IRVING, Texas – The mediocrity enveloping the Cowboys after two straight years of .500 football is undeniable, as is the near equal number of positives and negatives to be drawn from back-to-back 8-8 seasons.
After looking at five encouraging statistical figures yesterday, we'll take a look today at five discouraging stats that need to be addressed for the Cowboys to make a playoff push next season:
The defense gets into the act for the first time with this category. The Cowboys finished tied for last in the league with just seven interceptions. Sean Lee had the team's only pick through the first five games of the season, and the offense didn't exactly help out the -13 turnover differential by year's end. Opponents more than doubled the amount of the Cowboys' interceptions, and a lack of creating turnovers had to be a major reason for defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's release. Teams simply don't win when their turnover ratio is that poor. Both Super Bowl contenders this season finished among the top 10 in the league in turnover differential.
The Cowboys' lack of interceptions has been well-documented, much more so than this number of passes defended. As stated with the previous category differential, the team finished tied for last in the league in interceptions. That wasn't from an inordinate amount of dropped interceptions. The defense simply didn't get to the ball in the air, also finishing last in the league in passes defended. Now, part of that can be attributed to the fact that teams weren't throwing as often on the Cowboys, who allowed 125.2 rushing yards per game. Opponents threw just 511 times against the Cowboys – 147 fewer attempts that Tony Romo – yet the passes that did go through the air were rarely batted down.
No matter who Dallas put back to return kicks, the likelihood of that return going for any kind of distance remained slim throughout the season. Lance Dunbar registered the team's season-high return of 44 yards, but the Cowboys averaged just 20.6 yards per return. Only three teams finished with fewer yards per kick return. Dwayne Harris emerged as an elite punt returner in his limited opportunities, but the Cowboys could never get going in the kickoff return game behind some shoddy blocking. Dunbar, Harris and Felix Jones each returned a kick at least 11 times during the season. The elusive Harris actually averaged the fewest yards per return among the trio at 19.1, while Jones' costly fumble on a return against the Seahawks started the disaster in Seattle.
This looks more like the average yards per game for a top receiver than what the stat really indicates. The Cowboys rushed for only 79.1 yards per game as a team, good for 31st in the NFL. OK, yes, the Cowboys also finished with the second-fewest rushing attempts per game, but the lack of runs isn't the only reason for the meager rushing attack week in and week out. The Cowboys also averaged just 3.6 yards per carry, tied for 30th in the league. The dreadful rushing attack is a primary reason the team might want to snag an offensive lineman in the first round. Undoubtedly, if DeMarco Murray had been healthy the whole season that number would probably look different, but even a healthy Murray struggled to find running room early in the year.
A quarterback who finished with the third most passes in the league must throw a ton of interceptions to end the season in the bottom half of the league in interception percentage rate. Romo tied Drew Brees for the most interceptions thrown this year, tossing a pick on 2.9 percent of his passes. It's not surprising to see the three quarterbacks who threw the most passes this year – Romo, Brees and Matt Stafford – all finish with at least 17 interceptions. All three of their respective teams either struggled to play defense, forcing them to pass to get back in the game, or struggled to run, forcing them to pass to move the ball. Romo's statistics dramatically improved after the early part of the season, but the team still needs to figure out a way to limit the turnovers if it wants to reach the playoffs and eliminate the mediocrity next season.