It was depressing and dismaying. Despite the sudden emergence of the pass rush we have all been longing for, the Dallas Cowboys fell to the New England Patriots by an embarrassing 24 point margin. While Tom Brady was getting sacked five times in the first half, the Cowboys threw up six three-and-out possessions (and I do mean threw up).
There were so many things that went wrong in the game. One thing that told a lot about what was happening to Dallas might have escaped your notice. During the game, the Cowboys' average starting field position was their own 18 yard line. Not to defend Brandon Weeden, who was partly responsible for this situation, but very few quarterbacks are going to have much success when they have to drive an average of 82 yards to score a touchdown. The shortest field the Cowboys faced all night was 73 yards, after they stopped the Patriots on the fourth-and-one play in the fourth quarter. Every other "drive" started between the 13 and the 20 yard line.
New England's average starting yardline? Their own 34. While that may not sound like such a huge difference, it includes two possessions where Tom Brady took the first snap already inside Dallas territory. Brady is one of the last quarterbacks in the league you want to give a short field to, even if you do manage to knock him down a lot.
A few years back, our own One Cool Customer did a post about "hidden yardage", a term discussed at length by the very cerebral Bill Parcells. It was also used by Jimmy Johnson. Here is the simplest definition of the term from OCC's article.
The most common definition I found basically talks about kickoff yards, kickoff return yards, punts and punt return yards.
Another thing that factors into this is turnovers, since that is the most common way to get a really short field to work with. And we are all aware of how badly the Cowboys are doing there, with a minus three takeaway/giveaway margin, tied for 22nd in the league.
Parcells had a value on those yards. He felt that an advantage of 100 hidden yards equated to seven points. Based on the numbers posted by the NFL after the game, Dallas had a total of 220 yards in starting field position (all those kickoffs and punts do add up). New England: 410. Do the math, and the Patriots had an advantage of 190 yards in the game, or nearly a full 14 points based on Parcells' logic.
This is one problem that has been plaguing the Cowboys all season long, but especially since Weeden took over for the injured Tony Romo. Here are the differentials for the Cowboys in the first four games of the season.
New York Giants: -86
Atlanta Falcons: -42
New Orleans Saints: -75
The one game the Cowboys won somewhat convincingly, against the Eagles, was essentially a break even. All the others saw a noticeable disadvantage, culminating in the truly horrid gap against the Pats.
Chris Jones has not been part of the problem, doing a good job of punting the ball deep. But Dallas has not done anything returning either punts or kickoffs, ranking 21st and 28th in the league respectively. They aren't giving up much there, but the problems with returns is hurting. Lucky Whitehead was no help, and hurt the team by bringing it out on one kickoff when he should have taken a knee.
However, the biggest issue is all those failed drives. The inability to move the ball keeps Dallas from "flipping the field". Even if the team only gains 20 or 30 yards on a possession, it allows them a better chance to pin the other team deep in their end. But when Jones is standing somewhere inside his own 20 to kick it away, as he was over and over again against New England, the Cowboys are surrendering hidden yards every time. Against a good offense, that is a formula for trouble. Even the smaller deficits from earlier in the season hurt the team. Jimmy Johnson used a different way to value hidden yards, basically equating 10 of them to a first down, just as if those yards were gained from scrimmage. So against the Falcons, Dallas gave up four first downs, and against the Saints, they gave up seven. In the latter game, especially, that was possibly the difference in winning in regulation and winding up tied, with the results we all remember painfully.
This is a huge argument for the Cowboys to consider the change to Matt Cassel after the bye. If the team believes he can at least move the ball some on most possessions, they almost have no choice but to make the move. That is a big if, of course, but it seems very likely that the team is now much more open to that idea than it was before the latest debacle.
Takeaways also need to start happening, but there is a large element of chance there. Still, the Cowboys have dropped too many easy interceptions. They also need to do a better job of knocking the ball loose, then getting on it. At least there, the impressive work by the pass rush, especially considering that they were getting to Brady with three linemen, offers some hope. Sacks have finally come, and that pressure should start leading to some turnovers. Randy Gregory's hoped-for return to face the Giants after the bye should only help. But even a three and out by the defense is devalued if it happens somewhere around midfield and the Cowboys get the ball back inside their own 20.
Better quarterback play, however, is by far the most effective way to turn this around. Weeden's ability to provide this is increasingly in doubt. Add in how difficult it is for him to lead the team to a score, and the pressure is really on to try Cassel. Hopefully Dez Bryant is going to be back after the bye, but Dallas still needs someone to get the ball into his hands, or into that of another receiver who is now single covered because Bryant is drawing extra attention.
Dallas now is chasing the Giants. Playing them after the bye is an opportunity. They have to play much better, especially on offense, to take advantage.