After the disheartening, albeit well-deserved, defeat to the Chargers, the media and Cowboys fans are busy trying to decipher and discover the faults most culpable for Dallas' poor showing. Honestly, I think it was a complete team loss. With the offense ineffective in 8 of 10 drives, the defensive collapse after a quarter and a half, and a special teams unit that did nothing special, it was a collective effort that brought the Cowboys back to mediocrity and 2-2 record. And while the team must learn from its mistakes, we will all continue to seek answers. There has been a lot of debate on why the offense sputtered against a Chargers defense that had proven to be soft over the past three weeks, so I thought it a good place to start the weekly review and look at some game tape.
On the surface, Tony Romo again had a completion percentage over 70% (stellar) and no interceptions. Add in too many drops on third-downs, and it seems the talented franchise quarterback had little to do with the loss. However, there is growing concern that Tony Romo continues to build on his career low in yards per attempt, and after four games, perhaps it's time to question if the playcalling has become the issue. Could Bill Callahan be stifling the gunslinger?
I try to avoid second-guessing playcalling as it pertains to specific situations. While I have often called for a greater commitment to the run and debate the overall intentions of the offense, I usually try to stick to finding out how the execution of a particular play could be improved rather than think of ones that should have worked better in that one moment. Offensive coordinators often try to set up their opponents, or find answers to questions about the opponents coverage, or try to force a mismatch (and simply know more about their opponent than me) and I find questioning specific plays called somewhat futile.
But with a new coach calling the plays in Jason Garrett's offensive system, it is certainly reasonable to ask questions about what might have changed under the new game-day management. Of course, Romo also has more game-day control, so the issue quickly becomes complicated and - finding out who is calling for what, or audibling into what, or wrangling the risk taking - becomes an impossible task.
However, we can take a look to see if the actual play that was called could have had better execution and if the low yards per attempt by the Cowboys passing attack is caused by a lack of opportunities for downfield throws, or simply the failure to execute in those situations.
Starting with the first drive against the Chargers:
The Cowboys offensive line did not look as good as last week, but they did help Murray average an impressive five yards a carry, starting with a ten yard run to open the game. Cowboys give a three-wide look, but then motion James Hanna in to create a two tight-end strong side in their 12 personnel. He and Jason Witten, as well as the rest of the oline, do a solid job.
While the Cowboys found success run blocking, the team did have some issues pass protecting (I thought Leary had his worst game yet) and gave up three sacks. However, once again, Romo certainly deserves some of the blame for the sacks recorded on the stat sheet. The first example came on the second play of the day, where the Cowboys run a play-action bootleg (oline blocking more of the fake than the handoff) and Romo is sacked. This sack should never have happened and Romo has several chances to throw the ball away. First, he tries using a pump-fake to try and move the defense. It may look like Dez is open, but no quarterback is going to throw across his body while on the run as his first read and Romo rightfully tries to create something instead of forcing that throw. Without the All-22 film yet, this is just a guess, but Terrance Williams was streaking down the field and it seemed Romo wanted to take a shot.
The issue, however, is that Romo then adds another pump fake instead of making a decision. At this point, he either needs to throw the pass or throw it away. If he is looking deep he should realize he won't have the chance to set his feet. It is very exciting when Romo becomes Houdini and avoids sacks. However, when Romo sets up the situation instead of being forced into it, I have issues. This is the gunslinger Romo, and while it leads to a sack instead of an INT, I would much rather have the ball thrown away instead of a second-and-fourteen.
The third play of the drive is again a play-action fake; however, it seems a mistake by Ron Leary makes Romo have to make it another bootleg. I doubt Leary's assignment was to pull on the play fake, especially when he doesn't even get in front of Murray as a blocker. Instead, he seems to freeze in the backfield once realizing his mistake (perhaps he pulls on the real run but not the play-action) and the Chargers five man blitz leaves Frederick in a tough spot and forces Romo to react.
On second-and-fourteen Romo has both wide receivers going deep and Hanna and Murray working routes underneath. Here, Romo has a choice of dumping it off to Murray, but instead decides to go for the first-down with a tough throw on the run to Dez. Gunslinger Romo goes for it all, and throws the pass a little too high.
So far, it certainly doesn't seem like the play calling has made the offense conservative. If anything, perhaps a more conservative Romo creates a third-and-manageable situation instead of third-and-fourteen.
Third down of the opening drive and the Cowboys send three receivers deep. Romo has a couple of seconds in the pocket and has Witten with room to run, Murray with fifteen yards of open field, and Harris cutting back for a ten yard gain. None of these will guarantee a first down, but they will improve field position after a rocky start to the opening drive. It seems Romo decides to wait for T. Williams to finish his route (top corner of pic) to get across the first-down marker.
Unfortunately, the pocket doesn't hold another couple of seconds and Romo is forced to escape, this time, successfully completing his Houdini act. It's tough to blame Romo for a play that ends in him escaping the pocket and getting the ball to Harris who had managed to get open during the scramble. Harris has to make the easy catch for a first-down. However, Romo (and the playcalling) was certainly not conservative on this play.
This first drive really does encompass the kind of day the Cowboys offense had versus the Chargers. They managed to run the ball effectively, but didn't use it to their advantage. Romo gave up a few sacks he could have avoided. The playcalling provided both long and short routes for Romo, but it didn't matter because third-down drops ended drives the team made more difficult by getting into third-and-long situations. These observations aren't just based on this first drive, but it is all that I should fit in this one post. Later, we will look at other similar situations as the game progressed. But it seems pretty clear to me that the Cowboys sputtering and low Y/A passing offense is due more to execution (including Romo's) than playcalling. There is a fine line between being an explosive offense and sustaining drives. Good offenses can do both and don't lose the opportunities for one by chasing the other...something the Cowboys seem to be doing too much.