The DC Times

A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

Reaction to Cowboys’ Week 15 Loss + Free Agents, Draft Picks Who Could Interest Team

At ABC, I broke down the Cowboys’ Week 15 loss to Green Bay:

The Numbers

Looking at expected points and historic outcomes based on specific game situations, sites like Advanced NFL Stats calculate the win probability for each team at any point during a game. Here’s the Cowboys-Packers win probability graph.

I marked down two percentages—the Cowboys’ win probability at halftime and their win probability prior to Romo’s first interception. Based on their lead and the fact that they were kicking off to Green Bay to start the second half, Advanced NFL Stats calculated the Cowboys’ chances of winning at 96 percent.

Another site that calculates win probability—Pro Football Reference—uses the game lines to factor in team strength. They actually had Dallas’s win probability at halftime at 99.7 percent.

That’s a big difference: a 1-in-25 chance of losing versus one-in-333. In reality, the probability was likely somewhere between those. Even if the Cowboys’ win probability was at the low end of that estimate, their strategy should have been the same: decrease the number of remaining plays as much as possible.

I’m as big of a proponent of passing the ball early and often as you’ll find. In typical game situations, I think the Cowboys actually run the ball way too much, especially on first down. They could benefit from being more aggressive offensively.

The problem was that much of the second half of this game wasn’t “typical.” The Cowboys’ focus should no longer have been on point-maximization—scoring as many points as possible—but rather closing out the game. Their goal should have been calling plays in such a way that the Packers wouldn’t have enough time to mount a comeback, even if they came out firing like they did. That means playing extremely conservatively on both offense and defense.

 

Despite the top football betting markets having the Cowboys as seven-point favorites, Dallas couldn’t capitalize. At Bleacher Report, I proposed some free agents and draft picks who might help the ‘Boys. And of course a few head coaches:

Perhaps the Cowboys’ biggest problem is that the players are continually placed in sub-optimal situations and expected to execute in spite of it. No matter how much talent a team brings in, the players need some help from the coaches.

Actually, I think the head coach is the second most important “position” behind quarterback. Look at what the Eagles and Chiefs have been able to do in just a single season by hiring coaches who embrace analytics, are forward-thinking and don’t coach in a cowardly manner.

If the Cowboys don’t hit in a big way with their next head coaching hire, they could be playing at a huge disadvantage to the Eagles for years to come.

Potential Head Coaches

Art Briles, Baylor

Chris Petersen, Boise State

Urban Meyer, Ohio State

Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Saints Analysis and Looking Ahead

At ABC, I gave my take on the Cowboys vs. Saints game:

The Dallas Cowboys have no understanding of probability. You might think that has very little to do with being a quality football team, but a basic comprehension of the numbers has everything to do with playing efficiently.

Consider the old adage that it benefits offenses to “set up manageable third downs.” Even in today’s NFL, many teams still run the ball way too often, particularly on first down, to set up third downs that are easier to convert.

But stats have shown again and again that the best offenses are those that face third down the least—those that don’t try to set up manageable third downs, but rather call plays more efficiently on first and second down to avoid third down altogether. It might be easier to convert a 3rd-and-3 than a 3rd-and-7, but it’s easier to convert a single 3rd-and-7 than four straight 3rd-and-3s. Math. Nice.

One of the ways that you can see that the Cowboys don’t comprehend the numbers is that they don’t throw the football downfield nearly as much as they should. It’s the same idea as “setting up manageable third downs”—why throw downfield and risk an incompletion or interception when you can continually throw underneath and complete 70 percent of your passes?

Well, it’s kind of difficult to do something effectively over and over in the NFL because, you know, the other guys are professionals too. Even if each offensive play has, say, an 80 percent chance of being successful, the probability of running five straight successful plays is just 50 percent. So in many situations, it makes sense to aim for lower-percentage plays with greater rewards.

The Cowboys are a risk-averse team that seeks to maximize the happiness they get from a bunch of moderately successful plays instead of, you know, maximizing points. For them, a low-variance offensive strategy—a Stoic offense, of sorts—is superior to the ups-and-downs that come with a truly efficient unit. Meanwhile, the Saints are one of the teams that has embraced the use of analytics, and it shows in their offense. Let’s take a look.

Check out the game analysis at ABC.

