Chalkboard: Dallas Cowboys Continue to Struggle Closing the First Half


Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”

– Auric Goldfinger from the James Bond novel Goldfinger

It’s a saying so true that during the Cold War, spies operating in Russia integrated it into what they called the “Moscow Rules.”

Someone should let the Dallas Cowboys know though because we’ve seen three instances of making some poor choices at the end of the first half which have resulted in big problems later.

Last time we looked at this, it was during a two-minute drill at the end of the first half against the New Orleans Saints.

Then, the Cowboys were down—as they were Monday night against the Chicago Bears—and went to the air, leaving a ton of time on the clock for Drew Brees to add some extra points on the board and essentially put the game away.

In the aforementioned Bears game, the Cowboys did it again—this time down just 17-14.

As with the Saints game, the Cowboys received the ball with under two-minutes to go.

They still had two of three timeouts as they set up for the beginning of their drive on their own 29-yard line.

1-10-DAL 29
(1:27) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass short left to D.Bryant to DAL 39 for 10 yards (T.Jennings; M.Wright).

While Dallas has shown itself to have a lot of bad habits, you can give them credit for one thing—they didn’t leave the backfield empty.

The Cowboys line up with running back DeMarco Murray in the backfield, and four receivers wide—two on either side of the line.

The left side consists of tight end Jason Witten just off tackle and receiver Dez Bryant along the sideline.

Unfortunately, it’s obvious from the snap that Murray isn’t getting the ball. There’s no fake or play-action, so the linebackers know right away that they can drop into coverage. In fact one of the three linebackers sneaks up to the line of scrimmage prior to the snap—so you have to imagine they knew the pass was coming anyway.

Given what we’ve seen of Dallas’ tendencies, that’s no shock.

DeMarco Murray is ignored by the defense for the most part as he slips out on a short route. The most attention he gets is from a safety creeping up after the snap.

The receivers to the right of the line head out on deeper routes, while Witten drags across the middle.

Bryant runs a short hook route along the left sideline.

1st DownWhile it’s great that Murray is out there, not using him to fool the defense makes it too easy on them.

After all, with 70 yards to go in 90 seconds or so, a defense is pretty sure a throw is coming—even with two timeouts.

Because the defense doesn’t need to give the run a thought, they are in perfect position to cover.

1st Downcoverage

As you can see in the accompanying screen grab, The coverage is very good because nobody is worried about playing the run. Instead all they need to focus on are the receivers and the far safety (all the way at the left edge of the screen grab) can just hang back and contain.

The only person with even a little room is Bryant, because the corner is so concerned with Bryant’s speed that he has given him a nice cushion.

Even then, when the pass is completed, it takes a huge effort on the part of Bryant for the team to gain a first down.

Worse, he ends up hurt and, because it is within two minutes, the Cowboys have to squander one of their timeouts.

Perhaps if the team hadn’t had to waste one of their timeouts, head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Bill Callahan might have run the ball a few times. Maybe they wouldn’t have abandoned the run again since it had been so effective (Murray had 13 carries for 99 yards at the half).

1-10-DAL 39

(1:13) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass incomplete short right to J.Witten.

The Cowboys once again line up with four wide—this time in trips right (three receivers on the right side of the line) and with Bryant once again on the far left side.

Murray is in the backfield as well, and it does look like he could be set to run the ball.

The Bears are set in their 4-3, the corners in single coverage. The corner on Bryant plays press off the line, to negate the receiver’s speed while the other corner leaves a bit of a cushion.

Again the ball is snapped and, again, it is immediately obvious this is a pass play.

The linebackers drop into coverage. This time out, Witten is open, though there are defenders right there. He drops the ball, one he should have caught.

Two things stand out.

First, it’s bitter cold. The announcers mentioned the temperature several times and it hovered around 7 degrees with the wind chill. When it’s that cold, not only do your hands feel like popsicle but the ball is hard as a rock.

Not an easy catch, especially on a literal frozen rope.

While you understand the decision to throw because of how far the offense has to go, you have to wonder if a shorter pass or a run might have been a better decision. The team still has plenty of clock left and a running back averaging 7.6 yards per carry.

Instead we see a route which is no more than 11 yards at the most, in brutal conditions to catch balls in.

Which is my second point. In these conditions, with a running back who is breaking off big yards, why are you throwing?

Let’s move on.

2-10 DAL 39

(1:10) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass incomplete short left to D.Murray.

