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Dallas Cowboys Losing Field Position Battle

Note to Rob Ryan: The Cowboys need some turnovers, and fast.
Note to Rob Ryan: The Cowboys need some turnovers, and fast.

At first glance, there seems to be absolutely nothing in common between the performances the Dallas Cowboys had in the first two games of the 2012 season. Against the New York Giants, the Cowboys had a very impressive win. Against the Seattle Seahawks - well, common decency and site protocol basically leave me with nothing I can say.

However, there is one thing that both games did have in common. Consider the following sequence of numbers:

24, 28, 20, 20, 20, 20, 18, 26, 16, 20, 5, 14, 15, 29, 20, 21, 19, 30.

Those are the yardlines Dallas started the eighteen possessions they have had in the first two games. And none of them were in the short end of the field.

The average is 20.27. Which means that Dallas faced an average of less than a foot less than 80 yards to the end zone every time they got the ball in the first two games. The best position was at their own 30 - and that was on the supremely futile last possession of the Seattle game, when the Seahawks turned the ball over on downs with :36 seconds left in the game and a 20 point lead.

Bill Parcells used to talk about hidden yardage, which referred to gaining an advantage in field position in an exchange of punts or by having a good kick return. Well, that yardage is so well hidden that Dallas can't find it at all. If that doesn't change, and soon, it could make for a brutal season.

More to ponder after the jump.

It is obvious that the closer to your opponent's end zone you start a drive, the easier it is to score. And conversely, it is not easy to drive the length of the field and put up points. 70 and 80 yard drives are not that common in the NFL. When that is all you have to work with, your chance of winning the game goes down precipitously.

There are three basic ways to get a short field to work with.

  1. Have an effective kick and punt return game.
  2. Turnovers.
  3. Hold the opponent deep in their end of the field so the punt, even if not returned, leaves you in a good position.

Obviously, these are not happening for the Cowboys.

The return game has been fairly inept. Felix Jones, in addition to the disastrous fumble to start the Seattle game, has generally been brought down at or short of the 20. Dez Bryant has not gotten off any returns of note, and almost had a disaster like Felix did when he muffed a punt against Seattle. Dwayne Harris has also been used, to no more effect. (On a related note, one thing the Cowboys have been doing well is punting. Except for the blocked kick returned for a touchdown by the Seahawks, which was really on Dan Connor, Chris Jones has been doing an excellent job at putting the ball deep in the other end of the field.)

The defense has been almost as ineffective in taking the ball away, with no interceptions so far and a lone fumble caused by Sean Lee in the Giants game - and that one was only returned to the Dallas 28. Still, it represents the second best starting position for the offense of the nascent season.

On the third, Dallas has simply not been able to stuff their opponents and hold them inside their own 30 where the punt is going to give them a good starting place even if fair caught.

I would love to offer a couple of quick solutions here - but there aren't any. The team has to work on the return game, and it also is going to need a break or two. Similarly, on defense, fumbles and interceptions have a certain element of chance. But it is also notable that the Cowboys only have notched four sacks in two games, and pressure on the quarterback is one of the main contributors to interceptions. The team certainly teaches going for the ball, both in pass defense and in tackling, but so far it has not produced any results.

Sadly, the best hope that the team may have is to regress to the mean. The starting positions they have had so far are possibly the worst in the NFL this year. I went back and found a couple of old articles on the topic. According to an article at Advanced NFL Stats, in 2006, the Pittsburgh Steelers had the worst average starting position in the league - at the 26 yard line. And in a Sporting News article that just looked at kickoffs in 2010, the best coverage in the league was by the Atlanta Falcons, who limited their opponents to the 22.2 line. (Admittedly, that was when kickoffs were still coming from the 30). Nonetheless, both articles go on to stress how that starting place on the field impacts the ability of an offense to get to the end zone, on average. And in both cases, Dallas' starting points so far this year is worse than any team had in those years.

Teams that can take the field closer to paydirt score more often. Dallas needs to find a way to make that happen, or it could be grim.


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