On December 11, 2011, you may remember - unless you have blotted it from your memory - the Cowboys went up on the Giants 34-22 with 5:41 left in the game, but Eli Manning led two scoring drives - sandwiched around a Dallas three-and-out in which a wide open Miles Austin appeared to lose an arcing Tony Romo pass on third and five - to lead the Giants to a come-from behind 37-34 win.
Last night, Romo and the Cowboys got their payback.
How did they manage to pull victory from the jaws of a defeat they had somehow manages to engineer after a dominant performance? Lets look at the numbers!
436: The Cowboys total yardage on the night. In 2014, that would have been their fourth-highest total of the season; their 356 passing yards would have been the highest total last year, by a goodly margin. That in and of itself isn't particularly impressive; however, when we combine it with the fact that the Dallas defense gave up fewer than 200 passing yards and fewer than 100 rushing yards (193 and 99, respectively), the Cowboys enjoyed a 147 yard advantage from scrimmage. That's a good night's work.
Adding in "hidden yards" extends this advantage. Thanks to Dan Bailey's booming, touchback-creating leg, the Cowboys surrendered zero kickoff returns. In addition, the punt coverage guys allowed Dwayne Harris only three punt return yards. That gives Dallas another 93 yard advantage in the kicking game, and a total margin of 240 yards (don't worry; I'll factor in the Giants return yards on turnovers in a moment).
2.8: The Cowboys' YPA differential on the night, after averaging 7.9 yards per pass attempt while yielding only 5.1 to Eli and the Giants. The difference between offensive and defensive yards per pass attempt correlates strongly to wins and losses; usually, a YPA differential of +2 is thought to be very good; a YPA of 3.0 or better is indicative of dominance on both sides of the ball. The 2.8 figure suggests that the Cowboys were pretty dominant where it mattered: in the passing game.
29.6: The passer rating differential enjoyed by the Cowboys on the evening. Back at the beginning of last season, the inimitable O.C.C. wrote about PRD's import:
When all is said and done, PRD may just be the Robitussin of stats (no matter what you've got, Robitussin better handle it). PRD beats almost any other available stats in terms of how closely it correlates to wins in the NFL. It follows that as a team, you should do everything you can to improve your passer rating differential, no?
If we were to plug [the Cowboys PRD after four games] into the 2013 regression formula (PRD*0.16+8), we'd get a result that suggests the Cowboys are on track for an 8.6-win season, their 3-1 start notwithstanding.
The regression formula suggests that to reach 10 wins, the Cowboys would need a PRD of 13.
Obviously, we're dealing with a small sample size here, but at this rate, the Cowboys' PRD (once again using the 2013 formula) suggests that they are a 12.74-win team in 2015.
Incidentally, Romo also had a sizeable advantage in ESPN's QBR rating, enjoying an 85.9-45.4 bulge...
On the night, the Cowboys boasted several other important advantages:
time of possession: 37:10-22:50
first downs: 27-18
third down conversions: 54% (6-14) vs. 43% (6-14)
So, why was the game close? The answer is obvious:
-3: The Cowboys' turnover differential, the highest since Dallas was -4 in the 2014 season opener. The last time the Cowboys won with a -3 or greater turnover differential? A similarly thrilling come-from-behind win in which they dominated the stat line: the 2007 Monday Night Football victory against the Buffalo Bills that was won by a (second) Nick Folk field goal. The Cowboys defense didn't help the cause; its string of 17 consecutive games with a takeaway ended on Sunday, one game short of the club record of 18, set in 1981. The last time the Cowboys won a game after failing to generate a turnover? 2009 at Kansas City - the game in which Miles Austin broke out.
2: Tony Romo interceptions, both of which were flukey (that's not to suggest that they weren't Romo's fault). In particular, the pick wherein Jason Witten reached back for a pass that was behind him looked a eerily like the almost-pick against the Titans last year. I know that Tom Coughlin proclaimed at halftime that the Giants had "earned" the turnovers, but that's poppycock; they, like almost all turnovers, should be attributed to Lady Luck. That Witten made a play to punch the ball out from Bernard Pollard last year and didn't this year says little other that, in these instances, you lose some and you win some. This time around, Witten lost.
