In what we all feel has to be the capper not only on this bizarre, record-setting season, but on Jason Garrett's tenure as the Cowboys' head coach, our 'Boys in Blue lost in the heartbreaking, nail-rending fashion that seems to be their special and sole province, yakking up a second half hairball and squandering a 23-point halftime lead. Let's begin there, at halftime, where the numbers all sat on the shiny, positive end of the spectrum.
207: The first half yardage differential, before the meaningless 34-yard Eddie Lacy catch-and-run as time expired to end the half. The Cowboys had the most productive offensive first half in their history, piling up 327 yards while dictating the terms of the game, appearing to be a step ahead of the Packers throughout the period. As they were doing so, they had limited Green Bay to 120 yards, with a long drive of 41 (almost all of which was from a 39-yard pass to James Jones). In short, they dominated the game in ways we haven't seen since the end of 2009.
That yardage differential was crucial as, coming into the game, Dallas had been out-gained by 1,280 yards this season, the worst margin in the NFL according to the fine folks at Football Perspective. In fact, a strong argument can be made that the team's positive turnover differential is the only thing that has saved them from the kind of total collapse that we've seen from similarly injury-riddled teams in Houston and Atlanta.
That's why Sunday's first half was so thrilling/ important/ necessary. It appeared that, for the first time since the St. Louis game, the team was capable of getting out in front of an opponent and keeping the pedal on the gas. In short, the first thirty minutes offered the seeming turnaround that we had waited for all season. Of course, there is no seeming turnaround for this bunch. As a result...
42: Cowboys wins in games in which they led by 20 or more points at halftime, out of 42 games. Their franchise record now stands at 42-1 in such contests. In 2013, the Cowboys have more singular marks than in any other season in franchise history (most first downs; most total yards - twice; the fact that Tony Romo owns the only two losses in NFL history in which a QB has at least 30 attempts and compiles a 140.0 or higher passer rating; the first team in NFL history to allow four opposing quarterbacks to throw for at least 400 yards in a single season). Yesterday's collapse merely adds one more peculiar mark to a season filled with them.
00:03: The time on the left in the first half when the Packers ran their final play, the aforementioned 34-yard pass to Lacy. It was on that play that Ernie Sims suffered a hip injury - after "starting" MLB Justin Durant had already left the game due to a re-aggravation of his hamstring injury. That meant that the Cowboys would be down to their third MLB on the gameday depth chart, rookie DeVonte Holloman. Given that Durant and Sims were manning the position due to injuries to starter Sean Lee, Holloman was essentially the team's fourth string middle 'backer - and might have been their fifth-stringer had Bruce Carter been healthy enough to move to the middle.
For the final thirty minutes, the Cowboys ran a starting LB corps of Holloman (a sixth-round rookie who has missed much of the season due to injuries), Kyle Wilber (who spent all of training camp and the first ten games of the season as a defensive end) and Cam Lawrence (a try-hard camp body who eked out a spot on the practice squad). During the game, I tweeted that Dallas' initial 53-man roster had five linebackers on it, in roughly this order:
1. Sean Lee
2. Bruce Carter
3. Justin Durant
4. Ernie Sims
5. DeVonte Holloman
On Sunday, in the second half, they were down to the fifth and final player on this list...and two warm bodies (to be fair, Wilber has played reasonably well as the strongside OLB). While we can certainly criticize the organization for recent drafts, this cannot be an indictment of their drafting. As I noted on Twitter: was the team supposed to keep ten linebackers on its 53. Sometimes - as happened last season - a position group is so decimated by injuries that all its depth is used up.
Sadly, this has happened across the Dallas front seven. Here are, via cut and paste, are the front seven players the Cowboys roster carried out of training camp (and that's without Jay Ratliff and Tyrone Crawford, who had already been designated to IR). I've drawn a line through anybody who was unable to play in yesterday's second half:
DE Demarcus Ware
DE Anthony Spencer DE Kyle Wilber (moved to SLB)
DE George Selvie
DT Jason Hatcher
DT Nick Hayden
DT Sean Lissemore DT Ben Bass DT Landon Cohen LB Sean Lee LB Bruce Carter LB Justin Durant LB Ernie Sims
LB DeVonte Holloman
Add to this the fact that both DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher are injury-riddled shells of their early-season selves (and thus italicized), and the only front seven players who remotely resemble the guys who broke camp are Nick Hayden and Holloman. That's not pretty, no matter how you slice it.
In fact, what is remarkable is that this team hasn't suffered the fate of other injury-plagued veteran teams who, thanks to decimated position groups, have utterly collapsed in 2013: Atlanta and Houston. Given their injury situation, this squad has every right to have suffered a similar fate. Somehow - probably because of turnovers/ ball security, they haven't.
5: The number of touchdowns the Packers scored on their five second half drives (save a final kneel-down series). I know its been oft said already, but after struggling to move the ball at all in the first 30 minutes, Green Bay couldn't be stopped, and scored with astonishing speed and ease. To wit:
4 plays, 80 yards: TD
12 plays, 80 yards: TD
5 plays, 22 yards: TD
10 plays, 80 yards: TD
7 plays, 50 yards: TD
Some other numbers to add to your indigestion:
-after going 1-6 on third downs in the opening frame, the Packers went 6 of 7 on third down in the second half, with the only "failed" conversion being the third down kneeldown to end the game. Packers QB Matt Flynn went 5 for 5 for 75 yards and a touchdown on his third-down passes in 2nd half.
