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Crunching Cowboys stats: Overcoming adversity in Minnesota

When you look into the numbers, the win was even more impressive.

Dallas Cowboys v Minnesota Vikings
Not pointing any fingers here...
Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

It feels so good when the Dallas Cowboys win a game that nearly everyone expected them to lose. Even those of us who thought they had a chance against the Minnesota Vikings were not exactly brimming with confidence. Yet win they did, and not only tightened their grip on the NFC East, they are squarely in the hunt for the number one seed in the NFC.

The big story was, of course, the 325-yard, two-touchdown performance by Cooper Rush. However, a closer look at the stats reveals just how hard this win actually was. There are also some very interesting numbers about how much this team has changed. Let’s take a look.

Minus two turnover margin

It is one of the most consistent predictors of success in the league over time. If you lose the turnover battle, you almost always lose the game. Dallas came into this game having feasted off of takeaways, but against Minnesota they came up dry, while losing an interception and a fumble to the Vikings. Even being minus one leads to defeat 78% of the time (based on the most recent study I could find) and being down two just makes it worse.

That is why the Cowboys needed every bit of Rush’s outstanding debut as a starter, plus a couple of lucky breaks along the way like Amari Cooper’s juggling catch of a rebound off Bashaud Breeland. That was a deep hole they dug for themselves, and climbing out is just one of the many obstacles they had to face.

The Cowboys had to overcome terrible field position

Returning to a favorite stat, the “hidden yards” represented by where the team had to begin its drives was one that Dallas was behind - badly. This is related to that turnover stat. They had been feasting off of the many takeaways they had prior to the bye, but as has been repeatedly observed that is almost impossible to maintain. The law of averages finally caught up with them. As a result, the average starting field position for them was their own 21. Aided by their own takeaways, the Vikings were nine yards better, with their own 30-yard line their average starting point. The Cowboys’ best starting point was their own 32, and only one other was better than the 25-yard line you get after a touchback on a kickoff. Two possessions started inside their own 10, and three more were at the 20 or closer.

By contrast, Minnesota had four drives that started between their own 33- and 48-yard lines. Not only was Dallas having to drive the length of the field for all their scores, their defense had to stifle the Vikings after they repeatedly had good field position. Short fields usually help teams win. This is something that took both the offense and defense to surmount.

Penalties

Once again, Dallas had a penalty problem. They were flagged eleven times for a total of 96 yards against seven for 57 for their opponent. Normally there is some frustration for foolish mistakes, but even the announcers for the game were pointing out how shaky some of the flags were against the Cowboys, especially on the fourth quarter drive where Minnesota took the lead with a field goal. Three questionable calls, one on Tarell Basham and two on Randy Gregory, kept that drive alive and got the Vikings to point-blank range.

Even if you don’t blame poor officiating, this was just another disadvantage that the Cowboys had to fight through. It does have to be pointed out that the zebras wound up helping Dallas at the most crucial time when they stopped the clock on the illegal second time out in a row between plays called by Mike Zimmer. Had they just ignored the second attempt to call a time out, as is correct, the Cowboys would have faced third and 16 rather than the third and 11 they had before the winning touchdown. Of course, it should be mentioned that Ezekiel Elliott did get exactly 16 yards on the next play, so it might not have mattered in the end.

Allowing only 1 for 13 on third downs

Now we get to one of the ways that Dallas overcame all those negative factors with this incredibly positive one. On their opening drive for a touchdown the Vikes converted a third-and-two that included a declined defensive holding penalty against Jayron Kearse. And outside of other penalties, that was it. Twelve more times Minnesota would attempt to pick up a third down, and without laundry on the field they were totally impotent.

The general consensus has been that Dan Quinn has indeed wrought some important changes for the defense. They still give up some big plays at inopportune moments, but they also have been getting crucial stops as well. On Sunday night, that happened like clockwork. Coming into the game against the Cowboys, the Vikings were converting their third downs at a 40% clip, right at the median for the NFL. So this was not just beating up on a bottom of the barrel offense. It was a legitimate standout performance by the defense.

There may be no more important measurement of defensive effectiveness than the third-down conversion rate allowed. It gets the ball back for your offense, making it almost as impactful as a takeaway while being much more sustainable. It is very much a turnaround from the hot mess of 2020. How have they done it? Well, here is one contributing factor.

Keeping the offense hot

Rush’s first NFL start was a major personal accomplishment as well as vital to getting the all important win. But he also helped set a significant team record.

If you weren’t aware, 400 yards of offense is a bit of a benchmark for an outstanding performance. Some of the things mentioned earlier partially explain why this did not lead to more points, but given that the goal for a good backup quarterback is to be able to come in and get a win or two in the starter’s absence, this just adds to the comfort level we should have with Rush filling that role. From a broader perspective, many teams that do hit the 400 yard mark do so with the so-called “garbage time” stats, or piling up yards against a soft or prevent defense in a game that is out of reach. The Cowboys have not gotten a single yard that way in 2021. Most of it has been done when they were leading. Speaking of which...

They just don’t fall behind much

As Bobby Belt informed us:

Even against Tom Brady and the defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they were always in the game. And even when they do get behind (which is not much) that defense keeps things close while demonstrating how far it has come.

A potent and consistent offense plus a stubborn and equally consistent defense is a rather good combination to have.

The win over Minnesota was much more than a feel good story about a journeyman backup quarterback having his day. It was an illustration of just how good and resilient this Dallas team has become. Winning football games in the NFL is hard, even when you have what turns out to be an easy schedule, as the Cowboys have. They have the second-longest win streak behind the Green Bay Packers who have played one more game than Dallas since losing the season opener. The Packers, along with the Los Angeles Rams, the Arizona Cardinals, and the Buccaneers, are now the competition in the fight for the NFC bye. No matter who you are, you have to respect what America’s Team is putting together.

Yes, they are ice skating in Hades.

And one more fun thing

Some records are important. Others just make for great trivia.

Both against Minny and both thrown by redheads. Go figure.