After so many disheartening and even depressing games for the Dallas Cowboys, the 31-28 triumph over the Minnesota Vikings provided a lot of fun and interesting numbers to consider. There were a couple of record-setting performances. A spectacular catch. And some real validation of the coaching staff.
We’ll touch on several things, but there is going to be a primary focus in this review of stats and data from the game. It is something of a return to an old theme for yours truly. For the past few seasons, the Cowboys have lost a lot of games at least partly because they lost the field position battle. In this game, winning that field position contest not only contributed to the win, it may well have been the most important factor.
First, the big numbers.
Average starting position for drives: Cowboys own 38, Vikings own 24
This is what former Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells called “hidden yardage.” It is a way of determining how far each team has to go to score a touchdown, or get into field goal range. Parcells claimed that every 100 yards accumulated this way was worth about seven points. Another way to look at this is by adding up all the starting field positions from the game, which gives these two totals:
Cowboys 417, Vikings 235
Now, Parcells may not have a solid statistical basis for his seven points per 100 hidden yards, but that advantage for Dallas was still significant. It allowed them to overcome an advantage in yardage gained from scrimmage and big plays for the Vikings. Minnesota outgained the Cowboys 430 to 376 yards on the afternoon. They had twice as many plays of 20 or more yards in the game. They were more efficient on third down, countered somewhat by Dallas converting two of three fourth down attempts.
And it truly helped the Cowboys overcome a really superb performance by Kirk Cousins. He completed 22 of 30 passes for 314 yards, way too many of them to Adam Thielen. Cousins had over 100 more yards than Andy Dalton would, while matching Dalton’s three TD passes. Oh, and Cousins did not have an interception, whereas Dalton did. And Dalton got away with one just before the game-winning touchdown, when Kris Boyd let a pass go right off his hands. A pick there would have sealed a win for the Vikings. For several plays in the second half, Cousins had a perfect passer rating, and finished with 140.1. You may not like that metric, but that is still indicative of a very strong game.
Still, the Cowboys survived his performance. One reason was that the additional 182 hidden yards Dallas amassed made up for the passing yards Cousins had over Dalton.
While it is not really the focus here, it also has to be acknowledged that Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard had a very good day running the ball, contributing 103 and 60 yards respectively. Counting all runs, Dallas prevailed in the ground game 180 yards to 125. Dalvin Cook led all rushers with 115, but he was all the Vikings had, and wound up with a lower yards per carry than either Elliott or Pollard. Kudos to the defense for not letting him take over. Where the defense forces the opponent to punt the ball is also a big part of field position, and they had some key stops in the game. It wasn’t always perfect, as the gross offensive numbers illustrate, but it was good enough.
Starting in plus territory
A component of field position is having drives that start on the opponent’s side of the 50, they are a big help. When you get that kind of a gift, you fail if you don’t get a touchdown, and fail miserably if you come away with no points whatsoever. The Cowboys had two drives that started in Minnesota territory, at their 30, which led to the first touchdown of the game, and then at their 48. The latter only netted three points, but a contributing factor was that Dallas only had 49 seconds before halftime and one time out to work with. Getting the field goal was still extremely useful, given the three point margin of victory. The Cowboys would also take possession at the Minnesota 29-yard line on downs at the end of the game, but not scoring because they just needed to do a couple of Landry shifts to win the game is just as good a result.
Conversely, the Vikings never started a possession in Dallas territory. Their one takeaway was at their own 17, and they would wind up punting the ball back to the Cowboys.
The most common way you get in plus territory like that is by taking the ball away, and that is literally what Donovan Wilson did almost single-handedly. Both of the short fields for Dallas were off fumbles, the first where Wilson arrived with DeMarcus Lawrence to sack Cousins and simply ripped the ball away from the quarterback. The second was on a real slobber-knocker of a hit on Dalvin Cook after he caught a pass, leading to a Lawrence recovery and then Jaylon Smith grabbing the ball away from Lawrence. It looked a little strange, but Lawrence had gotten up off the turf without being touched down, and by taking the ball as Vikings converged on Lawrence, Smith was able to get an additional 21 yards, setting Dallas up just across the 50 for that quick field goal drive.
If you were keeping track, that means the Cowboys also won the turnover battle two to one. That is usually a good sign, and it paid off.
The return game is always a major component of field position. This was a mixed bag, as Tony Pollard brought a kick return out of the end zone that went nowhere, but CeeDee Lamb had a nice 20-yard punt return, and 48 total yards on three returns. That may not seem like much, but the Cowboys only gave up a total of three yards on a single punt return by the Vikings. That means Dallas’ new punter, Hunter Niswander, netted 46.3 yards per punt while Minnesota settled for just 35.3, despite Britton Colquitt actually punting the ball deeper on average. The decision to replace Chris Jones is paying some immediate dividends, as Niswander also dropped two inside the Minnesota 20.
Although they don’t show up directly in field position, Parcells included penalty yards in his hidden category. For some time, the Cowboys have just not been good in this area, usually getting flagged more than the opponent - often significantly more. But just like with the other elements here, they won the penalty battle. They only got penalized four times for 30 yards. The Vikings drew eight flags for a total of 80 yards, and even though they overcame a couple, it still helped in such a tight contest.
And one missed call by the refs went the Cowboys’ way, as on the first fumble they could have been flagged for a helmet-to-helmet hit. We won’t complain, though. There have certainly been missed calls that really hurt Dallas earlier this season, so it is nice to get one back.
Make no mistake, this one goes down as a total team win for the Cowboys. That includes the errors they had as well as the successes in all phases. This is one game where these hidden yards were not just a difference-maker, they were what made this win possible. They all add up during a game, and for a change, they added up to a victory for a success-starved team.