In Olympic gymnastics, a specific athlete's score is determined by averaging the scores of a panel of individual judges from different countries. As a way of circumventing partiality - either for or against - the top and bottom scores are thrown out, and the actual mark is figured from the remaining scores.
Similarly, over the course of an NFL season, a team receives occasional abnormally high and low marks. There are games in which they play far above their average performance and others in which they lay a particularly putrid egg. After each of these, fans and pundits over-react to the most immediate input, as if a single Olympic judge's mark was an indication of the marks she or he would receive from all the judges.
For the 2013 Cowboys, the Rams and Broncos games stand as candidates for the high score; last night's contest clearly stands as the team's "low score" - the game that must be thrown out to make a fair final ascertation of this year's Cowboys team. While there is certainly sufficient time left in the season for an even lower mark, its hard time imagining a worse defensive performance. How bad was it, you ask? Let's review some of the numbers.
625: The total yards surrendered by the Cowboys defense. We might as well start here. After setting a franchise record by allowing 623 yards two weeks ago in Detroit, the Cowboys demonstrated that effort wasn't a fluke by extending it by the slimmest of margins. And, the Cowboys managed to combine the worst of last year's Thanksgiving debacle, when Dallas surrendered several deep scoring strikes, and, as one Twitter wag termed it, "death by papercuts."
Take this in: Dallas surrendered BOTH the most "explosives" any team has allowed this season (a total of nine) AND a record number of first downs (more on that later. And, finally: the Cowboys were outgained by 431 yards by the Saints, the third-largest margin in the last 25 years. It was the largest margin since the New England Patriots outgained the Tennessee Titans by 439 yards in a 59-0 win in 2009.
9.6: Drew Brees' passing yards per attempt. Brees' night marked the fifth time in 2013 that the Cowboys pass defense has allowed a rival quarterback a YPA of 9.4 or better. In a league where 8.0 is considered a very high YPA, this figures as a very troubling total. To put this in perspective: in 2012, which was a record-setting season for Cowboys defensive futility versus the pass, opposing QBs averaged nine or more yards per pass on three occasions. The Cowboys have now allowed this to happen on five occasions, with a cornucopia of prolific passers on the horizon.
14:05: Amount of time left in the second quarter when Sean Lee was sidelined with a hamstring injury. At that point, the Cowboys had a 10-7 lead after scoring both times they had the ball. Lee was injured on the first play of the Saints' second drive, which ended up being a nine-minute gut-puncher that, added to the loss of the team's defensive leader, effectively took the wind out of Dallas' sails. Let's take a look at New Orleans' drives after Lee left the game:
6-75 (TD/ end of half)
9-63 (missed FG)
6-8 (end of game)
Other than the 15-play grindfest immediately after Lee left the game, the Saints never took more than nine plays to score. And, to add insult to injury, once the outcome was decided, and New Orleans stopped passing the ball (with 11:11 remaining in the final frame), Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas ran the ball down the Cowboys throats. Not only were all eight plays in their final touchdown drive runs, they converted a fourth and five on their final possession to hammer a big, rusty nail in Dallas' coffin.
10.4: Mark Ingram's average yards per carry. Coming into the game, the former Alabama product was averaging a meager 2.4 yards per carry, with a career average of 3.8 per tote. His struggles might be attributed to the difficulty of carrying around the weighty "bust" label. On Sunday Night, he tossed it off and ran like he hadn't since the Crimson Tide was beating up on Tennessee-Chattanooga.
Sometimes, a running back's high rushing average can be attributed to one long run; Ingram's can be credited to a series of big gainers. In 14 carries, he ticked off six double-digit runs, gaining 34, 31, 15 (twice), 14, and thirteen yards. Most if not all of them were between the tackles, where the Cowboys were acutely missing Jason Hatcher and Sean Lee. These and other explosive runs (Pierre Thomas added a 10-yarder as well as eleven others between five and nine yards) helped the Saints to an NFL record...