At BR, I took a look ahead to the Cowboys’ bye, but I also broke down what’s wrong with the defense:

What Must Improve: The Pass Rush

One of the most important aspects of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s scheme is the ability to generate pressure with only four rushers. When the Cowboys can do that, they’re effective. When they can’t, they’re not. It’s that simple.

With the missed time from defensive end DeMarcus Ware and defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, the Cowboys just haven’t been able to get to the quarterback. That’s a problem.

Using the pressure totals from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), I charted the Cowboys’ pressure rate in each game this season.

Notice a trend? That 30 percent area is really the threshold the ‘Boys need to hit in order to get over the .500 hump. If they can start to get pressure on around one-third of their defensive snaps, things will start to turn around.

But who’s going to provide that pressure? The Cowboys’ top three pass-rushers have all deteriorated as the season has progressed.

predicted this would happen for Ware because of his age, and the same reasoning applies to Hatcher. Thus, the Cowboys might need to rely on improved play from Selvie, a seventh-round pick in 2010, to turn things around defensively.

By Jonathan Bales

A Look at the Cowboys’ Poor Decisions vs. Lions

At ABC, I examined the Cowboys’ poor decisions against the Lions:

Fourth-and-Two

The Cowboys’ handling of the end game is consistently among the worst of any team in the league, and we saw that again in Week 8. I’ll get to that in a minute, but they might not have even been in that situation had they more appropriately managed earlier choices.

The worst of the bunch was a second quarter field goal try on a fourth-and-two at the Lions’ 35-yard line. Using the Fourth Down Calculator, we can establish some baseline stats for the situation. Again, these are based on how offenses have performed in the same situation in the past.

In attempting the field goal, the Cowboys lost 0.98 expected points. Another way of thinking about that is if the Cowboys were to play out that situation 1,000 times, they would score right around a full point more, on average, by going for it over kicking a field goal. The ‘Boys lost a decent chance to score a touchdown on that drive instead of coming away with three points—points that ultimately decided the game.

You might argue that kicker Dan Bailey made the field goal, justifying Garrett’s decision to kick it. I have a feeling many people within the Cowboys’ organization would propose that rationale, but it’s just wrong. It’s that sort of “ex post facto” thinking that has resulted in mediocrity in Big D.

Further, the numbers might be even more in favor of going for it when we factor in the specifics for Dallas. Bailey is 9-for-14 in his career on 50-plus yard field goals. This one was from 53 yards out, and we wouldn’t expect Bailey’s expected conversion rate to be much higher than the 50 percent used in the calculator. But even if we bump Bailey’s expected conversion rate to, say, 70 percent, the Cowboys should still have gone for it.

That’s especially true when you consider that the Cowboys have an above-average offense. They might have been playing poorly at that time, but it’s hard to think their chances of converting a fourth-and-two were worse than that for the typical NFL offense.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Redskins Analysis: Film Study & Grades

At ABC, I broke down two important plays in the Cowboys’ Week 6 win over the Redskins, including the Terrance Williams touchdown:

The Terrance Williams Touchdown

Facing a second-and-10 at the Redskins’ 15-yard line with just under 10 minutes to play in the third quarter, the Cowboys held a five-point lead. They lined up in “Gun Trips”—a formation I’ve discussed in the past because the Cowboys simply don’t run out of it. Despite using it in situations like this when they could run, the ‘Boys have done so on less than one percent of their hundreds of snaps from the formation since 2009.

On this particular play, Williams was lined up at the bottom of the screen. The Redskins blitzed, rushing six defenders—everyone who was lined up in the box other than the middle linebacker, as well as the slot cornerback.

That slot defender—Josh Wilson—got in clean in Romo, who didn’t have a hot read on the play.

Romo’s only option was to either throw the ball away or try to avoid Wilson. He chose the latter, just barely eluding Wilson without going down to the ground.

Romo wasn’t done, though, gathering himself before firing to Williams in the back of the end zone. Williams wasn’t open, but Romo threw an absolutely perfect ball over top of cornerback E.J. Biggers. It was the quarterback’s best throw of the night, by far.

Romo didn’t play an outstanding game, primarily because he was under constant pressure from Washington, but this particular play changed the course of the contest. It gave the Cowboys a two-score lead—a lead they never relinquished—and set them up to head into Philadelphia tied with the Eagles atop the NFC East.

