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Dallas Cowboys: What You Need to Know Heading into Week 12

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Dallas Cowboys: What You Need to Know Heading into Week 12
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It's never fun to head into your bye week coming off of a loss, and even worse, the Dallas Cowboys' week off didn't treat them well. Both the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants secured wins in Week 11, meaning the Cowboys are suddenly in a tight three-team race for the NFC East crown. 

But with six weeks remaining in the 2013 regular season, the Cowboys will have plenty of chances to gain ground on their division foes. Here's the remaining schedule for Dallas:

 

Week 12: @NY Giants

Week 13: Oakland

Week 14: @Chicago

Week 15: Green Bay

Week 16: @Washington

Week 17: Philadelphia

 

The Week 13 Thanksgiving contest with the Raiders is probably the only one of the remaining games that you could characterize as "easy." Still, with half of their remaining contests featuring teams from the NFC East, the 'Boys will have plenty of control over their own fate.

 

Division Standings

With a win from the Eagles in Week 11, the Cowboys no longer sit atop the NFC East.

 

Team Record PF PA
Philadelphia Eagles 6-5 276 260
Dallas Cowboys 5-5 274 258
New York Giants 4-6 192 256
Washington Redskins 3-7 246 311

 

The Eagles and Cowboys both have a plus-16 point differential, and up to this point, they've basically played the exact same sort of football on both sides of the ball. Meanwhile, the G-Men have reeled off four straight wins and suddenly find themselves just 1.5 games out of first place. And at 3-7, even the Redskins are still in the hunt.

Using Pythagorean Expectation, here's how every team "should" rank based on their points for and against.

 

Team Wins Pythagorean Wins Difference
Philadelphia Eagles 6 5.88 -0.12
Dallas Cowboys 5 5.36 +0.36
New York Giants 4 3.36 -0.64
Washington Redskins 3 3.65 +0.65

 

The teams with more Pythagorean wins than actual wins (Cowboys and Redskins) have been slightly unlucky given how they've played. The Cowboys' Pythagorean record would still be 5-5, but the Redskins' would be 4-6. Meanwhile, the Eagles "should be" 6-5, and the Giants, after a month of streaky play, have outperformed their expectation, which suggests they should be 3-7.

 

Injury Report

With an extra week to heal, the Cowboys are finally getting healthy.

 

Player Injury Status
WR Miles Austin Hamstring Returned
CB Morris Claiborne Hamstring Returned
DT Jason Hatcher Neck Returned
LB DeVonte Holloman Neck Day-to-Day
S J.J. Wilcox Knee Week-to-Week
LB Sean Lee Hamstring Out 3 Weeks

 

Veterans Miles Austin, Morris Claiborne, and Jason Hatcher are all expected back in Week 12, along with rookie safety J.J. Wilcox, according to Charean Williams of The Star-Telegram.  

Also, according to Calvin Watkins of ESPN Dallas, rookie DeVonte Holloman returned to practice during the bye after suffering a spinal injury in October and should be able to play in the team's contest against the Giants as well.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys will again be without stud linebacker Sean Lee. He'll push to return as soon as he can, but, as noted by ESPN Dallas' Todd Archer, it's looking like he'll be out another three weeks.

 

What Must Improve: First-Down Offense

Check out these stats compiled by ESPN Dallas' Tim McMahon regarding the Cowboys' third-down offense:

 

  • The Cowboys rank 30th in the NFL in third-down conversion rate (32.8 percent, 38-of-116). 

  • Romo's third-down QBR (19.8) ranks 29th in the NFL. 

  • Romo ranks 30th in the NFL in average yards per attempt on third downs (5.74). 

  • Romo's third-down passer rating (57.6) ranks 32nd in the NFL. 

  • Romo's third-down completion percentage (47.1) ranks 34th in the NFL.

 

Those are some horrible numbers—but they're misleading.

One reason that third-down stats are misleading is that there isn't a huge sample, so the results are fragile. With only 116 third-down plays on the year so far, a small jump in third-down conversions would send the Cowboys soaring in the rankings. It's really difficult to determine if the Cowboys' third-down failures are real or just random. Their ability to pass the ball effectively overall suggests that their third-down struggles are perhaps more illusory than real.

Second, offenses shouldn't be playing to set up short third downs. Instead, they should try to avoid third down altogether. And the Cowboys have done a pretty good job of that; although they clearly could benefit from better third-down play, they also have faced the fewest third downs in the NFL.

So while third downs are important, they aren't standardized, because offenses approach first and second down in different ways. The best offenses often have a low percentage of third-down plays because they convert before they even reach third down.

Despite seeing few third downs, the Cowboys still need to do a much better job on first down. Specifically, they need to attack defenses downfield. Quarterback Tony Romo has a 69.7 percent completion rate on first down, which is the third-highest for any quarterback with at least 50 attempts, behind only Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning.

Even with a stellar completion rate, though, Romo has compiled only 6.7 YPA on first down (compare that to 9.5 YPA and 9.2 YPA for Rivers and Manning, respectively). That number ranks him 29th in the NFL.

Jonathan Bales

The numbers suggest that the Cowboys are playing extremely conservative on first down. No, they aren't running the ball all the time (although they're still doing it too much early in games), but they're are substituting short throws for more carries.

Instead, the 'Boys should treat first downs as the high-upside situations they are by attacking defenses vertically.

If their focus is solely on converting third downs, they're going to lose sight of the big picture, as the goal shouldn't be increasing the third-down conversion rate at all costs, but rather increasing overall offensive efficiency. By running and using short passes to create "manageable third downs," Dallas is leaving yards and points on the table.

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