On Sunday, the Cowboys took advantage of Minnesota's questionably conservative endgame tactics, delivering a comeback dagger much akin to that the Lions stuck into their guts the previous Sunday. Unlike the previous game, however, this contest was a closely-contested affair. And that's where I'll begin this week's iteration of "by the numbers."
50-50: A rudimentary indication of how statistically even the game was. Unlike the previous week's contest, wherein the Lions had sizable advantages in almost every statistical category, but the Cowboys +4 turnover margin was able to keep the score close, the stats for this game much more accurately reflected the final score. In multiple categories, the numbers are very close to equal:
First downs (22-20)
Third down conversion percentage (5-13 vs. 5-14)
Total plays (68-63)
Yards per play (5.8-5.6)
Yards per pass (6.1-6.2)
Penalties (4-35 vs. 5-45)
Time of possession (31.27-28.33)
Although it remains debatable whether these are equally good teams, on Sunday, they were very evenly matched. With one notable exception: rushing attempts and yards. Which brings us to...
9: The number of Dallas' rushing attempts, which marks a franchise low. The Cowboys totaled a somewhat deceptive 36 yards on the ground. DeMarco Murray was 4 for 31, which looks good on paper - but we must remember that one of those was a nifty 27-yard gallop. Take that away and he had three carries for four yards. The other backs were 5 for 5. What that means is that, other than Murray's one dash through the line, Dallas had eight carries for nine yards. Is it any wonder they abandoned the run?
To be fair, the Vikings' game plan was to bring a safety up into the box to delimit the Cowboys ground game. In post-game interviews, Tony Romo acknowledged that, because of this, he checked out of several run plays at the line. But another reason has to be the simple fact that the Cowboys' O-line simply couldn't stop Minnesota's front seven from shooting gaps and destroying running lanes. At some point, it becomes foolhardy to continue to bang one's head against a steel girder; the girder's not gonna give way. Indeed, the 'Boys ran for minus-one yards in the second half.
19: The number of passes in the Cowboys final 20 plays. After Lance Dunbar was swallowed up on a delayed draw late in the third quarter, losing five yards on a second-and-ten (and effectively ending the drive that was officially terminated by Dez Bryant taking off his helmet), the Garrett-Callahan-Romo triumvirate decided they'd had enough: from that point on, every play was a pass. Which contributed to...
87: The percentage of Cowboys' plays that were passes, an NFL season high. Usually such an absurdly high percentage means that the team in question was trailing for the better part of the game and was forced to pass to catch up. According to ESPN's Stats and Information gurus, the Cowboys' 51 attempted passes marked only the sixth time since 2006 that a team won despite dropping back at least 80 percent of the time.
104.4: Tony Romo's fourth quarter quarterback rating coming in to yesterday's game - the highest in the NFL. If you wonder why the Cowboys play the way the do, both during games and over the course of a season (play it close to the vest, then open it up in the final quarter or month), look no further than this stat. If the game is close, the number suggest that there's no signal caller in the league who would fare better than number nine.
Of course, the key is to make sure he survives until the final frame. One way to ensure that this happens is to call a lot of quick-developing routes that make it hard for the defensive line to get to him before he gets rid of the ball with his once-in-a-generation release time. Why risk his health early in a game (or early in the year) when losing him to injury means the game (or season) is over, period? And, keeping him upright is no easy matter, as the next numbers will attest...
27: I was alerted by the inimitable O.C.C. that, according to the fine folks at Pro Football Focast, the Vikings not only recorded four sacks and one hit but also tallied 27 hurries on Sunday. The last time the Cowboys allowed as many hurries? Strangely, it was in that ill-fated 2009 playoff game against Minnesota, when the Vikings also notched 27 hurries against the Cowboys.
Lest you think this statistical anomaly is about the Vikings superb D-line, it's important to acknowledge (hat tip to KD for this one) that, in 2013 thus far, Minny only had one other game with more than 20 total QB pressures. Yesterday, they had 32. As O.C.C. noted in an email to the rest of the FPWs, "With that type of pressure, a 66.6% completion percentage is remarkable." Yes, Goog, it certainly is.
The upshot is that - perhaps due to Brian Waters' absence - the Cowboys offensive line was dominated by a team that has heretofore not been dominant. In addition, Doug Free (who was missing Waters' steadying influence?) had arguably his worst game of the 2013 campaign. Here's the burning question that we must ask: will the offensive line, minus Waters, revert to its inept 2011-12 status? Has it already? And, if so, are we doomed to a similar offensive fate: little to no running game, a preponderance of short passes, a premium on keeping the franchise quarterback standing (moreso than scoring points)? The following stat suggests we might...
26: The number of Romo's 34 completions that went to running backs, tight ends or slot receivers. Jason Witten, Murray, Lance Dunbar, Cole Beasley, Dwayne Harris - and even James Hanna - all caught passes between the numbers, many of them dump offs in which the receiver added yards after the catch.
And these proved to be high-percentage passes. Look at the ratio of targets to catches for Bryant and Terrance Williams, the "X" and "Z" receivers (the flanker and split end), who operate largely outside the numbers: eight catches on 18 targets. Meanwhile, the "between the numbers" crew totaled 26 grabs on 32 targets. And that's with multiple drops by the diminutive Beasley. Unless the O-line finds a magic formula during the bye week, I'd bet that we'll continue to see the Cowboys go to a high-percentage short-passing game with a lot of underneath routes.
Bill Walsh always looked at those kind of pass plays as de facto runs. Perhaps we should do the same.
1: The number of close wins for the Cowboys on the season. I have written frequently (and yes, I know, at great length) about the fact that, to break out of the 8-8 schneid, the Cowboys need to play fewer close games. As has been well documented, even the best teams tend to hover around .500 in games decided by a touchdown or less, as such games can be decided by bad bounces, controversial calls, etc. The key, therefore, is to play well enough to avoid getting into too many suchlike games.
And, in 2013, the Cowboys have been better at that than they were last season. They have won three games by 14 or more points thus far, surpassing their 2012 total. And they haven't been blown out this year: their four losses, as Joe Buck strenuously reminded us during yesterday's telecast, have been by a grand total of fourteen points, with three of them by five total points.
Coming in to Sunday, in other words, the Cowboys were 1-3 in close games. If they are to elevate themselves out of the 8-8 malaise, Dallas not only needs to win more games by comfortable margins, but needs to get closer to .500 in close games. A loss on Sunday, would have not only been been depressing but would have given them a 1-4 mark in tight contests, a figure that would begin to border on "historically unlucky" status. With a close, gutsy win, they avoided that ignominious designation, and continue to lead the NFC East, albeit by the slimmest of margins.
Is it just me, or is the week 17 home tilt against Philadelphia looking more and more like it will be for the division title (making it three years in a row, against each of the other division rivals)?