A hallmark of the great '90s Cowboys was the ability of its offense to dictate games. When that offense got into the red zone it was merciless. It had Emmitt Smith running behind the most physical line in the game. If opponents overcommitted to shutting Emmitt down, Troy Aikman had two big, crafty receiving targets with velcro hands in Jay Novacek and Michael Irvin. Those Cowboys rarely settled for field goals. When they got inside your 20, they closed the sale. This ability was the difference in winning close games and championships.
The 2005 Cowboys are looking positively retro. After three games, they have a startingly good and telling statistic:
Red zone production: 11 trips, 9 touchdowns, 2 field goals, 81% TD efficiency.
Those numbers look like the '95 Cowboys. The offense is scoring a touchdown four out of every five trips into the red zone. Last week, it was a perfect five of five. What's more, the offense has needed every bit of that efficiency to eke out late wins against San Diego and San Francisco.
As surprising as that line might be, it's not a fluke. The Cowboys finally have some balance in the running attack. For all his inexperience, Rob Petitti has been very effective as a run blocker and Marco Rivera has been the invisible man, the hallmark of an effective guard. They have given Dallas the option of running right in short yardage and goalline situations. And this has made all the difference in the world. The Cowboys have been a notoriously left -handed team for years and defenses would stack and slant their fronts towards Flozell Adams and Larry Allen anytime Dallas needed critical short yards.
Julius Jones also shows some toughness in getting short yards. As a result, third-and-ones through third-and-three, situations that used to cause headaches for coaches and fans alike, are now becoming routine. Last week Jones scored on first-and-goal twice. In years past, Dallas might take two to three plunges to get those yards, if it got them at all.
When teams do stop Jones, as the Chargers did late in week one, Drew Bledsoe has been very effective in the air. One obvious reason is Jason Witten, who has all of Novacek's red zone ability. However, he has not been as effective as fans might expect, because he's a known entity now. Every opponent thus far has tried to doubleteam him inside their 20. He has just one touchdown, because he commands the utmost respect.
That's why Keyshawn Johnson's re-emergence has been so criticial. Johnson evokes Michael Irvin's early '90s game. He's fearless running crossing routes in close. He even has that Michael Irvin quality of managing to get the ball to the one. It must have irked Irvin to no end that he could regularly move the ball to the edge of a score, only to see Smith claim many of "his" scores. Last week, with Dallas facing a first-and-ten at the 49ers fourteen, Keyshawn took a Drew Bledsoe pass to the one. Later in the game, with Dallas in another first-and-ten at the fourteen, he again took a crossing route reception to the one.
Johnson has incredible body control that allows him to catch balls that are behind him or low. He also has better hands than Irvin. What's most important is his size. Defenses play a lot more zone coverage in close, figuring they can manage the smaller holes it present on a short field. Receivers have to be ready to accept punishment as their route lanes are that much tighter. Johnson's 6'4" height and thick frame make him ideal in this part of the field. While Terry Glenn and Witten were Bledsoe's favorites during the preseason, the quarterback has formed a fast friendship with Keyshawn during the season, to the benefit of all.
Maintaining red zone efficiency will be key tomorrow. The Raiders have an explosive offense, and the Dallas' secondary is still finding its way. Settling for field goals instead of touchdowns could be the difference between losing and winning. If the short-field power can be maintained long term, it will likely be the difference between an improved season and a playoff run.