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Cowboys vs. 49ers: The Day After, By The Numbers

A look at yesterday's season-opening loss to San Francisco. By the numbers, natch.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

50: The number of Romo's preseason snaps. This has been oft-covered in the hours since the game ended, but it bears revisiting, as it was clearly the difference in the game. After his back surgery late last season, his recovery has been one of the team's highest priorities. As a consequence, he didn't throw during competitive periods in OTAs, took numerous days off during training camp (including one four-day stretch where he had to rest because his back was hurting him) and, as the number here suggests, very limited participation in preseason games.

In their efforts to keep Romo's back rested (a task at which they seemingly succeeded), the Cowboys never gave Romo's  mind a similar opportunity to return to game shape. On Sunday, he often looked confused and a step slow mentally. Before playing against Miami in the preseason, Romo told reporters that one of the primary reasons he needed to play was to get used to the game's necessary decision-making speed. Yesterday, he looked to need more such time.

Moreover, one of training camp's persistent memes was the "Romo deep throw watch," wherein avid scribes tracked the quantity and quality of the QBs downfield throws. In camp, many of these, were wobblers that lacked much zip or zing. Later in camp, he began to get some mustard on his throws, and the meme trailed off. Yesterday, he looked like early-camp Romo, chucking up one low-velocity deep duck after another. If Number Nine can't get the necessary zip on his intermediate and deep throws, the offense will begin to resemble 2013's dink-and-dunk affair. You know, the season during which Romo logged a career-low YPA.

3: The number of interceptions (i.e. all of them) that Tony Romo threw on play-action passes on Sunday. After a 2013 in which he didn't throw a single pick on a play-action pass for the entire season, Number Nine threw three in the first half on Sunday afternoon. Given that the Cowboys were running the ball so well during the game, this is a confounding and inexcusable statistic.

-1: The combined numbers of the 49ers starting corners, Chris Culliver (29) and Tramaine Brock (26) minus the combined numbers of their replacements, Perrish Cox (20) and Dontae Johnson (26), both of whom had to come into the game after the two starters were injured in the first quarter. Cox and Johnson allowed no fall off from the starters, holding the Cowboys receivers in check for the final three quarters - with Cox grabbing a critical downfield interception after playing Dez Bryant perfectly on the play.

When the opposing offense's starting corners go down, their replacements must be ruthlessly exploited; that's certainly what 49ers offensive coordinator would have done had Brandon Carr and Mo Claiborne been injured in the first quarter. If that's what they Cowboys were trying to do, they failed. Spectacularly, when we consider the next number:

2: Number of catches by Jason Witten, for 14 yards. And one of these was momentarily a fumble return for a touchdown that was, mercifully, called back. That came with 5:54 to go in the first quarter; his second and final reception was a short garbage-time grab with 4:41 remaining in the final quarter, a lapse of roughly 47 minutes of game time between receptions. And this after totaling one catch in the preseason. The NFL is a prove-it sport; until The Senator can prove he's still got it, I'm inclined to think his decline has begun in earnest. That doesn't mean I have to like thinking about it....

77: Tyron Smith's number. After asserting himself as one of the leagues best tackle - and probably certainly the best at his age - Tyron began the 2014 campaign in ignominious fashion. Later, on the Cowboys final TD drive, he was called for a leg whip, putting the Cowboys in a difficult first-and-25 situation. More importantly, he gave up two critical sacks, the first to Justin Smith's on a controversial 2nd and goal play, when it looked like he might have run blocked as Romo faded back to pass. After yielding only 1.5 sacks in all of 2013, he exceeded that amount in 2014's first contest.

28: The combined numbers of Dwayne Harris (17) and Cole Beasley (11). For a reasons that escape me (and my excellent friend Knowledgeable Cowboys Fan, with whom I attended the game), Scott Linehan and the Cowboys offensive braintrust decided that an effective red zone formation would be three-wides, with Harris and Beasley in the lineup. For years, we have been hearing the team talk about the kinds of mismatches player with verticality like Dez Bryant and Gavin Escobar provide close to the goal line. This year, in camp, we heard more of the same.

But we rarely, if ever, saw red zone plays intended for these players on Sunday. Instead, Linehan and crew rolled out the two shorties, who are incapable of winning jump balls in the end zone - and who are difficult to see in the dense traffic near the goal line. Nowhere was this more evident than on Romo's end zone interception, when Harris lined up on the right side and broke wide open over the middle. For whatever reason, Romo couldn't see him, locked onto Witten, threw a pick that even the interceptor couldn't believe he threw, and the Cowboys hopes dwindled to a flicker.

Might Romo have seen Escobar, Devin Street or Terrance Williams streaking across the back of the end zone? My guess is yes...

11: As in "eleventh," for the eleventh offensive player. When we look at the Cowboys' offense, the first ten players are set; the variable is that eleventh guy - Cole Beasley, Tyler Clutts, Lance Dunbar, Gavin Escobar, James Hanna - who is in the game depending on formation and situation. On Sunday, Linehan certainly offered the San Francisco defense a lot of different personnel groups and formations. The problem, to my mind, was that they served little purpose other than the presentation of variety.

It would seem that having this schematic variability can be an advantage because it allows an offense to exploit matchup problems. As the game goes on, we'd expect the more successful personnel groups to see more snaps. And that may have been the case on Sunday, as Beasley was targeted five times (catching four, for 42 yards). But Lance Dunbar didn't have a carry and finished with only three catches for 21 yards, and Escobar was targeted only once and didn't have a catch. Both were utilized a lot in training camp, to positive effect. It was puzzling, therefore, to see two guys, each of whom offers real mismatch problems, get such little playing time. And I have to review the game, but I'm not sure Clutts registered an offensive snap...

