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Thursday, December 17, 2009
Cowboys lead league in empty numbers

By Dan Graziano
ESPN.com

Marion Barber
The Cowboys have struggled to put the ball in the end zone of late, averaging just 16.5 points over their past six games.
One of the nice things about Cowboys coach Wade Phillips is that he often provides helpful statistics to the media. Naturally, he seems to lean on the numbers that are favorable to him -- especially his regular-season win total in Dallas, which has now been mentioned on at least five occasions.

Phillips was at it again Wednesday, telling the leering Saints press corps to stay away from that tired storyline about how the Cowboys fade every December. With disgust in his voice, he refers to the "baseball stats" that have invaded his safe haven of success in non-playoff contests.

"You can pull all kinds of stats," Phillips told the New Orleans media. "Actually the 12th game of the year, we had won so many times, so we lost this one in December, gee. We don’t worry about that. We worry about this ballgame. That’s all we’re thinking about. We’re in position to make a playoff run, and that’s what we’re trying to do.

And while the Cowboys may be one of the great "12th game of the year" teams of the modern era, Phillips' job hinges on whether he can win the first playoff game of his career. (Sadly, his petition to have the league count the playoff bye in '07 as a win fell on deaf ears.)

But the biggest reason the Cowboys have signaled another December collapse alert doesn't have much to do with Phillips. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett, the highest-paid assistant in the league the last time I checked, leads one of the most prolific units in the league -- in terms of yards. The Cowboys are ranked third behind only the Saints and Patriots in yards per game at 391.1.

They're ranked sixth overall in passing and seventh in rushing. Throw in the fact that the Cowboys have the No. 6 scoring defense (17.9 points allowed) in the league and it's hard to figure how you have a team that is scrounging for wild-card scraps again this December.

The glaring problem is that for all its yardage success, the Cowboys aren't putting points on the board. It certainly hurts that former Pro Bowl kicker Nick Folk has lost his way, but that doesn't account for Dallas having the 13th-ranked scoring offense in the league. To put that in perspective, the Cowboys average 30 yards more per game than the Eagles, yet they've been outscored by 76 points.

In losing three of their past five games, the Cowboys have averaged 15.8 points per game. And don't forget that they tacked on meaningless touchdowns at the end of all three losses. The Eagles rank 11th overall in total offense, but they've scored nearly a touchdown per game more than the Cowboys.

So why have the Cowboys had such a difficult time cashing in on points? Well, you can point to several areas. They've had poor average field position for much of the year, in part, because the defense rarely gives them short fields. The Saints have a turnover margin of plus-16, which is one of the many reasons they lead the league in scoring. The Cowboys are minus-1 in turnover margin.

The Cowboys also have one of the most penalized offenses in the league. Of the offenses ranked in the top 10 in the league, only the Packers (102) have more penalties than the Cowboys' 94. And the penalties seem to happen at the worst possible moments, wiping out big plays. Cowboys left tackle Flozell Adams has been among the league leaders in false starts for years.

And a Cowboys offensive line that has been widely praised in the past has given up 28 sacks and quarterback Tony Romo has been hit 60 times. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning has been sacked only 10 times and Saints quarterback Drew Brees 15.

Knowing all this, you can see why the Cowboys won't have any chance in a shootout with the Saints on Saturday. Teams such as the Redskins have had success moving the ball on the Saints in recent weeks, but it's going to take more than the 22 points the Cowboys are averaging to get the job done. On Wednesday, reporters at Valley Ranch asked Garrett if he was perplexed about the lack of scoring.

"I don’t think we’re perplexed," said Garrett. "I think it’s pretty easy to see why that’s happened. There have been some critical errors we’ve made at certain times to put us in bad down-and-distance situations in the red zone. Converting third down and making some plays too. When we’ve done those things, we’ve been awfully good [at] scoring points. The biggest thing is we’ve just got to keep giving ourselves chances. We have the guys to do it. As we continue to go, if we get enough at-bats, we’re going to get some hits and score some points.’’

Of course, some of you will recall the Cowboys not being able to convert on three consecutive running plays from the Chargers' 1-yard line last Sunday. Running back Marion Barber failed to score on all three attempts, including one where he appeared to choose the wrong path. Conventional wisdom suggests the Cowboys should change up something, perhaps putting Tashard Choice or Felix Jones in the starting role.

But for now, Phillips has decided to stay the course, one that seems to be pointing toward another season without a playoff win.