At Bleacher Report, I handed out position grades:

Tony Romo

Statistically, it was a putrid game for Tony Romo. Coming off of his record-breaking 506-yard, five-touchdown performance against the Denver Broncos, Romo was able to compile just 170 yards against Washington. He did it on 30 attempts, good for just 5.7 yards per attempt. That’s the sort of efficiency we saw from him when the ‘Boys were losing early in the season.

In his defense, Romo threw just one pick on a tipped pass and had really poor protection all day. The Cowboys couldn’t give him time to throw, even when he wasn’t looking downfield.

Actually, offensive coordinator Bill Callahan did a good job of moving to five-wide and other spread sets once 1) running back DeMarco Murray was injured and 2) he realized the offensive line couldn’t give Romo time to throw. By spreading the field, Callahan made Romo his own blocker, giving him the option to throw hot at times. It wasn’t overly successful, but it ironically allowed him to avoid sacks.

Ultimately, the Cowboys got the win. But we can’t grade Romo, or any quarterback, solely on team wins. A good question to ask is this: “If he plays like this again, will the Cowboys win?” Against the Broncos, the answer was a resounding “yes.” Not so much this week.

Grade: D+

And at NBC, I posted a few other random thoughts:

- Rookie running back Joseph Randle had 11 carries for 17 yards and a touchdown. His efficiency will inevitably increase, but by how much? Probably not a lot considering he’s a light back with poor speed. I didn’t like Randle before the draft, I didn’t like him after it, and I don’t think he’ll offer the Cowboys much long-term value. It was smart for Dallas to wait on a back in the draft, but not one with a horrific weight/speed combination.

- Prior to the season, I argued that Barry Church will have a big 2013 season. Still, I projected him at only 80 tackles in the preseason and 98 tackles after Week 1. He’s currently on pace for 125, which is remarkable. Church still needs to improve in coverage, but he’s playing some good football.

- Orlando Scandrick has undoubtedly been the Cowboys’ best defensive player in 2013. He’s been a lockdown player inside, and he was rewarded with an interception on Sunday night. Who could have seen this sort of play coming from Scandrick? Me, when I graded him as the top player on the team last season. He’s also the most underappreciated.

By Jonathan Bales

My Cowboys-Broncos Analysis: Tony Romo, Big Plays & Position Grades

At ABC, I broke down Tony Romo’s interception and explained why he’s still a clutch quarterback:

Tony Romo: Clutch Quarterback?

There are a few problems with the popular opinion of Romo being a “choke artist.” First, it’s based on anecdotal evidence. Romo has had some really big fourth quarter and late-season mistakes, for sure, but outside of team wins—a horribly ineffective way to judge a quarterback—there’s not really much to support the “Romo chokes” theory other than “well, he had this one bad throw in this big game, and then he had this other poor throw in another game, so clearly he sucks when the chips are down.”

Second, “choke artist” isn’t exactly an objective term. If you’re of the opinion that Romo collapses in high-pressure situations, you need to provide some sort of guidelines through which we can test the theory. That’s kind of how stats (and science) work and why they’re pragmatic; instead of arguing in support or against a player or team with vague, potentially meaningless concepts such as “lots of heart,” “a strong identity,” “savvy play,” and other untestable qualities, we can acquire a deeper, more meaningful understanding of football and its players through stat analysis.

If Romo’s interception in Sunday’s loss is to be used against him, then we also need to include other performances in similar situations. So let’s do that.

Since 2000, no quarterback in the NFL has a higher fourth quarter (and overtime) passer rating than Romo. Aaron Rodgers is second, but he’s still nearly five points behind Romo.

And it’s not like Romo’s rating is inflated by some fluky touchdowns, because he’s also averaged 8.5 YPA. That’s 0.7 yards more than Rodgers and a full yard more than the third quarterback on the list, Peyton Manning. Romo’s 60-to-23 fourth quarter touchdown-to-interception ratio is a whole lot better than Manning’s 90-to-42 ratio, too.

But it’s pretty clear that Romo racks up stats in meaningless situations, such as when the team is down by 21 points, right?

Uh, no. Romo’s fourth quarter passer rating in one-score games is a few points lower at 100.1, but his YPA (more strongly correlated with team wins) is slightly higher at 8.7. He has 31 touchdowns and 13 picks in such situations.

