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Cowboys @ Dolphins: The Day After, By The Numbers

An extended examination of the Cowboys' win over the Dolphins in Miami. By the numbers, of course.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

I'll start with this:

2014: the style of play that we were reminded of during yesterday's game. In many ways, the Cowboys victory over the Dolphins resembled the way they had won during the better part of the 2014 campaign. Allow me a quick list of resemblances:

Plays run: Dallas 68; Miami 41
Time of Possesson: Dallas 38:50; Miami 21:10
Third down conversions: Dallas 7-14
Final Cowboys drive: 12 plays; 4 first downs; 5:25 taken off the clock

and here's another:

166: the Cowboys rushing yards on the afternoon. Darren McFadden led the way, gaining 129 yards on a tough 29 carries (the man did work on Sunday). It wasn't always easy; early on, the Dolphins did an excellent job of delimiting the Cowboys running game. McFadden and Robert Turbin gained only 45 yards on their first 14 carries (3.2 yards per), then added 87 yards on the next 10 totes. And, although the final 12 carries netted only 26 yards, that includes key gains of 15, seven, 11, and 10 yards on their final, clock-eating drive.

72.4: the percentage of first downs for which Scott Linehan called a running play. In another move that recalled the 2014 Cowboys, Dallas chose to run the ball on 21 of the 29 total first downs they faced in the game. Six of the eight first down passes Linehan dialed up came on two drives which, perhaps coincidentally, ended in the Cowboys' two offensive touchdowns. So, while a heavy dose of first down runs certainly helps to establish an identity and to protect a quarterback returning from injury, it was when they went away from this philosophy that the Cowboys' offense appears to have been most effective.

3: the number of Cowboys drives of 12 or more plays. On these three clock-eating marches, the Cowboys used almost more than 22 and a half minutes worth of clock. Coming into Sunday's affair, Linehan and his charges had managed only eight 12+ play drives all season. Not only did their sustained work against the Dolphins raise this total, it broke an ugly trend: none of the previous 12+ play drives had resulted in a touchdown. All but one - the Cowboys final drive against the Patriots, which ended on downs - had ended in a Dan Baily field goal. Two of Sunday's long marches resulted in Romo's first interception and the turnover on downs with a minute remaining in the game. The other? The touchdown pass to Terrence Williams at the end of the first half.

8:28: the time remaining in the second quarter when the Dolphins sacked Romo on a third-and-eight to snuff out a Cowboys drive, only to suffer a defensive holding penalty on Miami cornerback Jamar Taylor. Taylor's miscue kept the drive alive and the Cowboys went on to score the aforementioned Romo-to-Williams touchdown that made the score 14-0. During their seven-game losing streak, ill-timed miscues like Taylor's were the Cowboys' lot; on Sunday we were treated to a refreshing change: Dallas was just good enough to exploit the other team's mistakes.

Later in that same drive, after a negative run, and consecutive penalties on Tyron Smith and Doug Free, the Cowboys faced a 2nd-and-27 just on the Dolphins' side of midfield. With Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel under center, the Cowboys likely would have run the ball twice and tried to pin Miami deep. With Romo in the lineup, they could afford to be more aggressive: the next two plays were a 17-yard pass to Terrence Williams on a deep in and, on third-and-ten, a 30-yarder floater to T-Will in the corner of the end zone for the score. Ah, yes, its good to have Number Nine back...

23: Robert Turbin's number (Corey White, we hardly knew ye). That same drive was the first time we saw the Cowboys' newest running back acquisition come in to spell McFadden. He had four carries for 28 yards on the drive, including a pretty 17-yard scamper around left end, in which he displayed an impressive combination of power, burst, and quick feet. In the second half, Turbin saw action on two possession. In the first, he added an eight-yard run and had a seven-yarder called back due to penalty; in the second, he added two carries for minus-one yard.

Here's what's interesting: Turbin thrice spelled McFadden, and the Cowboys scored on all three drives. While this is partly coincidental (the third drive was the short one after Dallas took possession deep in Miami territory), I was struck by this fact, and reminded of La'el Collins' performance in week two against the Eagles. You may remember that when the rookie O-lineman spelled Mckenzy Bernadeau, the Cowboys' offense was considerably more productive, whether or not he himself was directly involved in that success. With Collins now entrenched as the starter (and Ron Leary a forgotten man), I cannot help but wonder if a similar fate awaits Turbin (and, by extension, Darren McFadden).

79: Terrence Williams's receiving yards in the game, his highest total since week two, when he finished with 84, thanks to the 42-yard catch-and-run that closed the door in that contest. More important was that Sunday's yards came on four catches - and on four targets. This was only the second time Williams' receptions matched his targets; the other came against Seattle, when he was 2-2 for 20 yards. On the season, T-Will has 29 catches on 54 targets, which translates to a 53.7% catch percentage. The nadir for Number 83 occurred with Weeden in the lineup, when he was an embarrassing 5-18. Now that Romo's back in the lineup, Williams is suddenly a weapon again - and a consistent one at that..

50: the number of touchdown passes from Romo to Dez Bryant over their respective careers. This is a new Cowboys team record, surpassing the 49 career aerial scores from Troy Aikman to Michael Irvin. Back in August, it would have been hard to believe that the first touchdown for this prolific duo would come in week eleven. The good news is that they have several games remaining. If I set the over/ under for Romo-to-Bryant scores in 2015 at ten, which would you take?

20: the number of consecutive games that Romo has completed at least 60% of his passes, a new NFL record. The last time Romo failed to complete at least 60% of his passes was in December of 2013, when the Cowboys went to Chicago for a frigid Monday-nighter during which Dallas ran well but passed only 20 times (Romo completed 11 of his passes; had he completed one more, his record would be extended by three more games). Consider: at no point in NFL history has a passer been as consistently good as Number Nine has been in the last year and a half. That's some special sauce.

-6.8: The Cowboys' negative Passer Rating Differential on the afternoon. As I have often noted on these pages (taking a cue from Statsmeister O.C.C.) this is one of two statistics that most directly correlates to winning. For the better part of the Weeden-Cassel Interregnum, they have been on the minus side of this crucial stat; one would expect Romo's return to change that. Number Nine wasn't bad - his passer rating was 83.5 - but his two goofy interceptions hurt his rating, and because of them he falls in the passer rating battle to Ryan Tannehill, who managed a 90.3 rating despite a 13-24 passing afternoon.

-1: the Cowboys' turnover differential against the Dolphins. This is the other statistic that correlates most directly to winning and losing. The last time the Cowboys won with a negative turnover margin? Week One, versus the Giants, in a game that required a historic Romo comeback. Other recent negative-TO margin wins include last season's victories over Seattle (see below) and Houston, in a game the Cowboys dominated but needed overtime to eke out a win.

Looking at these last two entries, we see the two stats that correlate most to winning were not in the Cowboys' favor. How on earth did Dallas win, and win fairly comfortably? I have two numbers for you to consider in this regard:

9: the number of first downs yielded by the Cowboys defense. Sunday's performance marked the 38th time in franchise history that the Dallas defense had given up single-digit first downs, and only the fourth time in the Tony Romo era - the last being the huge 30-23 win in Seattle last season. The others? The 31-15 shellacking of the Bucs late in the 2011 campaign, and the all-too-easy 34-3 win over the Jets in the 2007 season's Thanksgiving game.

.10: Miami's third down conversion percentage. The Dolphins were a horrendous 1-10 on third downs. On all ten, they opted to throw the ball, because they were so often in third and long situations; on the ten third downs Miami faced, they averaged 12.7 yards to go. On those ten passes, Tannehill was 5-10, with four of the completions falling short of the sticks (on third down and distances of 11, 22, 17 and 25). The lone conversion came on the touchdown pass to Kenny Stills that tied the score at 14-14 (which converted a third-and-six). In short, the Dolphins simply couldn't sustain offense.

5: the number of tackles for Sean Lee on Sunday, which led the team. Compare that to the team-leading 15 tackles racked up by Dolphins MLB  Kelvin Sheppard. This speaks to the difference in the amount of time the two defenses were on the field; Miami had six players with five or more tackles, whereas Dallas had only Lee. When looking at the disparity in plays run (68-41) and the Cowboys' success running the ball as the game wore on, we see one impact of the "2014 formula": the opposing defense gets worn down by the fourth quarter. Given that this has been the Cowboys defense's recurring narrative for the better part of the season, it was refreshing to see it happen to another team for a change.

48.7: Chris Jones's punting average. Coming into the game, the Dolphins' punter, Matt Darr, was averaging 49.1 yards per punt. If the two teams were to engage in a field position battle, as seemed probable, given Romo's rust and the likelihood of sloppy conditions from the promised second-half South Florida downpour, then Miami was likely to win the exchanges of punts that would result in a sizable hidden yardage advantage over the course of the game. Darr averaged only 43.6 yards per boot on the afternoon, largely because he shorted several punts so that they would fall inside the Cowboys' ten yard line. On his two middle-of-the-field boots, however, he averaged 48.5 per kick. In other words, Jones matched him punt for punt.

1: The number of Cowboys drives that began outside of the Dallas 20. As mentioned above, Darr did yeoman's work, four times pinning the 'Boys deep, such that they had to start drives at their four, seven, ten, and 13 yard lines. A fifth kick was fielded at the 19 (and, after adding a Deven Street holding penalty, resulted in the Cowboys starting their next drive at the ten) and a sixth just barely skittered into the end zone, resulting in a touchback. Darr's seventh and final punt proved to be one of the game's biggest plays, however. With just over 13 minutes left in the game, Darr launched a 49-yarder from his own end zone, and then compounded a sweet 18-yard Lucky Whitehead return with an unnecessary roughness penalty, giving Dallas a first down on the Miami 21. The terrific field position led to the field goal that made the score 24-14.

44: Jason Garrett's career wins as the Cowboys' head coach. With the victory, Garrett ties Jimmy Johnson for the second most wins in Cowboys history (for a while I had been wondering whether the seven-game losing streak was the result of some voodoo on the part of the Jimster, figuring that he would part with the mark only with great reluctance). Garrett now sits a mere 206 wins behind the man at the top of the list. You may have heard of him; fellow by the name of Landry. At his current rate, Garrett will  catch him sometime during the 2040 season...

197: Jason Witten's consecutive starts streak, which allowed him to pass Bob Lilly for most consecutive starts in franchise history. As he does with the Dallas career receptions mark, The Senator will continue to set a record with each game he starts. In addition, his two receptions on Sunday gives him 994 for his career, and sets him up to join the 1,000 catch club at home on Thanksgiving.

My fervent hope is that we will provide the "thanks" and the Panthers will supply the "giving."

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