Dr. Backshoulder's low catch rate: an aberration, or a long-term problem?
18 Dec 2007
by Ned Macey
One maxim of football strategy is to get your playmakers the ball. One week after Terrell Owens was limited to three catches for 21 yards, the Cowboys were intent on putting the ball in his hands. The fact that Owens had torched his former team six weeks ago in Philadelphia made this seem like a sound strategy. A changed Philadelphia game plan and an erratic quarterback, however, led to a disastrous offensive performance and the Cowboys' second loss of the season.
For the game, Owens caught only two of the 12 passes Romo threw in his direction. In fact, Romo threw more interceptions than completions on passes intended for Owens. Owens is an easy target for media scrutiny due to his questionable past, but he only dropped one pass intended for him. The bigger problem was that the Eagles were unwilling to let Owens beat them as had in November. A safety was ever-present when the Cowboys went down the field, and it was no surprise that the two completions to Owens were underneath routes in the middle of the field.
Even with the defensive focus, Owens was open several times, but Romo threw wildly. His new squeeze Jessica Simpson was on hand to watch the performance, and she could not have been impressed. Romo was battling a thumb injury for most of the game, and was clearly erratic. Even when he had open receivers, he would miss them. He completed only 36 percent of his passes. With the pass game struggling, the natural response would be to turn to the running game.
The natural response never occurred. The Cowboys only called 14 running plays, compared with 40 passing plays. This massive discrepancy appears explicable from the stats: The running backs only totaled 37 yards on 14 carries, an average of just 2.6 yards per rush. Clearly the running game was not effective, right?
The running game in Dallas still consists of nearly equal carries for the excellent Marion Barber III and the thoroughly mediocre Julius Jones. Barber totaled 32 yards on seven carries, only one of which failed to pick up at least three yards. Jones, meanwhile, totaled 5 yards on seven carries, and only twice gained three or more yards.
The difference between these two backs, running behind the same line, is extraordinary. Barber averages 4.9 yards per carry while Jones only averages 3.8. At Football Outsiders, we have a stat called success rate that measures how consistently a running back gains productive yardage. Barber ranks 11th, while Jones ranks 51st. The only running back with at least 75 carries and a lower success rate than Jones is the tattered remnants of Shaun Alexander. Barber's superiority is not exactly news. A season ago, he averaged 4.8 yards per carry to Jones' 4.1.
Give the new coaching staff credit that at least Barber leads the team in carries, whereas Jones had a two-to-one advantage a season ago. Still, the near 50-50 split is a severe disservice to the Cowboys offense. For whatever reason, the Cowboys feel Barber is most effective if he rests early in the game, but a playmaker of his ability should be receiving a substantial bulk of the carries. Any game where he does not get 75 percent of the rushing attempts is a misuse of resources, plain and simple.
With Barber relegated to bystander, Romo sprayed the ball all over the field. He has clearly emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in football, but Sunday's game showed Romo is far from a perfect passer. He tends to be too aggressive down the field, and that leads to interceptions. The three picks on Sunday give him 17 for the season. He also has trouble securing the football. He has fumbled nine times already this year despite rarely being sacked. Fortunately for him, his own team has recovered six of those fumbles, but he is playing with fire by allowing so many loose balls.
The other troubling development from Sunday's game was the Cowboys' continued inability to play well in the first quarter. The Cowboys are the second best offense in football starting in the second quarter. In the first quarter, they are 20th. (It should not go without notice that Julius Jones is the starter, but the problems extend to slow starts in the passing game.)
A quick start on Sunday could have buried a downtrodden Eagles team coming off just the latest in a succession of heart-wrenching losses. At 5-8, the Eagles were more or less eliminated from playoff contention. A quick 10-point lead could have put the long-time NFC East contenders out of their misery.
The Cowboys defense has had first-quarter struggles as well this season, but they managed to hold the Eagles off the scoreboard. Philadelphia got four first-quarter possessions and finished with zero points to show for it. That's still better than the Cowboys, who took their three offensive possessions and did not record a single first down.
As is their wont, the Cowboys got it going in the second quarter with two long drives. The first drive ended when Romo threw an interception into the end zone on the first one, but he was bailed out when Quintin Mikell ran the ball out and fumbled it right back. The Cowboys converted the second chance into a field goal. Their second long drive marched into Eagles territory, but it also ended with an interception.
