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Redskins @ Cowboys: The Night After, By The Letters

A few random thoughts on the Cowboys loss to to Washington, in lieu of the traditional Monday "By the Numbers" the letter, of course!

We play taps for Dallas' first-place record.
We play taps for Dallas' first-place record.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Every Monday, I author a game review in which I look at the game "by the numbers." Since the Cowboys played on Monday, and my schedule on Tuesdays doesn't have nearly the space in it for a post of that magnitude, I thought I might offer up a shortie version - a few collected thoughts on Monday night's game. Instead of numbers, I'll use letters to distinguish my bullet points...

A. Haslett is in Romo's head: Since Jim Haslett took over as Washington's defensive coordinator in 2010, he has given Tony Romo fits, and with the same plan: send as many blitzers as it possible. In eight games against Haslett since 2010, Romo has a solid (but not more than solid) A/YPA of 6.3, has only one game over 300 yards (when he threw 62 passes, completing 37 of them for 441 yards while in catch-up mode in the 2012 Thanksgiving loss to the 'Skins), and has been sacked 17 times for 134 yards in losses. The Cowboys are 4-4 in those eight games.

And when they have won, it hasn't been easy. In many of these games, Romo has been harassed mercilessly, and had notched victories only after extreme heroics (2011, at home: the 18-16 field goal fest a week after breaking his rib against the 49ers; 2011, at Washington: a 26-yard, third-and-15 conversion to Dez Bryant gets them in position for the winning field goal; 2013: with a ruptured disc in his back, Romo leads a rally after being down 23-17, with the capper being the fourth-down pass to DeMarco Murray).

Bob Sturm has been one Cowboys-watcher who has pointed to this pattern. In his weekly game review, he wrote:

According to my notes, Haslett blitzed the Cowboys on 21 of 38 pass attempts, and more specifically, he blitzed Romo on 19 of 32 (59%).  Given that nobody on the Cowboys schedule had blitzed more than 12 times all season, and that nobody approached 50% all year, and that the Seahawks and Giants both blitzed just 5 times in the previous 2 games against Dallas, it seemed that the NFL had backed off Romo and the idea that the best way to attack a Jason Garrett/Tony Romo defense is to play coverage.

What is curious about this is that Haslett called off the (blitz) dogs when Brandon Weeden came into the game. Curiously, the most points the Cowboys have scored against a Haslett Redskins team was 33, in 2010, when the quarterback was...Jon Kitna (who was 25-37 for 305 yards, two TDs and no picks)

What this makes me think is that this is Haslett's Romo-specific recipe. And whether now, as Sturm's post suggests, we're going to see the rest of the league dial up the blitz until the Cowboys -and Romo - prove they can beat it.

B. The seeds of this defeat can be seen in recent games: One of the issues I've pointed out in recent "by the numbers" posts is that the Cowboys have been winning despite being on the unenviable side of the turnover ratio. Three times in the past four games, Dallas has had a negative number on the ledger. And in the fourth of those games, against the Giants, they trailed 1-0 in the turnover score until the fourth quarter.

Historically, teams that win the turnover battle win approximately 80% of their games - and the percentage goes up the greater the margin. Thus, to win against the Texans and Seahawks despite losing the turnover battle (and to build a 21-14 lead against the Giants despite being -1 meant the Cowboys were not only playing well but defying history. The lesson: no team is good enough to keep pulling the fat out of the fire despite a negative TO margin. To continue to play around in the minus column was to wait for history to exact its revenge Last night, history did what history always does.

C. My close games mantra: I've beaten this horse to death, but its because I think its the key to successful seasons. Here it is: good teams don't win close games (even the best teams are roughly .500 in close games, since they can be decided by a bad bounce, a tipped pass or a bad call); rather, good teams avoid close games. By continuously being in negative TO margin territory, the Cowboys continue to ensure that they will be involved in close games.

Its one of the simplest and most consistent equations in sports: win the turnover battle. If Dallas doesn't turn the ball over deep in Washington territory, they are playing with a lead for most of the game, and its entire complexion changes. DeMarco Murray's fumble kept it close enough for the Redskins' plan to be executable. We saw the result, and its a result that we'll continue to see so long as the Cowboys turn it over more than they take it away.

