For this edition of "By the Numbers," I'm going to focus exclusively on the offense. This isn't because Thursday's tilt failed to yield any defensive numbers of note. Quite the contrary: the Cowboys comeback win must be credited to the D's turnaround, in which they gave up a mere 3 points in the final 32 minutes. But to my mind, the more interesting numbers came from the 'Pokes offensive performance. So, I'll leave analysis of the D to later, and better, posters.
And away we go...
0.9: Romo's "Bad Decision Rate," coming into the Raiders game. This metric, created by K.C. Joyner, the "Football Scientist," measures the percentage of poor decisions made by NFL quarterbacks. In a recent ESPN piece (available only to those with Insider access), Joyner argues that, thanks to the development of some youngsters, most notably Terrance Williams, and Romo's "smart play," the best is yet to come for the 2013 Cowboys. One key reason, according to Joyner, is that Romo is making better decisions:
One of the toughest metric achievements for a quarterback is to end the season with a bad decision rate (BDR) of less than 1 percent. BDR gauges how often a quarterback makes a mental error that leads to a turnover opportunity for the opposing team. A BDR of 2 percent is considered to be quite good, as it indicates unnecessary risks are being taken on only one out of 50 passes. In most seasons, there are usually only a couple of quarterbacks who end up with BDR of 1 percent or lower, and one of those is usually Brady.
Romo has posted low BDR marks in the past (1.4 percent in 2009, 1.8 percent in 2011) but his 0.9 percent BDR this year is on pace to set a career best. That number drops to a ridiculously low 0.3 percent level if the two bad decisions Romo made in the New Orleans contest (errors that were ancillary contributing factors to the Dallas loss that night) are removed from the equation. Defenses pinning their hopes on Romo self-destructing do so at their own peril.
I'm not sure what Romo's BDR was against Oakland or how it affected his cumulative total but, given his stat line, I'd guess it was in line with his season-long percentage, which Joyner characterizes as "Brady-like." One reason for this was his willingness to make safe passes for solid gains, as witnessed by the following...
1.000: Romo's completion percentage on passes to backs, tight ends and slot receivers: On the afternoon, Romo was 12-12 throwing to Jason Witten (3-3), DeMarco Murray (5-5), Cole Beasley (3-3), and Lance Dunbar (1-1). As Joyner notes, the Cowboys' "ideal game plan seems to be to find success on short passes and rushing plays and use the downfield passing game as a highly effective counterpunch. This keeps the aerial risk taking to a minimum and helps protect a defense that has struggled badly this year." And to that end...
.833: The Cowboys winning percentage in games in which no more than 25% of their pass attempts travel 11 or more yards in the air. Coming into the Thanksgiving contest, Dallas was 4-1 in games in which they operated exactly as Joyner articulated above, using a short passing game to move the ball, and attempting occasional longer throws as a counterpunch. On Thursday, exactly six of their 32 attempts traveled 11 or more yards in the air, and only two of those came after halftime. Both were key plays: the 14-yard in to Williams on 3rd-and-13, and a pass of similar length to Bryant on second and long, a play that helped them climb out of a 2nd-and-20 hole. Other than these, the Cowboys didn't attempt a lot of high-risk passes - largely because they didn't need to.
25: Lance Dunbar's number. One reason Dallas was able to play it safe with great success was that the running game was enjoying arguably its best afternoon of the season. There were many reasons for this; one of them was the return, at full health, of Dunbar, who I believe to be the Cowboys most (and perhaps only) explosive offensive player. As I tweeted during the contest, Murray is excellent in pass protection, but Dunbar has superior speed, burst and vision - all of which make him a better runner in the Cowboys' scheme.
Unfortunately, as has been well-detailed on these pages, we will be unable to determine whether Sunday;s display of thunder and lightning was an aberration, like the Baltimore game last year, or a realistic marker of what we might have expected from the Cowboys' ground attack going forward. Only time (and December games) will tell.
One reason for optimism that the Cowboys might have found a running game was...
11: The personnel grouping that dominated the second half. As was headlined in O.C.C.'s most recent News and Notes post, the offensive braintrust made a neat halftime adjustment, abandoning the 12 personnel (two tight ends and one running back) that has been their "base" offense in 2013, and going to a more spread look, with three receivers and a single tight end, almost always Jason Witten.
Clearly, they had a great deal of success passing out of this formation. Taking more chances, from 12 personnel, in the first half, Romo was 11-20 passing. After the break, spreading the ball around to underneath receivers, Romo was a perfect 12-12.
But strangely, one fewer "big men" on the field also helped the Cowboys running game immensely, largely because it forced Oakland to take one of their larger guys off the field as well. At halftime, after spending the first 30 minutes running into the teeth of Raiders' run blitzes, Dallas had a meagre 7 carries for 12 yards. After the break, running from spread looks against Oakland's nickle, they amassed a tidy 132 yards on 23 carries - a handsome 5.74 yards per rush.
Not only do spread formations force the defense to replace a big man with a nickle defender, it places the opposing eleven in space, making sizeable running lanes easier to come by. Dunbar and Murray repeatedly shot through the line untouched, allowing them opportunities to make second-level defenders miss.
6:43: The amount of time taken off the play clock on the Cowboys final touchdown drive. With a seven point lead and 8:39 remaining on the clock, the Cowboys proceeded to eat the clock on a sustained, 14-play grindfest that featured 10 runs, only one of which went for more than ten yards. Not only did they manage to run the ball when the opponent knew full well that they were going to run, the Cowboys effectively ended the game, making it a two-score affair with under two minutes left in the game.
Watching this, I was reminded of the 90s Cowboys, who would often extend leads with drawn-out fourth-quarter drives that took the air, legs and heart out of the opposition. Before you storm the comments section, I'm in any way not implying that this team is as good as the 90s Cowboy. What I am saying is that, for one day, they won in a fashion that was very similar to the way Aikman and Company piled up their wins: efficient, high-percentage quarterbacking, and a runnign game that was unstoppable exactly when it needed to be: at close-out time.
The defense in comparison to the 90s gang? Now that's a different story entirely....