucklehead quotient raised to to a too-high level?

Shotgun not Romo's friend. Eight of Romo's first ten picks came when he was in shotgun formation. Perhaps realizing this, the Cowboys tried to run less shotgun against the Giants, but that quickly went out the window after the first three interceptions, all of which came with Romo under center. This year, on the season, Romo has two touchdowns and 8 interceptions from the 'gun. Moreover, 12 of the thirteen time he's been sacked, Dallas has been in this alignment. Here's a scary stat: form the shotgun, the Cowboys have accumulated a a grand total of 20 negative plays, but a scanty two TDs.

This has been a sobering exercise. At the same time, it gives me reason for optimism. Their behavior in the Giants game suggests that Jason Garrett and Co. know that spread and shotgun are less hospitable formations. I wouldn't be surprised to see them line up in heavier sets against the Falcons, try to run the ball and get Vickers more snaps than Ogletree. Of corse, this will go out the window if they turn the ball over and fall behind...

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