By now, most fans with any semblance of a potty-mouth have hurled obscenities towards their television screens. The culprit? The Cowboys maddening inability to punch the ball in from close range. Dallas is extremely adept at completing the big play; able to strike from all parts of the field with the pass and now by rush.... except for those final 20 yards. It's a trend that is as perplexing as it is frustrating.
Entering Week 10 Dallas ranks 31st, next-to-last, in red zone efficiency. The Cowboys score a touchdown when inside the opponents 20 a demoralizing 38.5% of the time. They've made 26 trips in 2011, leaving with the full seven points just ten times. Only Tampa Bay is worse. Contrary to popular opinion, and probably equal to nails-on-a-chalkboard to Garrett detractors, the current era of Dallas Cowboys are unfamiliar with this ineffectiveness.
The Cowboys red-zone efficiency over the last five-plus seasons:
Cue the statisticians quoting "regression to the mean" as a glimmer of hope for the remainder of 2011 to balance out some. Garrett's offense has worked in the red zone in the past, and this year's failings are probably more attributable to the line's play than the plays called.
For the Cowboys, however, those numbers might not tell the entire truth.The problem hasn't been failure inside the red zone. The problem is the team's inability to punch it in when sitting smack on the precipice of pay dirt.
Cowboys fans know all too well that feeling of understandable angst every time a player gets down to the goal line but refuses to cross over like a 1990's hip-hop group. Shout to EPMD.
This is something not as easily quantifiable, but easily noted none-the-less. To state it clearly, great teams finish. They finish drives, they finish games. This is the fundamental lesson that has to be learned in Big D.
Even in a ten-point victory, Dallas showed that they aren't capable of doing this. Yet. They couldn't finish the game on defense, allowing a Seattle team already cloaked in defeat to score a meaningless touchdown. The Cowboys went up 23-6 four minutes into the fourth quarter. They proceeded to allow the longest kick return of the game, a fourth-down conversion, third-down conversion, and finally Seattle's lone touchdown of the day. Closing games like champions do goes beyond the major opportunities wasted in New York, New England and at home against Detroit. It counts in being able to secure those 'signs of a good team' blowout victories. That's the macro.
In the micro, Dallas made three trips inside the Seattle five-yard line; four if you include Dez Bryant's goal-line fumble. They only scored a full seven points once. Here's a look at their performance inside the five in all eight games this season.
|Week||Opponent||Initial Down/Distance||Drive Result|
|9||SEA||2&GOAL / 5||FG (incomplete, QB scramble, FG)
|SEA||1&GOAL / 1||FG (incomplete, run, incomplete, FG)
|SEA||2ND&2 / 5||TD PASS (run, TD to Robinson)
|8||PHI||1&GOAL / 5||T.O.D. (incomplete, pen-PHI, incomplete, incomplete, sack)
|7||STL||1&GOAL / 4||TD PASS (incomplete, run, TD to Witten)
|6||NE||1&GOAL / 2||TD PASS (run, TD to Witten)
|NE||2&GOAL / 5||FG (incomplete, run, FG)
|4||DET||2&GOAL / 5||T.O.D. (run for 1, pass for 3, run for 0)
|DET||1&GOAL / 1||TD PASS (TD to Witten)
|DET||3&GOAL / 5||FG (incomplete following run & pass for 2 yds each)
|3||WAS||1& GOAL / 2||FG (negative run, incomplete, incomplete, FG)
|2||SF||3RD&1 / 3||MISS FG (incomplete)
|SF||2&GOAL / 5||TD PASS (TD to Austin)
|1||NYJ||2&GOAL / 3||TD PASS (incomplete, TD to Bryant)
|NYJ||1&GOAL / 1||TD RUN (incomplete, TD by Jones)
|NYJ||1&GOAL / 3||FUMBLE (run for 1, incomplete, strip sack)|
For those scoring at home, that's three turnover-on-downs/missed FGs, one fumble, five made field goals and six touchdown passes. The Cowboys have made it inside the opponents five-yard line 16 times and have run it in for a score only once.
Dallas can't run it up the gut, and they can't skirt the edges and race to the pylon either. The strange thing, the Cowboys have scored three touchdowns from the six yard line this season. Maybe they should run out of bounds. The team is actually seeing diminishing returns, after scoring TDs on three of their first five 'inside-5' ventures, they've only capitalized four times in their last 11.
All parties involved have at one time or another received ire, but no solutions have been found; at least not on a consistent basis. The numerous renditions of the offensive line have been faulted, the various running backs have been blamed and most recently, Jason Garrett's play calling has taken the brunt of the responsibility in some quarters. In reality, there's a bit of truth to it all. That's what makes the problem exacerbating.
On Sunday, the Cowboys amassed five plays (unofficial) that gained over 20 yards against the Seahawks, bringing their season total to 44 (official). That's a great total, in the Top 10 of the league. The problem, as was illustrated against Seattle, is that those plays don't always equate to touchdowns. Midway through the second quarter, Dallas faced 2nd and 2 from the Seattle 22 yard line. DeMarco Murray cut, juked and stiff-armed his way through the defense to get down to the one-yard line. Unfortunately the Cowboys would leave that drive with only three points; a result all too familiar to Cowboys fans worldwide.
If one believes in style over substance, they might suggest that Garrett simply need to call better run plays; the running backs to do a better job of identifying the right crease. If one believes in substance over style, they'll point to an over-hyped, schemed-around aging offensive line giving way to an inexperienced, unfamiliar, mix-and-match solution in 2011. You can't really fool a defense that close, not in the run game. It's big boy time.
The answer probably lies somewhere in between. The season isn't won in the first eight games, but it could be lost there. The Cowboys have not done that to themselves like they did in '10, and have the opportunity to continue working on a solution. They seem to have their best power duo in years in DeMarco Murray and Tony Fiammetta. They've trotted out the same starting offensive line for three straight games for the first time all season. They hope to soon be executing the type of goal line runs that demoralize the opponent, as opposed to themselves.