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Cowboys @ Giants: The Day After, By The Numbers

A long, albeit not particularly loving, look at the Cowboys loss to the New York Football Giants. By the numbers, of course.

Renee McKay/Getty Images

233: The Cowboys rushing total on the day, which was the 31st highest rushing total in franchise history. After an opening month spent bemoaning the absence of a cohesive running game, we were treated to a return to the heady opening weeks of the 2014 season, when the running game was rolling, and it served to protect a less-than-100% quarterback. Yesterday, DeMarco Murray circa 2014 was played by Darren McFadden, who ran with power and burst, and frequently picked up the "dirty yards" that were so critical to the team's success last year.

Usually, a 200+ yard rushing performance correlates to victory; in their history, the Cowboys are 81-12 in games wherein they have eclipsed the double century mark, which translates to an 87% winning percentage. How does a team with that kind of rushing yardage - which is the result, one would think, of dominance on the O-line's part - end up with a loss? Well, in nine of those losses, Dallas had a negative turnover differential (they were even in turnovers once). Yesterday's game, of course, was the ninth of these, and mirrored the 4-0 TO margin that killed the Cowboys when they ran the Giants out of Jerry Jones' brand new stadium in 2009's second week, piling up 251 yards (and a healthy 8.66 YPC) yet lost 33-31.

Other essential statistical markers in which the Cowboys dominated:

Total Yards: 460 to 289
FIrst Downs: 27 to 13
Time of Possession: 38:04 to 21.56
Total Plays: 69 to 51
Third Down Conversions: 6-11 (54.5%) to 3-11 (27.2%)

These totals are eerily reminiscent of much of 2014, when the Cowboys frequently used their dominant running game to amass noticeable advantages in years, first downs, plays, and TOP - and were converting third downs at an historic rate. So, how did they lose?

146: The Giants advantage in "hidden yardage." Although the Cowboys dominated in most categories, there were two in particular in which they didn't One of these has already been gestured toward: the -4 turnover margin. The other was in what Bill Parcells used to term hidden yardage: kick and punt returns, as well as interception returns. New York had no punt return yards, but piled up 149 yards in kickoff returns (to the Cowboys' 66) and added another 70 in interception returns (Dallas, of course, had zilch).

Parcells used to claim that every 100 yards differential in hidden yardage, he would add seven points. By that rubric, the Giants' 146 hidden yards translates to ten points--and that's supplementary to the two touchdowns that came as a clear result of those plays. Looking at these numbers, a strong claim can be made that the Cowboys did almost everthing possible to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

73.7: The percentage of their total yards tallied by the Giants on their three offensive scoring drives. New York had ten possession yesterday; lets look at them quickly:

Drive 1: 8 plays, 31 yards (punt)
Drive 2: 4-18 (punt)
Drive 3: 7-79 (TD)
Drive 4: 3-1 (punt)
Drive 5: 8-51 (FG)
Drive 6: 3-13 (end of half)
Drive 7: 8-83 (FG)
Drive 8: 6-20 (punt)
Drive 9: 3-7 (punt)
Drive 10: 3- -3 (kneel-downs; end of game)

Five of the Giants possessions ended in punts (two of those after three-and-outs); two others were ended by the clock at the end of halves. The longest of these drives was 31 yards. Looking at that, we'd have to conclude the Cowboys had a pretty good defensive afternoon. And that would be true, except that the Cowboys seemingly employed a break-but-don't-bend defensive philosophy. On their three other possessions, the Giants, who were otherwise rather moribund, were suddenly, momentarily explosive.

