You may find this hard to believe, but the 3-8 Dallas Cowboys offense played with a lead at one point during all but two of their 11 games this season. The only exceptions were the New England and Carolina games in which the Cowboys never once played with a lead.
That's quite an impressive number, given that through eleven games, only four offenses have played with a lead more often: The Patriots (11 games), Panthers, Cardinals, and Bengals (all 10).
If you're wondering how the 11-0 Panthers only played with a lead in 10 of their 11 wins, here's how: "Playing with a lead on offense" means taking at least one snap on offense while leading by at least a point. Against the Seahawks in Week 6, the Panthers briefly took a 7-3 lead in the second quarter on a Cam Newton TD run, but by the time the Panthers offense was back on the field, the Seahawks led 10-7. The Seahawks would maintain the lead until the Panthers' final drive, when the Panthers pulled ahead 27-23 on a Newton TD pass. The Panthers offense didn't take the field again after that, so over the course of the game, the Panthers offense didn't take one snap while in the lead.
Back to the Cowboys: In the first 11 games of 2014, the Cowboys' offense played with a lead at one point in 10 games, one more than they did this year (they failed to take the lead at any point in the season opener against the 49ers), yet last year's team was 8-3 while this year's team is 3-8. Here's a look at the two teams and at how the offense performed while taking snaps with a lead:
|Games||Drives||Snaps||Fumble||INT||Missed FG||TO on downs||Avg. Drive Start||1st down
||1||1||- -||Own 30
The 2015 Cowboys had about 15% fewer snaps and drives than the 2014 team, which isn't really all that much. But where we see some significant changes is what the offense did when it had the ball. Turnovers almost tripled (from three to eight) and scoring drives dropped by more than half (from 18 to seven).
An argument can be made that the defense's inability to create turnovers this year did not give the offense the same number of advantageous positions as they had in 2014, and while that is probably true overall, it doesn't seem to have much impact on this set of numbers, especially when looking at the drive stats. The 2014 team had a six-yard advantage in starting field position, but this is not significant enough to explain the difference in scoring. Also, the first down percentage is quite similar between both teams (27.9% last year and 25.9% this year).
What all of this boils down to is that while the 2015 offense has had slightly less situations in which they were playing with a lead, they did a lot less with those opportunities than the 2014 team did. The 2015 offense doesn't appear to have - for lack of a better phrase - a "killer instinct."
Of course, they also didn't have Tony Romo in the majority of those situations, and that certainly plays a role in these numbers. Still, the mark of a good offense is the ability to "put the pedal to the metal", to keep the momentum going once they've taken the lead, score again and extend that lead. The Cowboys haven't really been able to do that this season, and of the five TDs they did score when playing with a lead, three came in the Atlanta game that they would eventually end up losing.
The Cowboys offense has played with a lead at one point in 9 out of 11 games this year, and that in itself is not just remarkable but also highly commendable. It is also an indicator that the Cowboys are actually quite good at dealing with adversity, a point that is often overlooked. But once they had the lead, they struggled to profit from that lead.
Call it lack of "killer instinct", call it "lack of execution", call it whatever you want; fact is, the Cowboys this year are not capitalizing on their chances to put their opponents away. Sure, there are many reasons why the Cowboys have failed to score TDs while in the lead, Tony Romo's injury chief among them. But it goes beyond just Romo's absence, and everybody has their pet peeve: the underwhelming O-line; inopportune penalties and dropped passes; questionable and/or conservative playcalling; the on-again-off-again running game; injuries; bad officiating; you name it, we've got it.
Today, the Cowboys are sitting at 3-8, and it's become somewhat fashionable to blame the 2015 season on Tony Romo's injury, the absence of quality backup QBs, or the fact that Jerry Jones hasn't drafted a quarterback recently. Even click-whoring Johnny Manziel headlines are beginning to pop up again.
But at the end of the day, the question the Cowboys really need to find an answer for is why the 2015 offense can't close the deal and get a knockout when the other team is on the ropes.