By Adam Dobrowolski
Cold, Hard Football Facts Diagnostician
At first glance, the 2011 season looks like a wild rollercoaster ride for the Dallas Cowboys. Tony Romo rode the ride under the spotlight in the first quarter of the season, blowing two games and making two miraculous comebacks during the team’s 2-2 start.
Later in the year, a four-game winning streak improved the Cowboys to 7-4, seemingly putting them into the driver’s seat in the NFC East. However, back-to-back blown fourth-quarter leads against the Cardinals and Giants began a downwards spiral that kicked the Cowboys out of the playoffs and allowed the G-Men to make another amazing Cinderella run to a Super Bowl championship.
Sounds like another chaotic and crazy year in Big D, right? Well, once all the narrative and drama is removed from the equation, the Cowboys pretty much won and lost to the teams they were supposed to in 2011. Dallas won all seven games against losing teams, but went 1-8 against the rest. That’s nearly perfect for a mediocre 8-8 team.
Now the Cowboys must make all the narrative and drama in 2012 actually count for something. A playoff berth would certainly help.
The 2011 storyline:
Tony Romo giveth, Tony Romo taketh away … Romo makes four fourth-quarter comebacks, yet does his part in blowing multi-possession leads against the Jets and Lions. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan fails on his promise to beat the arses of the Eagles, as the Cowboys get swept by the Eagles. Oh, and they were swept by the Giants also, with both games coming in the last four weeks of the regular season. It all results in a much more mediocre version of 2007.
The Vital Signs
Jason Garrett (13-11 with Cowboys; 13-11 overall)
8-8 (23.1 PPG – 21.7 PPG)
Record against the spread:
5-10-1 (living up to CHFF Insider's Week 12 analysis showing that Dallas is consistently overvalued ATS)
Record vs. Quality Opponents:
1-4 (24.2 PPG – 29.2 PPG)
Record last five seasons:
Best Quality Stat in 2011:
Real Quarterback Rating and Offensive Passer Rating (4th)
Worst Quality Stat in 2011:
Defensive Passer Rating (25th)
Statistical curiosity of 2011:
Okay, so maybe we’d be remiss to ignore the narrative and drama, even with our emotionless state. After all, the Cowboys set a new record (along with the 2011 Eagles) for most blown fourth-quarter leads (five), and rookie kicker Dan Bailey tied an NFL record with four game-winning field goals. Bailey also became the third rookie to make six field goals in a single game, doing so during the 18-16 win against Washington in Week 3.
Best game of 2011: 27-24 win at San Francisco (Week 2).
At the time, it seemed like the Cowboys escaped in a game they easily should’ve won. However, it ended up being one of the best comebacks of the season. Despite suffering a fractured rib in the game, Tony Romo led a 10-point comeback against the vaunted 49ers defense in the final 11 minutes of the game. Romo completed 20 of 33 passes for 345 yards and two touchdowns, and he finished with a 114.83 QBR. Not bad for Romo in the team’s only quality win all season.
Worst game of 2011: 31-14 loss at New York Giants (Week 17).
Despite the Week 13 freezing gaffe by Jason Garrett and the Week 4 collapse against the Lions, the 34-7 trouncing the Cowboys suffered Week 8 in Philadelphia seemed like the prevailing choice… until the Cowboys fell flat on their faces with the NFC East title on the line at the New Meadowlands. Cornerbacks Terence Newman and Alan Ball were readily available for abuse, as the Giants raced to a 21-0 lead in the first half. Outside of maybe the slightest glimmers of hope, the game and season was over after that point. Furthermore, it makes matters worse when the Giants later won Super Bowl XLVI.
Strength: Tony Romo.
Any Cowboys fans who want Tony Romo at this point should hang their heads in shame. Forget about the arguments that “he can’t win it all.” Without Romo in 2011, the Cowboys would’ve been lucky to live up to their 6-10 disaster in 2010. Fans of teams with problems like Cowboys have shouldn’t be asking for a new quarterback, especially when Romo statistically played like a top-five quarterback in the league.
Romo finished with a 94.84 QBR, trailing only the great Rodgers-Brees-Brady triumvirate of the 2011 regular season. The same goes for Romo’s 102.5 passer rating. Remember, this happened with injuries affecting the receivers and running backs all season, as well as a young offensive line protecting Romo. Considering Eli Manning’s two head-to-head wins and playoff run, it’s safe to say Romo tucks in pretty nice as the fifth-best quarterback in the 2011 season. The Cowboys can clearly focus on other issues, not some claim about Romo that cannot be proven.
