The Good and the Bad from Cowboys’ Win Over Rams
You got the sense that the Cowboys were going to be able to move the ball on St. Louis right out of the gate when DeMarco Murray took a Pistol handoff from Tony Romo and galloped for 14 yards on the team’s first play. Murray’s success was a welcome sight for Dallas; although the Cowboys can’t win without passing effectively, some rushing efficiency sure would help Romo & Co.
Watching the game, there were a bunch of positives from Dallas—the play-action passing game, the dominant pass-rush, and the outstanding offensive line play among them. There were also a handful of negatives, such as Dwayne Harris’s muffed punt and Dan Bailey’s missed field goal. I’m going to take a look at one positive and one negative that I think could most affect the ‘Boys moving forward.
Orlando Scandrick: Defensive MVP?
Last year, Scandrick graded out as my No. 1 player on the entire team. He had a few memorable miscues that caused some people to sour on him, but he’s been playing outstanding football. And if the MVP of the Cowboys’ defense through Week 3 isn’t DeMarcus Ware, it’s Scandrick.
There are a few different ways to grade cornerbacks, one of which is the yards they allow per pass attempt. In that metric, Scandrick has outplayed both Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne.
Actually, he’s among the best in the NFL with just 3.93 YPA allowed. That’s less than half of the YPA posted by Carr and Claiborne. And playing in the slot, Scandrick really has a difficult job because he can’t use the sideline to his advantage. Still, he’s allowed only 4.29 YPA when playing inside.
An even better metric to analyze cornerbacks is yards per route in coverage. That way, cornerbacks aren’t penalized for not getting targeted. Many of the league’s best cornerbacks are so good because they rarely get thrown at—something that will always be reflected in their yards per route.
And there, Scandrick has been even better, allowing just 0.46 yards per route. That ranks him second in the entire NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. Scandrick hasn’t made any big plays thus far in 2013, but that doesn’t mean he’s not playing elite football.
That’s the good. Now for the bad. Up 7-0 with just over two minutes remaining in the first quarter, the Cowboys faced a fourth-and-goal with the ball placed between the Rams’ one and two-yard lines. For the sake of this analysis, we’ll just assume they were at the two-yard line.
Using Pro Football Reference’s play finder, we can quickly check conversion rates from the two-yard line. Since 2008, there have been 963 plays run on the opponent’s two-yard line, and 419 of those (43.5 percent) have resulted in a touchdown. If we look at only third and fourth down plays, the touchdown rate is slightly higher at 44.9 percent.
So if we assume the Cowboys had a 45 percent chance to score on the fourth down play, the expectation would be 3.15 points (7 * 0.45). That’s clearly higher than a field goal try, which would result in an expectation of around 2.98 points since Dan Bailey would almost never miss the kick.
If the Cowboys would fail to convert the touchdown, they’d still be in a good position with the Rams backed up. Actually, a first-and-10 at your own two-yard line has historically been “worth” -0.5 expected points to the offense. It’s one of the only areas of the field where possessing the ball is not an advantage.
When you factor in that St. Louis would have started at their own two-yard line if the Cowboys didn’t score but (likely) at their own 20-yard line if Bailey connected on the field goal, the decision to go for it is pretty clear.
But there’s more. First, the Cowboys showed they could run on the Rams up to that point. It probably would have been in their best interest to run on third down instead of throwing a fade to Gavin Escobar, then run it again on fourth down if need be.
Second, the ball wasn’t really at the two-yard line. It was perhaps closer to the one-yard line, and that actually dramatically changes the numbers. From the one-yard line, offenses have scored a touchdown 51.9 percent of the time since 2008.
When you put it all together, the Cowboys probably lost somewhere in the range of two expected points by kicking the field goal. No one would expect the coaches to be doing math on the sidelines to optimize their decision-making, but a simple fourth down chart would probably suffice.
In the end, the fourth down decision didn’t affect the outcome of the game, but that doesn’t mean it was any less wrong. When you’re a perennial 8-8 team involved in a lot of close games, a handful of “minor” choices that increase your team’s win expectation by even a few percentage points can have a major impact by the end of the year.