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Cowboys @ Packers: The Day After, By The Numbers

A look, albeit neither long nor loving, at the collective exercise in futility that was the Cowboys' fifth straight loss to the Packers and ninth defeat in 2015.

Kena Krutsinger/Getty Images

Let's start here, with this peculiar event:

1: the yardage gained on the Cowboys' last official run from scrimmage on the afternoon, a Matt Cassel scramble on the Cowboys final, meaningless drive. Why do I include this? Well, before that play, Dallas was averaging 8.9 yards per carry, a number that stands as the highest single-game average in franchise history. Consider: the Cowboys have played 846 games in 50+ seasons, and have never run the ball better on a per-carry basis than they did on Sunday. Not with Calvin Hill, not with Duane Thomas, not with Tony Dorsett, Herschel Walker or Emmitt Smith.

On Sunday, the likes of Darren McFadden and Robert Turbin found themselves on the cusp of historic achievement. Thanks to Cassel's refusal to be tackled behind the line of scrimmage, the Cowboys finished with a still-hefty yet no longer record-setting 8.55 yards per rush. Sunday's average gain sits third all time, behind the first regular season game at the new stadium, in Week 2 of 2009 (29-251; 8.655 per carry) and DeMarco Murray's first start, in 2011 versus the Rams (34-294; 8.647 per carry).

We may attribute Cassel's meaningless run to a charitable act of the football gods, who took pity on the Dallas fanbase and refused to let such a stinker take pride of place in the annals of a once-glorious franchise.

3.9: Matt Cassel's yards per pass attempt. For Kerry Byrne over at Cold, Hard Football Facts, passing yards per attempt is the single most important indicator of success in all of football, due to its potent correlation both to winning and to quarterback excellence. The average quarterback has a YPA of about 7.0; there are currently 34 quarterbacks that have a YPA of 7.0 or above in 2015 (for further context, the average starter's YPA hovers in the mid-sevens, and the league leader in YPA is Ben Roethlisberger, who sports an impressive 8.88 yards per attempt) Matt Cassel, with a YPA of 6.74 in 2015, not only fails to measure up as a starter, but even as an average QB.

That number is due in no small part to the fact that Sunday was not the first time he had a YPA under 5.0. His season low was 3.88 per attempt versus Seattle, and he also scored 4.89 versus Carolina, so that's three games with a five or lower  yards per pass attempt. To add to this, Brandon Weeden's average per attempt against the Patriots was 4.82. The key here is that all four of these poor performances came against the better defenses the Cowboys have played.

What characterizes better defense is not how they play against the best QBs - everybody struggles against the league's top signal callers - but that they can shut down the bottom-dwellers in the league's QB rankings. For the vast majority of 2015, the Cowboys have had a bottom-dweller under center. The takeaway for me is that its only with a 3.9 YPA that an offense can be inefficient when it runs the ball as well as Dallas did on Sunday.

-54.0: the negative quarterback Passer Rating Differential (PRD) for the game, the third game in a row in which the Cowboys' QB has suffered from a 20+ point deficit. As I noted several times earlier in the season, the reason that O.C.C. can claim PRD is 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
NY Giants II
76.7 -14.4
Seattle 61.6
-19.6 6.7
Philadelphia II
Tampa Bay
Washington I
-21.4 6.7
Green Bay
-54.0 6.0

As this chart makes clear, the Cowboys, after a stellar opening in which Tony Romo (and, in relief, Brandon Weeden) outplayed the competition mightily, the Cowboys fell to the 6-7 win range and have floundered about in that area for about two months. And, Matt Cassel hasn't been much more effective than Brandon Weeden.

.09: The Cowboys third-down conversion percentage. Dallas was 1-11 on third down on the afternoon, one week after going 1-9. Against Washington, the lone conversion was a pass to Jason Witten. The lone conversion on Sunday? A pass to Jason Witten. That moment proved to be particularly singular, in that Witten was beyond the first down marker when he caught the pass. On two other occasions (on third-and-seven and third-and-nine situations), Witten caught third down passes a yard short of the marker, and he was joined once by Cole Beasley (on a third-and-eight). Late in the game, Terrance Williams caught a ten-yard pass on third-and-13.

