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Cowboys vs. Broncos Preview: Hittin' The Big Gorilla

What hope do the downtrodden Cowboys have of beating the Denver Mannings, who are currently taking the NFL world by storm? For one thing, they aren't on the road....

Do the friendly confines of AT&T Stadium give the Cowboys a puncher's chance?
Do the friendly confines of AT&T Stadium give the Cowboys a puncher's chance?
Tom Pennington

After the week two road loss to the Chiefs, I noted in my post-game "by the numbers" article that the Cowboys offense had, once again, struggled on the road. In particular, I noted that the contest at Arrowhead had been Dallas' 29th game in Garrett's 42-game tenure decided by a touchdown or less. As was the case in Kansas City, the team's seeming desire to keep games close is particularly acute on the road, in hostile environs.

It appears that the team seeks to keep such games close by limiting the scoring. In the 14 close games played in Dallas, the Cowboys failed to score 20 or more points only twice, in victories over Washington (18-16, 2011) and Tampa Bay (2012; 16-10). On the road, they have failed to score 20 points five times in the same span. Moreover, since Romo returned to the lineup at the beginning of the 2011 season, the average score has been 20.72-21; the average score for close home games over the same period? 27.33-27.08 - nearly a touchdown more per game.

To my mind, this discrepancy is no coincidence. Remember that Garrett's first half season as a coach was marred by Tony Romo's absence; his gunslingin' star QB had been sidelined for the season in week six. After the Chiefs game, I wrote:

I believe the enduring image in the offensive coaches minds is that of Romo lying on the carpet after breaking his collarbone in 2010. They understand that, were this to happen again, it would signal the end of the season. As a result, they gameplan to ensure Romo's safety. With a shaky offensive line, this means more conservative gameplans, especially against good defenses. This means eschewing the kinds of slow-developing deep passes that generate points and, potentially, big leads.

In short, the team's strategy, since the offensive line overhaul of 2011, has been to keep the game close to give Romo (and, more importantly, Dan Bailey) a chance to win it at the end. This strategy has worked beautifully in some games (in 2011: Redskins at home, Dolphins on Thanksgiving; last season: wins over AFC North teams Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh). But it's a risky strategy, with plenty of room for failure, as we have witnessed in the Patriots and Cardinals games from 2011 as well as last year's game against Baltimore and, in many respects, other closies that got away late, such as the 2012 season-ender in Washington.

At the time, I added the Chiefs game to this unsavory list...

After last week gave us the most recent low-scoring road debacle, Bob Sturm picked up where I left off. Every Tuesday, Sturm authors a superb analysis of the offensive production (or lack thereof) entitled "Decoding Callahan." In the most recent edition, he divides the Romo/ Garrett era into two halves: 2007-2009 and 2010-13. The difference is amazing. To wit:

  • from 2007-09, the Cowboys gained 400 or more yards in 37% of games on the road (9-24 games); from 2010 to the present, this figure dips to 15% of their games (4-26 games).
  • from 2007-09, they failed to gain 325 yards in a third of their road games (8-24 games); from 2010 onward, this number jumps to almost half (46%; 12-26 games)

Those are sobering numbers. And, while Sturm certainly doesn't place the blame on Romo's shoulders, he does seem to agree with a key aspect of my own assessment: the macro trumps the micro. In other words, the need to keep number nine upright for sixteen games wins out over adopting a high-risk strategy to win games on the road. As Sturm writes:

I feel in watching Romo, I see a more careful QB who is protecting his body and his reputation. One of my favorite Romo performances was a Sunday Night game in Chicago in September of 2007. I haven't watched it in years, but I remember he made a few throws that were just crazy. But, they beat up a fantastic defense because their QB had belief that he wouldn't be stopped.

That guy doesn't exist in 2013, I am afraid.

He doesn't take as much punishment as he used to, and I assume that is because he realizes that he cannot stay on the field if he is going to take big hits. I don't think he trusts his running game or his offensive line anymore, and who can blame him. But, this does change the type of QB he is.

Great stuff from the Sturminator. To punctuate this, Sturm points out that it's been eight road games since the Cowboys offense had a 400-yard day on the road and six road contest since they have managed to gain a fairly pedestrian 330 yards (in two road contests this season, they have totaled 318 and 317 yards, respectively).

At this point, you may be asking: "what does this have to do with Sunday's home game against the Broncos?" I think it has everything to do with it. Because they have Denver at Cowboys AT&T Stadium, where they are much more inclined to throw caution to the wind, Dallas has a puncher's chance. Not only do they score a touchdown on average more at home in close games, but the Cowboys only blowout victories under Garrett have all come in friendly waters.

I think this is because they are much more comfortable, for whatever reason, executing a high-risk, high-reward gameplan at home, the kind of plan that utilizes the kind of slow-developing deep passes that generate points and, potentially, big leads - and expose your star quarterback to big hits. Unless you are blessed with a historically good defense, it's very, very difficult to obtain a commanding lead by playing it close to the vest on offense. Against a team like the Broncos, it would be suicidal.

To win, the Cowboys are going to have to adopt a page from one of my sacred texts, the Book of Jimmy. In November of 1991, the Cowboys traveled to Washington to face the 11-0 Redskins, who had been steamrolling opponents by an average score of 33-13. Before the game, Jimmy Johnson told his team that they were going to go after the Redskins with everything in their arsenal. "When you go up against a big gorilla," he said, "you don't hit him lightly. You hit him with everything you got!"

Johnson delivered on his promise: he called a draw play on third and long (resulting in an Emmitt Smith touchdown); he went for it on multiple fourth downs (Dallas converted three of four fourth downs); he tried an onside kick early in the second quarter; and he called a Hail Mary pass on the last play of the first half. His aggressive approach sent Washington reeling, and the ‘Skins looked off-balance all afternoon as the Cowboys won a game that was nowhere near as close as the final 24-12 score.

If the Cowboys are going to win on Sunday, they'll have to hit the big gorilla with the biggest roundhouse in their arsenal. They'll have to take chances, exposing Romo to the Denver pass rush, running at least one trick play (preferably on special teams) and asking their corners to play without safety help. In short, they will have to play exactly the opposite of the road team they have become.

Thankfully, they'll be at home, where they are more likely to play the kind of game they'll need to in order to win. It's just about the only hope we've got.


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