The Cowboys moved on from DeMarco Murray this offseason with the idea that their offense was built around the strength of their dominant offensive line. Now, just two weeks into the season, they’ll have to take that concept further than they ever would have hoped. After losing Dez Bryant to a serious foot injury during their season-opening victory over the Giants, the Cowboys suffered an even more significant blow during their win over the Eagles on Sunday when Tony Romo went down with a fractured collarbone.1 Dallas might be atop the NFC East, but it’s on a Pyrrhic winning streak.
You have no idea how much force it required to hold me back from beginning that paragraph with “Tony No Mo.”
Initial reports about Bryant’s injury undersold its severity and likely recovery period. Noted medical analyst Jerry Jones suggested after the game that Bryant would be out four to six weeks; those estimates ballooned up toward eight weeks, and then, on Sunday morning, they hit 10 to 12 weeks with the news that Bryant received a bone graft procedure during surgery for his Jones fracture.
While some sources suggested that the graft procedure would shorten Bryant’s return time frame, that’s hard to believe. Kevin Durant, for one, specifically chose to repair his Jones fracture with a screw in his foot before eventually undergoing a bone graft procedure that ended his season. The time frame listed for Durant’s recovery from the bone graft surgery at the time was 12 weeks. It’s obviously possible that Bryant could heal differently or return sooner, but that would also increase the likelihood of reaggravating what could then become a chronic foot condition, something the Cowboys can hardly afford as Bryant begins his five-year contract extension.
The good news, I suppose, is that early expectations of how long the Cowboys can expect to be without Romo aren’t aggressive. The six-to-eight-week timetable for Romo is reasonable. A number of quarterbacks have broken their collarbones in recent seasons, including Romo, who missed the final 10 games of the 2010 season after fracturing his clavicle on October 25. In part, that long of an absence was because the Cowboys had little to play for, given that they started 1-7 before firing Wade Phillips and eventually limping to 6-10. Here’s the recovery time frame for some notable quarterbacks from years past with fractured collarbones:
The Cowboys didn’t use their recall designation for injured reserve on Bryant; Romo seems more likely to grab that spot as the Cowboys move on. It was always going to be difficult for the Cowboys to repeat their incredible offensive performance from 2014, given how remarkably healthy they were on that side of the ball. Dallas’s 11 offensive starters missed a total of seven games, one of which came when Romo sat out a contest with two transverse process fractures in his back. With Bryant and Romo both out, the Cowboys will top that games-missed-by-starters figure no later than Week 5.
Without Romo last year, Dallas’s offense — and notably for how the Cowboys might try to adjust now in 2015, their running game — ground to a halt. Dallas’s game without its star quarterback came against the Cardinals and their run defense, which ranked sixth in DVOA last season. During that game, DeMarco Murray & Co. carried the ball 25 times but gained just 92 yards, a 3.7-yard-per-carry average that was a full yard below their average during Romo’s 15 starts. And that was also with Bryant in the lineup; he was targeted on 10 throws and caught just two of them for a total of 15 yards.
Brandon Weeden went 18-of-33 for 183 yards with a touchdown and two picks in that loss to the Cardinals, and as he enters the Dallas starting lineup for the next two months, the offense must definitively change. Weeden isn’t simply a poor man’s version of Romo; he fundamentally lacks the skill set that Romo uses to succeed, especially in terms of getting outside the pocket and improvising to make plays while on the run. In fact, since 2012, no qualified passer has averaged more time in the pocket than Weeden, who has averaged 2.57 seconds per play. And it’s not like Weeden does much when he is there; the 31-year-old has posted a 30.8 QBR on throws inside the pocket since entering the league in 2012, the worst mark in football among passers with 500 attempts or more.
Dallas actually had more success running the football on Sunday after Romo went out, with its backs carrying the ball 13 times for 47 yards, but it’s almost impossible to envision the Cowboys running game keeping up appearances with Romo missing for a huge chunk of the season. There’s nobody on this team to scare safeties into staying outside of the box with Romo and Bryant out; Bryant was the team’s most notable downfield threat by a significant margin, and Weeden has posted a league-low 49.2 QBR on passes that the league defines as “deep,” traveling 16 yards or more in the air. That’s more than 10 points lower than the second-worst qualifying quarterback from 2012 to 2015, Chad Henne.
The fact the Cowboys are stuck turning to Weeden is another artifact of their salary-cap woes, with a top-heavy approach that has stung them virtually every time they’ve had to deal with injuries. When everything goes great and their top-level stars stay healthy, as was the case on offense in 2014, the Cowboys look like a dominant bunch and Jerry Jones looks like a genius. When the injuries almost inevitably arrive, though, the Cowboys are stuck filling holes at key positions with replacement-level talent like Weeden and Cole Beasley. And that doesn’t even include having to replace Murray with Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden.2 The Cowboys have virtually no depth at those positions, leaving them with little wiggle room when the injury bug struck.
