The thing about losing a game by one point, in the last seconds, is you go over and over all the little things that had to go wrong for the outcome that actually happened to occur. Because, in all honesty, a lot had to go right for the Lions to pull off what they pulled off on Sunday. The other side of that coin is a lot had to go wrong for the Cowboys because football is a zero sum game.
Two plays really stick out, to me: the second-to-last third down, 3rd and 12 at the Cowboys 23: Romo flails around the pocket, rolls right, and throws the ball away. There's forty seconds lost. Then, the last third down play, 3rd and 14 at the Detroit 35: Tanner nine yard run is negated by a holding penalty.
There's several common threads that tie those two plays together you could draw, but let's stick with the most topical one: both were third-and-longs
Third-and-long is a problem. That much should be self-evident. Getting ten-plus yards in one play is really hard in the NFL; it's even harder when the defense either knows you're going to pass, or that any run you attempt is likely a give-up to line up your punter and avoid a turnover. And that's the state the Cowboys find themselves in this year.
The thing is, 3rd down wasn't so much of a problem in years past. Even last year, Romo was able to turn 43.85% of 3rds into 1sts, which was good for fifth in the league behind Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees. This year, the offense is converting on 35.5% of 3rd down opportunities; that's tied with Tampa. This is a really, really bad year to be tied with Tampa in anything.
The Cowboys have seen 93 third down plays this year. That's actually tied for the sixth-lowest mark in the NFL, so things aren't all bad. However, 27 of those have been for 10+ yards to convert. The Cowboys have actually had more 3rd-and-10+ than they have 3rd-and-less-than-4 (23).
On those 27 plays, the Cowboys have converted a total of four, all through the air. They've also notched two sacks and an interception. I tried putting all that into a play value calculator I found floating around the internet, but instead of numbers it just gave me a red frowny face.
It doesn't get better on 3rd-and-not-quite-as-long-but-still-probably-manageable (or 7-9 yards to go, if you're into the whole brevity thing). In 18 such plays, the Cowboys have managed three first downs via passing. Romo's completed 6 passes on fifteen attempts, for a total of 38 yards. That's just over 2.5 yards per attempt. I don't even need that spreadsheet to tell you that should equal a red frowny face (although, to be fair, it's a small sample, which allows for wild swings and really just statistical noise rather than actual information).
If you want a silver lining, the team has actually run for one first down on third and 7-9. It was a Tony Romo 15-yard scramble; so, it's not all bad news.
The thing about this trend is it seems it's manifested itself this season. Going back to last year, Romo converted 15 out 61 third-and-longs. He averaged 7.0 yards per attempts on third and long; this season, that number's 4.9. His completion percentage is comparable; 10 of 21 this year, 27 of 50 last year.
Maybe it's the new, conservative Romo. Maybe it's the switch from Garret to Callahan calling plays. Maybe it's his back, or his ribs, or his general age. Maybe it's just fluctuations of bad luck and having played a few really good defensive fronts. Maybe the trend will reverse itself once we have Demarco Murray back and functional. That would help avoid the whole third-and-long situation altogether.
Whatever the cause, it's something that needs to be addressed, before the Cowboys let another division title or a playoff game slip by because they can't convert a third down late in the game to kill the clock.