-after stumbling to four first downs in the initial period (one on the Lacy catch-and-run that ended the half), Green Bay ground out 22 second-half first downs. In the wake of the Chicago beatdown, I noted that Monday night marked the third time this season Dallas has surrendered 30 or more first downs, after doing so only seven times in their 800+ game history prior to 2013. And, after a dominating first half, the Cowboys almost added to this total.
What this suggests is that the Cowboys group of practice squad-caliber defenders isn't necessarily giving up a lot of huge explosive plays - 60 yard passes, for example. Rather they are yielding a historic number of 6-15 yard "chunk" plays, allowing opposing teams to move inexorably down the field.
3: Number of consecutive passing games given up to middling quarterbacks. Here, thanks to ESPN's Infographics team, is what the Cowboys were facing coming in...
After facing - and getting scorched by - journeyman Matt McGloin (who passed for 285 yards with an 8.5 yards per pass attempt) and backup Josh McCown (348 and 9.7), the Cowboys faced a third consecutive bottom 16 quarterback. After surrendering 299 yards and a 7.7 YPA), I must repeat what I said last week: after being burned by top-tier quarterbacks early this season, the Cowboys defense is now allowing middling QBs to have Manning-like numbers. In the last three games, to three mediocre QBs, they have given up 932 passing yards and 8 TD's; that's an average of 311 yards and 2.6 TD. Not pretty.
1: The total number of tackles, assists and sacks by DeMarcus Ware, after a week in which he was challenged to step up, and promised he would. At a certain point in a player's career, the mind and spirit are willing but the body is no longer able. Certainly, he is injured. But it also appears that Ware has fallen off the proverbial wall. Not only is he no longer the holy terror we witnessed circa 2005-2010; number 94 now appears to be an average NFL player.
On Sunday, he could not defeat rookie backup tackle David Bakhtiari, the Packers 2013 fourth-rounder (for those of you interested, Dallas had him as a fourth-rounder on their draft board). Last week, I wrote something that, sadly, bears repeating:
Since week four in San Diego, when Ware re-aggravated the stinger that has bothered him since he was carted off the field against those same Chargers in 2009, number 94 has not had a meaningful sack. In the many tight games the team has played in weeks five through fourteen (five of those have been decided by a touchdown or less), the kind of games that can be turned by defensive pressure on a crucial third down, he has not been a factor.
We can add Sunday's debacle to this list of close games that could have been turned by a single big defensive play.
But there's more. I suggested that Ware's demise was responsible for the dropoff in the team's pass rush. This is not entirely correct. The proverbial straw that broke the camel's back was the stinger that DT Jason Hatcher suffered in the week nine win versus Minnesota. Other than the two-sack explosion he enjoyed in his return game, against the Giants, Hatcher has been quiet in the second half of the season. More importantly, he's not generating the consistent interior pressure he did early in 2013. After several 3+ sack games in the first eight games, the Cowboys haven't had more than two in the games since - which neatly correlates to Hatcher's injury.
7: The number of times the Cowboys ran in the second half. This has been the most thoroughly covered stat in the hours since the loss, with the great example being the forgettable play wherein Romo threw his first interception after audibling out of a run play.
Why did they eschew the run to completely?For one thing, the Packers were stacking the box. In his presser, Garrett said the Packers were trying to get the Cowboys to run twice and force a third-and-long:
"You adopt an aggressive mentality, but you also want to be as smart as you can be in that situation with that whey are going to do," Garrett said. "They are going to put nine guys on the line of scrimmage. They are going to try to get you to second-and-12 and third-and-14 and try to get the ball back that way. So you want to implement the offense the best you can. You want to run the football if you can create some favorable run looks, and then you want to simply make plays in the passing game."
More telling, I believe they felt they needed to continue to try to score in the second half, even when they were up by 23 points at intermission. In his post-game interviews, Romo confirmed that notion, noting, "I think more than anything as the game went down, you could tell we were going to have to put points on the board and maximize our opportunities," he said. "And we tried to do that throughout the football game. I tried to be aggressive throughout. It's disappointing, obviously, when it ends the way it ends."
Although we have all excoriated the team for not "helping the defense" by running the ball more, it appears that the offensive braintrust was, in fact, trying to help the defense. Not by shortening the game by running down the clock, but by being aggressive and trying to score more.
That suggests the degree to which they trust the defense - and how much that distrust has impacted and distorted the offensive gameplan. This leads me to:
4.0: The Cowboys YPA in the second half, after accumulating a very healthy 8.5 YPA in the first 30 minutes. Yes, the Cowboys didn't run the ball much in the first half. One way for them to get more carries would have been to make the Pack pay for loading up the box by making plays in the passing game. Instead, they went to a short passing game and failed to make plays due to inaccurate and underthrown passes, dropped balls, etc.
The Cowboys ran on 11 of 39 first half plays (28%) and 7 of 30 second half snaps (23.3%). That's not a radically different percentage. Yet, the offense bogged down after the break. Why? I realize that this is not a popular opinion but, after looking at the numbers, I'd like to suggest that the problem wasn't so much that the Cowboys passed too much in the second half, but that their passing game -so good in the first frame - stopped being effective.