Cowboys vs. Cardinals Week 16 Review: Jason Garrett Costs Dallas a Win

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Cowboys vs. Cardinals Week 16 Review: Jason Garrett Costs Dallas a Win
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The majority of fans and football analysts are blaming kicker David Buehler for the Cowboys’ loss to the Cardinals last night in Arizona.  While Buehler is certainly at fault for blowing an extra point, the real goat is Jason Garrett.  Listed below is why, along with additional observations from the contest.

  • Down 21-19 in the third quarter, Garrett decided to kick an extra point.  Huge mistake.  I’ve talked all season about why teams should try way, way more two-point conversions.  Over the course of any given season, kickers make around 98 percent of extra points, while two-point conversions are successful around 48-49 percent of the time.  While the expected points of extra points is higher (.98 x 1 is greater than .48 x 2), the difference isn’t great enough that it should overcome all game situations.  For example, Garrett never would have kicked the extra point in the fourth quarter, as he doesn’t know if the Cowboys will score again.
  • Further, two-point conversions are only statistically inferior to extra points because coaches tend to call the wrong plays down by the goal line.  Over the last 20 seasons, rushing the ball has yielded a successful two-point conversion over 60 percent of the time.  Even if a team went for two points after nearly every score and rushed the ball each time, I doubt the success rate would jump below 50 percent (the break-even level at which two-point tries are statistically equivalent to extra points, assuming a 100 percent success rate on the latter).  Thus, extra points should actually only be attempted in very specific situations, such as a tied game in the fourth quarter.
  • On top of all of that, let’s not forget Buehler is about as erratic as kickers come.  His extra point success rate is nowhere near 98 percent (probably closer to 94 or so), meaning the Cowboys would only need to convert on 47 percent of two-point tries to yield the same expected points.  And if you’re correctly running the ball, what does it matter if Stephen McGee is at quarterback?
  • I assume Garrett attempted the extra point because he figured Dallas would score again anyway.  That’s faulty logic, however.  Even if we assume two-point conversions yield less expected points than extra points, and we take into account McGee’s presence in the lineup, the difference between a two-point try and extra point is still small enough that, for an extra point to be the right call, we’d have to assume there’s less than a one percent chance the Cowboys wouldn’t score again.  While it’s likely the offense was going to put more points on the board, it certainly wasn’t greater than 99 percent.
  • I updated live from the game last night on Twitter, and a few followers claimed that it was “too early to go for two and the chart says the extra point is the right call.”  While I appreciate everyone who took the time on Christmas to read my thoughts, that reasoning is simply incorrect.  What does it even mean to be “too early to go for two?"  While you certainly have less of an idea of the final score in the first quarter as compared to late in the game, you should always side with statistics.  If the numbers say attempting a two-point conversion is the right call (which they did for the Cowboys in the third quarter–and it wasn’t even close), then kicking an extra point is the risky move. 
  • Further, NFL coaches are just tapping the surface of advanced statistics and game theory, meaning most of their “infallible” charts are dead wrong.  It’s Garrett’s job to give the team the highest probability of victory, and whether a decision seems “risky” or not to the public, it needs to be made.  A coach who forgoes the numbers to save his job is one who probably doesn’t possess the adequate aggressiveness to win a Championship anyway.
  • On to a new topic. I actually think Buehler should keep his job, for now, and continue to kick field goals in the offseason.  The fact that he tends to make the long ones (four-for-five from 50+ yards this season) and miss the “easy” ones lends me to believe the problem is his confidence, not his leg.  He’s an athlete, though, and not a regular kicker, so I think he possesses the mindset to overcome his mental demons and eventually be a solid kicker.  If he doesn’t prove that in training camp next year, though, he needs to be replaced.
  • While I’m placing blame on people, let’s not forget Marc Colombo. Last night was probably his worst game as a professional, which is saying something considering how bad he’s been all year.  He was absolutely manhandled by Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and anyone else that lined up over top of him.  He needs to be gone next season, and it’s a shame the Cowboys didn’t get to see more of Sam Young or Robert Brewster this year.
  • Sometimes we forget just how dominant DeMarcus Ware is because he’s that way all the time.  With all of the Cowboys’ problems this season, let’s remember how lucky we are to have Ware.
  • The Cowboys love to run screens from a formation called “Double Tight Left/Right Twins Left/Right Ace.”  Last night, I predicted a screen to Martellus Bennett from the formation before it happened. People thought I was psychic.  Nope, I have just watched Garrett call plays a little too much.
  • Shown below is another play the Cowboys run from the formation, with the ball often going to Felix Jones on a swing pass.  The play isn’t a true screen, but it functions similarly.

