Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
19 Dec 2013
by Cian Fahey
At first glance, it was just another Tony Romo meltdown game, a game where Romo undid all of his previous good work by throwing two late interceptions that handed the Green Bay Packers a one point victory. Some are satisfied to just blame Romo and blindly assign team wins to the quarterback position. Others will have noticed that Romo was being asked to carry a roster lacking in talent, while following the orders of a coaching staff that lacks any real direction or discipline. Only those who look closely at both teams will recognize the striking juxtaposition that took place in Texas on Sunday.
Even though Romo was the scapegoat on Sunday, a label he so regularly receives and so rarely deserves, Matt Flynn played much worse. His statistics didn't show it, but Flynn was carried by his teammates. He didn't throw two late interceptions, but he should have thrown two crucial interceptions earlier in the game. One of those throws turned into an interception that set the Dallas Cowboys up deep in Packers territory, while the other turned into a Packers touchdown because of the brilliance of wide receiver Jordy Nelson.
That was the beauty of this game. It wasn't decided by Romo or his decisions late in the fourth quarter. It was decided by two franchises that carry completely different cultures, that are the polar opposites in how they build their teams and that have enjoyed completely different levels of success in recent times.
Even without Aaron Rodgers, the Packers were able to come away with a victory because of high-quality coaching and a supporting cast that is capable of assuming responsibility from their quarterback. Nelson, Sam Shields, Andrew Quarless, James Jones and Eddie Lacy all alleviated the pressure from Flynn who looked overwhelmed at times.
With Romo, the Cowboys coaching staff looked lost. Save for Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith and DeMarco Murray, players whose impacts were hindered by that coaching staff, nobody on the Cowboys roster did anything to alleviate the pressure on their quarterback.
This game was a clash of cultures that showed off why quarterback wins is a very flawed statistic. We didn't get another rope to hang Romo with, we got another example of why the Cowboys will continue to lose so long as Jerry Jones is the owner/general manager and this kind of coaching continues in Dallas.
The value of the NFL running back has plummeted. No longer do teams need to spend high picks on backs to find value, while very few backs are worthwhile investments during their second contracts. Even though Adrian Peterson won the MVP last season, he is an outlier amongst his peers and the Vikings would be much better off with a quarterback of equivalent talent.
And yet, while the value of the individual players has fallen because it is easy to find backs who can contribute and/or start, the value of a reliable running game is still very high. By neglecting their running game against the Packers, the Cowboys helped demonstrate why.
The Cowboys' game-planning and play-calling has been amateurish this season. In fact, most amateurs would understand how short-sighted the Cowboys have been with their offense. Instead of trying to build a balanced offensive attack with the tools at their disposal, Jason Garrett and Bill Callahan have repeatedly asked Romo and his receivers to do too much. Romo has attempted at least 36 passes in eight of his 14 starts this season. Five of those eight games saw him throw the ball at least 40 times. This is a team with the second-ranked offensive rushing DVOA along with the 30th ranked defensive DVOA and 31st ranked defensive weighted DVOA. The Cowboys have neglected the run all season long in spite of the fact that it would ease the pressure on their quarterback and their ailing defense.
The Cowboys had a lot of success when they based their offense off the run. On the very first drive of the game, the Cowboys had three successful runs and one negative run. Their first two runs set up play-action shots that put them in scoring position. Those two play-action attempts gave Romo clean pockets to throw from and wide open receivers. The negative run set them up in third-and-long, which eventually led to a field goal when Micah Hyde made an excellent play in coverage against Miles Austin.
The Cowboys' discipline continued on their second drive. One quick pass to the outside preceded another handoff to Murray.
Murray broke off a 41-yard gain after picking up 16 yards on his first four carries. He has averaged 5.5 yards per carry this season, but he only has 178 total carries. He has games with just 14, 12, 7, 4 and 14 attempts in the 12 games he has started. Murray actually finished this game with 18 carries for 134 yards, but those carries weren't distributed to the best effect. This long run set up a big pass play to Bryant off of play action to get the Cowboys to the Green Bay 9-yard line. From there, Murray had one carry for four yards before the Cowboys called two passing plays that resulted in incompletions.
On the following drive, Murray had a nine-yard reception before he ran the ball for 16 yards. That set up a 25-yard touchdown pass to Jason Witten down the seam.
This version of the Cowboys offense can be unstoppable at times. Regardless of the poor defense they were facing, the balance and execution they showed off would make them formidable against any caliber of opposition. On three drives, the Cowboys had 13 points and probably would have had 17 had they not abandoned the run on the goal line during their second drive. The Packers had shown no ability to even slow down this offense. Murray wasn't grinding out big yards; he was running through gaping holes and away from players who had no chance of tackling him.