40: New Orleans' first downs. The Saints has a handful of long plays (both 30+ yard Ingram runs; the 52-yard TD pass to Kenny Stills), but for the most part simply reeled off one 7-10 yard play after another. To wit: the Saints never faced more than two third downs on any of their drives, and on one of those in which they did, the second occasion was a third and goal that resulted in a 1-yard Pierre Thomas scoring run.
The Saints were 9-12 on third down conversions, meaning that 30 of their conversions happened on first or second down plays (they had one fourth down conversion on their final drive). This is a far cry from Dallas' performance against the Rams in week three, when they limited Sam Bradford and Co. to 1-13 on third down. The Saints three failed third down conversions? Let's review:
- Drive one: They play Kiffinball and limit a Pierre Thomas reception to an eight yard gain, forcing a punt.
- Drive six: An illegal use of hands penalty gives the Saints a third and 15. Again, a pass to Thomas - this time a five-yarder - falls short, leading to a field goal attempt. Garrett Hartley inexplicably misses form 37 yards out.
- Drive ten (final drive). With the Saints in run mode, they again call Thomas' number. He loses a yard on third and four. But the stop is rendered moot on the next play when he drives through the middle of the Cowboys defense for a five yard gain and the NFL-record 40th first down.
In other words, between the Saints' first, exploratory drive and the and their tenth and final drive (when the outcome was no longer in doubt) the Cowboys stopped them exactly once on third down, to force a missed field goal on New Orleans' opening second half drive. On the other hand...
0-9: The Cowboys third down conversion rate. Dallas had ten total drives. Two resulted in touchdowns. Seven arrived at a failed third down, usually fairly early in the drive. The tenth drive, which was actually their first, featured two failed third downs: one before Darren Sproles' muffed punt and one after. That series ended in a field goal.
Early in the game, when it was still competitive, the third down distances were, for the most part, negotiable. Here are the yards-to-go for their first six third downs: 4, 6, 8, 2, 9, 5. After that point, once the game descended into what Jimmy Johnson used to term a "feeding frenzy," Tony Romo and Co. faced to-go distanced of 18 and 21 yards. But before that - unlike the Detroit game which, thanks to negative runs on several second downs, featured several long third down yards-to-go situations - the Cowboys weren't necessarily getting into untenable down and distance situations. Rather, they simply couldn't convert the necessary plays.
2/9: Catches by and targets to Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley. Since watching Tony Romo make the Denver defense pay for playing a fairly straight man-to-man back in early October, rival defensive coordinators have decided to switch it up. The general strategy has been to double Dez Bryant and Jason Witten and dare the Cowboys to beat them with Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley. In the weeks immediately following the Denver game, these two youngsters looked capable of making teams pay for that strategy, gathering in 20 balls on 22 targets against Washington and Philadelphia.
However, in the last three weeks, their production had dropped off significantly. Against Detroit, Minnesota and New Orleans, Williams and Beasley have been targeted 38 times but have only 13 catches to show for it. Unless they can raise their targets-to-catches ratio to the earlier levels, the Cowboys passing game will continue to struggle...especially on third downs.
+1: The Cowboys turnover margin. This marks the third consecutive game wherein the Cowboys had a positive turnover differential. Its no wonder Jason Garrett preaches turnovers; in the three-plus seasons that he has been Dallas' head coach, the Cowboys have lost only three times when they had "plus" turnovers. Indeed, in 2012, when they had a plus margin, they won; when they had a "minus" TO differential, they lost. This is how it goes for middle-of-the-road NFL teams: turnovers mark the difference between winning and losing.
Curiously, two of the three plus-differential losses have come in the last three weeks (the other was the 2011 contest at New England, when the Cowboys generated four turnovers - and a +2 margin - and fell 20-16). Turnovers can be the difference-maker when teams are evenly matched. But when there are wide chasms in performance - as was the case against both the Lions and Saints - turnovers cannot make up the gap. Indeed, they merely serve to narrow the final margin.
This is where the Cowboys presently find themselves: not competitive enough for a positive turnover differential to impact the final outcome.
Thank goodness for the bye. This squad needs a moment to regroup, take a breath and try to find some answers as they prepare for the season's final weeks. Heck, I think we could all use a break.