As the people who look have read my posts here for a while may have noticed, I have recently fallen prey to the seduction of numbers. I have been combing through Pro Football Focus, delving into Football Outsiders, and scrutinizing Advanced NFL Stats. I have done this because I find that there is often more to the story to be learned in the numbers, particularly if you don't focus on looking back at past performances to tell you all that much about the way games will be played in the future.
Numbers are concrete. They force you to drop your prejudices and look at what is really happening. Often, you find out that what you believe, often on an emotional level, is not what is really happening on the field.
Following the Dallas Cowboys' embarrassing loss to the San Diego Chargers, I am looking for answers in those numbers. What went wrong in southern California, and how much do we need to worry about it going forward?
In considering this, I also ran into the fact that sometimes you don't need arcane formulas or obscure facts. Just a basic number may offer a significant clue. And you don't always have to go to some specialized site, especially when you have members like we have here at BTB.
I think Aggie Man may have latched onto something here. Except for the game against the St. Louis Rams, Dallas has been downright impotent offensively.
This is a bit hard to figure out, given that one of the things everyone was the most confident about going into the season was that Dallas had some very good skill players. Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Miles Austin, and DeMarco Murray were all supposed to be very, very good. And yet, except for the Rams victory, the offense has not been able to score more than a couple of touchdown in any game (and I show the offensive total against the Giants as 23 points, but Aggie Man still gets credit for spotting the issue).
Was that Rams victory that much of an aberration? Why could Dallas put four touchdowns on the board against them?
Well, that was the game where Murray had 175 yards rushing. And against San Diego, Dallas was doing well in the first half, with Murray averaging five yards a pop. Not so coincidentally, this was when it scored the two offensive touchdowns. But after the long and agonizing stretch where the Chargers played keepaway with such success, Dallas got away from running the ball. Again. And failed.
You can argue endlessly about what went wrong in San Diego (short answer: just about everything), but what stands out for me is how the Chargers basically took control of the game from the middle of the second quarter until the fourth quarter. That keepaway was one of the most impressive stretches of football I have seen in some time, and could be taught as an example of how you can take what the defense gives you and still impose your will on the other team. It did require some rather exceptional performances (83.3% completion rate by Philip Rivers, 10 catches on 10 targets by Antonio Gates), but that does not exactly make it less remarkable.
But the fact that it is so remarkable makes it something that I doubt any team can do on a regular basis. The Chargers have lost two games, so they are not able to muster that kind of a performance every time they play. What you need is a way to hang on to the ball and march down the field that does not have to rely on a nearly perfect passing game.
That is commonly known as "effectively running the ball". And for the past two games, the Cowboys have had a running game going. In one game, they rode it all the way to the victory. In the second, they blinked when faced with a bit of adversity, and they got away from it. They passed on third and two and third and three. With Murray going five yards a carry, remember? I have always felt that relying on the pass on third and short is just weak-kneed coaching. This is one place that screams for balance. I know if I am a defensive coordinator facing the Cowboys and I get them to third and two, I would forget the run, because Bill Callahan and Jason Garrett are going to put it in Romo's hands, not Murray's. Against San Diego, Dallas faced third and three or less four times - and Romo dropped to pass every single time. With only a 25% success rate.
That sounded a little odd. So I looked at all short yardage third downs from all four games this season.
|Game||Pass plays||Successful||Run plays||Successful|
|New York Giants||2||0||0||0|
|Kansas City Chiefs||3||3||0||0|
|St. Louis Rams||3||1||1||1|
|San Diego Chargers||4||1||0||0|
Dallas has faced third and three or less thirteen times this year. And passed on twelve of them, for less than a 50% success rate.
That doesn't sound like a team committed to running the ball. It sounds like a team that has no faith in its ability to line up and get a few yards. Furthermore, the numbers say that what they are doing is not working. Simple logic, and maybe some effective self-scouting, would indicate that you might be better off with something like a 50/50 mix of pass and run on third and three or less. Make the other team guess a little. Even if you don't make it sometimes when you run, you are not likely to be all that much less successful than when you pass.
There was talk about Romo checking away from the run too often. I don't know if that has been corrected or just how much blame should be placed on the play calls radioed into him. But this is where things have to start. The coming game against the Denver Broncos is a great place to start working on it. No one expects Dallas to have the tiniest chance, so go out and run the blasted ball at the Broncos. Who knows? Maybe the team can play some ball control and keep it away from Peyton Manning, so he doesn't run up 50 points. I don't think this is a good game to get into a fast paced shootout.
There has been talk about Dallas not having an identity. Well, on offense, I think they do. It is "We do not trust our ability to run the ball, even when we are doing it well." Look, I realize Tony Romo got more money than I can really fathom to play quarterback, but that does not mean he has to be the one to make every single crucial play. Despite Murray sitting third in the league with 356 rushing yards, Dallas is a one dimensional offense when it counts. They are not going to run the ball to pick up a short third down, they are not going to run the ball when they are behind, they are going to rely solely on passing when the chips are down. The only way they stick with the run is if they are winning.
And the only way they are going to win is to run the ball, by and large. Don't ask me to explain it, because it is driving me crazy.