Logically, it made no sense for the Cowboys coaching staff to change their approach. Yet on the next drive, they didn't run the ball once. On eight plays before punting, the Cowboys gained just 23 yards. They were leading by 10 points at the time and they only looked to get Murray the ball twice. Both were passing plays, one screen pass on first-and-10 and one throw down the sideline after that. Murray gained 10 yards on the screen play, but couldn't get to the ball on the pass down the sideline. Considering how easy it is to get him the ball with a handoff and how easily Murray had racked up yardage, this was inexplicable.
Although many of the headlines this week have suggested that the Cowboys gave up on the run at halftime of this game, they actually gave up on it early on in the second quarter. After not attempting a run on their fourth drive, the Cowboys came out throwing again on their fifth. Play action led to a 20 yard gain on the first pass of the drive, but Murray only had two carries -- one for a first down and one for a three-yard gain -- before two incomplete passes set up another field goal attempt.
At this point, there were four minutes left in the second quarter and the Cowboys were leading 16-3. Flynn threw an interception to set the Cowboys up deep in Green Bay territory. This was the perfect opportunity to drain the rest of the first-half clock by running the ball to set up what would be a deflating touchdown. Instead, the Cowboys called three passing plays that led to two incompletions and a sack. They were forced to settle for a field goal.
The Cowboys did score a touchdown before the half when Romo ran a two-minute drill that focused on Bryant. Sometimes talent will shine through and shadow over poor coaching and on this occasion it did. The Cowboys entered halftime with a resounding 26-3 lead.
Twenty-six points in two quarters is a phenomenal output for any offense. A 23-point lead meant that the Cowboys didn't need to match the Packers' output in the second half. They were in perfect position to return to running the ball, chewing out the clock as much as possible to make a comeback as tough as possible on their opponents. Their first drive in the third quarter reflected that ideal and was well-balanced, but from that point onwards any discipline or direction that led the team towards a comfortable victory disappeared.
The Cowboys attempted just three runs after their first drive of the second half. Even after the Packers scored a touchdown on their opening drive of the third quarter, this approach was counter-productive. Even when leading by five points late in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys continued to throw the ball.
Not every successful quarterback in the NFL has a running back as talented as Murray, but every successful quarterback has a coordinator who doesn't actively make his job tougher by repeatedly asking him to do too much in conditions that are conducive to failure. This was a typical Romo meltdown game, but the definition of that is not what the label implies. Romo was at fault for this loss to a much lesser degree than the Cowboys' coaching staff, the general manager, and the atrocious play from some of his teammates on the defensive side of the ball.
In any Romo meltdown game, there are two perspectives to take. One side sees the collapse of the Cowboys, while the other side enjoys the comeback win. This comeback win was different because the Packers offense proved to be the complete opposite of the Cowboys offense. While the Cowboys were asking too much of Romo, the Packers were carrying Flynn to victory.
In the first half, the Packers beat themselves. Bad execution from the quarterback position and missed assignments from the offensive line put the offense in insurmountable situations more than once. After a field goal drive that came from a Jones slant route that he turned into a huge gain, the Packers punted at the end of every drive except for when Flynn threw that interception in the second quarter. The Cowboys defense accepted the plaudits for essentially shutting down the Packers offense, but they did little more than benefit from the Packers willingness to beat themselves.
While the Cowboys continued to play poor defense, they were no longer being let off by Flynn and the rest of the offense. Flynn improved slightly as he threw with better accuracy and looked more assured of himself when pushing the ball further downfield. His minor improvements allowed the team's receivers to make outstanding plays that carried the passing game. In the first half, multiple receivers dropped easy passes, but in the second half they were routinely catching those passes and making very tough receptions too. That said, it was Lacy who set the comeback in motion. Lacy never really got going in the first half. He had two toss plays that didn't really play to his strengths, and he couldn't escape when he ran between the tackles for various reasons. He never got an extended look because the offense didn't establish and sustain drives.
He didn't need an extended look in the second half. On the very first play of the third quarter, Lacy broke off a 60-yard run.
Although Lacy didn't make it to the end zone, he set up the offense in scoring position. Two runs from James Starks set them up with a third-and-3 before Flynn threw his first touchdown pass of the day. It was a pass that should -- and likely would -- have been intercepted if the Cowboys had better defensive backs.
The Packers are set up on the Cowboys' 12-yard line. Nelson is lined up in the slot to the left across from Orlando Scandrick. Jones is wide to the right, Jarrett Boykin is to Nelson's left and Flynn has a back and tight end behind the line of scrimmage with him. The safety to Nelson's side of the field is moving towards the line of scrimmage, which suggests that Nelson will likely be working against Scandrick on an island. Flynn seemingly recognizes this before the snap.
