STAR: Five Numbers That Must Improve

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In the end, of course, the only numbers that matter are the ones on the scoreboard.

But there are a lot more numbers than those to be found in the NFL and they pile up in enormous stacks as the seasons go by. These various digits, when investigated separately, can help reveal why a scoreboard looked the way it did at the conclusion of 60 minutes of football.

This investigation process is pretty much constant within the 32 franchises as those in charge try to improve the look of their won-loss record.

So we will bring in the microscope today and take a peek at recent results from the Dallas Cowboys, who as the 2014 season gets underway hope that an advancement will be made from the current string of three consecutive breakeven campaigns.

Herewith, after close study, we offer five numbers that likely must improve if such an advancement is to take place.

The first number, which happens to be 24, refers to a particular player but can also be looked upon as symbolic of the entire team.

Running back DeMarco Murray has played in 24 games over the last two seasons -- 10 in 2012 and 14 in 2013.

Of all the factors that decide NFL championships, injuries are likely the most important of all.

A game or a season can turn with the loss of a quarterback, a running back, a receiver, a pass-rush specialist, a shut-down corner.

A healthy season is often a happy season for individuals and teams, and it would be of great help to the Cowboys if Murray could remain damage free for an entire year.

Here is why: Of all the running backs who carried the ball as many times as Murray did last season (271), no one had a better yards-per-carry average (5.2). Murray scored nine rushing touchdowns, which was only three off the league lead.

He is the real deal when it comes to producing results, so it figures that when he is going full steam, the Cowboys' chances improve.

The defensive statistics from 2013 were nothing to write home about, but two of them stand out. They are the second and third numbers pinpointed for improvement.

One of them is 19.32. That is the number of passing attempts the opposition made in between sacks by the Dallas defense, and that is a lot. Worst in the league, in fact.

Teams threw plenty against the Cowboys last year. Only the Eagles, Vikings and Cardinals faced more passes than did Dallas, although the numbers might have been skewed a little by the 42 throws produced by Peyton Manning in that wild three-point Denver victory on Oct. 6.

Nevertheless, a goal for the Cowboys this season will be to put more pressure on the quarterback.

The Carolina Panthers, for instance, recorded a sack every 10.3 times the opposing team attempted to pass.

Sacks interrupt drives, get teams off the field and dramatically give you a better chance of success.

They also keep your defense from giving up 415.3 yards per game, which is the other defensive number that stands out from last year.

That is a monumental statistic and clearly cannot be repeated if Dallas hopes to move above the .500 mark. It is somewhat remarkable, actually, that the Cowboys managed the kind of record they did in 2013 having given up such a robust number of yards.

Dallas was easily at the bottom of the heap in total defense. The Cowboys allowed 18 more yards a game than Minnesota, which was second worst.

Super Bowl champion Seattle ranked No. 1 in yards allowed, giving up 141.7 fewer per contest than did the Cowboys – almost a football field and a half.

There is usually a correlation between offensive and defensive numbers. After all, if the opposing team has the ball a lot it means that your offense does not have as many chances as one would like.

Which leads us to the number 63, representing the sum total of third-down conversions the Cowboys had in 2013. [embedded_ad]

Dallas actually produced some offensive figures last year that give hope for the future. The Cowboys lost only eight fumbles and they scored a point for every 12.44 yards they gained. That ranked second in the NFL behind the mighty Denver offense, which is saying a lot.

Shockingly, despite its record, Dallas was fifth in scoring, although that offensive shootout against the Broncos again figured into the equation.

The trouble is that the Cowboys just didn't have enough chances. They ran 957 plays for the entire season, fewest in the league.

Of those 957, 180 were third downs, again the NFL's least. And of those 180, Dallas converted 63 first downs, just under four a game. The Giants and Buccaneers were next worst with 69 conversions.

The numbers would suggest that Dallas has the offensive firepower to move the ball, but when your team is running fewer plays than the competition it has been given a hole from which it might not be able to escape.

Finally, our last number is 4.

That, as it turns out, equals half the total of Dallas' losses last season, but it also stands for the number of times the Cowboys lost a lead in the fourth quarter. On another occasion (against Kansas City) the team closed within one in the final period, but could not get over the hump.

And once more, in the season-ending loss to Philadelphia, Dallas was unable to convert a two-point try that would have tied the game in the closing moments.

The Cowboys, in other words, were unable to finish.

Despite the defensive difficulties, despite the injuries, the Cowboys were in position to create a winning record and push their way into the playoffs. A play here or a play there would have turned the trick, but too many times those plays did not appear. Creating those plays this year will go a long way toward putting the team on the right track.

Improving some of those other numbers wouldn't hurt, either.

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