Somehow still in the game after stalling repeatedly near midfield, the Eagles faced a second-and-13 at the Dallas 40-yard line. Donovan McNabb dropped back to pass, saw the pass rush come from both sides, and busted out the front for a 28-yard gain. The run was the longest of the year for the once-mobile quarterback.
McNabb has fought the "mobile quarterback" label throughout his career. He has proved that he can be a very effective pocket passer, but he has always been helped by the threat of the run. This year, recovering from an ACL injury, McNabb has been far less mobile. He has been sacked 37 times this season (nearing the highest total of his career; he was sacked 45 times in 2000) in only 12 games. This is due in part to his lack of mobility.
The decreased threat he poses to break the pocket radically affects the way opposing defenses can defend the Eagles. The Eagles receivers are a rather pedestrian group, so teams are best served by playing man-to-man defense, a tactic that is vulnerable to long runs by quarterbacks who can escape the pocket. In the old days, teams playing man-to-man on the Eagles would leave a linebacker or safety to "spy" on McNabb. Now, the spy is unnecessary, which adds an additional defender to either cover receivers or blitz the quarterback.
The other way to beat man-to-man coverage is with big plays down the field. The Eagles have had success with that for several seasons. This year, however, the offensive line is unable to provide McNabb sufficient time to let receivers get down the field. Opposing teams can also bring pressure from the outside because they do not fear McNabb's ability to break the pocket. In past years, opposing pass rushers had to be more disciplined or McNabb would beat them with a run.
A look at McNabb's numbers shows that opponents are almost daring him to run. In recent years, he had seemed almost reluctant to scramble. This year, with a still-rehabbing knee, he has run 35 times (kneeldowns not included). In 2005 and 2006 combined, he had 38 runs. He has not run more than 35 times in a year since 2003.
The good news is that McNabb's knee is clearly feeling better. Through Week 9, McNabb had carried 18 times for only 69 yards. Since Week 10, he has carried 17 times for 134 yards. If he is able to make a few more plays with his feet, opposing defenses will have to adjust, which will allow him to make more plays with his arm.
As always, the focus in Philadelphia is on McNabb, while their best player is undoubtedly Brian Westbrook. The sensational running back is finally getting some publicity for his heads-up decision to take a knee at the goal-line in the final minutes, but that decision, while smart, was the least of his contributions to the Eagles. He is quite simply the most productive running back in football. He was seemingly held in check by the Cowboys and still totaled 144 yards of offense.
Westbrook has missed just one game due to injury this season, and the result was one of the Eagles' only two disastrous outings, a 16-3 loss to the Giants. The rest of the Eagles' season has featured an inordinate number of creative ways to lose a game. For the year, the Eagles are 0-4 in games decided by three points or less. Not only have they lost close games, but they have lost them against the second most difficult schedule in football. The Eagles' talent is obvious. In four games against the NFL's elite -- New England, Dallas, and Green Bay -- they have played three nail-biters and only been outclassed once.
A rehabbing quarterback, inconsistent secondary, and poor red zone offense have spelled the difference between a 9-5 team heading to the playoffs and a 6-8 team questioning the direction of the franchise. If they stay the course, odds are they would be right back in the thick of a playoff chase next season. If they panic and dump one of the best quarterbacks in football because the team around him has regressed and the local talk radio shows are calling for his head, the Eagles will get the sustained mediocrity they deserve.
Dallas is not only headed to the playoffs but has a first-round bye and inside track to the first overall seed. Romo's thumb injury presents a potential problem as they strive to win against sub-.500 teams the next two weeks. The thumb injury will be a convenient excuse, but this team is actually regressing as the season progresses. Since Week 10, the Cowboys have played four of their five worst games of the season, according to DVOA. The Cowboys hit the ground running with their new offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, but it is possible opponents are starting to adjust. Defensively, the new regime found its footing after a bad first two weeks, but they have been exposed at times in recent weeks.
The time is now for the Cowboys to start making counter-moves to their opponents. The defense used creative ways to apply pressure up the middle and clearly confounded the Eagles. The offense must devise similar schemes to get Terrell Owens the ball in single coverage. The team may have to start working Owens more horizontally than vertically, with the hopes of pulling safeties up to allow other receivers to go deep. Owens bristles at both being a decoy and a possession receiver, but unless the Cowboys adjust, their offense will no longer be dominant. If these tweaks do not work, the Cowboys could resort to Plan B: Ban Jessica Simpson's access to the stadium.
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.
58 comments, Last at 20 Dec 2007, 7:24pm by MdM