By Matthew Postins
If the Dallas Cowboys are to make the jump from average team to playoff team, there are some things on the field that must change in 2013. In this series, RattleAndHumSports.com outlines five improvements the Cowboys could make in order to accomplish that goal in 2013.
Reduce their mistakes, specifically on offense
Earlier this year I wrote a couple of articles on the struggles the Cowboys were having with certain areas of their game, specifically when it came to offense. At the time, those mistakes pertained to their inefficiency in the red zone. But as the season wore on the Cowboys struggled in several key areas that, to some degree, hindered Dallas’ ability to make the postseason.
So what mistakes do the Cowboys need to reduce? Well, here’s a list.
Reduce turnovers. Quarterback Tony Romo had a roller coaster season and that’s become the norm. There’s the good Romo, who threw just three interceptions in an eight-game stretch starting with the Atlanta game at midseason. Then there’s the bad Romo, who threw two or more interceptions in four games, all of which were losses. You never quite know which Romo you’re going to get. In all, Romo threw 19 interceptions. The Cowboys’ interception rate per game was the fifth-worst in the NFL in 2012.
Now, it’s not all on Romo. Running back DeMarco Murray had a couple of crippling fumbles late in the year. Wide receiver Dez Bryant’s fumble against the New York Giants in October was costly. But all of that contributed to the Cowboys being ranked No. 25 in the NFL in giveaways per game with 1.8. The Cowboys had 29 turnovers overall.
How important is it to limit turnovers? Well, eight of this year’s 12 playoff teams were the Top 10 in fewest giveaways. All had fewer than 20. Need I say more?
Pre-snap penalties. The Cowboys have to become more disciplined when it comes to penalties. This year they finished as the third most penalized team in the NFL with 7.4 penalties per game.
But pre-snap penalties were killers. The Cowboys committed 47 pre-snap penalties (28 false starts, 12 offside penalties and 7 delay of game penalties). The Cowboys were tied for the NFL lead in false starts and offside calls. Combine it all and that’s 235 yards in lost field position before the Cowboys or their opponents even ran a play.
By extension, the Cowboys had two of the most penalized players in the league, and both were on the offensive line – tackles Doug Free and Tyron Smith. Free was tied for the lead with 13. Smith was tied for fifth with 11. Of their 24 penalties, 15 were false starts.
Penalties have been an issue with Dallas for several years, but it bears pointing out that when it comes to pre-snap penalties, the Cowboys had 11 more than the closest playoff team, Seattle, which had 36. In fact, the 12 playoff teams averaged 28 pre-snap penalties in 2012. The Cowboys must make up ground in that department.
Red zone efficiency. The Cowboys actually improved in this department after I examined their red zone woes after six games. Back then the Cowboys were at 42 percent (the number of times the Cowboys score touchdowns inside their opponent’s 20-yard line). Well, by season’s end the Cowboys had improved to 51 percent. That put the Cowboys at No. 20 in the league. That still wasn’t good enough to get to the playoffs. But the good news is the Cowboys don’t need to get that much more efficient in the red zone to be a playoff team. Just a six percent jump to Seattle’s efficiency rating – 57.4 percent – would put Dallas in the Top 10. Red zone efficiency is important in making the playoffs. Six of the Top 10 teams in red zone efficiency made the playoffs in 2012.
Just a little improvement in those three areas would go a long way toward helping the Cowboys reach the playoffs in 2013.
Next: The five players who have to step up.