Film Study: An Analysis of Cowboys’ Playaction Passes
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.
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).
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.