As we prepare for Sunday's home tilt against the Rams, I thought about churning out a "keys to the game" post, but as I looked at the various matchups, I realized--no disrespect to St. Louis fans--that the only way Dallas loses this game is by a peculiarly halloween-esque combination of freakish occurrences. So, rather than keys, here are several storylines I'll be following:
Can Dallas get off the schneid? As the mainstream media has been all-too happy to remind us (and again), the Cowboys last eleven games have been decided by four or fewer points. This has happened for a number of reasons, the most perturbing of which is that they have played down to inferior competition, either losing to or letting other teams crawl back into games. The Washington and Arizona games last season immediately come to mind, and the Lions game featured a similar narrative, if not an equal talent disparity.
The upshot is that the Cowboys, while almost certainly better than they were one year ago, still have to un-learn several ways of being that were allowed to take root under the Phillips administration. The foremost of these is killer instinct. Good teams really enjoy beating inferior competition; they delight in the proverbial "putting their feet on the opponent's throat." Rather than relax when they have a double-digit second half lead, they extend that lead and then find a way to snuff out the other team's fourth-quarter drives.
The 90s Cowboys were masters at this game; they enjoyed being bullies. Again and again, they extended halftime leads over the third and fourth quarters. No coach delights in being a bully more than Bill Belichick. His championship Patriots teams weren't particularly talented, but they never let up. In fact, we saw the benefits of this attitude last Sunday, as Tom Brady and crew made stops and tallied scores when they were needed.
As BTB member Fan in Thick and Thin has argued, winning and losing close games is more or less random, a 50-50 proposition (its no coincidence that the Cowboys have been 5-6 in the last eleven games). As he says, "Winning close games isn’t a sign of fundamental improvement, blowing teams out is..." If Dallas is to make anything of the 2011 season--i.e., escape the doldrums attendant upon hovering around .500--they'll need to tally some blowout wins. There is no more auspicious time to get off the close game schneid than this Sunday.
More storylines and schneids after the jump...
Second and third round draft picks. In recent years, Dallas has drafted quite well in the first round and has actually been at or near the top in rounds 4-7. Where they have struggled is in rounds two and three. Those are top-100 type picks, the sort of player that contribute a legit NFL skill set to a championship roster. From 2005-2009, Dallas' 2nd and 3rd rounders--Kevin Burnett, Anthony Fasano, Jason Hatcher, James Marten, Martellus Bennett, Jason Williams, Robert Brewster--reads like a gallery of under-performance.
The emergence of 2010 second-rounder Sean Lee has offered hope that this horrible trend was being reversed. That said, the two most questionable Dallas choices in the 2011 draft were--you guessed it--second rounder Bruce Carter and third rounder DeMarco Murray. Both were injured for the entirety of training camp and have only very recently returned to sufficient health to hit the field. On Sunday, thanks to Felix Jones' high ankle sprain, we'll see a lot of Murray; hopefully, Carter will dress and we'll see him on special teams. Both are terrific athletes; this young team needs ALL of its young players to get experienced in a hurry. It was in game six last season that Lee returned to the field and began to show promise; I'd love to see both guys score out a similar rookie-season trajectory.
Turnovers (and I don't mean McDonald's apple pies): Jason Garrett has said that a key to winning in the NFL is being on the plus side of the turnover margin. Thus far this season, his charges have seemingly turned a deaf ear to this warning: they are 31st in the league, ahead of only the Eagles, in turnovers per game, at 2.4. They have yet to register fewer than two TOs in any contest this season. The number of turnovers, as we know, is probably the primary contributing factor to the Cowboys record; in several games in which Garrett's boys have notched a significant statistical advantage in terms of yardage, its this, this most important of statistics, that has kept games close (and in fact, served to do the same in two close, 3-turnover losses last season, against the Saints and Cardinals).
So, even though a defense that was notoriously poor at creating turnovers under Wade Phillips is showing significant improvement in that arena (ninth in the league, with 10 total) under Garrett, Dallas finds itself -2 on the season. You know what kind of team finishes in the red in terms of turnover margin? That's right, losing teams. To turn the season around, the Cowboys have to string together several games of 1 or fewer turnovers. If they can do that, they'll exponentially increases their chances of getting off this frustrating 11-game schneid. Sunday wold be a great place to start.
As I suggested in the opening, I don't expect this game to be close; if it is, this team has more problems than any of us have heretofore imagined. What I'll be looking for is how the young Cowboys behave once they get in front. Can they run like Secretariat, going like gangbusters to the final gun, regardless of the score?
Fewer turnovers and a big game by Murray wouldn't hurt...