Mike Zimmer trotted out a wincing stat to help explain why we’ve been seeing more of his leaking defense and less of his sputtering offense the past four games.
“Offensively, we’re 5-for-13 on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1,” the Vikings coach said on Monday. “Defensively, we’re 0-for-4.”
That’s the kind of conversion combo that turns the NFL’s No. 1 record (5-0) into the NFC’s No. 8 record (5-4) in between car payments.
Yes, folks, once upon a time some 38 days ago, the Cubs were lovable losers, President-elect Trump was a TV personality and your Minnesota Vikings were the best football team in all the land.
The Dallas Cowboys? Please. They lost their first game of the season. How good could they be without Tony Romo, eh?
Well, things change. The Cowboys are an NFL-best 8-1 heading into consecutive home games against Baltimore and Washington.
Then comes a Dec. 1 Thursday nighter against the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. Rather than wait a few weeks for the Vikings-should-have-done-this-or-that-too arguments, let’s start the envying process right here and now.
Experts have decided the Cowboys have multiple NFL MVP candidates. And they’re right. There are seven of them.
There’s the rookie QB, Dak Prescott, who has won eight straight while rendering Romo obsolete. There’s also rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott, the league’s first 1,000-yard rusher in 2016.
And then there’s left tackle Tyron Smith, left guard Ronald Leary, center Travis Frederick, right guard Zack Martin and right tackle Doug Free. These last five names are the first five reasons the Cowboys are the league’s hottest team and the NFC’s best.
Using Zimmer’s same statistical category and time frame, let’s see how the Cowboys have performed in short-yardage situations the past month.
If you’ve been grumbling via Twitter about Matt Asiata up the middle for no gain the past 1-4 weeks, you might want to look away right about now. That’s because the Cowboys are 12-for-14 in converting third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 situations the past four games.
They’re 8-for-10 on third-and-1, and 4-for-4 on fourth-and-1.
They’ve run it 12 times and been denied twice. One of the runs went for 25 yards. The two passes went for 25 and 26.
Talent at the skilled positions helped, for sure. But mainly that’s just five beefy dudes kicking some tail up front when the chains need moving.
Smith, Leary, Frederick, Martin and Free have spent their entire careers with the Cowboys. They’ve made a combined 332 starts, with Free, 32, owning 107 of those.
The other four are younger than 28. Smith, Frederick and Martin are 25-year-olds selected in the first round. Smith was the ninth overall pick in 2011, Frederick the 31st pick in 2013 and Martin the 16th pick in 2014.
Frederick and Martin never have missed a start. Smith has missed three in his career. Free has missed five in the past seven years.
This season, the starting five has missed only five starts total, three by Leary, the only one who wasn’t drafted. The Vikings, by comparison, have had 13 missed starts, including 12 — and counting — at the tackle positions.
The Cowboys rank first in two categories — rushing yards per game (161) and per carry (4.78) — that were part of the Vikings’ organizational blueprint as recently as this past offseason, when Adrian Peterson was healthy and big bodies were brought in to create competition for new line coach Tony Sparano.
Injuries squashed that shorter-term plan before it had a chance to succeed, leaving the likelihood of a slower rebuilding process through the draft. For now, the Vikings rank last in yards rushing per game (69.8) and per carry (2.67) while having to essentially abandon the run in favor of a short-passing game.
Yes, the Vikings need to invest more premium draft picks on offensive linemen. But keep in mind that drafts don’t plug every hole every spring. And this team has used premium picks in recent years to build an enviable defense.
Meanwhile, Dallas’ strength, literally, is on the other side of the ball. On Sunday in Pittsburgh, the Cowboys were positioning themselves for a game-winning field goal. Prescott handed the ball to Elliott from the Steelers’ 32-yard line with seconds remaining.
Smith, Leary, Frederick, Martin, Free and tight end Jason Witten had another plan. They simply swept the Steelers defensive front aside like bouncers showing drunks the door at closing time. Elliott ran untouched into the end zone.
“It parted like the Red Sea,” Elliott said. “All I had to do was run.”