The NFL has truly become a league of parity. There will only be two teams that are winless, and three that are undefeated after week three in the NFL. Following tonight's Monday night game, there will be 15 teams with a 1-2 record, and 12 teams that are 2-1.
That distribution is almost perfectly disbursed. The previously undefeated, early Super Bowl favorites, San Francisco 49ers were beaten in Minnesota by a Vikings team that was just beaten by a rookie quarterback (albeit Andrew Luck).
Speaking of losing to rookie quarterbacks, the Cowboys are now one of the top 15 teams in the league, boasting a 2-1 record. Only two teams in the NFC have a better record than Dallas; neither is in the NFC East.
Reducing the formula to win in the NFL demonstrates how a lightly regarded team can upset a Super Bowl favorite, how an average team can blow out another team, and how two teams can play a tight, hotly contested game. The simplistic formula is as follows:
(Big plays + Positive plays) - (Critical errors + Negative plays) = A positive value results in a win, while a negative outcome leads to a loss
In other words, collecting an interception would be considered a big play, while forcing an incomplete pass would be a positive play. A critical error could be considered giving up a sack, a turnover, or a 15-yard penalty. An example of a negative play could be losing a few yards on a running play or a 5-yard offensive penalty.
Assigning a numerical value to the formula would be fun (for me, at least), but unnecessary for the purpose of this post. Dallas obviously had a small positive result against the Buccaneers. While Dallas failed to make many big plays, it was the amount of Critical errors and Negative plays that truly made this game close.
Several key plays are found on the video highlight at NFL.com (http://www.nfl.com/gamecenter/2012092300/2012/REG3/buccaneers@cowboys#menu=highlights&tab=recap). Here is a brief sampling:
With 12:34 left in the game, Mackenzy Bernadeau completely whiffed on Gerald McCoy, who put the crown of his helmet in Romo's earhole and left Tony on the ground with his eyes closed. Of course, there was no flag.
At the 10:35 mark of the third quarter, Nate Livings also missed Gerald McCoy, who sacked Tony. Romo unwisely tried to throw a forward shuttle that was ruled as a fumble upon review.
Doug Free was repeatedly overpowered and outflanked, so perhaps it is somewhat understandable when he does not help out his tight end, Jason Witten during a Buccaneers three man rush. Michael Bennett recorded a sack on that play.
DeMarco Murray had seven rushes for negative yards against Tampa Bay. On two carries, Murray was brought down behind the line of scrimmage by a linebacker. But on the other five it was the defensive lineman that was penetrating and making the play. Only once did DeMarco gain positive yardage while being tackled by a defensive lineman.
Here is how Murray's carries broke down:
Yardage gained before the running back was tackled by position
DB - 4, 7, 11
LB - 3, 3, -1, 4, 1, -1 (F. Jones), 1, -2, 2
DL - -3, -1, -2, -1, -1, 2
TD - 11
This is a direct indictment of the poor performance given by the offensive line. There is no reason to permit the opposing defensive linemen to make a play in the backfield on five of the 19 carries. The offensive line only permitted DeMarco Murray to reach the Tampa Bay secondary four times.
But it wasn't just the offensive linemen that were making costly mistakes. Dez Bryant once again made a mistake on a pass pattern that directly led to an interception. Watching the highlight video provided, notice that Dez and Miles are almost parallel, just a few yards apart, when both break back to Romo.
There is no route combination that would call for two receivers to break the same way, at the same distance, at the same time, in the same area. Since the ball was delivered to Miles Austin, it is not unreasonable to suspect that Dez was the receiver in error.
Of course, dropped passes and penalties continued to slow down drives. The Cowboys accumulated 8 offensive penalties (6 pre-snap penalties). Adding rushes for negative yardage to the offensive penalties results in 16 offensive plays (prior to the kneel-downs at the end of the game). Include 14 incomplete passes, and the four sacks, and one can realize how having 34 offensive plays lose 86 yards (losing over 2.5 yards per those plays) would severely limit an offense over the course of 63 total offensive plays (sans the kneel downs).
This does not even include the three turnovers the Cowboys committed. On 35 offensive plays, Dallas either turned the ball over, lost yardage, and / or failed to gain a single yard. That comprises almost 54% of all offensive plays run.
The Cowboys needed to gain more than 10 yards on 22 different downs. In other words, it was 1st, 2nd, or 3rd down and 11+ on 22 different occasions (excluding the kneel downs). It is difficult to run the ball in those instances, and consequently, opponents are frequently waiting to tee off on the quarterback in anticipation of a downfield pass play.
On over half of the Cowboys offensive plays, Dallas either lost yardage or failed to gain a single yard. On more than a third of the Cowboys' down and distance situations, Dallas needed to gain more than ten yards.
Somehow, Dallas won the game. Obviously the team made enough plays to overcome its own poor play. But this season will be defined by the efficiency (or the reduction of errors and negative plays) the Cowboys can exhibit towards the end of the season.
Perhaps this team will be measured on its efficiency in the playoffs. One can only hope, but yesterday's win gets them one step closer.