Eight weeks ago, the Vikings were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in DVOA. Now they're 6-6 and probably done. What went wrong?
26 Dec 2006
by Ned Macey
A year ago, the Philadelphia Eagles' season effectively ended against the Cowboys. Roy Williams intercepted a Donovan McNabb pass and returned it for a game-winning touchdown. McNabb stumbled after him, clearly hampered by a sports hernia injury that ended his season. The Eagles lost McNabb again this year, but their critical matchup with Dallas was a different story. The Eagles controlled the ball, confused Tony Romo, and played surprisingly tough run defense to come away with the win.
The Eagles season has been a rather odd series of ups and downs. They played great football early in the year but lost several heartbreaking games. A mid-season swoon followed during which McNabb was injured and the run defense collapsed. A second disappointing season seemed in the offing. Now, after three consecutive road wins, the Eagles are back in the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years.
Dallas, meanwhile, has captured only its second playoff berth of the post-Aikman era, but the recent disintegration of their pass offense and pass defense leaves them worried rather than jubilant. The Cowboys were considered the second best team in the NFC a mere three weeks ago. Now they will likely be stuck with a wild card.
As always, a four-game win streak leads to enormous credit being given to a team's quarterback. Jeff Garcia has played well since coming in for McNabb. The key is not that Garcia is not McNabb. The key is that Garcia is not Mike McMahon. He is able to make plays in an offense filled with talented players, none moreso than the standout Brian Westbrook.
Philadelphia's offense has been one of the best and most consistent on the season. Overall, they rank third in offensive DVOA. The only more consistent offense is Miami, and nobody wants to mimic that level of consistency.
The Eagles under Andy Reid have always been a pass-first team. In a way, however, they are sort of a reverse Pittsburgh Steelers. On a per play basis, they are generally a more effective team running the ball. The only year this decade where their passing DVOA was higher than their running DVOA was 2004. Even then, they ranked ninth in run offense and tenth in pass offense.
Last year, the proclivity for passing became a problem. One major reason was the lack of a power back to support Westbrook. Westbrook is an amazing player, but he is not great at grinding out yards in the middle of the line. The Eagles had used Duce Staley and Dorsey Levens to great effect in that role previously. Staley and Levens ranked third in DVOA among running backs in 2003 and 2004 respectively. Last year, the best "banger" they had was Lamar Gordon, who was incapable of providing this support.
This year, the job has gone to Correll Buckhalter. Buckhalter has missed three of the past four seasons with extensive injuries. He returned this year to provide consistent yardage for the Eagles. He is not extraordinary by any means, but he keeps the offense in good shape. He ranks second in our success rate measurement. He is nearly incapable of the big play, but he has almost no negative plays. 46.3% of his runs are between three and six yards, the highest percentage in the league.
The Eagles do not need big plays from Buckhalter because Westbrook provides more than enough of those. The diminutive running back is explosive as a runner and a receiver and has been underappreciated this season. He ranks second in the league in combined rushing and receiving DPAR behind only LaDainian Tomlinson. Given that Tomlinson is in the AFC and Westbrook in the NFC, his omission from the Pro Bowl roster is a glaring oversight.
Westbrook's performance this weekend was particularly impressive because the Cowboys run defense has been strong all season. Their primary weakness is in pass defense, but the Eagles still attacked them successfully on the ground. They called running plays 60 percent of the time on their first three drives. Those drives netted 10 points, with the only failure an interception thrown by Garcia.
The Eagles got a little pass happy in the third quarter, but they returned to the ground to ice the game in the fourth quarter. After a Brian Dawkins interception in the end zone, the Eagles marched down the field for a game-clinching touchdown. They handed the ball off on eight out of 12 plays. Garcia added two scrambles. Passing yardage accounted for only 13 of the 80 yards in the drive.
Of course, solid play by running backs almost always correlates with excellent offensive line play. The Eagles still have stalwarts like Jon Runyan and the tackle formerly known as Tra Thomas. They are punishing people on the ground thanks in large part to the solid play of young, physical center Jamaal Jackson and guard Shawn Andrews. Freedom from injuries on the offensive line is also a major reason for the offensive consistency.
The Cowboys should not be overly concerned about their run defense because they were facing the second best rushing offense in the league. The Eagles' success is more a testament to their ability to run the ball than any failings by the Cowboys.
