So, What's Wrong with the Dallas Cowboys Offense?

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So, What's Wrong with the Dallas Cowboys Offense?
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Everybody's talking about the Dallas Cowboys defense, which has been torn apart by injuries and is on pace to threaten all-time records in yardage allowed. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is being criticized heavily for his inability to compensate for what has ailed that unit, and thus it's panic time. 

I get it, but what about that Dallas offense? It's not as though injuries are much of an excuse for that unit, yet the 'Boys have been out of sync offensively of late, with arguably their worst offensive performance of the year coming in a 49-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. 

They had top back DeMarco Murray return to the lineup for that game, but Dallas still could only muster nine first downs all night while converting 0-of-9 on third downs against a defense that is softer than the numbers indicate. 

Quarterback Tony Romo had the second-lowest yardage total (128) and the second-lowest completion percentage (41.7) of his career. It was also one of only five career games in which he has averaged fewer than 5.5 yards per attempt (minimum of 18 attempts). 

But five weeks ago against Washington, Romo averaged only 5.7 yards per attempt, which was the sixth-lowest total of his career. Four weeks ago in Philadelphia, his 69.2 passer rating was lower than either of those two games. He's had 20 career performances with a rating below 73.0, and three of those have taken place in the last month. 

Considering that Dallas is averaging a league-low 19.9 rushing attempts per game to go along with a mediocre 3.9 yards per carry and 77.0 yards per game, it's no surprise that this offense has so often failed to get the job done in 2013. 

Let's break it down a little more...

 

They aren't taking shots

Romo has become the league's most expensive dink-and-dunk quarterback. Previously known as a gunslinger, he's averaging a career-low 7.2 yards per throw. With wide receivers Dez Bryant and the talented rookie Terrance Williams at his disposal, that's astonishing. 

Of quarterbacks who have taken at least 50 percent of their teams' snaps, only two have thrown the ball 20-plus yards less frequently than Romo, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Tony Romo, deep passing
% of attempts (rank) Acc. % (rank) TD (rank) INT (rank)
2013 10.0 (19th) 45.9 (6th) 7 (3rd) 1 (1st)

Pro Football Focus (ranking out of 22)

What's strange is that Romo actually has the second-highest touchdown-to-interception ratio and the sixth-highest accuracy percentage on passes of 20 yards or more, but he just isn't throwing that deep very often. 

Usually, this is an indication that a quarterback's pass protection has been poor. And in the past, that absolutely explained why Romo didn't typically throw deep as often as his peers.

This year, Romo has been pressured on 35.1 percent of his dropbacks, which according to Pro Football Focus is the 11th-lowest rate among 31 qualifying quarterbacks. But the Cowboys have been throwing a lot, so his overall pressure total is still quite high (sixth in the NFL), and both numbers are up from 2012, although not substantially.

When under pressure, his sack percentage, completion percentage and accuracy percentage have barely changed at all from 2012. The interior offensive line has been slightly steadier, right tackle Doug Free has been surprisingly reliable and Tyron Smith has done a really nice job on Romo's blind side. Those two tackles grade out in the top 15 at PFF, and the line itself has the PFF's ninth-best pass-blocking efficiency rating, so it's hard to pin this completely on the unit protecting the Dallas quarterback.

When Romo struggled with only 14 completions on 30 attempts against the Detroit Lions in Week 8, he was pressured on 50 percent of his dropbacks, according to PFF. He was only 3 for 14 on those 16 plays under pressure. He was also pressured over 40 percent of the time in Weeks 6 and 7, completing just 14 of 32 passes. That means that within a three-week stretch, in which Romo was one of the most heavily pressured quarterbacks in the league, the 33-year-old completed just 37 percent of his pressured passes. 

But the line still received positive grades in two of those three weeks. The pressure instead might have been related more closely to the lack of balance that came from not having DeMarco Murray, who was injured early in Week 6 and didn't return until Week 9.

So this might very well be a play-calling problem more than anything else. I mean, Romo's hands are somewhat tied when the offense is frequently running plays in which all five of his receivers are capping their routes five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. An example from New Orleans:

NFL Game Pass
It appears Bill Callahan has simply been too conservative in his first year as Dallas' offensive coordinator, but head coach Jason Garrett (who has broad control of the offense) and Romo (who is apparently more involved this year) both deserve their share of blame, too. 