D. Seeing red (zone, that is): In the last two games, against Seattle and New York, the Cowboys had been 6-7 in the red zone while their opponents had been 3-5. One way to overcome a negative turnover differential is to get sevens when the other team is getting threes. Last night, however, the Cowboys were 1-2, and Washington was 2-2. As noted above, the difference in this regard was Murray's fumble, which not only nullified a possession, but took away a critical scoring opportunity that might have allowed them to escape the -TO vortex in which they find themselves trapped.

E. Possessing the ball: A look at last night's box score reveals nearly a dead heat:

Stat Washington Dallas
First downs 19 20
Plays 64 64
Yards 409 390
Yards per play 6.4 6.1
Time of possession 38:12 28:37

I wrote "nearly" because of the difference in time of possession. All season long, the Cowboys' calling card has been their ability to possess the ball. They had a TOP advantage in every game this season with the exception of the Rams contest, and had built up possession advantages ranging from seven to 22 minutes. That's one of the reasons that Monday night was so shocking: for the first time since a game in which they had to come back from a 21-0 deficit, they lost the TOP advantage.

And here's the key: I believe that we can attribute all of their success to that ability...

F. Third down conversions: And here's where we see why they lost the possession battle. All season long, the Cowboys have converted third downs at a record-setting rate. If they were to continue at the pre-Redskins pace of roughly 57%, Dallas would eclipse the best third-down conversion percentage mark in league history (2011, when the Saints converted 55.79% of their third downs) by a comfortable margin. A look at the best third-down conversion rates since 2003 shows that only three teams were above the 50% mark. The Saints are joined by the 2006 Colts (53.78) and the 2004 Vikings (50.67).

So, Dallas' ability to possess the ball was due, in large part, to their ability to register a historically high 3rd down conversion percentage. While that's certainly something they might end up doing, the more likely scenario is that they fall off of that ridiculously lofty number. On Monday night, we saw a bit of a fall to earth; the Cowboys were 5-12 on third down, for a 41.7% rate. Not a bad number - it would have put them at eighth in the NFL last season.

But here's the catch: if the Cowboys are going to turn the ball over as they have, they need perfection in the red zone and historic work on third downs to compensate. We must ask: are either of those sustainable? Last night, as Jim Haslett brought the house and Tony Romo flinched, neither was...

G. Its a delicate equation, this winning: I noted earlier that the entire equation depends on the Cowboys possessing the ball. Several shrewd observers have demonstrated that this year's Cowboys defense isn't better statistically than the 2013 model (not, at least, in terms of yards per play). Where they are vastly improved, however, is in the number of plays they have been on the field. Before last night, they had defended 60 or more snaps only once - in the win at St. Louis (which, the more we look at it, was downright miraculous). Last night marked the second occasion.

Over their winning streak, the Cowboys usually ran more plays than the opposition, and often many more. Check it: 76-49 advantage vs. Tennessee; 75-56 against the Texans; 70-48 at Seattle. In the past two weeks, however, they have run exactly one more play than their division rivals (is it purely coincidental that these were the two games without Doug Free?). Against the Giants, it was a 60-59 advantage, and last night both teams ran 64 plays. Against New York, they compensated by generating turnovers. Last night? No such luck.

And this is my larger takeaway from the game. The Cowboys winning formula is a series of causes and residual effects that all begin with the offense possessing the ball. When they fail to convert at a historic rate, that falls off, as it does when the Cowboys turn the ball over. A defense that runs fewer plays is a fresh defense; a fresh defense is more able to play with the kind of emotion and intensity that we saw at Seattle, but was sorely lacking on Monday. A Cowboys defense that is on the field for 64 plays, very few of which feature the back seven swarming to the ballcarrier? Well, heck, that looks like the 2013 edition, as I believe our fearless leader noted after the game.

I don't know what this season has in store for us, but I do know this: this team isn't good enough across the board to win games when this delicate equation is disrupted. As we move forward, therefore, its incumbent on Scott Linehan and the offensive braintrust to find ways to generate possession that don't require 23-yard toe-dragging catches on third and 20. They've already played that card, and there's only one like it in the deck...

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