This time out, the Cowboys set up with just three wide receivers with Witten joining Murray in the backfield.

If you’re interested in tipping off that you’re passing, a tight end lining up in the backfield is a good way to go.

Again, we’ve got plenty of clock to call for a run, and a timeout, but the Cowboys want the ball in the air.

This time the play is a good one, it’s just executed badly.

Murray squirts out on a short out. The defense has once again dropped back with the receivers going long, so Murray ends up wide open with nobody around him for ten yards.

He gets to the end of his route and stops—

3rd Down Murray
—and quarterback Tony Romo overthrows him.
3rd Down Murraymiss
Romo didn’t like that, something which announcer Jon Gruden said was probably because Murray may have drifted in the route once he got open.

And sure, Murray should have been more still perhaps but it’s not like Romo threw to a spot where Murray wasn’t or Murray ran the wrong route. The pass was in the area—it was just too high and too hard.

So as much as Murray should have sat down when he finished his route, Romo needed to take something off the pass. It’s cold, people are dropping passes and it’s a running back he’s targeting.

You take something off the throw. That wide open there is zero reason to rocket the ball into the receiver.

3-10-DAL 39

(1:05) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass incomplete short right to T.Williams (Z.Bowman).The Cowboys run basically the same formation as they did previously and you can see the Bears defense jumping up and down as they recognize it.

This time though, Murray actually stays in to block. Witten heads out on a route, but the Bears are not fooled and blanket him.

Romo has time and chooses to go to rookie Terrence Williams, who is coming back to help him out along the sideline. Cornerback Zack Bowman makes a nice play and bats the ball down.

The Cowboys have to punt.

Interestingly, Romo misses Miles Austin on a “go” route out of the slot.

Austin isn’t wide open but he does have a couple of steps on the coverage. Romo could have hit him with a long pass rather than try to force the throw into tighter coverage.


It could be he was worried about the deep safety, but it’s the sort of pass Romo can make so it’s surprising he didn’t take a shot given they needed a first down.

Even if Williams had caught the ball, he would have been short of a new set of downs.

The Cowboys are forced to punt and five plays later, the Bears score—arguably putting the game away.

Dallas never regained any real momentum on offense. After running the ball 13 times for 99 yards in the first half, Murray only runs five more times, though he gained 47 yards doing so.

The Cowboys had too many three-and-outs, rarely burned any clock and kept giving the Bears good field position.

Sure, the defense was horrible—the Bears never had to punt—but the offense absolutely didn’t help them out.

If you look at the game and want to find a tipping point, it looks to me that it’s easy to find.

Once again the poor play-calling prior to halftime, which led to a last second score by the opposing team, seems to be the beginning of the end.

Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at, the NFL writer at and an NFL Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.

Chalkboard: Dallas Cowboys 2 Minute Drill vs New Orleans Saints


I nearly called this, “How to Telegraph Every Play in a Panic.”

Because the more you look at the Dallas Cowboys’ 1st half 2-minute drill last Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, the more you wonder how it a team with so much time on the clock can sabotage themselves.

Near the end of the first quarter, Dallas was trailing New Orleans 21-10. The Saints had just scored a touchdown but there was plenty of ballgame left and the Cowboys had 1st and 10 at their own 20 yard line after the ensuing kickoff.

In order to fully set the stage, you need to know a few other details.

At this point in the half, quarterback Tony Romo had thrown for 12 yards on six attempts. Running back DeMarco Murray had been much more effective with 11 carries for 80 yards and a touchdown.

Also, the Cowboys would get the ball back at the start of the second half.

While the Cowboys trailed by 11 points, there was ample time to get going.

You wouldn’t have known it by what happened on this drive.

1-10-DAL 20

(1:32) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass short right to J.Witten to DAL 28 for 8 yards (C.Lofton).
1stdwn_1 copy
Now, as announcer Chris Collinsworth mentioned in the broadcast, the formation Dallas is in here is the one they used to beat the Minnesota Vikings the previous week.
The thing is, the Saints’ defense is much better than the Vikings this season and more than likely they’d watched the tape of that drive. Also, there should be a different mindset driving 80 or 90 yards with 2 minutes to go in the game versus less than 2 minutes to go in the first half.
Still, the play is a good start. The receivers on the right run vertical routes, which clears out the underneath for Jason  Witten, who cuts outside and away from his defender for a nice 8-yard gain (highlighted in green again).
1stdwn_2Now the flipside to this—and the staff should have seen this—is that every receiver is well covered. With an empty backfield, the Saints can just lay back and wait for the inevitable throw and what’s more, the safeties can hover and wait to see where Romo is looking. They don’t have to worry about the running back eating up yards.
This will come up again shortly.
2-2-DAL 28 

