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Film Study: An Analysis of Cowboys’ Playaction Passes

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As a team whose offensive core is a power running attack, the Cowboys should and do incorporate the playaction pass into their offensive repertoire. Teams generally have success running when the defense anticipates pass, and vice versa, and the playaction pass is one of the most successful tools a team can utilize in exploiting a defense which incorrectly guesses the play call.

One might think, then, that the Cowboys would try to take advantage of an over-aggressive defense by running effectively and then taking shots deep using playaction passes. As we studied the 2009 game film, however, this did not seem to be the case.

The Cowboys had no more success on playaction passes than on straight drop-backs. As the graph to the left shows, Romo averaged 8.3 yards-per-pass on playaction passes throughout the season, compared to 8.1 yards-per-attempt on all other pass plays.

This difference is not statistically significant, particularly when we take into account two factors. First, the Cowboys gave up eight sacks on the 91 playaction passes, or 8.7 percent of all playaction pass plays, compared to 26 sacks yielded on the other 467 pass attempts (5.6 percent). Thus, the .2 yard difference in average between playaction and non-playaction passes is negated by the increased sack rate.

Jason Garrett didn't do a good job of disguising what Dallas was trying to do on playaction passes.

The reason for the increased sack rate seems apparent enough. With his back turned to the defense, Tony Romo is less likely to be able to elude defenders who may sneak through the protection. Further, offensive linemen frequently fire off the ball during playaction passes as to resemble their blocking on run plays, and this difference in pass protection technique could be a factor in the increased sack percentage.

The second reason one might assume the yards-per-pass difference is not significant is because the playaction average should be higher (and by more so than just .2 yards) since the Cowboys are more likely to use these plays in situations where a big play can be had. Playaction passes are utilized to draw linebackers and safeties up toward the line of scrimmage, opening holes behind them to throw into.

But did the Cowboys really utilize playaction to take shots down the field? Not at all. In fact, of the 83 playaction passes, only four, FOUR, were attempts of 20 yards or more. That is 4.8 percent of all pass plays. In comparison, the Cowboys threw the ball downfield 20 yards or more on 46 of the other 467 attempts, or 9.9 percent of all passes.

It is quite apparent that Dallas did not take enough shots downfield on playaction passes, doing so at less than half the rate of regular dropbacks. This surely had an impact on the sub-par yards-per-play playaction average.

The most shocking statistic of all, however, is the dramatic increase of screen passes used during plays when the Cowboys showed playaction. According to our film study (stats shown below), Dallas ran screen passes on 33 of their 467 non-playaction passes (7.1 percent). That screen rate more than tripled on playaction passes to 22.9 percent (19 of 83 passes).

Dallas threw an inordinate amount of screens and passes to the right when showing playaction.

While the increased rate of screen attempts during playaction passes may or may not contribute to the relatively low overall playaction pass average, it surely did nothing to reverse the perception of Jason Garrett as a predictable playcaller.

This ‘predictable’ label is perpetuated by the high percentage of playaction passes which were thrown to the same area of the field. Of the 83 passes, 53, or 63.9 percent, were to the right side of the field (compared to just 37.0 percent on other passes).

While Jason Garrett is certainly not always completely responsible for where the ball gets thrown, Romo’s reads are premeditated. This stat shows that Romo’s first read, as called by Garrett, is generally to the right side of the field on playaction passes. The massive differential between throws to the left and throws to the right is large enough for it to be statistically significant.

Ultimately, whether or not Garrett’s playcalling is indeed predictable, the fact that Dallas did not utilize the playaction pass to garner big plays appears indisputable.

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7 Responses to Film Study: An Analysis of Cowboys’ Playaction Passes

  1. john coleman says:

    Power running attack my you know. Why was the delay draw our most effective run. Garrett is a career backup. Power running is, we line up and knock them off the ball. Do that and then everything works. BTW isn’t that why we have huge OL guys. Smash mouth all the way. You won’t have to worry about speed rushers and blitzes if you shove it down their throat.

  2. Mike says:

    I absolutely love these analyses and couldn’t agree more that Jason Garrett is infuriatingly predictable as a play-caller. The stats you went over regarding second down play calling on the predictability of draws and strong side dives were particularly disturbing.

    I do have one other possible explanation for why the % of passes thrown on play action were much more frequently thrown right. Romo, as a right handed quarterback, would find it much easier throwing on the run rolling to his right then rolling to his left due to the fact that he can still square his hips and get the ball out in a fairly conventional throwing motion quite easily. A right handed quarterback rolling left would basically have to stop, pivot, and reverse the direction of his feet/hips before being able to release the ball in anything resembling a conventional throwing motion, taking time that he may or may not have depending on defensive pressure.

    Since (and I’m assuming here) a good amount of play action plays involve rolling out the quarterback and putting him on the run, and the most natural/comfortable way for Romo to do this would be to send him rolling out to his right, wouldn’t that account for the increased number of balls on play action that would go to the right side of the field? Combined with the fact that a right handed QB rolling right is much more likely to throw right so as to not pull a Favre and throw across his body?

  3. Thanks for the feedback Mike.

    You are definitely right about the playaction percentage. The Cowboys (and most teams) will generally fake a run left and roll out right on playaction passes with a right-handed QB. However, the Cowboys rolled Romo out almost never in 2009, with nearly all playaction passes resulting in a stright drop back. In fact, a quick look at our database tells me Garrett called a designed rollout for Romo on just 13 plays all year–less than one a game.

    Still, you are right we would expect more passes to the right on playaction–I’m just not sure it should be anywhere near the percentage we actually see.

  4. Mike says:

    Jonathan –

    Wow that is a ridiculously small number of roll out plays on play action. Rolling the quarterback out, especially one as talented as Romo on the run, makes everybody’s job easier by dramatically increasing the misdirection on the play and allowing the QB to run in the same flow/direction as all his receivers.

    The fact that Garrett only rolled Romo out on 13 plays all year is a joke but thinking about it I suppose it makes sense given the high amount of play action screens they ran this year where there wasn’t time/necessity for rolling out. Chalk it up to another predictable element in Jason Garrett’s offensive game plan. Great analysis again and keep it coming I love finally having stats to back how frustratingly predictable our offense was at times.

  5. I looked and only four–FOUR– of the rollouts were on playaction passes. Stunning.

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