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Dallas Cowboys Red Zone Woes Have Been Critical In Shaping Season So Far

Jason Witten's was the only red zone TD the Cowboys scored against the Patriots.
Jason Witten's was the only red zone TD the Cowboys scored against the Patriots.

After a tough loss to the Patriots, the Cowboys are sitting at 2-3. Yet despite that record, the Cowboys offense ranks seventh in yards per game, and the defense ranks fifth in yards allowed per game. The Cowboys have a top ten offense and a top ten defense. Do you know how many other teams share that distinction?

The 4-1 Chargers, the 4-2 Steelers and -bizarrely, but I'll get to that later - the 3-3 Texans. So why are the Cowboys at 2-3 and third in the division?

Some might point to the tough schedule the Cowboys have faced so far. And indeed, with an opponent winning percentage of .714 (20-8), the Cowboys through six weeks have faced the second toughest schedule of all NFL teams. But that's not really a satisfactory explanation for the Cowboys' woes, the Bills had the fourth toughest (.600, 21-14) and are 4-2 regardless. The good news is that the Cowboys have the sixth softest schedule for the remainder of the year. Take that for what it's worth.

Others might point to the fact that the Cowboys have been playing in a lot of close games. And that is also true. The last 11 games, dating all the way back to week 12 last year, have all been decided by four points or less. When games are this close, any statistician will tell you that chances are high that you'll win about as many as you lose. And in fact, the Cowboys' record is a totally unsurprising 5-6 over that period.

But the real culprit behind the Cowboys' struggles this year is something else. Cowboys fans everywhere are getting that "deja vu all over again" feeling every time the Cowboys get inside the red zone. And fail to come away with a TD. Again.

Red zone play, and particularly the red zone play calling, has been a favorite whipping boy for the Cowboys' offensive struggles for a couple of years now, so it may be worth refreshing our memories about how good or bad the Cowboys actually were in the red zone in the last couple of years. 

Cowboys Red Zone TD Percentage - Offense
Year 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
TD% 42.6 52.5 52.8 60.3 53.6 59.1 52.0 59.6
Rank 28 16t 13 4 15 8 14 9

Over the last few years, the Cowboys have oscillated between a top 10 and top 15 position in the league, with a touchdown percentage in the red zone in the mid 50%, and have been consistently above average. In '06, '08 and '10, the Cowboys saw those numbers climb close to 60%. That's not bad at all, and certainly doesn't match the widely held belief that the Cowboys have sucked in the red zone for a few years now.

Sure, the Cowboys have struggled to get enough push, particularly in short yardage situations, but from an overall point of view, they were able to compensate for that. Not so this year. Here's how their red zone play has looked this year:

Cowboys Red Zone Play, 2011 - Offense
Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4 Week 6 TOTAL
RZ Possessions 4 3 3 5 3 18
TDs scored 2 1 0 2 1 6

The Cowboys' TD scoring percentage of 33.3% (6-for-18) is the second worst value in the league. The only team worse are the 0-5 Rams (25%, 3-for-12). And right behind the Cowboys are the Texans (36.5%, 8-for-22), which just goes to show that being a top 10 offense and defense isn't worth all that much if you can't punch the ball in when it counts.

Another team with 18 red zone possessions are the Oakland Raiders (I shudder at the thought of having to use them as an example for the Cowboys, but that's what it's come to). The Raiders scored 12 TDs on their 18 possessions for a 66.7% TD scoring percentage, the fourth best value in the league. Think about that for a minute. The Raiders scored 6 more TDs on the same number of possessions.

Even if the Cowboys had scored a field goal on each of those 6 possessions, the Raiders would still have scored 4 more points per possession, or 24 more points in total. Do you think the Cowboys would have lost any of the three games if they had converted in the red zone at the pace the Raiders did? Probably not.

And that's really all there is to it. Sure, there are plenty of positives to take away from the Patriots game, both on offense and on defense, and I'm sure we'll dissect those over the course of the week. But the fact remains, more than anything else, the Cowboys are at 2-3 instead of 5-0 because they are atrocious in the red zone. And keep in mind that the 1-for-3 red zone TD efficiency against the Patriots does not contain the two drives that stalled in the first quarter at the NE 21-yard line (Tashard Choice fumble) and NE 22-yard line (Doug Free, false start on 3rd-and-9).

The two examples above show that we can analyze each single RZ or near-RZ possession and find reasons why a given play didn't work, why individual mistakes, inability to run block, great defensive efforts or many other things caused a drive to stall.

But when we talk about red zone efficiency, particularly the lack of it over a prolonged period, at the end of the day we are talking play calling. The Cowboys and Garrett have shown over the last few years that they have been consistently above average in red zone TD percentage. It's time they show it again.

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