Weakness: Pass defense. Pass rush.
Cowboys fans may still be seeing images Terence Newman being hurdled by Giants tight ends, or Victor Cruz racing past Newman and Gerald Sensabaugh for the first score of the game in Week 17. Those two images best highlight the collapse of the Cowboys pass defense in the second half of the season.
Once upon a time, way back in Week 11, the Cowboys were fifth in Defensive Passer Rating. They finished 25th, with a 88.37 DPR. That’s only a slight improvement from the 29th ranking in 2010, when they had a 92.75 DPR. Clearly, the secondary needs a rehaul, and it begins at cornerback.
Of course, it would help if the pass rush didn’t rely completely on DeMarcus Ware. Ware put together yet another awesome year, with 19.5 sacks. However, he accounted for over 45 percent of the team’s sack total. It seemed like teams were willing to suffer the occasional Ware sack as long as they took care of the rest of the pass rush and exploited that leaky pass defense. Opposite Ware, outside linebacker Anthony Spencer is a solid three-down player, but not nearly the pass-rushing threat the team needs.
At the end of the day, evenn with Ware, Dallas finished a mere No. 17 on the Cold, Hard Football Facts Defensive Hog Index and were No. 12 at rushing the passer, forcing a Negative Pass Play on 9.7 percent of opponent dropbacks.
General off-season strategy/overview:
For all the hype the Cowboys get, there is a lot to fix. However, there’s little doubt where Dallas needs to start in the retooling project. The secondary should get the first look, especially at cornerback. Brandon Carr could be a nice, young free agent option, while many are already pointing at Dre’ Kirkpatrick through the draft. Given Kirkpatrick’s experience in press and zone, he might be best fit at nickel cornerback.
After that, the Cowboys will need to address the front seven. Outside of Mario Williams leaving Houston or Jarrett Johnson leaving Baltimore, there’s no need look at free agency. Instead, Dallas must draft a pure pass-rusher to compliment Ware and Spencer, as well as a defensive end to open up pass rushing lanes for the linebackers.
Offensively, the team wouldn’t be remiss to continue rebuilding the interior offensive line.
Totally premature 2012 diagnosis:
The Cowboys will eventually stop losing games in stupid fashion, right? Over the last two seasons, Dallas owns the following head-smacking blemishes on their record:
Week 1, 2010: Holding by Alex Barron that negated a game-ending touchdown in 13-7 loss
Week 3, 2010: Outgained Tennessee 511-321 yards in 34-27 loss
Week 4, 2010: Outgained Minnesota 314-188 yards in 24-21 loss
Week 7, 2010: Tony Romo suffered season-ending injury as team blows 20-7 lead
Week 12, 2010: Roy Williams fumbled after what would’ve been the game-sealing catch
Week 16, 2010: Allowed two return touchdowns; David Buehler missed extra point in 27-26 loss
Week 1, 2011: Blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead with a total team collapse in 27-24 loss
Week 4, 2011: Blew a 24-point second-half lead with a Tony Romo collapse in 34-30 loss
Week 13, 2011: Jason Garrett freezed his own kick in 19-13 overtime loss
Week 14, 2011: Blew a 12-point fourth-quarter lead with a defensive collapse in 37-34 loss
If regression to the mean were to apply, Dallas fans could be confident in improvements in 2012. However, regression to the mean can’t account for the clear mental block the team as a whole possesses when it comes to closing out games or winning the big battles.
Meanwhile, the Eagles and Giants are due for improvement. The Eagles finished +68 points, +1188 yards and +6.0 percent on third down despite an 8-8 record. The early signs say the Eagles could improve by a few games. The Giants became the first 9-7 team to win the Super Bowl, but all three 10-6 teams to win the Super Bowl followed up with the NFC’s best record. Bottom line, the Cowboys should have stiffer competition in the NFC East in 2012.
Of course, the Cowboys lost four games to those two teams next year. If they can win at least two of those games and avoid the stupid losses, perhaps Romo can lead the Cowboys to the playoffs. We just wouldn’t hold our collective breathes in waiting for that to happen.