Cowboys Lions Big Plays: Toxics, Conversions

Once again, the explanation behind a Cowboys win lies in the big plays and keeping drives alive. There's a science to this!


On the strength of a stunning second-half recovery, the Dallas Cowboys now find themselves in the NFL’s version of the Elite 8. Once again, Dallas flexed their big play muscle, also known as “Toxic Events”, to defeat their fifth opponent in a row, the Detroit Lions. Over the course of the last month, Dallas has dominated their opponents en route to their playoff positioning. While they failed to do so on Sunday afternoon, they did win in the categories that were necessary; third downs and Toxic Events.

Detroit finished the contest just 4-11 on third downs, good for 36%. That’s pretty close to their season average. What they weren’t able to accomplish was remain near their season average on the defensive side of the ledger. Normally able to keep their opponents under 40%, Dallas was able to carve out a competent 43% of their third down conversions. That number is down from Dallas’ usual 48%, in essence balancing out the difference in the norm for both teams.

What wasn’t accounted for, however, were the two gutsy fourth down conversions that Dallas converted to win the game. Down 20-7 in the third quarter, Dallas had a touchdown called back after DeMarco Murray took it in from 7 yards out. Jason Witten was called for a questionable holding call that put Dallas in 1st and 17. On the next play, Romo found Cole Beasley on a slant pattern for 15 yards. The diminutive slot receiver ducked down as three Lions defenders converged on him at the two-yard line. Dallas eschewed a run to Murray for a shovel pass to Jason Witten that got no yardage, and then Murray was stuffed up the middle on third down.

While it wasn’t do or die, it was a huge moment in the game and Dallas’ head coach Jason Garrett went for it… and got it. The Cowboys went Murray left, and inside tremendous blocking efforts by lead fullback Tyson Clutts, tight end Jason Witten and third-string TE James Hanna, Murray found paydirt to bring Dallas within one score.

Dallas also converted their biggest fourth down of the season on the game-winning drive; Romo’s fifth of the 2014 season. Trailing 20-17 with only six minutes remaining in the contest, Romo had to escape pressure to dump a pass off to Demarco Murray. The play only netted two yards on a third-and-eight, though, and Dallas had another decision to make. From the Detroit 42, they could have attempted a 60 yard field goal to tie the game and give Detroit six minutes to get into their own field goal range, or they could go for it. The ballsy Garrett chose the latter.

Tony Romo was afforded plenty of time in the pocket, and locked onto his security blanket who was well covered on an out to the right and Romo was unable to release the pass. The greatest QB-receiver combination in franchise history made it work, as Witten changed his route in flight and darted back to the left, while Romo zinged a pass directly on target. The completion gained 21 yards and Dallas was on the doorstep of the red zone.

Officially, Dallas was just 6 for 14 on third downs on offense. However, the point of the statistic is tracking a team’s ability to keep a drive alive when faced with a “last” chance. In that vein, Dallas was 8 for 14 for a 57% conversion rate.

Of course, in the NFL, keeping drives alive is only part of the gameplan. As shown by the percentages, a team is not going to come close to continually converting third downs. Teams need “chunk” yardage and game-changing occurances in order to elimate the need for a perfect percentage of third down conversions. These big plays are known in these parts as Toxic Events; and the Cowboys once again flexed their muscle in this regard.

Toxic Events

In the Advanced Stats Notebook, a recent addition has been the Toxic Differentials. It’s basically a formula that looks at the turnover battle, combined with big plays on either side of the ball. Big plays are defined here as any run longer than 10 yards, and any pass longer than 20 yards. SportingCharts, the entity that keeps track of these numbers is a little stingier on pass plays, requiring 25 yards to qualify. Using the 20 yard plateau for pass plays, here’s a look at the Toxic Events from the game.

DET1Q: 2-10-DET 49 (11:34) M.Stafford pass deep middle to G.Tate for 51 yards, TOUCHDOWN. Pass complete on a "slant" pattern.DET +1
DET1Q: 2-10-DAL 18 (2:06) R.Bush left end for 18 yards, TOUCHDOWN.DET +2
DAL2Q: 1-10-DAL 14 (9:43) D.Murray left tackle to DAL 32 for 18 yards (D.Levy).DET +1
DAL2Q: 3-12-DAL 24 (1:50) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass short middle to T.Williams for 76 yards, TOUCHDOWN. Pass complete on a "slant" pattern.EVEN
DAL3Q: 1-10-DET 20 (15:00) M.Stafford pass short middle intended for G.Tate INTERCEPTED by K.Wilber (J.Mincey) at DET 24.DAL +1
DET3Q: 2-10-DET 46 (10:49) M.Stafford pass short left to C.Johnson to DAL 26 for 28 yards (J.Wilcox).EVEN
DAL3Q: 1-10-DAL 35 (7:19) (Shotgun) D.Murray right end to DET 50 for 15 yards (J.Ihedigbo).DAL +1
DAL3Q: 3-10-DET 50 (5:58) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass short left to D.Bryant to DET 7 for 43 yards (C.Vaughn). Pass complete on a "crossing pattern"DAL +2
DET4Q: 2-12-DET 3 (11:27) (Shotgun) M.Stafford pass short middle to C.Fuller to DET 24 for 21 yards (J.Wilcox).DAL +1
DAL4Q: 4-6-DET 42 (6:00) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass short middle to J.Witten to DET 21 for 21 yards (I.Abdul-Quddus; J.Ihedigbo). Pass complete on a curl route"DAL +2
DAL4Q: 1-10-DET 20 (2:10) (No Huddle, Shotgun) M.Stafford sacked at DET 17 for -9 yards (A.Spencer). FUMBLES (A.Spencer), RECOVERED by DAL D.LawrenceDAL +3
DET4Q: Fumble recovered by D.Lawrence to DET 24 for no gain (G.Reynolds). FUMBLES (G.Reynolds), RECOVERED by DET-R.Reiff at DET 23.DAL +2
DAL4Q: 4-3-DAL 42 (1:00) (Shotgun) M.Stafford sacked at DET 49 for -9 yards (D.Lawrence). FUMBLES (D.Lawrence) [D.Lawrence], RECOVERED by DALD.LawrenceDAL +3

Once again, Dallas uses the big play to earn their victory, but it wasn’t easy. Dallas wasted a golden opportunity with several of their big plays, most notably the interception to start the second half. On the first play, Jeremy Mincey knocked a Matthew Stafford pass high into the air and into the waiting arms of Kyle Wilber. However the usually reliable Dan Bailey (best kicking percentage in NFL history) missed a short field goal and put Dallas in a tougher bind than they should have been in.

TeamToxic Differential 2014Toxic Diff Last 4 Weeks
Green Bay37+9

Dallas was able to convert their small Toxic Event margin into a victory, and now will look forward to playing Green Bay, who over the last four weeks of the regular season surprisingly has the worst Toxic Differential of the four remaining NFC combatants. With sub-freezing temperatures making it hard to tackle and hold onto the football, we can once again expect the winner in this category to be the victor for the game.


*The best and most inside coverage of your Cowboys and that win? Fish has it here in "Cowboys Gameplan: 10 Steps to a Storybook Win.''

*Want details from Dallas 24, Detroit 20, including the ref controversy? It's here in "Cowboys Chronology'' as we walk you through it all.

*Once to plow through all the national-media baloney about Cowboys staffers leaving for jobs ... come inside Valley Ranch for the truth: "The Ambition of Will McClay,'' our Premium piece, is here.



"You can punt there (on fourth-and-6) and try to get a stop. But I've got a lot of belief in the quarterback and the weapons around him." - Coach Jason Garrett.

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