 

They aren't sustaining drives

Again, Dallas was 0-for-9 on third down against the Saints, amplifying their issues on offense.

According Pro Football Reference, the Cowboys have converted only 22.8 percent of plays 3rd-and-5 or longer, which is the third-lowest rate in the NFL. And on third down in general, they rank 29th in football. Pretty ridiculous for a team that features so many good receiving options. 

This, again, goes back to that lack of balance. It's not easy to get into an offensive groove when your back is giving you only a yard or two on first down, which is exactly what was happening with Joseph Randle and the rest of Murray's scrub replacements during that rough patch. As a result, you dig early holes that are tough to get out of. 

When the Cowboys manage to put themselves in decent position, they're fine. In fact, they rank above the league average with a 60 percent conversion rate on third down with three or fewer yards to go, according to PFR.

Thanks to top-notch return man Dwayne Harris and an opportunistic defense, Dallas has enjoyed the sixth-best average starting field position in the league, but the Cowboys are averaging only 5.2 plays per drive, which is the fifth-lowest rate in the league. 

Cowboys: Lack of drive sustainability
Plays per drive Third down %
Total 5.2 33
Rank 29th 30th

Pro Football Reference/NFL.com

How do they fix this? It's not as though they weren't running well early against the Saints, but they still couldn't convert third downs, so it can't simply be better play-calling or pass protection. 

Part of it is Romo simply having to be better. He just hasn't been himself on third down. A good example came in the third quarter against the Saints, failing to see Jabari Greer breaking off a wide-open Terrance Williams on the left sideline. Greer almost picked off the pass intended for Jason Witten, and the 'Boys had to punt.

NFL Game Pass
Such missed opportunities have been rampant.

 

They aren't balanced

This naturally ties into what we discussed above, because it's extremely hard to be successful on offense when you're throwing the ball as often as Dallas. The Cowboys have thrown the ball a ridiculous 66.3 percent of the time, according to TeamRankings.com

Check out the company that puts them in...

Pass play percentage, 2013
Pass play % PPG (rank) Record
1. Atlanta Falcons 70.0 20.7 (23rd) 2-7
2. Cleveland Browns 66.6 19.1 (26th) 4-5
3. Dallas Cowboys 66.3 27.4 (4th) 5-5
4. Miami Dolphins 65.4 21.4 (20th) 4-5
5. Pittsburgh Steelers 65.2 19.9 (25th) 3-6
6. Jacksonville Jaguars 63.3 12.8 (32nd) 1-8

TeamRankings.com

I realize Murray was out for a few weeks and Randle, Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar failed to execute in his place. But the Cowboys have been talking about a desire for more balance for about half a decade now, and nothing has come to fruition—at least not consistently.

Callahan took the play-calling reigns from Garrett this fall, but the system itself hasn't changed. It's possible that's also the problem. Zone-oriented blocking principles haven't done much to help the offense because they aren't being creative enough in the running game. 

Murray is averaging 4.9 yards per carry, which is the second-highest mark in the league among running backs who qualify, and yet the Cowboys are on pace to rush for only 1,232 yards, which would be the 16th-lowest 16-game total in NFL history and the lowest in team history. That makes no sense whatsoever.

In breaking down the numbers further, I found that the Cowboys are clearly better on third down with Murray than without him, that they're also still remarkably unbalanced, regardless of whether or not he's in the lineup. 

Balance and third downs with/without DeMarco Murray
Third down % Pass play %
Before Murray's injury 38.5 68.1
Since Murray's injury 28.1 69.3
With Murray in lineup 34.5 69.6
Without Murray in lineup 27.6 65.6

Pro Football Reference/NFL.com/TeamRankings.com

That just can't happen. 

 

They aren't utilizing their primary weapons enough

So far, we've pinned the lion's share of these problems on Garrett and Callahan, but the personnel has been far from perfect. Romo and his teammates deserve a share of the blame. It's not Callahan's or Garrett's fault that Randle, Dunbar and Tanner were completely ineffective in Murray's stead.

And it's not their fault that Romo, Bryant and Witten have inexplicably struggled to get on the same page. 

