The Cowboys started off their 2013 campaign in auspicious fashion, using turnovers to build a nice lead, watching it disappear, and holding on for an all-too-close six point victory. A look at the win, by the numbers, starting with the good news:
7: As in 7-0, the Cowboys' record against the Giants in season openers - the best record in NFL history for any team against a single opponent. That, combined with the fact that the other two division teams play each other tonight means that Dallas will wake up on Tuesday with a one-game lead over two of its division rivals. That's some tasty sauce.
9,000: The career receiving yard mark surpassed by Jason Witten last night. In a decade of service, Witten has very quietly gone about the business of destroying both team and season receiving records. At present, he's the Cowboys career leader in receptions and second in yards, and he stands 24th on the NFL's all-time receptions list, tied with Henry Ellard and Keyshawn Johnson. With two more catches, he'll vault Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe into second place for career catches by a tight end (he'll have to do yeoman's work to catch the leader, Tony Gonzalez, who is some 400 catches ahead of The Senator). Oh, and he caught two touchdowns last night, one shy of 2012's season total.
17: Dwayne Harris' number. Immediately following the roster cuts last week, the team adroitly maneuvered to secure some further special teams help, picking up Edgar Jones from the Chiefs and former Giant Kyle Bosworth. They also persuaded Danny McCray to reduce his contract number so they could afford to keep him on the team. Much ink was spilled regarding these moves, with the focus on how much it would improve Dallas' special teams. What nobody considered was the possibility that Harris would suddenly channel his inner Bill Bates and become a coverage demon to match his proficiency in the return game. Seemingly every time the Cowboys kicked the ball, Harris was the first one down, shedding blocks and making physical tackles. Getting this from the fourth receiver? That's good puddin'.
38: The total of Tony Romo's and DeMarco Murray's uniform numbers. The two men combined on what may well have been the play of the game. After rookie wideout Terrance Williams ignored, misunderstood or was confused by a Tony Romo hand signal on a play near the goal line, leading to a seeming pick-six by New York's Ryan Mundy, the two veterans showed tremendous hustle, first in interfering with the phalanx of Giants blockers (Romo) and then in hip-checking Mundy down at the one-yard line (Murray). As was the case when Tyron Smith ran down a Giants defender near the goal line in last year's opener, saving four points, some hustle after surrendering a turnover helped to keep points off the board.
357: The combined numbers of the various defensive linemen - George Selvie (99); Landon Cohen (92); Nick Hayden (96) and Jerome Long (70) - who, due to a stunning series of injuries along the defensive front, not only made the team but logged extensive minutes in the opener. I know this had been discussed, but let's take a look at the defensive line depth chart as the Cowboys kicked off training camp:
|Left End||One-Tech||Three-Tech||Right (Open) End|
|Jason Hatcher||DeMarcus Ware|
Notice that Selvie, Cohen and Long aren't on the chart. That's because the Cowboys had no intention of having them on the team, until all the dudes with lines through their names began to fall. Essentially, Dallas began last night's action with a third-teamer at left end and a second-teamer at defensive tackle (to be fair, Hayden beat out Lissemore in camp), with fourth-teamers Long and Cohen getting extensive minutes.
If last year's crippled position was linebacker, this year's is (thus far) defensive line. Ultimately, the story of the 2012 season was the defense's inability to overcome so many injuries to the same position group; let us pray that 2013 doesn't share a similar narrative, merely swapping D-line for linebackers.
478: total yards given up by the defense. Last season, a historically bad year for the Cowboys "D," that total was exceeded only once, when New Orleans rang up a whopping 562 on the likes of Eric Frampton and Michael Coe. Think of last year's most wretched defensive performances: the Redskins on Thanksgiving; the Sunday night game in Atlanta; the early December tilt against Philly, when the Cowboys gave up over 180 rushing yards. Last night exceeded them all...and that's with the Cowboys stopping five drives with turnovers.
8.1: the average yards per play given up by the Cowboys defense. In the defensive debacle that was the 2012 season, the Cowboys never yielded such a high yards-per-play average; in fact, they were never close to that mark. The Cowboys YPP was as high as seven only twice, in the aforementioned Thanksgiving 'Skins and Sunday Night Falcons games (7.0 and 7.2, respectively). This figure is probably an aberration, skewed by the low number of plays the Giants ran due to the cornucopia of turnover bounty. But it's still a scary figure.
6: The game's most important number: the total turnovers collected by the Cowboys. Obviously, given the offense's struggles and the defense's inability to stop the Giants, especially in the second half, this is the number that made the difference between winning and losing. And the good news is that this is part and parcel of Kiffin's defense; as I noted on twitter last night after Barry Church's recovery-and-rumble for a touchdown, the Cowboys defenders began every practice by executing stripping and ball recovery drills.