They also technically have had to replace left guard Ronald Leary with freely available talent, but given that they were able to come up with first-round talent La’el Collins as an undrafted free agent (in addition to Mackenzy Bernadeau, who actually started the game), that isn’t quite as damning of a solution.
That also limits what they might be able to do before the trade deadline to try to replace Romo. The Cowboys have $14.8 million tied up in dead money on their cap and another $26.4 million chewed up by their injured troika of Romo, Bryant, and Orlando Scandrick. Restructuring the deals of Romo and Tyron Smith this offseason cleared up cap space, but the Cowboys only have about $12.3 million in space to work with, and much of that will be tied up by the $6.9 million in roster bonuses due to Greg Hardy after he comes back from his four-game suspension. Realistically, Dallas has about $5.4 million in cap space.
Obviously, that prevents the Cowboys from making some sort of stunning offer for a quarterback like Drew Brees if the Saints were willing to consider a deal after their 0-2 start. It would basically limit their trade options to lesser-paid backups and guys on rookie deals; even an out-of-favor backup like Brian Hoyer or (gulp) Robert Griffin III would leave the Cowboys with precious little cap space. Those guys also wouldn’t know Jason Garrett’s system, leaving them as panic-button moves at best.
There are a couple of veterans who do have experience under Garrett in the past, although I can’t see either of them making the move. Jon Kitna took over when Romo broke his collarbone in 2010 and played credibly in his stead, but he was basically done afterward. The 42-year-old Kitna threw 10 passes in 2011 and hasn’t taken a snap since, only briefly re-signing with the Cowboys after Romo suffered a season-ending back injury in Week 16 of the 2013 season. He would be an absolute last-gasp option.
The alternative is the quarterback who started for Romo in that Week 17 play-in game in 2013, but the Cowboys might be too proud to take Kyle Orton back. Dallas cut him last summer after Orton seemed to be heading toward retirement, a move that prevented the Cowboys from recouping $3.4 million of Orton’s signing bonus. Indeed, the Cowboys already have a $2.3 million charge in dead money on their cap for Orton in 2015. The team then expected Orton to retire, only for the journeyman to sign with the Bills and take over as their starting quarterback in October.
Orton retired for real this last offseason, and while he knows the playbook, it’s unclear whether he is in playing shape or would have any interest in returning to Dallas after reportedly feuding with Romo. Orton would also command a premium to return, likely forcing the Cowboys to give him a two-year deal that would stretch dead money into Dallas’s cap next year, as he did when signing with the Bills. As distasteful as the move might be for the Cowboys, they may not have a better option. Rarely does a 2-0 start seem less promising.
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Feast on the East
With the injuries to Bryant and Romo in consecutive weeks, it immediately becomes difficult for the Cowboys to contend in the East. They already have a one-game lead on Washington and a two-game lead on the Eagles and Giants, with a tiebreaker on each, but Weeden drastically reduces their chances of winning the division. ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) suggests that eight weeks of Weeden in lieu of Romo would cost the Cowboys more than a full win on its own:
With Weeden, the Cowboys would be the tiniest of favorites against the Falcons (against whom they opened on Sunday as a pick ’em in Vegas) and then wouldn’t be favored again until they travel to Tampa in Week 10. If they could get things back to Romo at 5-3 or even 4-4, that would be a victory Cowboys fans would take right now, especially if they could just simulate through watching Weeden at quarterback for six or seven games. The bright side is that Dallas’s schedule does get much easier in the second half, since the Cowboys get to face the Bucs, Panthers, Jets, and Dolphins, along with two games against Washington.
It also helps that the East is mostly floundering at the moment. The injuries to Bryant and Romo weren’t enough to push the Eagles over the hump, as Philadelphia lost its home opener amid a brutal performance by its offense. After looking dismal in the first half against the Falcons and then coming to life during an explosive second half, Sam Bradford & Co. simply couldn’t make anything happen against the Cowboys. The Eagles picked up all of two first downs through their first seven possessions, with Bradford routinely struggling to come close to his receivers. He finished with the worst single-game performance (20 attempts or more) of any quarterback during the Chip Kelly era in Philly, sinking below even the Matt Barkley depths of despair:
Bradford continues to avoid throwing downfield, a problem that dates back to his time in St. Louis. He’s 0-for-3 on throws 20 yards or longer downfield. He was wildly successful in the second half against the Falcons by throwing a series of drag and wheel routes to open receivers in the short to intermediate range, but those routes weren’t there against the Cowboys, who got excellent coverage from linebacker Sean Lee and even slot cornerback Tyler Patmon, Scandrick’s replacement. The Eagles clearly came in with a game plan of attacking Patmon with top receiver Jordan Matthews, but the inexperienced nickel corner held his own. Matthews had 80 yards and a touchdown, but all of that came late in the game, after the contest was all but decided.