17: The points the Cowboys surrendered thanks to turnovers, the highest total since Dallas surrendered 23 points off turnovers against the Giants in the 24-29 loss in Week 8, 2012 (after giving up 21 points off turnovers in a 18-34 loss to Chicago earlier in the season, in Week 4). This is where the Giants took back a bit of the Cowboys yardage advantage, as they accumulated 80 yards in fumble and interception returns.
But the Cowboys also helped out the Giants in other ways...
:07: The time remaining on the play clock when it turned red on the NBC telecast to indicate that it was getting close to running out. I don't have any idea how many times the Cowboys waited until the clock was "in the red" to snap the ball - usually with one or two seconds remaining - but for the better part of the game, it felt like it was the vast majority of snaps. In 2014, with Scott Linehan on board, it seemed like we saw a lot less of the maddening offensive process we witnessed in 2012-13: Romo standing at the line making calls until there was no time left on the clock. Last night, I felt distinctly that we were returning to a pre-Linehan universe.
10:27: the length of the Cowboys' opening drive. Dallas took the opening kickoff and executed a lengthy, deliberate, 17-play opening drive that had only two plays of more than eight yards. On that and Dallas' subsequent drive, they eschewed passing downfield, opting instead to get the ball to the perimeter, on a variety of quick hitches, running back passes, and bubble screens. Watching this, my thought was that the game plan was designed with the expectation that Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was going to send a lot of interior pressure, a la Jim Haslett in last year's home loss to the Redskins.
Instead, Spagnuolo sent very few blitzes, and those he did send were picked up rather easily by the Cowboys offensive line, tight ends (thank you Jason Witten) and running backs. Romo was hit only once on the night, and was sacked a grand total of zero times. While the Cowboys early game play managed to keep Romo clean, it also helped keep the Giants in the game. After fifteen minutes of play, the Cowboys had a whopping ten minute time of possession advantage, and had out-gained New York 87-48. But, as they changed directions on the field, they were looking up at the scoreboard and seeing a 3-3 tie.
1: The number of times the Cowboys threw intermediate or deep routes before their final two drives. The Cowboys' game plan appeared based on a decision that they they simply weren't going to push the ball downfield; look at the play-by-play: every Cowboys pass save one on drives other than the final two contains the word "short" in its description. The only exception to this was the controversial play wherein Terrence Williams drew a pass interference penalty when Romo threw to the end zone from the Giants' 18-yard line. This combination of short passing and lugubrious tempo seemed to lull the Cowboys' offense to sleep for the better part of the game.
On the final two drives, this changed abruptly. Romo managed completions of 15, 16, 21, 16, 24, 16, 13, eight, and eleven yards and, perhaps more importantly, commandeered a brisk, up-tempo offense. What eludes me is why, against a Giants team missing its top four safeties, its best pass rusher and its smart, veteran middle linebacker, the Cowboys opted to slow it down for so long. Against a wounded animal, why not go for the jugular and put it out of its misery? Were they really worried about protecting Romo, before being forced by circumstances to expose him on the final two drives to win? Color me mystified...
50: Lance Dunbar's passing yardage on the final drive. On the night, he caught eight passes for a cool 70 yards. Jerry Jones remarked recently about watching film on Mondays in 2014 and asking why Lance Dunbar didn't get more touches in the game. Because of this oversight, many Cowboys fans have wondered aloud why the team continues to employ him. Well, Jerry got his wish and now perhaps fans see why the team likes him. Dunbar is one of the Cowboys most explosive offensive players and a very difficult match-up in underneath zones.
212: The Cowboys running backs' combined rushing and receiving yards. On Sunday night, Romo was 12-12 for 131 yards throwing to his backs. In addition, they rushed 22 times for 81 yards (that's fewer than they had in any game last year). Certainly, that's not the kind of rushing production that we had hoped for, or that we grew accustomed to last season. However, as several pundits have pointed out, many of the passes to backs - particularly those to Dunbar - functioned as "extended handoffs." As we track the running backs in the wake of DeMarco Murray's departure, we must factor in total production, not just traditional carries.
8:01: The time left in the game when the Giants took their ten-point lead, at 23-13. From that point on, Tony Romo was 11-12 passing, for 148 yards and two touchdowns, both to Jason Witten. That translates to a cool 91.7 completion percentage. On the night, Number Nine accumulated a stunning 80 percent completion percentage. What makes this all the more impressive is the fact that he had at least four drops and a pick on the pass to Devin Street that might well have been a reception (in fact, it was one until the ball was jarred loose). In the process, Romo tied the NFL record for most consecutive games with a 60+ completion percentage (including playoffs), with a staggering 20.
Thanks to his astonishingly high completion percentage, Romo's QBR was a hefty 103.3 despite the two interceptions. That makes seven consecutive games in which Romo has had 100+ passer rating, tying the longest streak of his career. As Dan Graziano, ESPN's Giants beat reporter, noted, Number Nine is a "stone cold killer." Last year, he told reporters that he expected the best years of his career to be on the horizon. The way Romo has been playing of late serves to confirm the accuracy of his prediction. Want some other numbers? Enjoy these:
- It was the 24th fourth quarter comeback in Romo's career.
- Romo's yards per attempt was 7.9, the 55th of his career.
- Romo's 356 yards passing was the ninth-highest total of his career and the highest since the terrible loss tothe Packers in December of 2013.
- Sunday marked Romo's 46th 300+ yard passing games. On Sunday night, he passed Joe Montana (you may have heard of him?) for ninth most 300+ yard passing games in NFL history. This after he had only one 300+ yard passing game last season (Romo threw for 299 at Washington).
- Romo extended his streak of consecutive games (including playoffs) with multiple touchdown passes to seven, the longest streak of his career.
And this from the great Jordan Ross:
Tony Romo became just the 8th player in NFL history with an 80+ completion % and 36+ completions in a single game.— Jordan Ross (@TheJordanRoss) September 14, 2015
0: defensive touchdowns yielded by the Cowboys defense after an extended Giants drive (yes, they did give up a touchdown on a one-yard drive after the Trumaine McBride interception return). As was the case in the 2007 Buffalo game I referred to above, the Cowboys defense keep the team in the game until Romo could unpack his magician's hat. We noted the yardage totals and the third down conversion percentage above. What was most important was limiting the Giants to field goals on four separate occasions. Had any one of those resulted in a touchdown, it wold have been too much to overcome.
50: Sean Lee's number. The General hadn't suited up since the loss to the Bears in December 2013. Although I'm sure he has plenty of rust still to shake off, he looked in fine form, leading the team in tackles. As per usual.
24: Mo Claiborne's number. He and the rest of the Cowboys cornerbacks played a fine game. Before the game, pundits crowed that the Cowboys would have no answer for Odell Beckham, Jr.. Claiborne, Brandon Carr and Tyler Patmon limited him to five receptions (on eight targets) for a mere 44 yards. And only one of them- the first down near the goal line on the Giants' final drive - was particularly meaningful. In addition, Preston Parker caught only three balls (on six targets) for 26 yards, and Reuben Randle was targeted five times and ended up catching three for 23 yards. In total, Eli threw at one of his wideouts nineteen times and the Giants got 93 yards. That's a mere 4.9 yards per attempt.
19: the longest Giants pass in the game, to running back Shane Vereen. As did the Cowboys, New York struggled to push the ball downfield. They managed two downfield completions, both 16-yarders to OBJ. Besides those, all the decent gainers made by the Giants cam on short passes accompanied by nice YAC or a missed tackle.
38: yards rushing for the Giants on their final drive - well over a third of their total rushing yardage. After playing the run very well all night, the Cowboys appeared to lose some discipline late in the game, in their desperation to make a play. This was particularly apparent on two consecutive Rashad Jennings runs that gained 27 and seven yards. On both, the Cowboys allowed a hole to form by overpursuing. If they are to win in Philadelphia next week, they'll have to play much more disciplined football.