After a hot start to the season, Bryant has been held to fewer than 75 yards in four of the last five weeks. From the midway point of the 2012 season through Week 5 of this season, he scored a league-high 16 touchdowns in 13 games. Since then, he has just two scores in five games. 

And one year after breaking the single-season NFL record for catches by a tight end, Witten is on pace to catch only 75 passes for 851 yards, both of which would be his lowest totals since 2006. 

It's not as though Bryant and Witten are being targeted significantly less often than they were last year. Romo threw their way 18 times per game in 2012 and has done so 16 times per game this season, and that gap doesn't take into account the fact that Dallas is running about six fewer plays per game than it did last year. 

But those play-per-drive and play-per-game totals have dropped mainly because Romo has been completing passes to his top two weapons a lot less frequently on a per-target basis. Bryant caught 67.2 percent of the balls thrown his way last year, but that figure has dropped to 58.4 this season. Witten was at 75.3 in 2012 but has sunk to 66.2 in 2013. 

And then there's the drop-off on that all-important third down:

Bryant/Witten on third down
Rec/game Rec/target First down %
2012 2.7 58% 48%
2013 2.0 50% 38%

Pro Football Focus

One other factor to consider is that Miles Austin played in all 16 games last year, compiling 888 snaps. This year, he's played in just five games and has been on the field for just 248 snaps. Austin takes some grief, but he was actually the Cowboys' most efficient third-down receiver last year, catching 60 percent of the passes thrown his way in converting 15 of 28 third downs. This year, he's caught just two third-down passes on six targets.

Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams have been decent replacements, but neither is Austin right now.

"Miles is a mismatch-type football player for people because he’s a big guy," said Garrett this week, per DallasCowboys.com, "and when he’s healthy, he’s quick and explosive. So he’s a hard match when you put him outside against certain guys. He’s a hard match when you put him inside against certain guys. He can get open by being bigger and stronger. He can get open by being quicker and more explosive when he’s healthy.”

With Austin out, defenses have been able to shift their focus more toward Bryant. But it's possible Romo has to take a page out of Matthew Stafford's book and start trusting his No. 1 wide receiver a little more. That connection percentage between the two is already low, though, so I can see why Romo might not have complete faith in targeting Bryant more than he has been.

I do think Romo's head is factoring in here. Bryant was targeted only twice Sunday and has been thrown at just eight total times in Dallas' last two losses. Here is Romo trying to jam a tight pass in to Williams against the Saints while failing to notice a wide-open Witten:

NFL Game Pass
The failure to find Bryant, though, has been criminal. 

Elite wide receivers: Targets per game
Receiver Targets per game, 2013 Last three games
A.J. Green 11.4 13.0
Calvin Johnson 11.4 15.0
Andre Johnson 10.4 10.3
Brandon Marshall 10.0 11.3
Dez Bryant 8.9 6.3

Pro Football Focus

I had a theory that maybe Romo had begun to lose trust in either himself or his receivers after that crushing last-minute interception in Week 5 against the Denver Broncos. But while his pass protection has broken down a little more frequently since then, he's actually been going deep a little more often than he was before that play. 

Which brings us back to the plays that are being called. I know bracket coverage like this isn't a fun scenario for Bryant, and it happens a lot, but the Cowboys had to know that was coming here. That bunched original formation doesn't lend itself well to a successful pass, but Romo didn't change anything up and—to nobody's surprise—the play didn't work. 

NFL Game Pass
A big reason why? New Orleans didn't buy that the Cowboys might run the ball that far from the end zone. 

No matter how you break it down, the offense hasn't been efficient despite a multitude of opportunities. New Orleans' defense has performed well, but it's not as though Washington, Philly, Detroit and Minnesota have shutdown corners or unstoppable pass-rushers. Those units are all average at best, and yet the 'Boys weren't able to execute consistently against them. 

I again think a lot of the onus is on Garrett and Callahan here. Bryant and Witten were targeted just five times total against the Saints, which is unacceptable. The head coach and the play-caller have to be more creative in order to get the ball in the hands of their best players so that plays can be made. 

So to summarize: 

1. Murray has to be given more work.

2. The entire offense has to become more creative.

3. Romo has to reestablish the correct chemistry with his top weapons.

4. They have to get Miles Austin healthy.

5. Romo has to take more chances and swing for more fences.

There you are. It's that easy. Andddd go!

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