So this is really where we are—a juncture at which we can either blindly accept the notion of Romo folding under pressure or analyze the stats to understand that our memories are clouded from a few highly covered and oft-discussed plays. It’s faith versus science, and I’m on the side of the argument that can actually be both tested and falsified.

At NBC, I broke down some of the game’s biggest plays:

Tony Romo’s INT
Romo’s interception was obviously costly, but here’s how much; prior to the play, the Cowboys owned a 67 percent to win the game. After it, the odds dwindled to just 16 percent. And in reality, it was probably worse than that because generic win probability numbers don’t account for specific game situations. Neither the Broncos nor Cowboys could consistently stop one another, so the game was bound to be a whoever-has-the-ball-last-wins sort of contest.

Allowing a Touchdown
Should the Cowboys have allowed a touchdown on purpose when the Broncos faced third-and-inches at the Cowboys’ two-yard line? I don’t think so. It’s a close call, but there was still hope that the defense could make a stop in the backfield and hold Denver to a field goal try.

In my opinion, the coaches should have told the defense to try to make a tackle for a loss, but if you don’t immediately get a push into the backfield, let the running back score. Allowing a first down but not a touchdown was the worst possible outcome for Dallas, although I don’t think the coaches made a horrible decision in telling the defense to play it straight up.

And at Bleacher Report, I handed out position grades:

Romo set a career high with 506 passing yards and five touchdowns. He also through a crucial fourth-quarter interception that led to Denver’s game-winning score, but it’s difficult to get on Romo about it since the Cowboys wouldn’t have been in that position without him.

In terms of pure stats, Romo outplayed Manning in every way. He had nearly 100 more yards on six fewer attempts, averaging 14.1 YPA, compared to 9.9 YPA for Manning. They scored the same number of touchdowns with Manning tossing four and running one in.

If your inclination is to say this is “the same old Romo,” in regards to his fourth-quarter interception, you’re just wrong. Romo actually has the highest fourth-quarter passer rating ever. It’s unfortunate his lone pick came so late in the game—and it was clearly a poor decision—but this was still one of the best games of Romo’s career.

Grade: A

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Chargers Analysis: The Tony Romo Illusion

I’ve spent a lot of time writing about Tony Romo and the Cowboys’ lack of aggressiveness today. In addition to a post that will be up at DallasCowboys.com later, I discussed the Tony Romo illusion over at NBC:

Tony Romo is gaming the system right now. With his 105.0 passer rating and 8:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Romo has made it appear that he’s playing great football. He’s made it appear that he’s leading the Cowboys’ offense and that factors outside of his control are killing the team’s chances. He’s made it appear like he’s an improved decision-maker.

But playing quarterback isn’t all about minimizing turnovers. Yes, Romo has cut down on his picks. That’s awesome and, given interceptions or no interceptions, there’s obviously no choice.

But that’s not the real dichotomy, here. The real decision is between an aggressive, high-variance style of play that leads to interceptions at times but also creates big plays to lead the offense, or an ultra-conservative style of play that typically results in another form of a turnover—a punt.

On Sunday, Romo was again acting as Houdini in San Diego. A 73.0 percent completion rate. Two touchdowns and no interceptions. A magnificent 108.4 passer rating.

But here’s the dark side of his illusion: 6.60 YPA. No individual stat best predicts team success like YPA. Romo’s 6.68 YPA in 2013 is the lowest he’s ever posted. And it’s not even close.

Turnover minimization should be one of the Cowboys’ goals. It should be an important goal, too. But it shouldn’t be the only goal. The offense can’t continue to minimize turnovers at all costs, regardless of whether or not they move the ball. Open up the offense, let Romo get the ball downfield, and stop playing for another 8-8 record.

At ABC, I broke down a few of Romo’s throws:

Dez Bryant 34-Yard Touchdown

It’s not like Romo is never taking his chances, of course, but just that they’re very limited. He threw a beautiful ball into a tight window in the second quarter—a play that changed the outlook of the game at that point.

On a second-and-four at San Diego’s 40-yard line, the Cowboys used a heavy three-tight end package and lined up in a “Jumbo Ace” look. Bryant was isolated to the field.

Offensive coordinator Bill Callahan called for a play-action look—something that’s still way too underutilized. Romo came into the week with a 110.2 passer rating on play-action passes, yet the Cowboys ranked near the bottom in the league in play-action pass rate. We saw the same thing last year when Romo had a similar play-action passer rating, yet Dallas ranked last in the league in play-action attempts.

