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Balance Is Key To The Cowboys' Playoff Hopes

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Tony Romo needs help from the running game if the Dallas Cowboys hope to make the playoffs. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images.
Tony Romo needs help from the running game if the Dallas Cowboys hope to make the playoffs. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images.

The Cowboys’ decision to go all-in on Tony Romo has many fans wondering how the mental facets of their quarterback’s game will fare in response to a massive contract and public endorsement of his game-planning skills. To that end, it’s worth examining a couple newcomers who can alleviate some of the pressure Romo faces in meeting 2013’s considerable expectations.

Credit Jerry Jones for bolstering his nest-egg investment in the draft. Though offensive lineman Travis Frederick was widely dubbed a second- or third-round pick, his scouting report suggests he has the smarts to make essential reads and calls at the line and, perhaps more importantly, to help reduce pre-snap penalties. According to nflpenalties.com, 28 of the Cowboys’ 118 infractions in 2012 were false starts; both numbers were good for the second most in the league. The Cowboys also cracked the Top 10 in offensive holding last year.

Romo’s job isn’t made easier by the offensive line putting him in a hole on early downs, forcing obvious passing situations against loaded backfields. On the flip side, better penalty management, especially pre-snap, could really help the offense dominate the time of possession.

And with the defensive concerns at defensive tackle and safety, that’s going to be a crucial metric this year. Moving the chains, protecting the ball and finding the end zone aren’t enough. Romo and the Cowboys offense have to control the ebb and flow of the game this year, and they have to keep their defense off the field — especially during the first half.

Romo is the figurehead for the offense’s success; the perception of the unit is inescapably bound to his statistical performance. But he can only influence the possession battle so much. Getting into a balanced rhythm, converting short yardage plays and managing the clock late in games are critical tasks that fall equally to coaches, linemen and running backs.

Enter running back Joseph Randle, the fifth-round pick from Oklahoma State, who recently made it official with a four-year, $2.3 million deal. This scouting report likens him to DeMarco Murray in terms of running style — a combination of speed and power pronounced by an upright gait — and lauds his abilities as a receiver and pass protector.

Per the report, Randle’s big question mark is his open-field speed. But the Cowboys don’t need a sprinter of a running back like Chris Johnson. They need another rusher who can make the play-action threat a reality on first down, then come in on third-and-short and hit the line hard enough to move it. They need a dynamic rusher who can stay healthy, and they may have found the answer in Randle.

The potential value of Randle’s contributions is huge. Last year’s 31st ranked rushing offense can be explained by Murray’s injury and Felix Jones’s lack of offseason training. But the correlation between a balanced attack and a playoff appearance has been very real and very direct in the Romo era.

These are the run-to-pass play ratios for Romo’s three playoff seasons.

  • 2006: 978 total plays, 506 passes (51.7 percent), 472 rushes (48.3 percent)
  • 2007: 950 total plays, 531 passes (55.9 percent), 419 rushes (44.1 percent)
  • 2009: 986 total plays, 550 passes (55.7 percent), 436 rushes (44.3 percent)

Compare those figures to the non-playoff years.

  • 2008: 948 total plays, 547 passes (57.7 percent), 401 rushes (42.3 percent)
  • 2010: 1,004 total plays, 576 passes (57.3 percent), 428 rushes (42.7 percent)
  • 2011: 978 total plays, 570 passes (58.3 percent), 408 rushes (41.7 percent)
  • 2012: 1,013 total plays, 648 passes (64.0 percent), 365 rushes (36 percent)

Crunching the data gives you pass-play averages of 54.4 percent in playoff years to 59.3 percent in non-playoff years — a difference of 4.9 percent. Multiply that by the average number of plays per season during this stretch (980), and you have 48 passing plays, which is the maximum amount by which the Cowboys can exceed rushing plays without breaking the trend.

The numbers don’t lie: balance is power in Dallas.

An augmented running game and shored-up offensive line are essential ingredients in the postseason recipe. But if these improvements don’t compensate for defensive shortcomings, don’t minimize turnovers and penalties and don’t contribute to winning the possession battle, they make Tony Romo’s task of justifying his mega-deal a lot harder — and the last thing he needs is more pressure.