Philly hasn’t been able to sustain drives. After converting 41.3 percent of their third downs between 2013 and 2014, the Eagles are 5-for-23 on third down to start 2015, the second-worst figure in the league. Only the Chiefs have been worse. That is such an impossibly low number that it’s bound to regress toward the mean, but the Eagles are making it far harder on themselves to convert those third-down attempts by doing little on first and second down. The Eagles have needed an average of more than eight yards to convert on third downs this season; their 8.13-yard figure would have been the second-worst in football last season, with only the Buccaneers (a staggering 8.56 yards to go per third-down try) doing worse.
And, naturally, you can figure out why they’re facing third-and-long so often. The Eagles simply can’t run the football, which is a troubling sign for a team that spent so much money this offseason on running backs. DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews have combined to run the ball 25 times for a total of 15 rushing yards. About the nicest thing you can say is that Murray’s been effective as a receiver, especially if you count him drawing a 15-yard penalty on former teammate and Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey for what appeared to be a touching moment on the sideline.
It’s not that Murray and Mathews are suddenly untalented, of course; it’s that a suddenly porous offensive line is making them look like shadows of their former selves. In 2014, behind Dallas’s dominant offensive line, Murray averaged 2.8 yards before being touched by the opposing defense. That was fifth among qualified running backs. In 2015 — and this number is true — Murray is averaging -0.1 yards before contact. The interior of the line has been an absolute disaster through two weeks, with new starting guards Allen Barbre and Andrew Gardner falling apart and even center Jason Kelce struggling on Sunday:
The Giants might very well have unexpectedly found themselves in the NFC East’s catbird seat if they had merely managed to close out their two games, but instead of a 2-0 start and the tiebreaker over Dallas, they’re now 0-2 and facing a short week after blowing a 10-point lead to Atlanta. That lead all but evaporated when the Giants inexplicably left Prince Amukamara one-on-one against Julio freaking Jones with 1:53 to go, leaving Jones to run an easy go route past Amukamara for a pass that was ruled a touchdown before being overturned and giving way to a Devonta Freeman touchdown plunge.
For the second week in a row, the Giants got out to an early lead. With the Falcons choosing to leave star cornerback Desmond Trufant on the right side of the field regardless of how the Giants lined up, they kept Odell Beckham Jr. on the left side of the formation against Robert Alford and saw him light up the Falcons for 146 yards and a touchdown on a slant during which second-year safety Ricardo Allen froze like a deer in headlights. It is increasingly more difficult to watch Giants games without feeling like it’s unfair to weigh down ODB with this team that surrounds him.
And for the second week in a row, those Giants blew that early lead. Their peak win expectancy probably came when they led 20-10 with 20 minutes to go and had a third-and-2 on the Atlanta 8-yard line, only for Eli Manning to hold on to the ball too long and take a strip sack while scrambling, with the Falcons recovering. It’s the second week in a row in which Manning made a mess of a key red zone possession, but this time, at least it seems like he was trying to score.
The Falcons promptly scored to make it 20-17, and after the teams traded punts, the Giants were left with another chance to put the game away. They faced a third-and-7 on their own 39 with 3:27 to go. The Falcons had one timeout, meaning that the Giants could have been able to seal the game by picking up two more first downs. But Manning failed to get a snap from center Weston Richburg, taking an astounding delay-of-game penalty. The Giants promptly checked down, punted, and allowed the game-winning score to the Falcons.
It seems strange to say, but could this all be breaking right for … Washington? Granted, they’re still a team with major flaws, but they pulled off the most impressive win by an NFC East team so far this season by stomping the Rams on Sunday, 24-10. Their offensive line did a great job of holding off a dominant Rams pass rush, with Kirk Cousins taking just two sacks and four knockdowns on 29 dropbacks. And Cousins was brilliant, going 23-of-27 for 203 yards and a touchdown without DeSean Jackson in the lineup. There were plenty of checkdowns in that group, given that Cousins averaged 6.2 air yards per throw, but checkdowns are fine when they prevent sacks and generate efficient offensive play.
That same offensive line generated a running game that was led by rookie running back Matt Jones, who may be winning the job away from veteran Alfred Morris before our eyes. Both Morris and Jones traded big gains on Washington’s first scoring drive using the same tactics. Morris started things with a 35-yard run, as Washington came out in a three-tight-end set and overpowered St. Louis’s front seven before deep safety Rodney McLeod accelerated too quickly into the box and lost the angle on Morris, costing the team 20 yards.
Two plays later, this time with two tight ends, Jones took a 39-yarder to the house when McLeod again overpursued toward the line of scrimmage and was unable to recover, as Jones bounced his run outside and the Rams had nobody else deep enough to help out.
