Dallas Cowboys Film Study: Empty Set Formations
An Empty Set formation, such as the one shown below, is any formation in which there is no one in the backfield. This does not mean there can be no running backs on the field, but simply that no player is lined up more than a yard or so behind the offensive line (other than possibly the quarterback in Shotgun).
Teams employ Empty Set formations in a variety of situations, but almost always in an effort to spread the defense. The formation is a common one in goal line situations with the subsequent play being a quarterback draw. Offenses also implement the formation in hurry-up and long-yardage situations, particularly if they are not expecting a blitz.
As you can see in the chart to the left, the Cowboys ran an Empty Set formation just 27 times in 2009, or 2.7 percent of all meaningful plays (non-spikes, non-kneel downs, and so on). They were slightly more likely to line up in the formation during goal line situations–‘goal-to-go’ scenarios made up 11.1 percent of Empty Set plays, compared to just 7.4 percent of all plays in general.
As you might expect, the Cowboys dialed up the formation on a large percentage of second and third down plays (77.8 percent of all Empty Set plays were on these downs, compared to just 54.2 percent of all plays in general).
Surprisingly, the ‘distance-to-go’ during plays in which Dallas employed an Empty Set formation did not vary greatly from all other plays. On Empty Set plays, the Cowboys average distance remaining to achieve a first down was 9.96 yards, compared to 8.83 yards on all other plays. It is worth noting the team was 2.45 times as likely to implement an Empty Set formation in situations where the ‘distance-to-go’ was more than 10 yards. Still, the overall ‘distance-to-go’ averages are close enough that we would expect to not find any inordinate differences between the success of Empty Set and non-Empty Set plays.
However, the Cowboys were rather unsuccessful in 2009 when they did not have a player in the backfield. The team averaged just 5.44 yards-per-play out of Empty Set. This is over three full yards worse than the 8.83 yards-per-pass average the Cowboys maintained on all other plays in 2009 (all 27 plays called out of Empty Set were passes, so we should compare the average yards-per-play out of the formation to the team’s yards-per-pass average instead of the yards-per-play average).
Surprisingly, the Cowboys were particularly woeful when they motioned a man out of the backfield (and thus created an Empty Set formation). They averaged just 3.4 yards-per-play after motioning into Empty Set. While the sample size of 10 plays is rather small, these results do fit well with our findings from a previous study that the team performed rather poorly on motion plays in 2009 (we highly recommend checking out that article).
There are certainly limitations to this study. Firstly, the sample size of 27 total Empty Set plays is far from ideal (although we would still expect the yards-per-play average to more closely match the overall yards-per-pass number).
Secondly,the situations in which the Cowboys employed the formation may be a factor contributing to the team’s poor success when using it. The higher rate of goal line plays and the larger ‘distance-to-go’ average both limit the upside of plays out of Empty Set formations.
Overall, though, it does appear there is a (at least somewhat) statistically significant correlation between Empty Set plays and a low yards-per-play average. This is probably mostly due to the lack of options a team possesses when running a play out of the formation–no players in the backfield means only one possible run play (a quarterback draw). Defenses generally succeed when they limit an offense’s options. With Empty Set formations, the offense is doing that to itself.