  • Early in the game, Garrett converted on a third-and-short by motioning Miles Austin into the backfield, faking a fullback dive to Marion Barber, and pitching to Austin for the first down.  This is an example of how Garrett can use his past predictability to gain an advantage, as the Cowboys have run a fullback dive to Barber over and over this season in short-yardage situations.  Garrett knew it, but more importantly, he knew that Arizona knew it.  Game theory can be quite useful, huh?
  • The Cowboys ran around five or six plays from “Double Tight Strong” (I’ll get the official numbers to you tomorrow).  I can tell you without looking at the film that the offense was highly successful when they ran a play other than the strong side dive from the formation, something they appeared to do about half of the time.
  • The Cowboys motion into “Double Tight Strong” quite a bit, but they never motioned out of it, until last night.  I’ll have more on that particular play after I watch it a few times.
  • Jason Witten has sure hands, but he doesn’t generally make the amazing catches.  He made a few last night, however, and his late-season resurgence has validated the theory of a few DC Times readers that Witten may have been hurt early in the year.
  • I suggested the Cowboys try to beat Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on some double-moves, and they did just that early in the game, but Austin dropped Jon Kitna’s perfect pass.  It’s been an up-and-down year for Austin, but I think he’ll rebound nicely next season as the No. 2 option.
  • The Cowboys missed a few opportunities for more points when Garrett wrongly kicked field goals.  With a 4th-and-2 at the Arizona 24-yard line, Dallas should have gone for it.  Ditto on a 4th-and-3 from the Cardinals’ 35-yard line.  Buehler made both field goals, but results don’t necessarily justify decisions.  If I bet $100 to make $50 that heads will come up on a coin flip, it’s a poor bet.  That doesn’t change after the fact if heads does come up.
  • Sean Lee has improved, but he still gets overpowered at times inside. That’s his No. 1 weakness heading into the offseason.
  • What in the hell was Mike Jenkins doing on that Cardinals bomb for a touchdown?  The Cowboys blitzed, and it looked like Jenkins figured John Skelton would have to throw early.  He can’t just go jumping routes when he’s in true man coverage, however.  Although I’ve seen some writers claim Jenkins should have received safety help, that isn’t really the case.  The Cowboys were in Cover 1, meaning man coverage all over the field with Alan Ball deep.  Ball would likely shade the side of Larry Fitzgerald, though, meaning Jenkins should know he’s on an island.
  • I thought Stephen McGee looked pretty good for his first real game action.  He was wild on a few throws, but he showed good mobility and his decision-making wasn’t atrocious.  He still needs to learn when he can sit in the pocket and when to bail, however.  More on him tomorrow.
  • I’ve seen great improvement from Andre Gurode over the second half of the season.  I think he deserves to stay in Dallas for another year.
  • One of Garrett’s largest weaknesses, in my opinion, is his inability to realize that optimal personnel in real game situations may not be inherently optimal.  For example, running the ball from three and four-receiver sets isn’t inherent optimal, but it can be extremely efficient due to defensive substitutions.  Remember, the best coaches don’t always put their best players on the field, but rather the players that create the biggest disparity between their team and the opponent.

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