By Matthew Postins
The Dallas Cowboys’ 19-13 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday marked the 32nd game of head coach Jason Garrett’s tenure in Dallas. It’s been nearly two years since owner and general manager Jerry Jones dismissed Wade Phillips after a 1-7 start in 2010 and elevated then-offensive coordinator Garrett to the top spot. Anyone watching the Cowboys knew at some point it would happen, that Jones would give Garrett the keys to the head coach’s office and let him take his shot.
After 32 games Garrett’s Cowboys are 16-16. Most expected the Cowboys to be in better shape at this point, especially when you juxtapose Garrett’s record with the following – in the final 32 games of Phillips’ tenure as head coach the Cowboys were … 16-16.
Yep, at least in the win-loss column, we’re right back where we started. The bigger question is why?
I thoroughly examined the final 32 games under Phillips and the first 32 games under Garrett searching for answers within the numbers.
What I found was interesting. One number led me to another number, which led me to another number, which led me to, potentially, an answer.
But first let’s look at some numbers that may or may not surprise you.
Let’s look at total yardage on offense. Not much has changed. The Cowboys are averaging five more total yards, six more rushing yards and less than one more passing yard per game with Garrett as head coach than Phillips. Given that Garrett called the plays under Phillips, I don’t see that as a surprise.
Same goes for total touchdowns. Under Phillips the Cowboys scored 80 touchdowns. Under Garrett the Cowboys have scored 81.
How about turnovers? This will stun you. The Cowboys had a minus-13 turnover ratio under Phillips. Under Garrett it’s plus-2. Yeah, that’s a little baffling. The Cowboys were a plus-13 in Garrett’s first 24 games.
Let’s look at total points. The Cowboys have scored 70 more points with Garrett as head coach than Phillips. Of course, they’ve given up 69 more points on defense. So that’s basically a wash.
Defensively, the Cowboys are giving up more yards under Garrett (341.0) than under Phillips (315.2).
None of those numbers really led me anywhere specific. We’re not talking about major changes in production in any of those categories. So I kept digging, and I found one number that started a chain reaction.
Percentage of points off touchdowns
To find this out, I took the Cowboys’ total points during both time frames and then determined how many points came off touchdowns. This percentage does not include extra points.
Under Phillips the Cowboys scored 70.3 percent of their points off touchdowns. Under Garrett the Cowboys have scored 64.6 percent of their points off touchdowns.
So how much of a difference is that? Well, the Cowboys scored 480 of their 682 points on touchdowns under Phillips. The Cowboys have scored 486 of their 752 points on touchdowns under Garrett. So while the Cowboys’ total points have gone up under Garrett, their touchdowns have remained static.
As a point of reference, Dallas’ opponents have seen no change in this percentage. Under Phillips it was 66.1 percent. Under Garrett it’s 66.4 percent.
So how do we explain this? Well, this took me to a place I had gone earlier this season, and with this context it makes more sense.
Red Zone Efficiency
Earlier this season I made the point that bad things seem to keep happening to Dallas in the red zone. Red zone efficiency is the percentage of time that a team scores a touchdown when they enter their opponent’s 20-yard line.
The Cowboys are ranked No. 27 in the NFL right now in red zone efficiency at 44 percent. But that’s just for this season. Does that change if you take into account Garrett’s entire tenure as head coach?
Look at the Cowboys’ red zone efficiency for the past five years, and the change becomes clear. In 2008, 2009 and 2010 the Cowboys operated at better than 50 percent in the red zone. In 2011 and 2012 (a 24-game span) the Cowboys operated at less than 50 percent efficiency.
Remember when we talked about how the Cowboys have scored 70 more total points during Garrett’s tenure than during Phillips’? Well, if the Cowboys are operating at a lower efficiency in the red zone, where are the extra points coming from?
During Phillips’ final 32 games the Cowboys made 40 field goals, twenty of which were from 37 yards or less. That’s an important yardage marker. A 37-yard field goal indicates that the line of scrimmage was the 20-yard line, which is the outside of the red zone. So 50 percent of the Cowboys’ field goals came in the red zone. That falls in line with their 50 percent or better red zone efficiency during that span.
Under Garrett the Cowboys have made 22 more field goals, 62 in all. Of those field goals, 34 of them were 37 yards or less. That’s 54 percent.
That may sound great, but consider the following. Under Phillips the Cowboys left 60 points on the table in the red zone. That’s the three-point difference between a touchdown and a field goal per red zone possession that didn’t result in a touchdown. Under Garrett that number ballooned to 102 points, a difference of 42 points.
Now consider all of the field goals the Cowboys have kicked and that difference gets starker. Under Phillips the Cowboys left 120 points on the table with those 40 field goals. Under Garrett it is 186 unrealized points.
So why are the Cowboys settling for field goals?
Mistakes in the red zone
I didn’t have the time to invest to look at every red zone play for the past 64 games, but there’s enough compelling evidence to show the Cowboys are less efficient under Garrett in the red zone than under Phillips. So a snapshot of the first eight games of this season will have to suffice.
I touched on this after the Carolina game. I examined every red zone play for the first six games and determined that part of the problem was that Dallas was committing negative plays in the red zone. That trend hasn’t abated.
The Cowboys have now run 73 plays in the red zone – 34 run and 39 pass. They’ve scored 11 red zone touchdowns. To date they’ve committed 25 negative plays in the red zone, negative amounting to penalties, turnovers, sacks, and plays for either no gain or a loss of yardage. That’s 34 percent of the Cowboys’ plays in the red zone. The Cowboys are 24-of-39 passing in the red zone, so if you consider an incompletion a negative play that’s 40 negative plays, or 54.7 percent of the Cowboys’ red zone plays. Dallas is also 4-of-17 on third down conversions in the red zone.
So here we are. The Cowboys’ inability to play efficiently in the red zone is having a ripple effect on the offense and it’s the chief reason why the Cowboys are 16-16 under Garrett. Now, that’s not exactly news. But you can see the trail in the numbers. The Cowboys’ own mistakes and lack of execution lead to inefficiency in the red zone. That inefficiency leads to more Cowboys field goals. More field goals means the Cowboys score fewer touchdowns in relation to their total points.
Last week I wrote about Garrett’s record in closer games, games decided by 8 points or less. After the Atlanta loss Garrett is 10-11 in games decided by 8 points or less. In those games the Cowboys have scored 499 points. The Cowboys’ opponents have scored 506 points. That’s a difference of seven points.
That’s a difference between, well, .500 and something better.