Let's start with some of the
good not so crappy news from Sunday's game, shall we?
118: The number of consecutive games wherein Jason Witten has caught a pass, a Cowboys record. The Senator came to Buffalo tied with Michael Irvin, and only managed a single catch on the afternoon, a meaningless 12-yard screen on third-and-21. But it was enough to surpass The Playmaker yet once again in the Cowboys' receiving annals. For much of the rest of the game, the Cowboys offensive braintrust (and yes, I use the term ironically) chose to leave Number 82 back in protection and throw to tight end James Hanna.
3: Yards Darren McFadden needs to reach 1,000 yards on the season. Against the Bills, D-MAC came up one yard short of recording his sixth 100-yard game, finishing with 99 yards on 19 carries (indeed, he could have eclipsed the 1,000-yard plateau in the fourth quarter if his 17-yard run over left tackle hadn't been called back because of a rather bogus looking Lucky Whitehead holding penalty). Rather incredibly, that puts McFadden fifth in the NFL with one game left to play, and an outside chance of catching the fourth-ranked rusher, Latavius Murray, the man who replaced him in Oakland. Murray currently has 1,035 yards. If you had told me back in August that McFadden would rush for between 1,000 and 1,100 yards, I would have gladly taken it, and asked no questions.
On the season, the Cowboys have run for 1,790 yards, which is ninth in the NFL. While that pales in comparison to their second-ranked 2,354 yard total in 2014, they have averaged the same yards per carry (4.6). An argument can be made that they are running the ball as well as they did last season, but haven't had as many opportunities due to sub-par quarterback play.
1: The number of Dallas three-and-outs in the game. We must compare that to the New England game, during which the Brandon Weeden-led unit stumbled through six three-plays-and-punt situations, or the Packers game, when Matt Cassel and Co. had five such incompetencies. By one statistical marker, the Kellen Moore-led offense was better; the moved the ball and created first downs. To wit:
.500: The Cowboys third down conversion rate, after turning seven of their 14 third downs into first downs. After three weeks during which they were a combined 4-31 (12.9%), seeing the Cowboys return to 2014 levels was a welcome change. That said, last season such efficiency generally translated into scoring drives; on Sunday, that fat 50% conversion rate led to a meagre three field goal attempts. What gives?
To my mind, the problem was not the conversion percentage but the infrequency with which they converted on first and second downs. Last season, the Cowboys were fantastic on third down (for much of the season, they were historically good), but they were also very good at generating new first downs on early downs. Last season, the Cowboys ran the ball just over 70% of the time on first down. As a result, they generated only 25.8% of their total first downs on first down (as compared to 31.1% this season).
But that helped them to set up the key difference between 2014 and '15: second down. You may recall that, about midway through the 2014 campaign Scott Linehan began to deploy in a spread formation on second downs. That, combined with the Cowboys' success on first down runs, allowed them to generate a whopping 126 first downs on second down plays (36.8 percent of their total first downs). In 2015, that number has dipped to 84 (30%). What that means is that the Cowboys inability to set up manageable second downs is hurting them, as they have to convert a series of difficult third downs to matriculate the ball down the field. Which ends up here:
9: The number of games this season in which the Cowboys have scored one or fewer offensive touchdowns. I don't have much more to say about this ineptitude, other than "ouch!"
2: Dallas' explosive passing plays (25+ yards) on the afternoon, both on passes to Brice Butler. This brings their yearly total to a paltry 17, the lowest in the NFL. After the Packers game two weeks ago, I pointed out that an offense must rely either on explosive plays in the passing game or upon near-perfect execution in the short-to-intermediate passing game. Since the Cowboys are incapable of the former, they must rely on the latter.
As a result, they are currently ninth in the league in drives of 10 or more plays, with 27 (that's 17.4% of their 155 total drives). And, as might be expected, a goodly number of their 10+ play drives have resulted in scores; 21 of 27 (78% percent) long drives have put points on the board. The problem is the kind of scores; of those 21 scoring drives, 16 have ended in a Dan Bailey field goal - which means that only five have produced a touchdown. When an offense isn't explosive (and they have been fairly explosive in the running game), and can't convert "easy" first downs on the early downs, then they have to convert 4-5 third downs to get seven points. As we can see, they have managed this feat on only five occasions, one of which saw Tony Romo at the helm.
The Cowboys' fundamental inability to turn consistent production into sevens has resulted in these two gems:
252: points the Cowboys have scored this season. That's 16.8 points per game, good for 31st in the NFL, ahead of only the. For the Cowboys, its the lowest total since 2002, when they scratched out 217 points. In fact, the 2015 'Boys will need 37 points against Washington next week to outscore the 2003 Dave Campo-Quincy Carter led team. Yikes!
-88: 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 is significantly better than that of teams with similarly dismal records (Tennessee: -118; Cleveland: -138; San Francisco: -152). On the other hand, San Diego (-71) and Baltimore (-65) sport better points differentials, which means they suffered fewer bad losses (Ravens) or were able to generate a 15+ point win (Chargers).
408: the total yards surrendered by the Cowboys defense on the afternoon, the fifth game this season the Cowboys defense has given up 400 or more yards. Of that total, a season-high 236 came on the ground as the Bills powered, juked and sliced their way to a series of good, very good and big gainers. In general, the Cowboys defense tackled abominably; the main culprit was probably Rolando McClain, who whiffed on several important runs early in the game, seemingly establishing the afternoon's narrative.
