The Cowboys Offense at the Quarter Mark: Trying to Run on Three Cylinders

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Is Jason Witten finally back?

The Dallas Cowboys bye week has come to an end. In fan land, the hope lingers that the team has found some offensive traction after three weak performances against Seattle, Tampa Bay and Chicago.

A look at the offensive numbers shows that a unit though to be the football equivalent of a turbocharged V-6, with three tall receivers, a Pro Bowl tight end, DeMarco Murray and Tony Romo, has at best seen three of them come through.  The Cowboys engine has backfired, smoked, sputtered and stalled out through September.  It’s had probably its worst stretch since the dark Bruce Coslett days.

Murray has provided the lion’s share of big plays in this young season, many as a receiver of swing passes. Given the offensive line’s inability to create a consistent push (more on that in a bit) it makes sense for the offense to keep throwing him the ball.

This may confound some people who hope for more rushing attempts, and I can’t argue with the need for more, but Murray is averaging over seven yards per catch and just under four yards per carry. Any way to get the ball up the field is welcome.

Passing Game Blues

The biggest goats through the first month, even bigger than the offensive line in my opinion, have been the receivers.  They did suffer some pre-season injuries.  Miles Austin sat out nearly all of August with a strained hamstring, and Jason Witten was shut down completely for two weeks after fracturing a spleen.  But these guys were not trying to incorporate several new players, as the O-line continues to attempt.  They were not trying to mesh with new position coaches, as the linemen are with Bill Callahan.

The receiving quartet of Witten, Austin, Bryant and Ogletree has been together for three years.  They’re in their second year with receiving coach Jimmy Robinson.  Witten is in his 5th year with John Garrett, after going through three other position coaches in his first four years as a pro.  These four were looked on to lead the offense while the line gelled and while the new secondary was shuffled.

Instead it’s been a disaster, as these numbers show:

Bryant — 33 attempts, 21 receptions, 269 yards, 8.2 YPA
Austin — 29 attempts, 18 receptions, 300 yards, 10.3 YPA
Ogletree — 24 attempts, 17 receptions, 221 yards, 9.2 YPA
Witten — 33 attempts, 21 receptions, 188 yards, 5.7 YPA

Of the four premier receiving targets, only Austin has provided consistent production; he has had 73, 63, 107 and 57 yards in his four games.  His 10.3 YPA is in line with a top receiver.  (Pro Bowlers usually have numbers around 10.0)  Austin probably needs more attempts and his hamstring should be good to go after the week off, allowing Tony Romo to feed him more passes.

Ogletree has been solid as the 3rd option.  A 9.2 line is very good for a third wideout.  Inconsistency has been his issue.  Look at his yardage lines — 114, 5, 57 and 24.  It’s all or nothing with Ogletree, and he cannot afford to commit miscues like his bobble at the Bears ten last Monday night, which was intercepted just as the Cowboys were ready to keep pace with a surging Bears team.