Flynn immediately looks to Nelson's matchup with Scandrick as the wide receiver runs a deep out route that puts him in the end zone. Flynn stares down his first option while shifting slightly to the left. He unleashes a throw to the far corner that falls limp in the air. He never should have attempted the pass because Scandrick was in perfect coverage and the ball is almost certainly going to be intercepted. At the very best, Nelson should only be able to prevent an interception by tipping the ball away from behind him.
Much like what Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall did to the Cowboys' defensive backs in Week 14, Nelson is able to turn a bad pass into a reception. He leaves his feet before Scandrick and reaches over him with his arms. Scandrick still gets to the ball first, but he is not strong enough or aggressive enough to prevent Nelson from ripping it away from him. Nelson doesn't rip it in such a way that it falls incomplete, instead it comes towards him and he pulls it into his chest with his fingers.
Not many receivers in the NFL could make that kind of play, but even the ones who can will rarely do it against a defensive back who doesn't allow them to. Scandrick should have had an interception, but Nelson plays wide receiver on a different level than Scandrick plays cornerback.
If you isolate what Flynn did and only focus on his actions, then he made a bad decision and a bad throw. Nothing about what the quarterback did suggests he should have scored. Yet, because of the quality around him and the coaching that created that quality, the team succeeded.
Lacy's run and Nelson's touchdown appeared to give the Packers new life. On the next drive, Quarless proved to be an impossible matchup for the Cowboys linebackers and defensive backs. He gave Flynn multiple easy throws that led to important plays, while Nelson made another incredible one-handed reception even after he was interfered with by a defensive back. Quarless topped off the drive with a touchdown, as he easily beat Sterling Moore on a slant at the goal line.
Flynn made a quick, good throw, but Quarless is 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds and Moore is 5-foot-10 and 199 pounds. His size and quickness to get inside the defensive back in space gave Flynn a huge window to throw into. By asking the tight end to run a quick slant route infield, the Packers coaching staff gave Flynn an easier throw to execute. Comparatively in the first half, Romo was tasked with throwing a back-shoulder pass to his backup tight end who was running a fade to the back pylon at the goal line. Even with Bryant drawing a double team on the other side of the field, the Cowboys didn't take advantage of the space that had been created. Instead they expected Romo to make another tough throw.
Flynn's third touchdown was a perfectly timed and executed screen pass that asked little of the quarterback again.
At the 11-yard line, the Packers come out with four eligible receivers tight to the formation. They have a fullback offset to the left ahead of Starks in the backfield, with Nelson lined up wide to the left. The Cowboys respond with nine defenders in the box and one safety accounting for Nelson and the cornerback out wide to the right of the defense.
The Packers run a lazy play-action. Instead of trying to sell the run, Flynn turns his back to the defense and barely holds the ball away from his body. The fullback immediately releases into the flat and both Nelson and the left tight end release into their routes immediately also. The Packers' offensive linemen don't fake a run blocking motion, instead they just drop into their pass blocking stances immediately.
A lazy play-action is the term I use for a play-action that is meant to make the defense think they've deduced that it is a passing play, but also punish them for it. The Packers do this by hitting a very quick screen to Starks underneath. Starks immediately has a running lane because the defensive tackle aggressively attacked the A-gap to the left thinking that it was a pass play. Both defensive ends were trapped downfield and so was the left defensive tackle. This created space for Starks initially.
Each of the receivers who ran routes are pulling towards the sideline to try and draw defenders away to create space on the second level.
The Cowboys defense did react, but the play-design created enough space for Starks and allowed his blocking to release into the secondary with ease, meaning he had a relatively easy touchdown.
Flynn's final touchdown was very impressive. He manipulated the defense with his eyes and found a hole in the coverage quickly before throwing an accurate pass.
The difference between the outputs of Romo and Flynn were minimal on Sunday. The differences between the Packers and the Cowboys as a whole were vast. Change doesn't appear to be on the horizon for the Cowboys, because Jerry Jones' inability to understand that he is wrecking the thing he loves the most isn't going away any time soon. With Romo locked into a long-term contract, it's safe to say that there will be more games where Romo steals the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.
But we should always remember that those are only moments. Even though it runs against our natural instinct, moments are not more important than the sum of all the parts. If moments were all that mattered, both Santonio Holmes and David Tyree would be elite NFL receivers, Romo would be a terrible quarterback, and Bill Belichick would be an even worse head coach.
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