Drive 3: 24 pass; runs of 7, 9, 10, and 15 yards (65 of their 79 yards)
Drive 5: 38 pass (38 of their 51 yards)
Drive 7: 44 pass; 39 run (all 83 of their yards)

Big plays like these are, of course, what generate offense for all NFL teams. However, if we take them away as an exercise, we see that the Giants ran 41 plays and gained a paltry 103 yards. For the better part of the afternoon, the Cowboys played as we thought going in that they would need to, playing well against the run (with the notable exception of the Giants' lone TD drive, when they were obliterated on inside runs), and limiting Manning to season lows in yards and completion percentage. Sadly, those big plays DO count, and they contributed to the following ignominious stat:

6.4: The average yards per play allowed by the Cowboys' defense in the last three games, the worst figure in the league. The fine gents over as ESPN Stats and Info give us more kindling to add to this fire: Dallas is allowing the NFL's highest opponent completion percentage during that span and are the only defense that has not forced a turnover since Week 3. And this has been the case throughout the Jason Garrett era. Here's a disturbing fact provided by ESPN S&I:

On a per-play basis, the Cowboys' defense has been in the bottom half of the league for the past six seasons. Since 2010, only the Falcons have allowed more yards per play (5.84) than the Cowboys (5.81).

Additionally, the Cowboys are allowing points on 43 percent of opponents’ drives this season, sixth worst in the NFL, and are forcing a turnover on 5 percent of drives, second worst in the league (to the Jaguars, who come in at 4 percent). Both are on pace to be the Cowboys’ worst rates in the past 15 seasons.

During the game, I repeated a comment I have made several times this season: this team is built to play from ahead. Without a lead, when the opposition can continue to be two-dimensional, when failing to limit drives by generating turnovers, this defense is getting exposed; thus far, on a per-play basis. they are no different statistically than they were in 2013 and '14. In short, they are who they are. And that's a scary thought.

-14.4: The Cowboys' negative passer rating differential on the afternoon. As might be expected, O.C.C. was tracking the passer rating differential throughout the game. At one point late in the first half, in a moment sponsored by Robitussin, he lifted up his laptop to show me the progress difference between Matt Cassel's and Eli Manning's respective passer ratings, and Cassel was enjoying a sweet 20+ point advantage. Of course, that was wiped out, but not by anything Eli did or the Cowboys' defense didn't do; rather, it was the three picks that shifted the differential from the black to the red.

After the Saints loss, I noted that the Cowboys' early-season PRD advantage had dropped off noticeably, thanks to  negative differentials against the Falcons (-21.3) and Saints (-13.8). To that we can add two more, a nasty -61.0 from the Patriots game and yesterday's -14.4. And the reason that PRD can claim to be the "Robitussin of stats" is that it strongly correlates to wins. Running the average differential after each game through most recent regression formula (PRD*0.16+8), we can see that the Cowboys' expected win total has taken a nosedive since late September:

Game Cowboys PR Opponent PR PRD Expected Wins
NY Giants I
103.3 70.7 32.6 13.2
Philadelphia 106 65.6 40.4 13.8
Atlanta 87.8 109.1 -21.3 10.8
New Orleans 105.6 119.4 -13.8 9.5
New England 66.9
130.9
-61.0
7.3
NY Giants II
62.3
76.7 -14.4
7.0

Whether you believe the Cowboys' backup quarterback has played well or not, the unassailable fact is that he has been outplayed in every game since Romo went down. The basic rule in the NFL is "go with the team that has the better quarterback"; sadly, this rule suggests the Cowboys are not going to be the team to "go with" for several more weeks.

255: The number of plays opposing offenses have run since the defense last generated a turnover. One of the prime contributing causes for the declining PRD is that the Dallas defense has done nothing to help push opponents' ratings down. After enjoying an NFL-second-best takeaway total in 2014, the Cowboys have plummeted to last in the league, with three - two interceptions and a fumble - all of which were courtesy of Sam Bradford, who might be the only QB on the Cowboys' schedule that gives us a clear advantage at the position.

In six games, the Cowboys have logged zero turnovers in five of them. That total of five equals the high in any season since 2004. To add to this, the Cowboys are now 1-18 in the Jason Garrett era when the defense puts a takeaway goose egg on the scoreboard - with the lone win coming in this year's opener - and we know what kind of miraculous heroics that required. History suggests that our Cowboys aren't going to lpay well enough to win without the defense generating a takeaway - even if the offense protects the football.

