Something just didn’t feel right. Here is what I wrote in last week’s column:
Through 12 weeks, the Cowboys had the strongest pass identity in the NFL. Then, against the Raiders in week 13, the Cowboys were pretty run-heavy. And against the Bears in week 14, Dallas produced its best game of the season on the ground. But Tony Romo attempted just 20 passes, and the Cowboys had their second lowest pass ratio of the season (behind a blowout win over the Rams). The weather played a factor against the Bears, and the running game was working, but in general, Dallas is at its best when Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten are getting lots of touches. Against the Bears, a run-heavy game plan makes some sense; my guess is we’ll see a more pass-happy performance out of the Cowboys against Green Bay this weekend.
Well, at least I nailed one prediction this year. The Cowboys implosion against the Packers provided Nitroglycerin to the fire burning with second-guessers and Romo critics. First, some context: the Packers won with a Game Script of -9.7, the second lowest average by any winning team in 2013. And the Cowboys ran just 18 times, despite DeMarco Murray rushing for 134 yards on those 18 carries.
By my count, the most pass-happy games of the season have been:
- Atlanta calling 45 pass plays and just 16 runs in a win over the Rams where the Falcons held an average lead of 13.4 points.
- The Packers, when Aaron Rodgers was healthy but Eddie Lacy was not, calling 46 passes and 24 runs (including three kneel downs!) despite posting a Game Script of 17.9 against Washington.
- Dallas passing on 85.7% of all plays (54-9 ratio) despite holding an average lead of 1.4 points against the Vikings in week 9.
- Dallas, by recording a Game Script of 9.7 against Green Bay while passing 51 times and rushing just eighteen.
So when Tony Romo threw two late interceptions, the narrative had already been written: in addition to Romo being a choker, the burning question was why didn’t Dallas call more running plays? The Cowboys led 26-3 at halftime, yet called just seven runs in the second half? How is this even possible?
But as Bill Barnwell points out, this isn’t as much of a black and white issue as you might think. Dallas had five second half drives:
- Drive #1: Leading 26-10 (the Packers scored on the opening drive of the half), the Cowboys call five runs and five pass plays on a 10-play, 48-yard drive for a field goal. Dallas faced 1st-and-10 five times on this drive, and ran on four of those plays. A holding penalty on a negated running play ruined the drive, forcing Dallas to settle for a field goal.
- Drive #2: Leading 29-17, the Cowboys go three-and-out. Leading by 12 in the third quarter is hardly clock-killin’ time. A first down incompletion to Murray led to two more pass plays, but only with the benefit of hindsight can you really rip into Garrett for not calling yet another run here on 1st-and-10 (or for not running on 2nd-and-10, or 3rd-and-10). Had Dallas won the game, nobody would remember this series.
- Drive #3: Leading 29-24 with 12 minutes left in the first quarter, the Cowboys ran Murray on 1st-and-10, the 5th out of 7 opportunities to do so in the second half. After that, the Cowboys did in fact become very pass-happy, as Romo threw on eight of the next nine plays. The only problem with criticizing that approach is that it led to an 80-yard touchdown drive.
- Drive #4: Leading 36-31, the Cowboys took possession at their own 20-yard line with 4:17 remaining. The Packers had all their timeouts. At this point, a three-and-out gives Green Bay the ball back with 3:53 remaining. Even if the Cowboys get one first down, and get that on third down on the initial set of downs, the Packers will get the ball back with 1:54 remaining.That’s too much time for an offense that had scored four touchdowns on each of its four second half possessions. So on 1st down, the Cowboys called a pass play which was incomplete. On 2nd down, Romo was sacked. But on 3rd down, Romo hit Dez Bryant for the first down.
You probably didn’t hear too much about that series, since it ended well. On the next 1st down, Dallas ran Murray for four yards. Two more runs wouldn’t have done much unless they gained six yards — the Packers could get the ball back with 1:54 and one timeout. Getting a first down is the priority in this situation, not running the clock.
Of course, as we all know, Romo threw a pass on a run/pass option, and Sam Shields recorded the interception.
- Drive #5: Trailing 37-36, the Cowboys called two pass plays, and Romo’s pass for Cole Beasley was picked off when the receiver ran the wrong route.
It’s easy, and maybe a little bit fun, to rip Garrett and Romo and Jerry Jones. But I don’t think the pass-happy play-calling was the problem. Allowing 34 second-half points was the problem, and more runs up the middle wouldn’t have solved that problem, either. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, the problems on defense don’t seem to be getting any better.
Below are the Game Scripts data from each game in week 15; you can view the Game Scripts data from each game this season at the always up-to-date Game Scripts page here.
In other Game Scripts news, the Rams and Chiefs both had big wins in week 15; as a result, they’re now the only two teams this season with three Game Scripts of at least 15 points. Robert Quinn should be the defensive player of the year (with all apologies to J.J. Watt), and Chris Long, Michael Brockers, Kendall Langford, Eugene Sims, and William Hayes give Jeff Fisher the dream defensive line he always seems to have.
Other than the Packers, week 15 saw no other crazy comebacks: only four teams won with negative Game Scripts, and three of those teams had Game Scripts of greater than -1.0. This excludes the insane Titans/Cardinals game, where Tennessee scored 17 points in the final 3:30 minutes, only to lose in overtime after failing to go for two at the end of regulation.
In addition to the Packers game, only two other teams posted positive Game Scripts and passed more frequently than their opponent. In both cases, though, the Game Script was effectively zero. In a whacky Browns/Bears game featuring three return touchdowns and three more touchdowns of 40+ yards from scrimmage, Cleveland posted a Game Script of +0.7. The Browns, as usual, operated a pass-heavy game plan: without Willis McGahee, Edwin Baker was Cleveland’s leading rusher. Chicago opted for a more balanced approach in Jay Cutler’s first game back.
The other game to go “off script” was in Miami. The Patriots were slightly more pass-happy than Miami despite a narrowly positive Game Script, but that result doesn’t require any nuanced analysis.
But the Chargers approach was pretty unusual. It’s no secret that teams have tried some version of the “run the ball/keep Peyton Manning off the field” offense for years. In fact, the Chargers employed this model in a week 10 loss where the team won the time of possession battle, 38:03 to 12:57. In week 15, San Diego rushed 44 times and held the ball for 38:49.
So why did it work this time around? In week 10, Denver scored 28 points on its first six drives, while San Diego was held to just 6 points on the Chargers first seven drives. In week 15, Denver was held to 10 points on its first six drives, while San Diego had 24 points on its first five drives. San Diego had a Game Script of -9.0 in week 10, and +3.8 in week 15. Winning the time of possession battle looks great when you score lots of points, and is useless when you allow lots of points. That kind of makes looking at time of possession superfluous, but that doesn’t make for a good narrative. While Ryan Mathews had a great game (29 carries for 127 yards), the big difference was holding Manning to just 6.5 ANY/A this time around, compared to the 10.3 average he produced in week ten.