Commentary

Cowboys must improve turnover ratio

Dallas' inability to protect the ball and create takeaways evident in 2-2 start

Updated: October 10, 2012, 1:20 PM ET
By Todd Archer | ESPNDallas.com

IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys did not need to hire a search party during the bye week to find the reasons why they are 2-2. They didn't need some analytics specialist to review their four games to reach a concrete conclusion.

It's pretty simple really.

[+] EnlargeSean Lee
Tim Heitman/US PresswireLinebacker Sean Lee has made the lone interception for the Cowboys' defense this season.

It comes down to, as Jason Garrett likes to say, the ball.

"The obvious thing to us as a staff is we have to do the things that contribute to winning and taking care of the football and going to get the football, that's line one in this game," Garrett said. "Has been for a long, long time and you saw it all over the games [last] weekend and so we just have to do a better job of that."

The Cowboys have been a charitable team through four games, giving the ball away 11 times -- and that does not include Seattle's blocked punt returned for a touchdown in the official stats.

The Cowboys have been less demanding in taking it away, coming up with only four turnovers. Inside linebacker Sean Lee leads the team with one interception after he tied for the team lead last year with four.

The Cowboys' minus-7 turnover ratio is tied with Philadelphia for 30th in the NFL. Only 1-4 Kansas City is worse at minus-15, so the good news is that the Cowboys have a long way to go to be the NFL's best at being worst.

What's troubling is that Garrett stresses "the importance of the ball," to his team more than he stresses the importance of "the process." It's his first message to the team to start the season. It's repeated each week.

Garrett brings statistical evidence.

Did you know that teams finishing plus-1 in the turnover category in 2011 won 66 percent of the time? Or that teams finishing plus-2 won 86 percent of the time? In case you were wondering, the odds of winning increased as the turnover margin increased.

He can cite turnover margin statistics that go back 20 and 50 years if he wants to illustrate the point further, but he can point to 2011 as proof that "the ball" is important.

Last year the Cowboys were 4-1 when they had a positive turnover ratio. They were 0-3 when they lost the turnover battle.

Garrett brings visual evidence.

At the start of camp, he has his coaches demonstrate the proper technique in how to hold or strip a football. The players run drills during practice. Each week he will show the players videos from other games of teams causing turnovers.

But no matter what Garrett does, it does not translate to the game.

Through four games, the Cowboys have had 44 chances to score and have turned it over 25 percent of the time (11 of 44). Only 27 percent of their drives have ended in points (12 of 44).

That's alarmingly bad and a recipe for disaster in the NFL.

So much of the turnover focus has been and will be on Tony Romo. It's the nature of the position.

He has eight interceptions in the first four games. He has also fumbled twice. After his five-pick performance against Chicago, Romo promised to change, a pledge he made last year after a three-pick performance against Detroit. He delivered on that pledge and the Cowboys believe he will deliver again.

But what gets lost in the turnover conversation is how little the Cowboys' defense actually gets the ball back for the offense. You have to go back to 1999 to find the last season in which the Cowboys averaged taking the ball away twice a game (33).

"That's the next step for this defense," Lee said. "I think we've played well in a lot of situations and done a good job of getting off the field. The next step is being that defense that gets off the field and gets the ball back for our offense."

So far this season, the Cowboys have a Lee interception and fumble recoveries from Barry Church, Victor Butler and Orie Lemon.

"Teams that get a lot of interceptions on the back end, typically have good pass-rushers and forcing that quarterback to throw it before they wanted to," Garrett said. "They're good in coverage. It's a team thing. You have to harp it on every day in practice and keep illustrating the importance of these things and how it relates to winning and losing. You drill it, you show it, you teach it, you highlight the good, highlight the bad and hopefully you carry it to the ballgame.

"Certainly you have to have players with the ability to do it, and we feel like we can get that done and get it done moving forward."

Todd Archer

ESPN Dallas Cowboys reporter

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