What’s even more promising is the work being done by the defense. Miami and St. Louis aren’t exactly the league’s most explosive offenses, but Washington’s defense has held them to a total of 20 points through two games, with the Dolphins throwing in a punt-return touchdown. It says something that Nick Foles looked far more comfortable against the Seahawks in Week 1 than he did against Washington, which held him to 150 passing yards on a 17-for-32 day. Joe Barry’s unit sacked Foles only once, but they knocked him down six times and pressured him on 32.4 percent of dropbacks despite rarely blitzing. Only the Cowboys blitzed less frequently in Week 2. Washington would have won even more handily if the Rams hadn’t recovered all three fumbles on the day.
It would be silly to say that Washington is the favorite or even close to being the favorite to win the East; the team was lethargic against the Dolphins in Week 1, and they’re inevitably a Cousins-disaster game or two away from looking longingly at Colt McCoy on the bench. But two weeks ago, it would have been comical to think that Washington even had a prayer of winning the East. Now, very subtly, you can see the curtain beginning to open.
A Goal Line to Remember
It’s fair to say that the Patriots have gotten off to a hot start. Buoyed by the unshackling of Tom Brady, New England has scored 68 points in its first two games. That includes the 40 points it dropped on Rex Ryan’s Bills on Sunday, eventually prevailing 40-32 after a late comeback by the Bills fell short. Specifically, the Patriots have gotten off to a hot start in the red zone. Brady’s offense has scored touchdowns on seven of its first nine trips inside the opposition 20-yard line, tying the Pats with the Steelers (7-for-8) and the Cardinals (7-for-7) for the most successful red zone possessions in football.
They’ve pulled this off by introducing yet another subtle wrinkle to their offense, a jumbo package that includes as many as four tight ends with the same telltale pre-snap motion. It’s designed to create matchup nightmares for the opposition, leaving Brady with easy throws against overwhelmed defenders. And each time the Patriots have shown it through two weeks, they’ve taken a markedly similar motion and followed it up with a different look. Run through those five plays and you see how tough it can be to stop the Patriots near the goal line.
The package produced two touchdowns on two tries against the Steelers in Week 1. I mentioned it in my Friday column last week, but the concept was basically designed to get Pittsburgh to insert its run-plugging linebackers on defense before splitting them out against Rob Gronkowski and Scott Chandler. The Patriots sent out three tight ends as part of their package and then motioned both Gronkowski and Chandler wide before the snap, splitting Gronkowski out like a wide receiver against overwhelmed Steelers backup linebacker Terence Garvin. Chandler stayed in the slot against Lawrence Timmons.
The first time they ran the package, the Patriots basically used Gronkowski as a decoy. His slant pattern drew Garvin directly into Timmons, a self-pick that created an easy throwing lane for Chandler’s flat route. I’ll make this one a little bigger than the other GIFs so it’s easier to see:
Later in the second half, the Patriots got the ball near the goal line and ran the same motion, with the Steelers moving Garvin and Timmons over to cover in the same way. This time, Gronk jabbed inside to feign the slant, got Garvin to go with him, and then transitioned to the fade for an easy score.
Now, on to Buffalo. The Bills undoubtedly saw this set on tape and expected to see more of it on Sunday. Unlike the Steelers, who tried to defend it with linebackers, the Bills used their defensive backs against Gronk & Co. The first time the Patriots ran it, the defense didn’t work. Chandler ran a hitch and occupied two underneath defenders while Gronkowski went behind him and ran a crossing route behind them; there was enough miscommunication that Buffalo’s defenders were shouting at each other and jumping up and down in anger before Gronkowski even spiked the football.
The next wrinkle: throw to the other side. This time, the Patriots came out with four tight ends and motioned Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui to the left side while pushing Chandler by himself to the right side. With the Bills expecting another route combination between the two split-out tight ends, they overloaded their defense to that side, freeing up Chandler for an easy slant against Aaron Williams, on whom Chandler has 7 inches and 60 pounds. The play should have gone for a touchdown, but a Bills lineman does a nice job of jumping into the throwing lane at the right time and Brady’s adjustment sails the throw high:
On the very next play, the set finishes by going back to the same formation and the same motion, and, again, back to Chandler. This time, Brady makes a better throw on a fade, but Williams does a great job of competing and helps convince Chandler to drop the football. In any case, the motion set up a huge mismatch for the Patriots and a relatively easy, low-risk scoring opportunity against a very tough pass defense:
Of course, the Patriots will come back to this in the weeks to come. They have all kinds of route combinations to create picks and mismatches against linebackers. At some point soon, they’ll likely bring on those three tight ends, dare a team to keep defensive backs on the field to try to stop them, and then just run the ball with the ensuing weight advantage. It’s a great combination of athletic weapons and intelligent play design from what’s been the league’s best offense through two weeks.