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Crunching Cowboys stats: The numbers against the Patriots point to big problems

It was just four plays plus an overall nauseating special teams performance that doomed Dallas.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New England Patriots Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

There is no question that the loss to the New England Patriots was a bitter one for the Dallas Cowboys and their fans. Every week, we take a look at some key statistics and numbers from each game to see what they tell us. In this edition, there are two things that seem to emerge. First, most of the reasons for the loss are clear. Secondly, and perhaps a bit surprisingly, the Cowboys did better on offense and defense than you might realize.

Before we delve into the data, however, something else deserves mention: The horribly inclement weather. We all could see it was raining, but based on some comments on social media, the video did not capture how bad the wind and rain was at times. While we tend to focus on how the Cowboys struggled, David Helman of the mothership confirmed what I saw. Neither team was able to do very much offensively.

Now, let’s get to the specifics.

Offensively, the Cowboys were very competitive

Yes, they missed a lot of plays. Yes, Amari Cooper was shut out. But Dallas still out-gained New England 321 to 282 yards. More importantly, look at the total yards on each team’s scoring plays: 160 for the Cowboys, and only 53 for the Patriots. That has another key stat implied that is coming up, but the fact is that Dallas was more able to drive the field and at least put some points up than the home team. Unfortunately, the Cowboys were not good at all on third down, only converting 2 of 13 opportunities, or a dismal 13%. Still, Dak Prescott and company had a better showing than Tom Brady and his crew, with a few notable exceptions we will look at later.

That says things about the defense

While Dallas couldn’t get into the end zone, this was against the number one defense in the league, one that just doesn’t give up many scores. And their own defense did a very good job when they weren’t stuck deep in their own end of the field. They held the Patriots to a 21% conversion rate on third down (3 of 14), and limited Brady to only 181 yards passing. That should have been good enough for a win. The reasons it wasn’t are easy to spot.

The turnovers

Technically there was only one in the game, the interception thrown by Prescott. But for all intents and purposes, the blocked punt was the same as a sack-fumble. The result was two extremely short fields, including only 12 yards to go on the touchdown, that led to 10 of New England’s points. Had Dallas just managed to give Chris Jones room to get that punt off, this game might have turned out very differently.

The phantom tripping

Twice, the refs threw flags for tripping, once on Tyron Smith and the second time on Travis Frederick. Both times, replay didn’t show much that looked worthy of a penalty, especially on Frederick.

You can hear Troy Aikman criticizing both calls in that clip. Just after, he went off on Mike Pereria, who was trying to defend the officials.

And if you think this is just homerism talking, consider that the NFL has admitted that those two flags should not have been thrown. Not that it does one whit of good.

Admittedly, even if those flags had not been thrown, there is no guarantee that the Cowboys could have gotten touchdowns on the drives, but those two penalties made sure they didn’t. Certainly, Dallas should have done better overall to avoid letting those bad calls affect the outcome. All teams face bad calls at some point. It is not productive to blame losses on those. They are just one thing good teams overcome and bad teams don’t. Right now, the Cowboys seem to be squarely in the latter group.

The doom

Finally, the last thing is what really cost the Cowboys the game - and something that has been hurting them all season long. That is their terrible, horrible, no good, very bad special teams. They directly gave the Patriots the chance to score the winning points in the first quarter on that blocked punt. They repeatedly mishandled kickoffs, and there were the completely inexplicable and inexcusable back-to-back penalties trying to punt the ball later in the game.

This is a unit that has not been ready for prime time all year. Bill Belichick stated that he saw a weakness there that he was able to exploit. That is typical of his superb coaching, but any team that does not realize how bad Dallas is at teams is blind, and probably deaf as well.

We can point to bad play after bad play. We can tabulate how in almost every game STs lead to the Cowboys coming out on the short end of the “hidden yards” aspect of the game. (They lost that one to New England by 247 yards of field position.) What we are unable to figure out is why. It shouldn’t be talent, although the loss of Kavon Frazier to IR was apparently much bigger than we realized.

All we can do is make an inference, and that inference is that the staff has no idea how to prepare and coach the special teams to do even a halfway competent job. That has been an accusation pointed at Keith O’Quinn all season, but it is becoming evident that the problem doesn’t stop with him. This is especially true given the absolute lack of any correction or improvement as the season has progressed.

I’m sure Jason Garrett would make a statement about how he has not done a good enough job fixing this. Well, that would simply be acknowledging the blatantly obvious. If the Cowboys were overcoming this issue in the other phases of the game, it would not be something to build a case for moving on from Garrett. They clearly have not found a way around it, and it is becoming a surprising centerpiece for the argument that Garrett’s tenure with the Cowboys is due to end.

The other major issue for the team has been the almost weekly slow start, but that offers an interesting thing to consider. In most games, including the most recent loss, the team has done better as the game progressed. After all, they didn’t turn the ball over after the interception, in conditions that absolutely favored more fumbles and interceptions. That interception came just 43 seconds into the second quarter. All their points came after that.

Why does this team seem to find its feet and at least be competitive after bad starts? I submit that it is because the players take over and start to find ways to get the job done, at least on offense and defense. In other words, it seems to be a case of overcoming the coaching. The Cowboys are one of many NFL teams that script their first fifteen or so plays on offense each game. It is while that script is being played out that the slow start happens. Once they get past that, the team starts to adjust and respond. Some of that can be attributed to Kellen Moore. That could be due to having someone (hint, hint) deeply involved in the scripting, who then lets Moore do things his way the rest of the game, with what seem to be much better results. The rest of it would likely be Prescott having more freedom to make inputs to what is happening at the moment.

Moore and Prescott are of course deeply involved in the scripting, so you wonder just why it seems to go so poorly. All I can offer is to look at who becomes much less of a factor once the game gets past those pre-canned plays.

In total, it is a grim picture, and not one that offers a lot of hope for now.