Still, the Cowboys should remain concerned about their pass defense. The Cowboys feature a strong pass rush and solid cornerbacks, but their safeties can be exposed in pass coverage. Against New Orleans, they were exposed on multiple passes to running backs. The Cowboys made adjustments to limit the damage Westbrook made in the passing game. Those moves, however, opened the middle of the field for tight ends. Alge Crumpler caught five balls a week ago. This week, the Eagles completed a 65-yard pass to L.J. Smith and a 25-yard touchdown to Matt Schobel.
The Eagles have had their own troubles stopping the run, but not on Monday. The Cowboys have an excellent two-headed-monster running game. The first two drives featured a healthy balance of run and pass. The second drive ended with three unsuccessful efforts from the 1-yard line. Marion Barber III has had impressive success on short-yardage plays, but the Eagles defense held. That stop was a major turning point in the game. The Eagles run defense has been mediocre overall, but it has been among the ten best in short-yardage situations.
After this stand, the Cowboys completely abandoned the running game. Their first pass-happy drive ended in a touchdown. After Philadelphia field goals bracketed halftime, the Cowboys trailed 16-7. The Cowboys called pass plays on 10 of their first 15 second-half snaps, not including two passes that picked up defensive penalties. The tenth pass was a wild throw into the end zone toward a double-covered Terrell Owens. After a Philadelphia touchdown, the Cowboys' next play was another interception that was as bad a throw as you will see in professional football.
The bloom is definitely off of Romo's rose, but he still remains a solid player. He now has two interceptions in three of the last four games. Opposing teams have sufficient tape on Romo and have made adjustments. The question is whether Romo will adapt to the defensive improvements.
Many were quick to compare Romo to Tom Brady largely because they both replaced Drew Bledsoe. A better comparison is actually Marc Bulger. Like Romo, he took over on a team with amazing talent at wide receiver. Both enjoyed a great deal of early success. The Rams went 6-0 in the six full games Bulger played in 2002. His DVOA was among the best in the league. The next year, he was a turnover machine as defenses caught up with him. He has since developed into one of the better quarterbacks in football.
The question for Romo is whether or not he can turn it around in time for the playoffs. He is still surrounded by Owens, Terry Glenn, and Jason Witten. The running game remains potent. Romo obviously has the physical tools to be successful. If the Cowboys can keep games close, Romo is good enough to win games in the playoffs. If they fall behind, defensive schemes will be able to force turnovers.
The other problem with the Cowboys' falling behind is that it eliminates Barber from the game plan. Barber is much more successful running the football than Julius Jones. For whatever reason, Bill Parcells prefers to play Jones early and Barber late. If the Cowboys are trailing late, Barber is not an effective battering ram. In the one-sided loss to New Orleans, Barber had two carries. He had six on Sunday. Barber is an extremely effective weapon. The Cowboys should use him earlier in a game or risk not being able to use him at all.
For Philadelphia, they have as much talent on the roster as any team in the NFC. In fact, were McNabb still healthy, they would arguably be the best team in the conference at this point. Garcia is a solid player, but he is not their salvation. He has not played as well as McNabb this season, is not as talented as McNabb, and is not as smart a quarterback as McNabb. For two consecutive weeks, he has thrown ill-timed interceptions. Still, he is certainly good enough to win with all the surrounding talent. If the Eagles are able to lean on Westbrook and Buckhalter, Garcia provides enough to help them win any game.
A win against Atlanta gets the Eagles a home game against an 8-8 opponent in the first round of the playoffs. After that, the Eagles would have to travel to New Orleans. A win there will likely be harder to come by. When McNabb limped off the field against Tennessee, nobody imagined the playoffs were possible. Even the most passionate Philly fan can hardly complain about a playoff loss given the circumstances.
Dallas, meanwhile, was facing a make or break season. Questions abound about whether or not Parcells and Owens will continue to coexist. The Cowboys are barely in the playoffs with both of them. Meanwhile, Owens and Glenn are both aging. Without the weapons on the outside, the production of both Romo and the running backs will decline. This year was an important one for the Cowboys, and while playoff berths are nothing to sneeze at, an early-round playoff exit was not supposed to be the highlight of the Parcells era.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
34 comments, Last at 28 Dec 2006, 10:41pm by Sid