That litany of frustration accounted for four of the ten failed conversions. In case you are wondering, the season-high for completed third down passes short of the sticks is six, held by several teams, including the Cowboys in week two, where both Tony Romo and Brandon Weeden accomplished the ignominious feat three times. Going into the Packers game, the Cowboys had 32 such passes, 2nd-most in the league. With four more, its likely they vaulted into the the league lead. So, if you are being taunted by fans of rival teams today, you can cite this, raise a finger in their face, and shout, "We're number one!!"

The other failed third down conversions came as a result of three incompletions, a sack, an end zone interception and a failed third-and-one. Robert Turbin's ten-inch gain on third down continued a nasty trend of failed third-and-ones. The Cowboys are now an embarrassing 7-of-18 in third-and-1 situations this year.

5: Cowboys 3-and-outs on the afternoon, a figure that raised their season total to 34. The Cowboys are averaging 10.7 possessions per game, and 2.6 of those are ending in the picture of offensive futility. That means that 24% of their drives - almost one-fourth of all offensive possessions - have brought Chris Jones back on the field after three snaps. Not good.

16.7: Matt Cassel's completion percentage on targets to Dez Bryant on the afternoon. When targeting Dez aganst the Packers, Cassel was 1-of-6 for nine yards and an interception, the 2nd-worst completion percentage to Bryant in a game in his career (Jon Kitna went 0-of-7 to Bryant in Week 12 of 2010). What is particularly galling is that this was not an aberration; in the five games they have played together, the Cassel-Bryant connection has produced 15 completions in 42 targets for a total of 187 yards. That's a 36% completion percentage, and a paltry 37 yards a game. In Romo's absence, the Cowboys offense is only going to generate yards if its best players play at their best. For whatever reasons (and I think there are several), Bryant has not managed this.

2: Number of Dallas rushes that gained 45 or more yards. Dallas crossed midfield exactly twice all game, both thanks to long Darren McFadden runs, one of 45 and another of 50 yards. The last time the Cowboys had two runs of such length? Thanksgiving 2009, against the Raiders, as Tashard Choice took a Wildcat run 66 yards in the first quarter and Felix Jones followed up with a 46-yard touchdown run in the next frame. I could not find an instance where a single Cowboys player has ever had two runs of 45 or more yards in the same game.

29: the Packers first downs on Sunday. Not only was this a high total, but Dallas managed just 11 first downs. That's a first down differential of -18. I checked, and the Cowboys have only suffered such a disparity on four occasions in their history. Here they are:

1996 @ Washington: 32-14 (final score: 37-10)
1997 @ Green Bay: 29-11 (45-17)
2011 @ Philadelphia: 31-12 (34-7)
2013 @ New Orleans: 40-9 (49-17)

As can be readily surmised from this list, a first down differential of 18 or more usually corresponds to a historic blowout; in fact, one might well argue that this list represents the worst butt-kickings of the Jerry Jones era. While yesterday's game in Green Bay might not immediately jump to mind as one that belongs in that inauspicious company, it does bear at least one resemblance.

8: games this season where the Cowboys defense has registered zero turnovers, extending their franchise record. Coming into 2015, the highest number of games in any single season in which Cowboys defense had failed to generate a takeaway was six. This has occurred in three separate seasons (1989, 1994, 2004). In 2015, Dallas tied this record in their eighth game, the OT loss to the Eagles, broke it on Thanksgiving against the Panthers, and extended it on Sunday.

Many observers whose work I admire have pointed out that turnovers are a matter of luck. With eight goose eggs on the ledger in 2015, the Cowboys defense has been historically unlucky. But they have also been historically inept in this regard. And it could have happened at a worse time: a year in which the offense needs all the help it can get.

28: the Cowboys best starting field position in the game. Dallas had twelve possessions on Sunday, and only four of them began beyond their own 20, with the best at their own 28. Their average starting field position was the 19.6 yard line, the second-worst of the season, after the New England game (18.3). To look at this from the other end zone, the Cowboys had to drive just over 80 yards on each of their possessions to score - a challenge, indeed, given their general offensive futility.

One of the reasons that they were behind the eight ball is that the defense and special teams failed to gift them with any short fields, a disturbing reality that continues a season-long trend. Lets take a look at Dallas' average field position in the eight games with no turnovers versus the five in which they have at least one:

No turnover games:
NYG I: 18.3
Atl: 25.9
NO: 20.4
NE: 18.3
NYG II: 25.5
Phi II: 24.1
Car: 25.9
GB: 19.58

In these eight games, Dallas has started a possession in enemy territory exactly twice, against Atlanta after the Falcons punted from their own 16, and versus Carolina, after Sean Lee's return of a blocked field goal. Their average starting field position in these games is the 19.7 yard line. How about in the other five contests?

Games with at least one turnover:
Phi I: 27.66
Sea: 27.5
TB: 27.2
Mia: 20.3
Wash: 32.6

The Cowboys average starting field position in these games was the 27.3, which gives them eight fewer yards per game to traverse to get to the opposing end zone. Given that the team averages 10.7 possessions per game, that's 81.3 fewer yards per game that they need to travel for a score in games in which the defense corrals at least one turnover.

In 2015, the Cowboys are 30th in the league in drives started in opponents' territory, with eight (behind only the Chargers and Lions). Compare this to 2014, when they were fifth overall, starting 27 drives on the good side of the 50-yard line. That's a lot of easy scores to give an offense - ironically, one much more capable of driving the length of the field - and the drop-off when its needed most is disheartening, to say the least.

15: the number of passing plays of 25 or more yards by the Cowboys this year, the lowest in the NFL. Not only does the Dallas offense tend to have as far to go in order to score as any team in the league, but it is also features 2015's least explosive passing game. A team that generally has to drive 80 or more yards to score will need one of two things: 1) explosive plays in the passing game; 2) near-perfect execution in the short-to-intermediate passing game.

The Cowboys seemingly know they aren't explosive, and have opted for the latter approach. They are currently third in the league in drives of 10 or more plays, with 25 (that's 18% of their total drives). And, a goodly number of their 10+ play drives have resulted in scores; 19 of their 25 long drives have put points on the board. The problem is the kind of scores; of those 19 scoring drives, 14 have ended in a Dan Bailey field goal. Only five have produced a touchdown.

The Cowboys' fundamental inability to turn consistent production into sevens has resulted in these two gems:

230: points the Cowboys have scored this season, good for 30th in the NFL, ahead of only the Rams and the 49ers.

-75: The Cowboys' net points on the year. For much of the season, the Cowboys have kept games close, and lost by a touchdown or less. As a consequence, their net points number was far better than that of teams with similarly dismal records. After double-digit losses to the Panthers and Packers, however, its starting to balloon, and Dallas now sits 28th in net points on the season.

Almost any way you slice it, this team is nestled in amongst the bottom-dwellers.

7: the Cowboys' draft position before the results of the Monday night game (since Dallas has played both Miami and New York, the result will impact their strength of schedule). Here's where we stand:

(A previous BTB article with the Cowboys picking 4th was incorrect, we apologize for the error.)

Order Team CONF DIV Wins Losses % SOS%
1 Tennessee Titans AFC South 3 10 0.231 0.498
2 San Diego Chargers AFC West 3 10 0.231 0.527
3 Cleveland Browns AFC North 3 10 0.231 0.529
4 Baltimore Ravens AFC North 4 9 0.308 0.517
5 Detroit Lions NFC North 4 9 0.308 0.529
6 San Francisco 49ers NFC West 4 9 0.308 0.531
7 Dallas Cowboys NFC East 4 9 0.308 0.541

Thanks to the fact that they played each conference's winningest team (and the peculiar fact that only one team on their schedule - New Orleans - has lost eight or more games), the Cowboys are almost surely going to be at the tail end of whatever win-loss cluster they find themselves in. So, it won't help them for any of the top three teams to lose.

It will, however, help if and when the Ravens, Lions and 49ers win. As this once-promising season continues to swirl in the bowl, that's what we have left to root for, I suppose.

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