Dallas Cowboys Film Study: Short-Yardage Plays
I was just digging through our film database from last season and decided to take a quick look at the Cowboys’ short-yardage running in 2009. I analyzed plays in which the Cowboys had one or two yards to go to obtain a first down.
For this particular study, I purposely ignored goal line plays due to their limited upside and the “all-or-nothing” approaches defenses tend to take when defending them. A 2nd and goal play from the 1-yard line is much different than, say, a 2nd and 1 play from midfield.
According to our database, the Cowboys ran 31 plays with one yard to go for a first down, and 35 plays with two yards to go. Of the 31 plays with one yard to go, 27 (87.1 percent) were runs. This may be slightly high (particularly because 10 of those plays were on 2nd down), but still not much about which we can complain.
However, of the 35 plays the Cowboys ran with two yards left for a first down, only 16 were runs. Over half of these 35 plays (18) were on 2nd down, a down when teams are basically free to run either a run or a pass. We are not saying that running the ball on just 16 of these 35 short-yardage plays is too low. We are simply pointing out that this particular ‘distance-to-go’ is one in which offensive coordinator Jason Garrett seemed to like to take shots downfield, or at least try to catch the defense off-guard with a pass.
When the Cowboys did run the ball in short-yardage situations, they were quite balanced in terms of the play direction. Of the 27 runs with one yard to go, 14 were to the left side and 13 were to the right side (each side includes runs that were just to the left or right of center Andre Gurode). Of the 16 runs with two yards to go, seven were to the left and nine were to the right.
The lineman the Cowboys enjoy running behind most should come as no shock–big Leonard Davis. They utilized his size and strength on 24 of the 66 total short-yardage runs.
The Cowboys also ran short-yardage plays out of a variety of formations. Below is a list of each one, along with the number of times they were utilized.
- Gun Tight End Spread (20)
- Double Tight Right (or Left) Strong Right (or Left) (19)
- Gun Trips Left (7)
- Double Tight I (6)
- Wildcat (4)
- Strong Right (3)
- Gun Tight End Trips Right Empty (2)
- Weak Left (2)
- Twins Right Strong Right (1)
- Gun Double Tight Ace (1)
- I Right (1)
As you can see, the Cowboys ran short-yardage plays out of 11 formations, but the majority of them came out of just four. Further, the two shotgun (Gun) formations are very similar, while the two “Double Tight” formations are nearly identical. Thus, the Cowboys ran 52 of their 66 short-yardage plays (78.8 percent) out of basically two formations.
Diagrams of “Gun Tight End Spread” and “Double Tight Right Strong Right” are pictured below.
You can see that these two formations are very different. “Gun Tight End Spread” is utilized by the Cowboys in both short and long-yardage situations and employs Tony Romo in the shotgun and a “spread-it-out” approach. The goal of “Double Tight Right Strong Right,” however, is to load as many blockers into as small an area as possible.
Neither approach can be considered the “right one.” In fact, game theory dictates that, should the two formations be comparable in terms of effectiveness, teams should utilize them equally. The Cowboys certainly used their Shotgun and Double Tight formations nearly equally in short-yardage situations in 2010 (27 to 25), but were they equally effective?
The answer is no. As the chart to the left shows, the Cowboys gained a lot more yards-per-play in short-yardage situations out of the aforementioned Shotgun formations as opposed to the Double Tight ones. In fact, the Cowboys gained over 2.3 yards more per play out of “Gun Tight End Spread” and “Gun Trips Left.”
So with such a large disparity, it is obvious that running short-yardage plays out of Shotgun formations is preferable to doing so out of Double Tight formations, right?
Not so fast. Yards-per-play is certainly important, but it can often be very misleading. A collection of 11 runs for 99 yards yields an impressive 9.0 yards-per-carry average. However, if one of those 11 runs went for all 99 yards, the offense basically failed on 10 out of 11 plays. Thus, an average is only significant in the absence of large outliers. The 99-yard run is just that–an outlier–and significantly skews the overall yards-per-carry.
In the case of the Cowboys’ 2009 short-yardage plays, the existence of outliers makes the initial appearance not necessarily reflect reality. There were six short-yardage plays run out of Shotgun that went for 10 or more yards, compared to just one from the Double Tight formation.
While you always want to maximize your opportunity for big plays, this is only beneficial to an offense if it does not significantly affect your percentage of negative plays. However, of the 27 short-yardage plays run out of Shotgun, just 15 (55.6 percent) went for a first down. In comparison, the Cowboys were successful in obtaining a first down on 20 of 25 (80.0 percent) Double Tight short-yardage plays, despite averaging just 3.40 yards-per-play.
Finally, it is worth noting that the effectiveness of plays run out of Double Tight Right Strong Right was limited by the lack of diverse plays out of the formation. In our study on Double Tight Right Strong Right, we noticed the Cowboys ran a strong side dive out of the formation 83/116 times (71.6%), including an incredible 42/49 times (85.7%) when motioning into it. The average yards-per-carry steadily decreased on these plays as the season progressed, showing that our short-yardage statistics are not immune to being altered by outside factors.
So, does the increased upside of Shotgun short-yardage plays negate the Cowboys’ lack of consistency when implementing the formation?
It is tough to say, but we do know that the statistics can (and should) be utilized to effectively alter short-yardage play-calling. Specifically, the Cowboys could maximize their effectiveness by implementing a higher rate of Shotgun plays on 2nd and 1 and 2 to take advantage of the higher yards-per-play and increased upside the formation yields.
On 3rd and 1 and 2–situations when the team really needs to do everything possible to get a first down–employing the Double Tight formation would be smart. This combination and timing of the two formations would allow the Cowboys to reap the beneficial characteristics of each while also limiting the harmful traits.
Interestingly, Dallas actually did not implement this strategy often in 2009. Of the 27 short-yardage Shotgun plays, 17 (63.0 percent) were run on 3rd down. In comparison, just 12 of the 25 Double Tight plays were run on 3rd down (48.0 percent).
Football is a game of risk/reward. Perhaps the misuse of risk/reward in formation selection was a major reason for the Cowboys’ poor short-yardage success in 2009.