(1:09) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass incomplete short middle to T.Williams (C.White).
The Cowboys set up for second down in the exact same formation, including the empty backfield.
2stdwn_1Now, with the time left, you can understand not using Murray out of the backfield on a run.  Dallas has no time outs and can’t burn much clock.
By the same token, not having Murray back there at all once again opens things up for the secondary, especially the safeties.
Dez Bryant is up top and runs a “go” route, while Witten is lined up off the left tackle and runs a “post.” In the slot between them is Cole Beasley who just runs a short hook.
On the right side of the line, receiver Dwayne Harris also runs a short hook.
The green highlighted route is rookie Terrance Williams, who is lined up on the far right outside. Williams had been targeted twice to this point, but had no catches.
Unlike the first play, which utilized the outside receivers to clear traffic away for the underneath route, Williams’ route takes him right into the middle of the defense.
There are no receivers clearing out the area and because there is zero run threat, the safety is just hanging out there waiting on the pass.
The above screen grab has the defenders general area of coverage in red, with the relative area of effect for the receivers in yellow.
Romo has a great option—two in fact—but either has predetermined Williams is the guy to go to or completely misses both Witten (wide open just past the 40 yard line) and Beasley (open short).
It’s possible he saw Beasley and opted to not go short, which given the time is understandable to a point.
How he missed Witten is a mystery—until you look at the All-22, particularly the end zone angle.
Romo2ndDown3At most, Romo throws a cursory glance towards his left, more of an attempt to look the safety off than a check to see if anyone was open.
Going back to the previous screen grab, you can see that Bryant is perfectly covered up top (with one safety in place to help) and Harris is equally covered on his short hook.
Williams is not open either and is bracketed by cornerback Corey White low and a safety over the top.
That doesn’t stop Romo who is lucky he isn’t picked off by White or the safety, Rafael Bush.
Even if Williams had made the catch, he’s in the middle of the field with no time outs.
Witten is open along the side and could have easily made the catch and continued out of bounds. Or you might as well have run the ball, picked up the first and hurried up to the line. Just like you would have if Williams had caught this ball.
3-2-DAL 28 

(1:04) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass incomplete short middle to C.Beasley (C.White).
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
An empty backfield, five wide receiver set. The defense is once again able to allow their safeties to hang back and allow the play to form before needing to react.
Keep in mind that at this point, not even thirty seconds has elapsed. The Cowboys have no timeouts, sure, but the Saints do and the Cowboys are not managing the clock.
An efficient offense could move the ball, including runs and short passes, without timeouts. We see guys like Drew Brees, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers do it all the time and sometimes they even run the ball.

There is no efficiency in this drive, no working the sidelines, no moving the chains. So here they are on 3rd and 2, and in this situation they chose to just try to get the first down on a short slant to Beasley.
As they were clearly not trying to hit a home run, why not have Murray in the backfield to give Romo more options, give the defense more to think about it or perhaps even give the ball to your running back, who has been averaging 7.3 yards-per-carry.The play itself features three deep routes, Witten on an “in” route and Beasley on his slant.Once again though, the routes of the other receivers don’t help clear the way for Beasley and, in point of fact, Witten’s route brings up a defender into the area Beasley is going into.Theoretically, the idea might have been that Witten pulls coverage with him in the opposite direction Beasley is going in while the vertical routes open up the sideline.Witten doesn’t run his pattern quick enough or Romo hurries the play. He certainly had time to let Beasley get a bit further on his route, enough time for Witten to pull his defender away.3rddwn_2Either way, the pass is deflected by White again and the Cowboys are forced to punt.Not even 30 seconds have elapsed. The Saints get the ball back on their own 31 yard line with 53 seconds left and then show the Cowboys how to run an efficient offense.Sure, they have timeouts to burn, but they attack the inside, don’t get cute and concentrate on picking up yards.If you give Brees a minute and three timeouts, you get this.SprolesTD4If you want to know what the tipping point for this game was, folks you’re looking at it.Although there is a strong argument to be made that poor playcalling and obvious formations by the Cowboys in the plays leading up to the Saints’ last first half possession played their part.Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at, the NFL writer at and an NFL Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.