This play was particularly deceptive because it was used in a running situation with run-heavy personnel. Romo was given plenty of time to throw and even had Lance Dunbar open underneath.

He rightfully decided to bypass the sure thing to Dunbar in favor of looking downfield for Bryant. The window of opportunity was a small one, but the aggressive throw paid off. Bryant caught the ball in traffic and took it all the way in for the score.

And at Bleacher Report, I handed out position grades:

Tony Romo

You’re going to hear all week that quarterback Tony Romo “took what the defense gave him.” That was the case in both Week 1 and Week 2 as well when Romo, despite a high completion percentage, was quite inefficient in terms of yards per attempt.

On Sunday, Romo again padded his completion percentage, connecting on 27 of his 37 attempts (73.0 percent). Completions aren’t valuable in and of themselves, of course, and Romo managed only 244 yards on those passes (6.59 YPA). Let me save you the suspense—if that’s the sort of efficiency we can expect from Romo all year, the Cowboys will be lucky to go 8-8.

Romo is an outstanding quarterback and more than capable of leading the Cowboys as far as they want to go, but not like this. If the Cowboys don’t start throwing the ball downfield, there’s very little reason for fans to be optimistic. Yes, he protected the ball again, but eventually, the team will need to realize that the same style of play that can lead to interceptions is also what makes Romo a great quarterback.

The ‘Boys seem content to employ a low-variance strategy, through which Romo does everything in his power to not throw interceptions, even if it means not moving the offense.

Grade: D

By Jonathan Bales

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.

Fourth-and-Goal

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.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys-Rams Week 3 Analysis: Game Notes, Position Report Card & More

At Dallas News, I posted a breakdown of the Cowboys-Rams win probability graph:

One of the coolest (and most useful) things we can do with stats is predict each team’s probability of winning a game in real time. The win probability graphs over at Advanced NFL Stats use historic game data to display the chances of each team winning a game as the game is happening. Here’s the Cowboys-Rams win probability graph from Sunday afternoon:

This is one of the most boring win probability graphs you’ll see all season, and that’s a great thing for Dallas. The ‘Boys dominated this game throughout; within nine minutes, the Rams’ chances of winning were under 25 percent, and they never improved. By halftime, the Cowboys had a 93 percentchance to win, and again, it never got worse for Dallas from there on out.

At NBC, I posted a few of my notes from the game:

- All of the cornerbacks played outstanding football, but we really need to tip our hats to Orlando Scandrick. He held rookie speedster Tavon Austin to just 30 yards on six receptions. When you can corral a player like Austin before he gets going, his value is limited because he doesn’t run many downfield routes and he can’t score in the red zone. Scandrick also had a sack and a quarterback hit.

- Based on the halftime score of 17-0, the Cowboys had a 93 percent chance to win the game after two quarters. That assumes the teams were evenly matched, so the Cowboys’ win probability was probably closer to 95 percent or better.

- Bill Callahan did a really nice job of calling plays, especially on the first drive. The Cowboys opened up the game with the same “Pistol” look that we saw in Week 1. We also saw the old “kill” audible system, meaning Romo was actually given less freedom at the line in this game, and way more play-action passes.

And at Bleacher Report, I posted grades for each position:

1. DeMarco Murray

2. Lance Dunbar

3. Phillip Tanner

Running backs Lance Dunbar and Phillip Tanner combined for eight carries, so this was really the Murray show all day. Murray ran for 175 yards on 26 carries. Even if you take out his longest run of 41 yards, Murray still totaled 134 yards on 25 carries—5.36 YPC.

Murray also added three receptions for 28 yards, giving him 16 receptions on the year. If he keeps up his current pace, Murray will total 85 catches this year. It’s unlikely he’ll reach that mark, but 65 receptions isn’t out of the question just because, with defenses playing wide receiver Dez Bryant the way they are, the underneath stuff will be open for Murray out of the backfield.

Grade: A

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Analysis: Report Card and Play Breakdowns

At ABC, I broke down two plays from the Cowboys’ Week 2 loss in Kansas City:

A Big Third Down

Although Monte Kiffin had his defense playing well on Sunday, they stumbled out of the gates, digging themselves an early hole by allowing a touchdown on the first drive. The ‘Boys had Kansas City in a difficult spot, facing a third-and-15 at the Cowboys’ 35-yard line.

