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Seahawks @ Cowboys: The Day After, By The Numbers

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A thorough post-mortem of the corpse that is the Cowboys 2015 season. By the numbers, of course.

Ladies and gentlemen: your offensive production!
Ladies and gentlemen: your offensive production!
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

5: The number of big plays in the game, according to NFL.com's official "big plays" counter--and, midway through the third quarter, the counter stood at two. When we compare this number to Sunday's other games, which featured between seven and 24 big plays, with an average of 14.1 per game, we can see that this was not only the least fireworks-laden game this week, but one of the most offensively moribund games this season (in 118 games in 2015, there have been two with four big plays and three others with five). One way to look at this is that we watched two defenses pitch gems; another is that neither offense is very good.

10: The number of drives for each team in the game. The Seahawks's ten drives resulted included four three-and-outs and one end-of-game kneeldown. They also had a short, 5-play 29-yard drive that ended in an interception. On those six possessions, Seattle ran 18 plays and gained 46 yards, averaging 2.56 yards per play. That's some good work by the Cowboys' D. But lets take a closer look at the 'Hawks' four other drives:

First half:
Drive 1: 12 plays, 72 yards (FG)
Drive 4: 7 plays, 65 yards (TD)

Second Half:
Drive 8: 10 plays, 51 yards (FG blocked)
Drive 9: 17 plays, 79 yards (FG)

On those four possessions, Seattle ran 46 plays (that's 11.5 plays per drive!), gaining 267 yards. As we might expect in a game with so few explosive lays, they only gained 5.8 yards per play on the four drives that resulted in scores or scoring attempts.

Last week, in New York, the Cowboys defense played very well except for the fact that they gave up several big plays on the Giants' three scoring drives (one TD, two FGs). In last week's "by the numbers post," I accused them of employing a break-but-don't-bend defense. On Sunday, they once again embraced this principle, either shutting down Darrell Bevell's offense or allowing it to sustain long, inexorable marches that resulted in points (or at least attempts at points). Indeed, Seattle had eighteen first downs in the game, and sixteen of them came on the drives in question, including a whopping six on the game-winning 17-play monster (more on that below)

41.7%: The Seahawks' third down conversion percentage, after converting 5 of their 12 third downs. At one point in the third quarter, the Cowboys were limiting Seattle to a 16% conversion percentage, yielding a first down on only one of six third down situations (it should be noted that, on their touchdown drive, the Seahawks never faced a third down). On their last two meaningful drives, which took up the great majority of the fourth quarter, Seattle was 4-6 on third downs.

17: The number of plays on Seattle's game-winning field goal drive. The possession resulted in zero "big" plays; only three of the 17 snaps resulted in gains of ten or more yards, with a 15-yard toss to Doug Baldwin being the big strike. While those bigger gains certainly helped, the drive was marked by numerous smaller gains; here are the sixteen plays other than the FG attempt, arranged in ascending yardage order: -3; -2; -2; inc; inc; 3; 4; 5; 6; 7; 8; 8; 9; 10; 11; 15. And, it shoudl be noted, the two incomplete passes came early in the drive and the negative plays came late, after Seattle was already in field goal range. In between we saw a litany of solid gainers.

As I mentioned above, the Seahawks generated six first downs on the drive, and were 3-4 on third down, with the only stop coming when Seattle was preoccupied with running down the clock more than getting a first down. On a drive that began at their own 15-yard line, Seattle gained first downs on a third-and-six (eight yard pass to Jimmy Graham); third-and-three (nine yard pass to Tyler Lockett); and third-and-seven (the dagger: a pass play wherein Rolando McClain was assigned to be the QB spy, and Russell Wilson juked right to get Ro-Mac headed that way, and then ran to his left for a first down).

A team that managed only seven first downs and converted but one first down in the first 37:43 of gametime made up for it on their final three drives, culminating in a third of their first downs and 60% of their third down conversions on that final drive. Strangely, after seeming to wear down the smaller, faster Seahawks for the first three quarters, after which they enjoyed about an 8 minute time of possession advantage, the Cowboys were the team that tired in the final frame, allowing Seattle to possess the ball for more than eleven minutes and being unable to get off the field during two 10-plus play drives.

38: Jeff Heath's number. For years now, Heath has received a bad rap from Cowboys fans, largely because we continue to associate him with Dallas' inability to stop Calvin Johnson in the Detroit Debacle in 2013. And that's unfair; Heath is a strong special teams player and a solid contributor on defense. On Sunday,he might well have had his best defensive game as a Cowboy. In particular, his tackle of Jimmy Graham to force the field goal attempt that was subsequently blocked was a big play in the game.

26: Points given up by the defense in the last two games. If we simplify what has transpired in the last two games, thereby eliminating the two non-offensive scores in New York, we see a defense that, for all its warts (inability to generate takeaways, giving up 6.4 yards per play) has surrendered only 13 points in each of the last two contests. That's generally enough to win; in the Tony Romo era, when the Cowboys defense gives up 13 or fewer points, the Cowboys are 25-3, and two of those losses - the season opener at Washington in 2010 and the late-season loss in Pittsburgh in '08 - were decided by return touchdowns.

But the Cowboys don't have Romo at the helm, do they?

-19.6: The Cowboys' Passer Rating Differential (PRD) for the game, the fifth game in a row in which the Cowboys' QB has suffered from a deficit of at least 13.8 points in comparison to his rival signal caller. As I noted after last week's game, 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 our regression formula (PRD*0.16+8), we can see that the Cowboys' expected win total has taken a nosedive since late September. Here's the latest:

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
Seattle 61.6
81.2
-19.6 6.7

Notice a couple of trends: first, Dallas' two worst passer ratings this season both belong to Matt Cassel; second, after a three-week stretch in which they did little to slow rival quarterbacks, the defense has done its part of help mitigate the difference in quality between our'n and your'n. Also, in the five games since Romo was injured, the Cowboys have plummeted from an almost 14-win team to a bit worse than a 7-win team. That's what's known as a precipitous decline.

2.38: Darren McFadden's yards per carry on carries 5-20. In what has become a disturbing trend, the Cowboys came out of the gate running the ball well only to see the ground game dry up as the game progressed. Run-DMC's first four totes of the rock - all in the Cowboy's first drive - netted a healthy 26 yards (6.5 YPC!); his next 16 carries gained 38 yards, with 12 of them gaining three or fewer yards. Its one thing to mimic last year's philosophy by using the run to set up manageable third downs. But when consecutive runs are, at best, resulting in third-and-five, the running game isn't doing much to help the quarterback.

32: The passing yardage accumulated by the Cowboys' wide receivers, on four receptions. Both Dez Bryant and Terrence Williams netted two passes (and each of them has a 15-yard catch, so the other two catches went for a total of two yards) and both Devin Street and Cole Beasley were shut out (after grabbing 22 balls in the first five weeks, Beasley has now gone oh-fer with Cassel at the helm). This occurred the week after Cassel reportedly "opened up" the offense by completing seven passes to wideouts for 136 yards. Frankly, a 4-32 afternoon looks a lot like a Brandon Weeden afternoon. Indeed, with six passes to backs and three to tight ends, the Cowboys received what can aptly be termed Weedenesque production on Sunday.

2: The number of games this season in which the Cowboys have failed to score a touchdown. The last time we saw that happen was, curiously, in 2007, when they scored only field goals twice in the season's final three games. Want a quick, horrible glimpse into a possible post-Romo future? In every season from 2000 to 2003, the Cowboys failed to score a touchdown at least twice; in 2001, they achieve that notable level of abjection on four separate occasions, one of them a notoriously unwatchable 9-7 win over the Redskins (that I dutifully watched). Touchdown-less games happen to teams with replacement-level quarterbacks, even teams with otherwise deep rosters.

24: The Cowboys' longest play from scrimmage - a Cassel scamble-and-run. Where the biggest upgrade from Weeden to Cassel appears is in the latter's mobility in the pocket and, by extension, his ability to tuck and run when he sees a seam open up in front of him. And here's what seals it for me: the sight of Cassel vigorously signalling a first down at the end of his 24-yard run. He may not end up being any better as a passer than Weeden, but Cassel at least shows some competitive fire, and seems like he'd be willing to sacrifice his body to make a play, lead a drive, or engineer a first down.

3.9: Matt Cassel's yards per attempt on the afternoon, after going 13-25 for a moribund paltry measley pathetic 97 yards. In Cowboys history, there have been a total of 12 games in which a passer had at least 25 attempts and averaged 4 or fewer yards per attempt. The last of these was by Brad Johnson, in relief of Romo in 2008, in a hideous 13-9 win over Tampa Bay in which the defense played out of its collective mind. That was one of two wins in the twelve games in question; the other was a 10-6 win over Buffalo in 2003, another instance in which the Cowboys' defense - led by our most recent Ring of Honoree, Darren Woodson - played out of its mind.

The rest of the games were losses, some of them bad ones (a 36-3 loss in 2001 with Ryan Leaf at the helm, anyone?). Some of the other losing signal callers were such luminaries as Drew Bledsoe, Babe Laufenberg, Jason Garrett, Quincy Carter, and Kevin Sweeny. The narrative here is simple: bad quarterbacks have bad days, especially against good defenses. They are almost always outclassed by the quarterback on the other sideline and, as a result, when they have the bad days that bad quarterbacks inevitably have, they tend to lose, unless there are enough flukey scores to compensate for the disadvantage they provide.

Speaking of flukes, I'd like to dwell on flukes, bad breaks, and questionable calls for just a moment.

290: the number of opponents' offensive plays between J.J. Wilcox's interception against Eagles and Greg Hardy's super-athletic batted-pass-pick-rumble-stumble at the tail end of the third quarter. Hardy's play - combined with Cassel's ball security game- gave the Cowboys their first positive turnover differential since week two, and it led to their first (and only) lead of the game. On the schneid-breaker, Hardy returned us to his basketball playing days at Ole Miss, as he tipped up a rebound and then went back up to secure it, then looked to run the court...but was tripped up by a Russell Wilson ankle tackle.

It wasn't enough; had Hardy not been tripped up, I think he rumbles into the end zone, and creates exactly the kind of flukey big play that a team with a quarterback disadvantage needs. Wilson's shoestring tackle ended up keeping four points off the board, and that might well have been enough for them to get their first win in 42 days.

1:38: The time remaining in the first half when Seattle was gifted with what might potentially have been another four-point play. You all know the story by now: the Cowboys had engineered a nine-play drive, the last of which was a seven yard pass to Darren McFadden on third-and-ten. That caused Seattle to call their second time out, in order to have time to mount a rebuttal. As play resumed, the Cowboys brought on the field goal team, which faced off against twelve men. Seeing a penalty (and the subsequent first down) on the horizon, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll frantically attempted to call another timeout.

NFL rule 4, Section 5, Item 3 prohibits consecutive timeouts within the same dead ball period for the same team; referees are instructed to not grant the timeout and are supposed to allow play to continue. The key here is that this isn't considered a penalty unless, in the officials' opinion, the coach is trying to "ice" the kicker. In that case, it is considered an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. As it seemed clear that Carroll was trying to avoid a penalty for more than 11 men on the field rather than to get into Dan Bailey's head, the UC penalty wasn't on the table.

And there's where the problem lies: an official stopped the play to inform the Seahawks they couldn't call a consecutive timeout. The play should not have been stopped; because it was, the penalty for more than 11 men on the field couldn't be called - it only applies when there are more than 11 players either in the huddle (which there never were) or more than 11 on the field at the snap (which there weren't, because the play was stopped before the ball was snapped). Had the ball been snapped and the penalty called, the Cowboys would have enjoyed a first down at the Seattle 12 with 1:34 remaining in the first half. Given their offensive struggles throughout the rest of the game, its highly likely that the drive would have resulted in another field goal attempt from closer in. But sometimes all it takes is a lucky break...

25: The length of what could have been Darren McFadden's longest run of the afternoon. On their first possession of the second half, the Cowboys marched from their own 20 to the Seattle 29. On second and ten, McFadden took a hand-off outside left, made a nice move, and rumbled down to the Seahawks' four-yard line, where the offense prepared to set up shop with a first and goal and their deepest penetration of the afternoon. But it was all for naught, as Lucky Whitehead drew a penalty for turning upfield a split second too early after going in motion. The results: a five yard penalty, a 30-yard reversal and another drive that petered out, resulting in a Bailey field goal.

This is as good a time any any to remind you of what I wrote following the New England debacle. In the wake of that loss, I went back to 2010, the last time the Cowboys were without Romo's services for an extended period - and also the last time the Cowboys lost five games in a row. That year, a far less talented team than this bunch went a remarkable 5-6 with Jon Kitna and Stephen McGee running the show. How did they do it? Well, they ran the ball well, got a lot of big plays, and caught a lot of lucky breaks, especially in terms of turnovers (they were +13 in their five post-Romo wins and -8 in their six losses). Looking at that run, we must ask: is this team doing everything that 2010 squad did to help out its backup QBs?

The answer, once again, is a despondent "no." Whoever they put in there, be it Cassel, Weeden, or Kellen Moore, he will struggle to lead the team to victory unless other aspects of the team cooperate in the ways the 2010 squad did for Kitna and McGee.