After starting the season 3-5, the Cowboys were able to put themselves in position to win a division title in Week 17 by beating teams through the air. Tony Romo played remarkably well over the second half of the season. After tossing 13 picks in the team's first seven contests, he threw only three total interceptions in the eight games prior to the team's Sunday night loss. During that eight-game period, Romo turned in five outings with at least a 70.0 percent completion rate and six 300-yard performances.
Unable to Pass
Against the Redskins, Dallas lost because they were unable to pass the ball effectively. Romo completed only 54.1 percent of his passes and recorded only 5.89 yards per attempt (YPA), both of which were his lowest marks all season. Romo's 218 passing yards were his lowest since Week 10 in Philadelphia, a game in which he threw only 26 passes.
Rushing Success Not Capitalized Upon
I've long discussed how early rushing attempts don't translate to wins. Although the Cowboys' final run-pass ratio was 22-to-39 (63.9 percent passes), the Cowboys actually ran the ball on 21 of their 45 plays in the game's first three quarters, a 53.3 percent pass rate. That's because head coach Jason Garrett understandably dialed up 15 passes and only one run in the fourth quarter when the Cowboys were down.
If you recall, the 'Boys have historically won around 50 percent more often when they pass the ball frequently (over 57 percent of the time) in the first three quarters. They may have been balanced early on against Washington, but that's not always a good thing. Even with decent rushing efficiency at 4.55 yards per carry (YPC), Dallas simply couldn't consistently move the ball.
Of course, it's difficult for Garrett to call a lot of passes when the offense isn't executing them. The coach tried to stick with what was working against the Redskins.
However, I thought there were some chances for Garrett to get the ball downfield with play-action looks, but Dallas ran only two on the night. The first was the deep interception to Miles Austin, which may or may not have affected Garrett's decision to shy away from later play-action passes. That particular play did little to get Washington to bite up, of course; I labeled it a play-action pass because Romo showed a run-fake, but DeMarco Murray slid over to pick up the blitz, meaning Romo faked the handoff to no one. Even so, there was still a play to be made with Austin in single-coverage, but Romo simply threw the ball way too far inside.
The other play-action pass was a 12-yard completion to Lawrence Vickers. Coming into the game, Romo had a 118.5 passer rating on play-action passes.
Another reason Garrett likely called a lot of early runs was that the Redskins were getting a ton of pressure on Romo via blitzes. I tracked five or more Washington defenders rushing on 52.4 percent of the Cowboys' plays. More important, the Redskins did an awesome job of executing a game plan that has disturbed the Dallas offensive flow all year: disguising their intentions. The Redskins either lined up in a conservative alignment and then blitzed or showed a blitz and then backed out on 32.8 percent of the Cowboys' snaps, the highest rate the offense has faced all year. Two of Romo's three interceptions (and seven of the eight passes I labeled as being off-target) came against either a blitz or a feigned blitz.
The rate of deep passes (traveling 20-plus yards) to Dez Bryant increased dramatically over the second half of the season. It's probably not a coincidence that there's a positive correlation between Bryant's deep targets and his success.
In the Cowboys' last two games, both losses, Bryant saw only three deep targets, including only one against Washington. He caught all three passes for 122 yards and a touchdown. In 2013, the Cowboys will need to continue to get the ball deep to one of the league's premiere play-making wideouts.
On a second-and-10 play in the third quarter, the Cowboys ran a unique direct snap to Murray that gained seven yards. The play will probably be forgotten by most, but it was actually extremely unique in that it was the Cowboys' first run from "Shotgun Trips" all year. That's pretty remarkable when you consider that Dallas ran 131 plays from the bunch formation in 2012.
Many of the plays from "Gun Trips" were in pass-only situations (such as third-and-long or in hurry-up scenarios), but some were not. Actually, 39 of the snaps from "Gun Trips" (29.8 percent) came on first down. It's difficult to tell if the strategy has backfired, but it's one Garrett has employed for years; the Murray run was only the second out of hundreds of plays from the formation since 2009.
Garrett was faced with two difficult decisions on fourth down. The first was a fourth-and-9 at the Redskins' 35-yard line with 46 seconds remaining in the first half. Garrett decided to punt, and I think it was the right move. In normal game situations, offenses have actually had more success going for it on fourth down than punting or kicking a field goal on all the way up until fourth-and-10 at the opponent's 35-yard line. However, since there were just 46 seconds to play in the half, the game situation wasn't "normal." Even if the Cowboys moved the ball efficiently, they still could run out of time and be forced to kick a field goal prior to moving the ball into the end zone. The fact that the 'Boys may have run out of time prior to scoring a touchdown (assuming they converted on fourth-and-9) alters the percentages to make punting the correct call. A case could be made that Dan Bailey should have been trotted onto the field for a 53-yard field goal attempt, although the numbers slightly favor punting over a field goal as well.
Later in the game, Dallas faced a fourth-and-5 at Washington's 30-yard line. Garrett elected to kick the field goal, although that may have been a situation in which he was better off going for it. Historically, teams score more points when going for it at or near the 30-yard line all the way up until fourth-and-5. However, that fact applies to league-average offenses in normal game situations. The Cowboys probably own a slightly above-average offense (certainly an above-average passing offense) and this wasn't a normal game situation; the 'Boys were down by seven points with less than 15 minutes left to play.
Looking to 2013
As Josh Ellis pointed out earlier today, the Cowboys have a number of difficult and important decisions to make on both coaches and personnel. The effectiveness of those choices, particularly in the draft and free agency, will dictate the future of the team. Currently a good-but-not-great squad with a quarterback entering the final phase of his career, the Cowboys can't afford to miss on those decisions.