Well, maybe it was just the Rams. After week three's blowout win over St. Louis, Cowboys Nation wondered aloud what it meant. Was the big win a sign of the team's improvement, and thus its "real" character going forward? Or was it an aberration, a blip on the otherwise level (read: 8-8) radar screen that has been their general character for so long? After Sunday's loss to the Chargers, a game in which serious problems evident in earlier games once again cropped up, the easy answer is, as Pacman Jones once quipped, "it's the Rams, dude."
As painful as this might be, let's revisit the Southern California debacle, by the numbers:
394: Passing yards given up by Dallas defense, who were carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey by the Chargers' Philip Rivers. I don't know about you, but I was reminded Sunday of the season opener, when the defense had no answer for the Giants' Eli Manning, who passed for 428 yards. In the weeks since then, the Cowboys pass defense had seemingly stiffened as they adjusted to a new 4-3 scheme, limiting both the Chiefs and Rams to fewer than 200 yards passing. Here, the hopeful among us thought, is the "real" Cowboys pass defense.
But Rivers's big day forces us to reconsider this narrative. It's possible that the Cowboys success came against inferior quarterbacks, the kind of guys who never appear on ten best lists. In spite of their warts, Eli and Rivers have both appeared on such lists with some frequency. The point here is that, against the two legit passing games they have faced, the Cowboys have been abused, allowing over 400 yards and surrendering 30+ points in each contest. This forces us to reconsider which is the "real" defense: might it be the unit that offered no resistance in weeks one and four?
3: Number of third downs converted by San Diego on the Chargers six scoring drives. Last week, the Cowboys pitched a near third-down shutout against the Rams, allowing only one third-down conversion, on the last drive of the game. Against San Diego, they couldn't get Philip Rivers and company to third down at all, and when they did, it was when the Chargers were in field goal range. As an illustration, let's look at their second drive of the third quarter, which extended into the early fourth period. The Chargers took over at their own 11 yard line.
first down: 19 yard pass
first down: 7 yard run
second down: 7 yard pass
first down: 5 yard run
second down: 10 yard pass
first down: 4 yard run
second down: 12 yard pass
first down: 14 yard run
first down: 1 yard run
second down: pass interference on Orlando Scandrick
first down: 2 yard run
second down: incomplete
third down: incomplete
fourth down: 23-yard field goal is good
San Diego was 5-12 on third downs, which is a fairly good figure for a defense. The real story, however, is that the Cowboys generosity on first and second downs meant that San Diego faced very few "money downs."
54: Snap counts for DeMarcus Ware, who was in and out of the game after tweaking his back. The Chargers ran 72 plays, which means that Ware played 75% of the total snaps. Thus it stands to reason that his replacement, Kyle Wilber played the remaining 25%. Perhaps it was just me, but it felt like the vast majority of those 18 plays came in the third and fourth quarter, when the Chargers moved the ball seemingly at will, and Philip Rivers faced no recognizable pass rush. This leads to...
5: The number of D-linemen the Cowboys thought would have an impact in 2013 that are now gone for the season. Much has been made of the fact that the Chargers were missing three starting offensive linemen going into the game, and lost another mid-game, which meant that the had to run out their ninth best big ugly. But the Dallas defensive line has suffered even greater losses. Allow me a visual demonstration, a defensive line depth chart combining players who have been on the roster at some point in 2013. I've excluded players like Landon Cohen and Jerome Long who were presumably let go because the team thought they could find upgrades in David Carter and Drake Nevis.
6: The slot in the 2012 draft at which the Cowboys obtained Mo Claiborne. I know he's been injured for the better part of his career, and this has compromised his performance. But it came out after the game that Orlando Scandrick is officially the starter, not merely an injury replacement until Claiborne heals up. For a player drafted sixth overall, who Dallas judged to be the top defensive player in the 2012 draft thanks in no small part to the fact that he graded out as high as any corner since Deion Sanders, to be replaced by a career backup is unacceptable.
A lot of Cowboy Nation's collective hope has been placed on the young'uns brought aboard in the 2011 and 2012 drafts: Tyron Smith, Bruce Carter, DeMarco Murray, Claiborne, Tyrone Crawford. Yesterday, none of them except Smith acquitted himself well (to be fair, Crawford is on IR). If this team is to advance beyond the 8-8 morass in which they find themselves, it's these players who will have to lead them. Until they do, we need to be prepared to re-evaluate the success of those drafts.
6.1: Romo's yards per pass attempt on the day, after subtracting sack yardage. As has been the case all season, with the exception of the Rams game, Romo's yards per attempt was far lower than his career average. Indeed, one of the most astonishing statistics of Romo's early career has been a YPA that rival the best in history - and is far higher than other small-ball era QBs. In 2013, however, he appears to have been grounded, either by design, by some sort of physical limitation due to injury or age, or by the sheer inability of the guys around him.
What is clear is that, other than a handful of passes to Dez Bryant - which often require that Bryant make a superlative play - this offense struggles greatly to threaten defenses deep. Think about it: Bryant and Austin are fairly fast, but neither possesses the kind of elite speed that scares rival defensive coordinators. Overall, the Cowboys skill position guys are talented but, other than perhaps James Hanna and Lance Dunbar, not particularly fast.
And this is the primary reason that the majority of the receivers the teams looked at in April's draft had one trait in common: they could take the top off of a defense. Terrance Williams had one of the highest yards per catch averages in college football history last season, but until he shows he can threaten safeties in the pros, they are going to creep up to the line, and Romo will be throwing into density instead of space.
Lastly, compare Romo's YPA to that of Philip Rivers, who was supposedly controlling a "dink and dunk" offense. Rivers' 9.4 figure is that of a "gunslinger" who throws it deep all afternoon. This goes to show that a team doesn't have to throw deep; it just has to find spaces between defenders. On Sunday, Rivers's receivers had all kinds of space in which to operate, and Romo's didn't.
10: Targets for Jason Witten, which netted a grand total of 43 yards on five receptions. Want the story of the game in a nutshell? Look no further than the matchups against each team's Hall of Fame tight end. The Chargers opted to put Eric Weddle (probably their best defensive player) on Witten all afternoon, and the move paid off: four of Witten's five catches happened in the fourth quarter, with the Cowboys, down 30-21, in hurry-up mode. The Chargers' Antonio Gates, on the other hand, gave the Cowboys linebackers and safeties fits, capping off his afternoon with the Cover-2 killer: the fast TE against a MLB down the seam. The fact that Gates could do this and Witten couldn't was telling. I know it's sacrilege to discuss this, but The Senator (who was never the quickest of players) seems to have lost a step. There's only so much that veteran guile can do.
This leads me to another, large issue: the Cowboys offense. As bad as the defensive performance was, it masked another sub-par offensive effort. With all their "weapons," the Cowboys managed only 14 points against the 32nd ranked pass defense. And that follows middling performances against New York (in which the offensive output was boosted by two defensive touchdowns and lots of short fields) and Kansas City. Again, the "it's the Rams, dude" narrative rears its ugly head.