11: defensive takeaways on the year, tying the NFL record for fewest in a 16-game season. Sunday marked only the third time this season the Dallas defense has registered multiple takeaways; as has been written here in previous weeks, they have already set and extended a team record with eight games without a takeaway. There are many reasons for the Cowboys precipitous fall from grace in 2015; the shocking reversal from one of the league's best to the NFL's worst in this category has to be one of the biggest. To my mind, it might be even more important than the loss of Tony Romo.
5: Tyrod Taylor's number. The Bills quarterback was only 13-18 passing for 179 yards, so he didn't kill the Cowboys with volume stats. However, he was very efficient, notching a healthy 9.94 yards per pass attempt, which is the second-highest of the season for a Cowboys' opponent (Tom Brady had a fat 10.19 YPA back in October). The two lowest opponent YPAs, incidentally, came in the season's first two games; might there be a correlation between Romo's presence in the lineup and the defensive performance against the pass?
Back to Taylor: not only was he efficient in the passing game, but he killed Dallas's defense with his feet, repeatedly escaping the Cowboys' pass rush (32 of his rushing yards came on scrambles) and accumulating 67 rushing yards on 14 carries, with the final three being -1-yard kneel-downs. One of his runs proved to be the play of the game: a seven-yard scramble on third-and-six at the Bills' 12 with 5:35 remaining in a three-point game. Had the Cowboys managed to keep Taylor bottled up, they would have been in excellent position to drive to a tying or (gasp!) go-ahead score. Instead, he gave the Bills new life and they turned it into a 92-yard game-clinching march. Which leads me to this:
21: the number of 70+ yard scoring drives given up by the Cowboys on the season. On Sunday afternoon in Buffalo, the Cowboys defense payed well until the end, when it was most critical, whereupon they gave up a nine-play, 92-yard scoring march that essentially salted the game away. This continued a season-long trend in which the Cowboys defense has given up long, gutting second-half drives; of the 21 70+ yard scoring marches, fifteen have come after halftime.
To illustrate this visually, I took a look at the drive charts from this season's games; the results are instructive. To highlight the difference in defensive performance from half to half, I've made a table for each half, and marked three-and-outs in red and 79+ yard scoring drives in green. All scoring drives are in bold. Here are the first halves:
And here are the second halves:
In the first halves of games, Dallas' opponents have had 80 possessions, and have managed 12 touchdowns and 13 field goals, which gives them a scoring rate just under 33% (25-80). In the second halves of games, the number of possessions doesn't change drastically (up a tick to 88), but the scoring rate jumps significantly, up to 20 touchdowns and 14 field goals (as well as blocked field goal and missed field goal drives). And, as mentioned above, 15 of the opposition's twenty-one 70+-yard marches have happened in the second half.
26: The number of three-and-outs logged by the Dallas defense in the first halves of games. By comparison, they have tallied only 11 during the 15 second halves they have played. For whatever reason(s) - and I feel certain that there are multiple contributing factors - the Cowboys defense has been wearing down and getting exposed the further they play in games. Moreover, in twelve of the Cowboys' 15 games, the opponents final meaningful (i.e., not an end-of-game series, set of kneeldowns with the contest decided, etc.) have resulted in scores.
The Cowboys have lost ten games that were "winnable" (they led or trailed by a touchdown or less in the fourth quarter). Let's look at the last meaningful opposing drive in each of those winnable losses:
Falcons: 11-62 (TD)
Saints: 2-80 (TD)
Giants II: 3-7 (punt, fumbled by Cole Beasley)
Seahawks: 17-79 (FG)
Eagles II: 9-80 (TD)
Buccaneers: 9-56 (TD)
Redskins: 4-43 (TD)
Green Bay: 12-84 (TD); 4-38 (TD)
Jets: 8-58 (FG)
Bills: 9-92 (TD)
On ten occasions, with the game on the line, the defense simply could not make a play, despite the fact that they often had plenty of opportunities to do so, with opposing drives of 8, 9 (three times), 11, 12, and 17 plays.
4: The Cowboys current draft position. Here's where all the teams stand with one week left in the 2015 campaign:
|3||San Diego Chargers||4||11||0.267||0.526|
|5||San Francisco 49ers||4||11||0.267||0.552|
The good news from this weekend's games was the Ravens' improbably win over a Steelers team in the midst of a fight for a playoff spot. The killers? The Chargers losing after having a win in hand on Thursday against the Raiders, and the Browns' inability to scratch out a win against the Chiefs as the clock ran out on their final drive. Had both of teams pulled out improbable wins, there is a very good chance that the Cowboys would have woken up this morning with the 2016 draft's second pick.
As it is, they pick fourth, which is in blue-chip territory. To give that a bit of perspective, here are the last five players picked with the fourth overall selection:
2011: AJ Green, WR (CIN)
2012: Matt Kalil, OT (MIN)
2013: Lane Johnson, OT (PHI)
2014: Sammy Watkins, WR (BUF)
2015: Amari Cooper, WR (OAK)
Depending on what happens next week, Dallas can finish with anything between the second and the eighth overall pick, with the likelihood that they will pick somewhere around 4th-6th overall selection. I have often joked that if you aren't going to win the division and earn a spot in the tournament, you might as well stink as mightily as possible, to accumulate as much draft capital as possible. In 2015, the Cowboys certainly appear to be applying my jest with all seriousness.