Once again, Tony Romo pulled a rabbit out of a hat, leading the Cowboys to a 24-23 victory after trailing by nine points in the fourth quarter. Let's take a gander, focusing on some numbers, shall we?
1,000, 1,000, 3,000: The milestone numbers passed by the Cowboys offensive skill position players this season. With one game remaining, Dez Bryant has 1,134 receiving yards; DeMarco Murray has churned out 1,073 yards on the ground, and Tony Romo has 3,828 passing yards. Surprisingly, this is the first time this happened since the tail end of the triplets' heyday in 1997. Since then, they have had numerous 1,000 yard receivers (seven different guys, for a total of 16 1,000-yard seasons) and a goodly amount of 3,000-yard passers (four QBs, nine seasons over three grand in the air). The key has been rushers. Since Emmitt Smith's last 1,000 yard season, in 2001, the Cowboys had registered only one such milestone, with Julius Jones' 1,084 in 2006.
-1: Dallas' turnover differential, the second consecutive game their turnover differential has been in the red - and the third time in 2013. After jumping out to one of the league's most impressive turnover differentials early in the year, the Cowboys have tailed off considerably. Mostly, this is attributable to the fact that the defense is no longer generating turnovers. Ask yourself this: when was the last time you saw a gang of Dallas defenders swarm to the ballcarrier and try to strip the ball? To my mind, it was sometime in late September or early October.
And this had important ramifications. Earlier in the season, the offense could afford a mistake and know it wouldn't hurt as much because the defense was likely to force one or more as well. Since mid-season, however, Tony Romo and Co. have had to play it much safer. As we saw against Green Bay, a turnover can be catastrophic, because it's highly unlikely the defense is going to respond in kind. On Sunday, Dallas was fortunate to win; indeed, it was the first and only win this season when they had a negative TO differential. That run of luck is unlikely to continue.
0: Number of Cowboys sacks. Once again, the Dallas defense really struggled to generate pressure. Unlike previous contests, the opposition's backup quarterback didn't go off; Kirk Cousins made a few plays, but only threw for 197 yards and was ineffectual in crunch time. But that seemed to be more a result of his own inadequacies than anything the Cowboys did to disrupt him.
If you are Monte Kiffin, which do you choose: death by machete or death by small cuts? He can stick with his scheme and rush four, which gives opposing QBs plenty of time to survey the field and find an open man. Or he can send five or six and hope to generate a little pressure before somebody comes free in an open middle or deep down the sideline.
If the latter strategy was capable of generating pressure, I'm sure Kiffin would opt to blitz more frequently. But even when he sends six, they are usually picked up with ease. Twists and other stunts rarely create pressure or confusion. The bottom line is that, every week, he's trying to beat Alabama with players from Miami of Ohio (in case you haven't noticed, the Redhawks are 0-12). To wit:
6: The number of different starting linebacker trios the Cowboys 4-3 defense has fielded in 2013. Here they are:
1. Justin Durant, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter
2. Ernie Sims, Lee, Carter
3. Kyle Wilber, Sims, Carter
4. Wilber, Lee, Carter
5. Wilber, Durant, Sims
6. Wilber, DeVonte Holloman, Carter
For a brief moment on Sunday, it looked like "starting" MLB Holloman might be out for the game, replaced by recently-inked Orie Lemon. And, as we have seen, nothing befuddles the Cowboys defense more than losing their starting middle linebacker - or at least the man who has been prepping at the position all week. New Orleans' offensive explosion, you may recall, began the moment Sean Lee left the game with an injury; Green Bay's scoring run similarly happened after Durant and then Sims left the game at the end of the second quarter.
Luckily, Holloman returned to the game and the Cowboys defense was able eventually to right itself and get key stops when they needed them.
5.5: Cousins' yards per passing attempt. As I have tracked all season, the Cowboys have won when the defense is able to keep the opposing QB to a YPA of 6.1 or less. On Sunday, this trend continued...barely. At the end of the day, however, Sunday proved to be one of the Cowboys' more solid defensive efforts. The 'Skins averaged only 4.6 yards per play and generated a mere 297 total yards. After giving up 300 to the Packers in the second half the previous week, that sounds pretty good.
But for a moment there in the second half, Cowboys Nation was suffering from a nasty deja vu. After yielding scores on each of the Redskins first three second half drives - "here we go again," the hue and cry began - the defense suddenly, inexplicably stiffened when it needed to, forcing a punt and a four-and-out on Washington's final two possessions. More important to the overall fabric of the game, however...
3: The number of Washington drives that ended in field goals. Allow me to illustrate my point by looking back one week. In the Green Bay game, the Packers scored on five consecutive second half drives - all resulting in touchdowns. The result, a week of bemoaning an epic defensive collapse. On Sunday, the Redskins scored on five of six consecutive drives in the middle of the game, and threatened on the sixth, a nine-play, 50-yard affair which proved to be their second longest drive of the game, but ended in a Jeff Heath interception at the Cowboys seven. Today, however, we aren't likely to see articles attacking the Cowboys defense. What gives?