So, yes, as Peanut Tillman showed last season, stripping the ball is a skill. But let's look at the turnovers the Cowboys garnered last night. How many of them can be attributed to conscious turnover-generation and how many were the random, dumb luck of bodies in piles?
- 1. DeMarcus Ware steps in front of a screen pass to get a pick. Great read on his part. Skill, no question.
- 2. Barry Church tries to tackle David Wilson and ball pops out, recovered by George Selvie. I'm on the fence on this one. Church was trying to make a tackle and found ball. Was this a conscious strip? I'm not sure, honestly. Undecided.
- 3. Manning overthrows his intended target and ball is picked off by Will Allen. Allen was in the right place, but it was an unforced error, as Manning wasn't under any real pressure. You can't practice the opposing quarterback overthrowing his receivers. Right place, right time.
- 4. Nick Hayden tackles Wilson, who again fumbles. Ball is picked up by Church and taken in for the score. Hayden was just trying to make a tackle and the ball happened to pop out. This one is pure, dumb luck.
- 5. Chris Jones' worst punt of the night, a short wobbler, takes a weird bounce, hits the Giants' Trumaine McBride and is recovered by Dallas. No way this can be planned for. Pure, dumb luck.
- 6. Brandon Carr intercepts Manning and returns it to the house to seal the deal. One can argue (as KD did with me on Twitter late last night!) that the play was created by pressure on Manning, who had to hurry his throw. That is true, but look at the play: the ball takes a weird carom off Da'Rel Scott, who conveniently popped the ball in the air as it flew by, behind him. Carr wasn't really anywhere near the play; the ball just happened to bounce right to him -and could have bounced in many, many directions. This reminded me of Larry Brown in Super Bowl XXX: a lucky bounce that was turned into a game-changing play. Still, it relied on the bounce of the ball, which we know is random.
Of the Cowboys six turnovers, only one, perhaps two, can be said to be the result of a developed skill set (Church's and Carr's TD returns fall within this category; all through camp, the team worked on picking up the ball and on getting downfield after interceptions). The remaining TOs were largely the result of being in the right place at the right time. Last night, many wags were projecting the turnover rate for the season (after the Giants first three drives, it was in the six hundreds); but I must ask: last night, did we witnessed a statistical aberration or a "new defense"?
3: The number of Giants receivers logging 100-yard games. Victor Cruz (118); Hakeem Nicks (114) and Reuben Randle (101) all hit the century mark, and often had shocking amounts of space in which to operate. The Giants longest pass plays, Nicks' 57-yarder in the opening stanza and Cruz' 80-yarder before halftime, looked to be the result of coverage breakdowns, but on many, many others, the New York wideouts simply got wide open, making the Dallas defensive backs look hapless, to say the least.
2: The number of games in Cowboy's history in which they have had a +5 turnover margin and won by less than a touchdown. The other occurred in 1992, in a 31-27 win at Denver. Before last night, the Cowboys had been involved in twelve games in which they enjoyed a +5 turnover advantage; the average margin of victory in those games was 21.75 points. This is a fairly self-evident statistic; when a team enjoys that kind of turnover advantage, it's supposed to win by three touchdowns. Some further stats: during the 2012 season, five games featured teams with a +5 advantage; thanks to Atlanta inexplicably beating Arizona 23-19 despite being -5, the average margin of victory in those games was 17 points.
The Cowboys relatively slim margin of victory for a team with such a turnover advantage was, to put it mildly, historic. As many observers, myself include, have oft pointed out, the first week of the NFL season, when starters have yet to round into game shape, tends to bear very little correlation to the rest of the campaign. This is even more true when a team incorporates a new offensive or defensive scheme, which Dallas is, in fact, doing. Still, if some of the above numbers are to prove to be a peculiar blip rather than the norm, one number is gonna have to change:
1: The number of plays made by DeMarcus Ware on the night. Other than an athletic, instinctive play on the Giants' first snap, Ware was invisible, as his stat line shows: zero tackles, zero sacks. Yes, given the relative inexperience (and, frankly, questionable talent) of the rest of Dallas D-line, he was getting a lot of attention. But if the Cowboys defense is going to avoid resembling its historically bad 2012 self, Ware is going to have to find ways to make plays, regardless of triple-teams. At least until Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff return to the lineup. If they do.
I've held all offseason that the keys to success for this team lie in guard play and the health of the starters on the defensive line. Thus far, the first seems to be going well. The second? Not so much. Please, football gods, let Spencer and Rat come back strong, and soon. I'm not sure the Cowboys can maintain this turnover pace...