In that situation, I think Kiffin was more concerned with making sure the Chiefs didn’t advance the ball at all than ensuring they didn’t secure a big play. That’s understandable given the field position; if the Cowboys could force an incompletion or even get a sack, Kansas City would be forced to either attempt a long field goal or punt.

So Kiffin brought the dogs, lining up six defenders at the line with a soft look behind it.

At the snap, Orlando Scandrick rushed off of the edge and Sean Lee dropped into coverage, meaning the ‘Boys had five defenders coming after Smith and six in the back end. The secondary played off, seemingly content to give up any underneath completions.

Smith had time to throw the ball, so he hung onto it instead of taking the sure thing underneath to set up a closer field goal try. The problem for Dallas was that, once the receivers got downfield, the back six were out of position to corral the scrambling Smith. He took off down the sideline, diving for a first down that ultimately led to the first of only three total touchdowns for both teams in the game.

This is the problem with continually playing man coverage against a mobile passer. In such a close game, it’s pretty evident that Dallas would have won had they contained Smith as a runner. Kiffin probably felt as though Smith is accurate enough to consistently pick apart zone coverage if given enough time, but it might have been smarter to utilize zone blitzes if he wanted to send pressure. That way, the Cowboys could have forced Smith out of the pocket, yet still have defenders playing underneath to stop him on the ground.

And at Bleacher Report, I graded each position.

Quarterback

Just as was the case in Week 1, Romo turned in a poor performance from an efficiency standpoint. He averaged 7.1 YPA—up from 5.4 YPA in Week 1—but it seems like Romo is throwing the ball scared right now.

It’s pretty apparent he’s placed an emphasis on minimizing his turnovers, which he’s done really well, but it’s come at the expense of some big plays. In Romo’s defense, he had some passes dropped, including a big one down the sideline to Bryant late in the contest.

Still, Romo didn’t lead the team at the end of the game. I’m as big of a Romo fan as any, but why wasn’t the team in a hurry-up mode for much of the fourth quarter when they were losing?

Down by four points with just a few minutes remaining, the Cowboys showed no urgency. Yeah, they had enough time to score on that drive, but what happens if you don’t score a touchdown right away? The Cowboys didn’t, and they had no time left to come back after kicking off.

Grade: C-

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys-Giants: Defensive Notes and a Look at the Win Probability Graph

At NBC, I posted my notes on the Cowboys’ defense:

- I thought Barry Church was the MVP for the Cowboys’ defense. He had eight tackles, a forced fumble, and of course the big fumble recovery for a touchdown. He has the potential to be really productive in Monte Kiffin’s defense.

- Opposite Church, Will Allen had a rough game. He had an interception, although that had more to do with Manning than anything else. Allen was targeted four times on the night, allowing three catches for 101 yards and two touchdowns. It’s really a shame that Matt Johnson is down for the year. The Cowboys need to find a way to cover up their weakness there.

At DallasCowboys.com, I broke down the win probability graph from AdvancedNFLStats.com:

Despite an 8-8 record in 2012, the Cowboys held a lead just 22 percent of the time. That’s really an astounding statistic and probably the biggest negative the team had heading into 2013. For at least one game, though, the Cowboys’ luck shifted.

Looking at data on win probability, we can visualize the ebb and flow of the Cowboys’ big opening night victory over the Giants. Using historic game data as a foundation, Advanced NFL Stats publishes visualizations that update in real time to display a team’s probability of winning a game at any point. Down 10-3 and facing a third-and-10 at the opponent’s 25-yard line with 3:20 to play in the second quarter? The win probability graphs can give you an indication of how likely you are to win, and an accurate one at that. I highly recommend monitoring them on game day.

The Cowboys’ win probability graph from Sunday night’s victory paints a picture we rarely saw last season, one with the ’Boys controlling the direction of the contest.

Due to a relatively fast pace from the Cowboys and a lack of rushing from both squads, there were an abundance of plays from scrimmage in this contest. And of those 133 plays, Dallas found themselves as an underdog on just five of them. That’s a sharp contrast from a year ago.

You can see the Cowboys were the favorites to win from about two-thirds of the way through the first quarter until the final second of the game. At its worst point, Dallas still owned a 40 percent chance of winning.

And at Bleacher Report, I took a look at some things to know going into Week 2: