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What happened to the Cowboys?

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A once sound team has completely fallen apart and now face a rising opponent.

Dallas Cowboys v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys’ season has been a disappointment thus far. A team many tagged as a Super Bowl favorite has been mediocre, with five wins against five losses. Dallas now has a 0 point differential, having both scored and surrendered exactly 242 points. That’s the definition of mediocre.

They’re also trending downwards, having been outscored 64-16 the last two weeks. The season is on the brink with only six games remaining. Only a very strong closing run seems likely to earn a post-season reward.

Overall results

Looking at the Cowboys’ performance, the decline in every single phase of the game is stunning. The team enjoyed positive advantages in virtually every significant statistic over the first eight games of the season. The following are per-game numbers:

  • Point differential: +5.5
  • Yards gained differential: +46
  • Turnover differential: +0.38
  • Sacks differential: +2.13
  • Rushing yards differential: +46.8
  • QB rating differential: +2.4
  • QBR differential: +22.4

While the team’s overall record was a good but not great 5-3, each one of those metrics is the sign of a good team. A team that enjoys positive differentials in every category is a very good, balanced team. Dallas fans could rightly say they were a couple of plays against Green Bay and Los Angeles from being 7-1.

My have times changed. Over the last two games every single one of those metrics have swung dramatically from positive to negative:

Over the span of eight days the Cowboys were grossly outperformed in every phase of the game, losing every single statistical battle by a significant margin. Yes, it’s impossible to replace three All Pro-caliber players. But the 45 guys who’ve suited up the last two weeks simply haven’t played very well. The coaching staff has to bear responsibility as well. Any time performance from a large group of individuals declines simultaneously leadership has to be questioned.

Two undeniable trends have emerged in this two-game debacle:

  1. The offense has been anemic, dropping from 28+ points per game to 8.
  2. The defense completely fell apart in the second half after being competitive for the first half.

Offensive struggles

The struggles of the offense lie with the passing game as the team has rushed for more than 100 yards in each contest. Specifically, the team’s third down and red zone performances have plummeted.

The Cowboys’ 45.5% third down conversion rate over the first 8 games would rank 5th in the NFL, tied with New England. The team’s 29.6% rate over the last two games would rank 31st, ahead of only Cleveland. When your performance drops from elite to (nearly) worst in the league the problems extend beyond a couple missing players.

The Cowboys’ red zone performance was also among the very best in the league over the team’s first 8 games. Dallas averaged 5.4 points per RZ opportunity, scoring touchdowns two of every three times. Over the last two weeks the offense has scored only a single touchdown. Perhaps more importantly, the red zone opportunities have dried up, dropping from four per game to only two.

Defensive collapse

Looking at defensive drive charts from the Atlanta and Philadelphia games we see a defense that was initially competitive but eventually was completely dominated.

After three pretty good series against Atlanta the Cowboys essentially gave up 24 points on four straight drives (only an end-of-half kneel-down didn’t yield points).

The Eagles chart is head-shaking. Facing one of the very best offenses in the league the Cowboys defense played a stellar first half. After giving up a long touchdown drive to start the game Dallas forced five punts and a missed field goal. The second half, however, the defense looked absolutely pathetic, not able to stop the Eagles until down by 30+ points.

For those counting, here’s how the defense has done on the six Falcons/Eagles drives after halftime:

That’s 38 of a possible 42 points on six drives and nine yards per play. That is unbelievably bad. Remember, both of these contests were competitive games when the second half started. The defense was absolutely terrible, barely a blip in the road.

Thursday’s match up is no gimme

I’ve seen many believing the Chargers represent an easy opponent but odds makers have pegged Thursday’s Thanksgiving match up a pick’em game despite Dallas enjoying home field advantage. I agree with their assessment.

The Chargers’ 4-6 record belies the fact they’re a better-than-average NFL team this season. Consider:

  • Since opening the season 0-4 they’ve compiled a 4-2 record
  • During those six games they’ve outscored opponents by an average of 25-17.
  • The Chargers generated 15 turnovers in those six games, while committing only five.
  • The team’s six losses include four by three points or less.
  • Overall the Chargers are 2-5 in one-score games. The analytics guys will tell you teams generally go .500 in one-score games with records above or below that mark largely the result of luck. Had the Chargers enjoyed a bit of good luck they’d have gone 4-3 in those games and their 6-4 record would be tied for 1st in the NFC West.
  • The Chargers have a +25 overall point differential compared to the Cowboys 0 point differential.

In short, the Chargers are a solid team playing their best ball of the season against a wounded, demoralized Cowboys outfit. Jason Garrett, the rest of the Cowboys staff and the players themselves quickly need to turn their performances around to salvage a once-promising season.