.333: The Cowboys' winning percentage in games decided by a touchdown or less. One of the hallmarks of the 8-8 years was the staggeringly high percentage of "close games" the Cowboys played. In the 56 games from mid-2010, when the RHG took over as head coach, to the end of the 2013 season, they played in a total of 37 games decided by seven or fewer points, for a staggeringly high 66.1% close games percentage (CGP). Why is this important? The problem is that close games are highly subject to luck; in large sample sizes, all teams' winning percentages in such games, regardless of overall record, are roughly .500. From 2010-13, Garrett's teams were 19-18 in "closies" for a 51.3% winning percentage, which is right where you might expect it to be.

In 2014, this changed. As the above table confirms, the Cowboys played in the lowest percentage of close games in Garrett's tenure (it must be noted that their record - 4-1 - in these games suggests that they were slightly "lucky"). More importantly, they notched more "good" wins than at any other time in the last five seasons, registering 10, 11, 13, 14, 16, 21, 27, and 35 point victories. The conclusion that extends from this discussion is that good teams are good precisely because they manage to avoid close games. In an NFL landscape in which a close game can turn on a flukey, chance moment - a potential interception that just nicks the turf before bouncing of a defensive back's shoe and into his arms, a controversial officials' ruling, a long pass that slips out of the quarterback's hand for a long interception, a 100-yard kickoff return - the best way to be a winning team is to avoid being in a situation wherein random events can determine the outcome.

This season, the Cowboys have suffered from a regression to the mean in terms of their record in "closies," which has fallen from 2014's 4-1 to 1-2. Given their struggles at quarterback, its unlikley that they will be able to build the comfortable leads that banish Lady Luck from the stadium until Tony Romo (and/ or defensive takeaways) return. Consequently, we should expect them to be involved in lots of contests decided by seven or fewer points. And here's the kicker: I believe that, from 2010-13, Garrett coached games precisely to keep them close, knowing that he had a clutch QB and, from 2011 onward, the best kicker in the game, two weapons that allowed the Cowboys to pull out close wins.

Now, given that they are going to have the lesser quarterback in almost every game they play until Romo's return, we must ask: how will they manage to keep their winning percentage in the upcoming "closies" that seem almost an inevitability. Unless, of course, they cannot keep games close; a corollary to the close games thesis is that bad teams struggle to get themselves into close games, where Lady Luck can be on their side. Until Romo returns, the key will be to avoid the 10+ point losses that we saw versus Atlanta and New England - the kind of game where catchigng a break proves to be of little consequence, as the opposition has done its part to eliminate chance occurrences from impacting the final outcome.

7%: The percentage of 2-4 teams that historically have made the playoffs. For last week's podcast, in response to one of my queries, the Inimitable O.C.C. did a bit of research and discovered that the difference between a 3-3 team's percentage chance to make the tourney and that of a 2-4 team was significant. In fact, it was so significant that he decided to write a post about it. To review, here's the chart he designed to illustrate his research:

Playoff odds based on six games, 2002-2014
Record after six games 6-0 5-1 4-2 3-3
Playoff Teams
16 35 60 39
Total Teams 18 44 99 105
Percentage 89% 80% 61% 37%

As it runs out, the 30-point gap in historical playoff odds between 3-3 and 2-4 is the biggest gap in playoff percentage anywhere in the first six games of the season. Cool goes on to say of the teams that had already fallen to 2-4 that, for "all intents and purposes, their seasons are done. The Seahawks, 49ers, Saints, Bears, Redskins, Chargers, Texans, and Browns can all start planning for the draft." Ouch.

Did yesterday's affair add the Cowboys to that list? Sadly, history answers in the affirmative. So you know what that means: our Beloved 'Boys now have to overcome injuries, spotty play and history. Sheesh....