The key difference between these two stretches of futility is that Dallas managed to delimit the Redskins drives whereas they failed to do so the week before. The most obvious example - and a certain key to the victory - can be found in the second quarter drive that ended in the Redskins' second field goal. Matriculating the ball down the field with relative ease, Washington found themselves with a third and goal at the two...an then began to self destruct. Two consecutive penalties, a false start on Santana Moss (a penalty that should never be incurred by a wideout) and an ill-timed shift suddenly put them in third and 12. After an eight-yard completion, Dallas had escaped.
All told, the Redskins had ten possessions, and scored on half of them (compare that to the Packers 13 series last Sunday, six of which resulted in scores). The fact that three of the Redskins' scoring drives ended up threes instead of sevens proved to be the difference between the two contests - and the difference in Sunday's game.
62: The distance of newbie Micheal Spurlock's "welcome to Dallas" first-quarter punt return. Although there were plenty of late-game heroics by Tony Romo and friends, Spurlock's big play, combined with the forced field goals on defense, are what kept the game close enough for such heroism to happen. Fresh off the plane, Spurlock provided the Cowboys with an early spark on a scintillating return that set Dallas up on the Washington three yard line. One play later, Dallas had three yards of offense and a 7-0 lead.
44.23: The percentage of offensive plays that were runs on Sunday. The Cowboys ran 52 plays; 29 of them were passes and 23 were runs. This was noteworthy the week after they "failed" to run the ball enough against the Packers. I still don't think the Cowboys run the ball well enough to rely on it consistently; one of the reasons their rushing numbers have been so impressive of late is that they are picking and choosing their moments to run: against the nickel, when the safeties are back, etc.
What they cannot do with any regularity is run into a defense that knows the run is coming. Sure, DeMarco Murray had a solid, if unspectacular, 96 yards on 22 carries on Sunday. But let's take a closer look at how he came by them. Here are the yardage totals for each of his runs on Sunday. I've marked those that came on first down with an asterisk, and added notes when pertinent:
7 (shotgun; last play of half)
A couple of things jump out here:
First, it's hard to call a running attack whose most common gains are one and three yards impressive. Frankly, what saves him is his once-in-a-season 43-yard run, which was reminiscent of a similar sideline jaunt (with no blocking) in the 2012 season opener against the Giants. Take away that (and, to be fair, the flukey 9-yard loss on his last carry, and Murray was 20-62, for a 3.0 average. That's not exactly Emmitt Smith territory.
Second, they tended to feed him the ball on first downs. In total, 12 of Murray's 22 carries came on first down. On half of those, the result was that Dallas faced second and seven or more. It's hard to sustain drives when that's the case.
Third, and last: the most positive byproduct of Murray's increased workload might be in the number of possessions Washington had. A week before, with a less balanced Dallas offense, Green Bay had the ball thirteen times. Yesterday, Washington had only ten drives. Certainly there are other factors, but feeding Murray the ball must have had something to do with giving the other team three fewer chances to score against the moribund Cowboys defense.
Another coaching conundrum: would you rather limit your offense by running more, which is clearly not its strong suit, thus helping your defense? Or would you rather open up the offense, thus increasing both your and your opponent's chances of scoring? I get the impression (and yesterday's game supports this) that Jason Garrett and his coaching staff want to employ the first option to keep the game close long enough to be able to pull the trigger on the second option should it prove necessary. That's certainly what happened yesterday.
23: The number of times in his career that Tony Romo has lead a comeback in the fourth quarter or overtime - a mark that is second in the NFL during that span only to Payton Manning. For all the column inches we devote to Romo's miscues, we must spend equal time reveling in his clutchness. We've often noted his comebacks and QB rating in December, but here's another tidbit:
Romo has now completed 72 percent of his fourth-down passes, the highest completion percentage of any active quarterback. And the tighter the game, the more clutch Romo gets in this regard: with his touchdown to Murray, Romo is now 21 for 26 on fourth-down throws in the fourth quarter or overtime. That's a nice 81 percent conversion rate. I'll take it, thank you.
As I mentioned above, the modus operandi during Garrett's tenure has been to keep the game close so that its best and/or most reliable players, Romo and, more recently, Dan Bailey, can win it at the end. I have oft said that the problem in recent years is that the Cowboys continue to find themselves in close games. Certainly, strategizing to keep the game close enough for Romo to pull it out has worked; think about the Miami game on Thanksgiving 2011, or last year's emotional win in Cincinnati.
The reverse side of this coin is that putting too many close games into Romo's hands, especially in situations where the defense knows the Cowboys have to pass, means that he's going to throw more interceptions (studies have shown that a preponderance of picks come when a team is trailing) and, as a result, too may of his interceptions are magnified because they come in the crunch time to which the Cowboys continually subject themselves.
Would it surprise you to see next week's "NFC East Championship Game" come down the the wire, with Romo offered another opportunity for either goathood or redemption? Not me. Any other result just wouldn't seem fitting.