:17: second left on the playclock when the Giants snapped the ball after the protracted exchange between the referee and the clock operator with on 3rd and two with 4:20 remaining in the game. Once the game clock and play clock were finally set properly, the Giants were already lined up and ready to go; Eli Manning clearly told his teammates at the line that he wants to let the play clock run down. For some reason, however center Weston Richburg snapped it with 17 ticks remaining. At game's end, those were precious seconds.
But the New York Elis failed to drain off plenty of other time. In their final drive, for the plays where the game clock was still running, the lay clock read 11, 17, 10 and five seconds. If Eli and Co. had waited until there was :01 left on the clock to snap the ball on those four plays, they would have saved another 39 seconds. Today, the media is going to focus on the third down pass later in the drive that wasted perhaps another 35 seconds. At that point, they had already squandered a significant chuck of late-game clock.
247: the combined jersey numbers of Dez Bryant, Randy Gregory and Ron Leary. This was a costly victory; both Dez and Gregory are expected to miss 4-6 weeks and Leary will have an MRI on what appears to be a strained groin. Randy Gregory will be missed - the Cowboys rush dropped off after Gregory left the game with a high ankle sprain in the 3rd quarter - as will Leary's power (note that Mackenzie Bernadeau was on the field for the final two touchdown drives). The hardest loss to overcome, however, will be Bryant.
This is in part because he is one of the Cowboys' best players. But more than that is the fact that he plays one of their thinnest positions: outside receiver. In Cole Beasley and Lucky Whitehead,the Cowboys have two interior/ slot players who win with quickness. But their passing game relies on tall, physical receivers winning downfield; those guys simply aren't built for that action. For the foreseeable future, therefore, the Cowboys will have exactly two outside receivers: Terrence Williams and Devin Street. As I saw one Twitter wag comment: where are you Laurent Robinson...
.66: the percentage of Cowboys plays that were passes. On Sunday night, Dallas has a sizeable 45-23 pass-run distribution, which is exactly one snap short of a 2-1 ratio. Last season, I'll remind you, the Cowboys ran on 50.1% of their snaps. To assume they will win the same way as they did in 2014, as I've noted, is a failure of imagination, as teams must discover how they will win anew every year. Still, I am haunted that the early returns look more like the 2012-13 pass-heavy iterations of the team than that dominant, physical bunch we saw last season.
However, if we take out the pure pass situations - the last three minutes of the first half and the final two fourth quarter drives - the split was much closer to last year's: 23 runs and 27 passes. For a team that may well want to build a lead and then run off the clock in the fourth quarter, that seems a fair distribution, and one that was disrupted by the rash of turnovers that forced Dallas to abandon the run in the final eight minutes.
With this in mind, we must ask: was the running game effective? I looked at the Cowboys drives when running was a legitimate possibility, focusing particularly on instances where they had a first down and ran two times in a row. Check it out:
First drive (Randle): set offense up in a third-and-five and a third-and-two
Second drive (Randle): back-to-back runs gained eight yards.
Third Drive (McFadden): back-to-back runs gained eleven yards and a first down.
Fourth drive: final drive of first half
Fifth drive (Randle): set offense up in a third-and-one; had two more runs of five yards each.
Sixth drive (Randle): set offense up in a third-and-five
Seventh drive (McFadden): one carry, on second down, for a loss of two
The final two drives were in hurry-up mode.
You are free to draw your own conclusions, but it seems to me that the Cowboys ran the ball decently when they were in a position to run it. However, the fact that they were down by ten for much of the second half limited the amount that they could run.
And, finally, this gem. Enjoy!
Incredible. #CowboysNation pic.twitter.com/OQ0xnVTdKn— ✭ DCBlueStar ✭ (@DCBlueStar) September 14, 2015
If you listen carefully, you can hear a girl say "oh my God" when the snap goes awry. The cheer when the pass is completed is pretty awesome.