17: The number of games since the San Francisco defense had allowed a 100-yard rusher - a streak going back to the end of the 2012 season, when Seattle's Marshawn Lynch gouged them for 111 yards. On Sunday, DeMarco Murray tallied 118 yards on 22 carries - in the process destroying the "all the Cowboys need to win is for Murray to get 20 carries" meme.

9: Number of consecutive runs on San Francisco's final nine meaningful plays (the game ended on two clock-draining kneel-downs). After an uncharacteristic opening to the game, wherein the 49ers seemed to eschew their bread-and-butter - the smashmouth running game - 49er backs Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde took turns reeling off chunks of yardage on the ground in the final quarter. The play-by-play yardage totals for those nine-game-closing totes of the rock: 6, 15, 12, 4, 0, 3, 4, 3, 5.

Comparing this game-closing effort to Murray's running totals lends credence to the theory that the number of carries matters less than when those carries occur. A team's ability to run the ball well late in games, when they are closing out the clock - something Dallas hasn't been able to do consistently since 2007 - is more important (and correlates more closely to winning) than any set number of carries.

1:34: The 49ers time of possession in the first quarter, when they ran a grand total of four plays, accumulated 82 yards...and built a 21-3 lead. The mantra leading into the game was that the Cowboys needed to keep the defense off the field by retaining possession (Dallas' first-quarter time of possession: 13:26). In the purest sense, they achieved their goal; obviously, not in the way they intended. The key was to play keep-away. By turning the ball over multiple times, the Cowboys instead opted for give-away.

8.7: Colin Kaepernick's YPA. Last year, the Cowboys lost when allowing eight or more yards per pass attempt and won when allowing fewer than six; this trend continues into 2014. The 49ers signal-caller didn't complete oodles of long passes. nor did he throw for big yardage. Rather, he consistently found red-jerseyed players open in underneath zones for 8-10 yard gains (the prime beneficiary was Anquan Boldin, who had 8 catches - on eight targets - for 99 yards). Thus the bugaboo that haunted the Cowboys all last season - gaping holes in underneath zone coverages - again reared its ugly head. Nasty bugaboo, that.

.5: The number of microns by which Jeremy Mincey missed Kaepernick on the Niner QB's scramble-and-throw to Vernon Davis for San Francisco's first offensive touchdown. One of the game's few pleasant surprises was the performance of the Dallas defensive line, which many pundits (myself included) believed would be team's weak link. In fact, they played surprisingly well, getting pressure on Kaepernick and, for the first three quarters, effectively shutting down the Niners' vaunted running game.

As Mincey himself said before the game, one thing that can be said is that they're going to play hard. And they did. That said, I think we'd all prefer that they were a more athletic group. And Mincey's near miss on Kaepernick was the most obvious manifestation of the limitations of try-hard in a league packed with supreme athletes: lots of almost-had-him's.

19: The number of first downs yielded by the Cowboys' defense on Sunday - this after giving up 20 or more thirteen times in 2013. In line with the D-line's seemingly improved play was the defense's overall performance. For one game at least (and, as you'll see below, I don't know whether this was a realistic gauge), they looked better than they did for the entire second half of last season.

55: Rolando McClain. Another player that the team nursed along throughout the preseason was middle linebacker Rolando McClain. Like Romo, his camp participation was an on-again, off-again affair. In essence, the organization was trying to get him in football shape by the season opener, and they appear to have succeeded marvelously. McClain was one of the few bright spots on Sunday; he finished with eight tackles, several of which were real bone-crunchers. On one second quarter play, he saw a seam, ran through it and made a terrific stop to limit Frank Gore to a one-yard gain. It was, frankly, the kind of play Sean Lee would make.

11 (again): Kaepernick's rushing yards, on five carries. Going into the game, several pundits proclaimed their biggest concern not to be Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde having big days, but Kapernick doing major damage with his legs, especially on passing plays when the secondary, in man-to-man coverage, had their backs to him. However it happened, the 49ers QB never broke free for a big gainer; he had only one reasonably damaging run, an eight yard third-quarter scamper on third and seventeen (an earlier 16-yarder for a first down was called back, thanks to a Joe Staley holding penalty).

22: Dan Bailey's consecutive field goal streak. His 29-yard, first-quarter field goal upped Automatic Dan's streak of consecutive makes to a hefty 22. Jason Garrett can - and should - be criticized for allowing his team to get involved in so many close games, half of which historically end in the loss column. The strongest argument in favor of Garrett's planning is Bailey; which Cowboys do you want to be in the spotlight with the game on the line? It's hard to argue against Number Five.

-4: The Cowboys negative turnover margin. As players, coaches and the team owner reiterated during various post-game pressers, its extremely difficult to win at the NFL level with such a sizable turnover disadvantage - much less against one of the league's better teams. If you want the story of the game, look no further than this number. All other narratives must take a back seat to this, as the slew of early TOs so radically altered the game's context that its next-to-impossible to speculate about strategies, matchups, etc. They all go out the window when you're down 21-3 with more than four minutes remaining in the opening stanza.

Because of this particular number, its difficult to evaluate the Cowboys after game one's performance. There were aspects of the team - the defensive line, LB McClain, the defense's ability to corral Kaepernick - that exceeded expectations. But it remains an open question whether this was a byproduct of good play or a game that quickly got out of hand, allowing the Niners to play it closer to the vest. After failing to answer numerous questions this offseason, the Cowboys have extended the uncertainty for at least another week.

Seems about right for this club...

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