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Cowboys @ Saints Snap Counts: When Your Backups Just Aren't Good Enough

The other team gets paid too, and right now, the Cowboys are too injured to play those other teams well and win games.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

We'll start today's snap counts with a look at who the nominal starters would have been for the Cowboys, had all Cowboys been healthy.

Of the 244 snaps played on offense through three games, 121 featured three wide receivers, so we'll use 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) as the base offensive formation.

That injury-free formation would have featured Tony Romo, the five linemen, Joseph Randle, Jason Witten, and the top three wide receivers (Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley). At various positions, some degree of substitution is normal, but with key starters missing, a significant amount of the snaps are being taken by players previously considered backups - or just recently signed.

If we go back to the Week 1 game against the Giants, the "nominal starters" above combined for 656 of a possible 781 snaps (71 offensive snaps multiplied by 11 offensive players). That's 84% of the total snaps.

Here's what yesterday's snap count looked like, with all players not considered "nominal starters" marked in yellow.

Cowboys' Offensive Snap counts vs Saints (61 total snaps)
Player Snaps Player Snaps Player Snaps Player Snaps Player Snaps
Weeden 61
Smith 61 Randle 25 Witten 61 Williams 53

61 McFadden 20 Escobar 28 Street 35

Frederick 61 Dunbar 9 Hanna 11 Beasley 34

Martin 61 Clutts 6 Butler 20

Free 61 Michael 1

Brown 1

Wilcox: one snap as the deep cover back on the kneel down to end the 4th quarter

Of the 671 combined offensive snaps, the "nominal starters" played 478 snaps, or just 71% of the total. On offense, that's largely due to the absence of Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, but it doesn't help when your nominal starter at running back is benched for parts of the first half for ignoring all coaching advice and almost losing the ball on a jump into the endzone. It also doesn't help when the wide receiver you traded for as a potential deep threat has to leave the game with a hamstring injury.

All in all though, 71% isn't too bad, the Cowboys are just unfortunate that those injuries hit some of their key playmakers.

On to the defense, where we'll also try and define the nominal starters. Over the first three games, the Cowboys lined up three corners on 175 of their 255 defensive snaps, which makes the nickel (three corners, two linebackers) their default formation.

That injury-free and suspension-free formation would have featured Lawrence, T. Crawford, Hayden, and Hardy on the defensive line, two linebackers in Sean Lee and Rolando McClain, three corners (Carr, Claiborne and Scandrick in the slot), and the two safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox.

In the Week 1 game against the Giants, those "nominal starters" above (in a hypothetical scenario with Hardy in for Mincey, R. McClain in for Hitchens, and Scandrick in for Patmon) combined for 572 of a possible 682 snaps (62 defensive snaps multiplied by 11 defensive players). Somewhat surprisingly, that's also exactly 84% of the total snaps.

Now on to yesterday's defensive snap counts, with the same logic we used for the offense.

Cowboys' Defensive Snap counts vs Saints (73 total snaps)
Defensive Tackles Defensive Ends Linebackers Cornerbacks Safeties
Player Snaps Player Snaps Player Snaps Player Snaps Player Snaps
T. Crawford
52 Lawrence 53 Hitchens 69 Carr 72 Church 68
Hayden 42 Mincey 50 Gachkar 43 Claiborne 72 Wilcox 58
Bishop 11 J. Crawford 41 Wilson 30 Jones 34 Heath 8
24 Wilber 19 Patmon 21
Lee 14 White 20

Of the 802 combined defensive snaps, the "nominal starters" played a mere 431 snaps, or just 54% of the total. In other words, half the defense are backups. Expecting this defense to produce game-winning stops - or any stops for that matter - is a tall order.

The other team gets paid too, and right now, the Cowboys are too injured to play those other teams well and win games. This ragtag bunch was in it until the very end against the Saints and held on well into the fourth quarter against the Falcons. It wasn't pretty, and it won't be pretty for as long as the Cowboys continue having to field backups.

The Cowboys will not win games on talent the next few weeks, and maybe not at all this season. If they are going to win games, they will have to grind them out the hard way. They'll have to out-muscle, out-hustle and out-will their opponents, and even if they succeed with that, their margin for error will be very slim.

The NFL is built on parity, and it ensures parity by evenly distributing talent via the draft and via the salary cap. When the talent is equal between two teams, playcalling, scheme, and coaching often make the difference between winning and losing. When there's a large disparity in talent you will get beaten more often than not, regardless of your playcalling, scheme, or coaching.


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