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.

The biggest drop-off is on Witten’s line.  He’s averaged over 8.0 yards per reception every year.  A 5.7 is more in line with a blocking tight end’s, or a fullback’s.  It’s even worse if you look at his first three games, when Witten was obviously troubled by his spleen:

19 attempts, 8 catches, 76 yards, 4.0 YPA.

Let’s put it this way.  Lousaka Polite and Deon Anderson posted YPAs in the 4.0 range.

The one silver lining from the Bears blowout was Witten’s line:
14 attempts, 13 catches, 112 yards, 8.0 YPA.

This is in line with his average production.  The Bears line suggest that Witten is regaining the strength and mobility which abandoned him in the earlier contests.  Add this Witten to Austin and a more active Ogletree, and the offense can begin to complete the drives it has frequently aborted outside opponent’s red zones.

Which brings us to the enigma.  Dez Bryant has been the most targeted Cowboys receiver this year.  His attempts have risen in every game:  5 vs. the Giants, 7 against Seattle, 8 against Tampa and 13 versus the Bears.  His production has not risen in line with his throws. Instead his yardage totals have yo-yoed:  85, then 17, then 62 and finally 105 yards against the Bears.

An 8.2 YPA isn’t bad, but if Bryant had caught the ball better, he would have a YPA more in line with Austin’s, and Dallas might have an extra win on its ledger.

It’s a bit unfair to single out Bryant.  Witten had two of his worst ever games against the Seahawks and Buccaneers.  IF Witten is indeed on the mend, and if Bryant can raise his performance a bit, the passing game can put pressure back on defenses and let Jason Garrett work his pass-early, run-late tactics again.

We’re about to learn what type of mechanics Jason Garrett, Robinson and Bill Callahan can be. They’ve had two weeks to complete the overhaul.

Next:  the O-line has been a one-man band.

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Rafael Vela

Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ TheBoys.comin '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for SportsTalkLine.com
Rafael Vela

Rafael Vela

Started covering Dallas Cowboys @ TheBoys.com in '95 and '96. Two more stops along the way and here I am. Senior Analyst for SportsTalkLine.com