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Cowboys Film Study: 2nd and 1 Play-Calling

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Advanced NFL Stats has published two interesting articles on the value of 2nd and 1 plays and the poor play-calling displayed throughout the NFL in these situations.  As you can see in the graph below, a nine yard gain on 1st down is extremely valuable to an offense.

Courtesy of Advanced NFL Stats

Why?  Well, think of it from the perspective of a defensive coordinator.  You want to stop the run to prevent a 1st down, but playing too aggressively against the run would create a vulnerability in your defense should the offense decide to pass.  Since 2nd and 1 is such a tremendous risk/reward situation for an offense, they could very well take a shot down the field.  If the result is an incomplete pass, they have a rather easy (relatively speaking) 3rd down play (meaning low risk), but the upside of a deep playaction pass, for example, is outstanding.

Game theory dictates that NFL offenses should be in the business of maximizing upside and minimizing risk, while defenses are looking to create low reward/high risk situations for offenses.

The value of a 2nd and 1 play is so incredible that, on average, a team will score .7 extra points each time they gain nine yards on 1st down as compared to gaining 10 yards.  Yes, gaining one less yard on 1st down provides a team with .7 more “expected points.”  In fact, 2nd and 1 plays are so valuable that they yield more expected points than any 1st down gain all the way up until 17 yards.  Thus, a nine-yard gain on 1st down is actually more valuable to an offense than a 16-yard gain.

The value of 2nd and 1 plays is even greater, though, if offensive coordinators take advantage of the situation.  This is not the case, however. League-wide, coaches called a run play on 78% of all 2nd and 1 plays.  That is even more than the 76% rate on 3rd and 1’s!

Further, only 4% of 2nd and 1 plays result in the offense going deep (throwing 15+ yards in the air).  This is fewer than all other 2nd down situations except 2nd and 4.

So why aren’t coaches taking advantage of the outstanding opportunity that comes with 2nd and 1 plays?  Disregarding the fact that most NFL coordinators are simply naturally conservative in their play-calling, we think the main reason is that they don’t want to deal with the stress of 3rd down.

Instead of utilizing the potential upside of 2nd and 1, they treat it as if it was simply another 3rd down.  Two opportunities to run the ball for just one yard?  Sounds good to me.  This thinking initially appears rational because it is the combination of plays which is most likely to result in a 1st down.  Offensive coordinators are supposed to do everything possible to obtain 1st downs, right?

Well, yes and no.  Of course a team needs to acquire 1st downs to move the ball, but coordinators should not be so focused on getting that next 1st down that they miss an opportunity for a huge play.  Take a look at this example:

Team A has 50 2nd and 1 situations throughout a season, running the ball on nearly every one.  They obtain 45 1st downs, but zero touchdowns on these plays.

Team B also has 50 plays on 2nd and 1, but they take a more balanced approach.  They throw about half the time, resulting in just 35 1st downs.  However, they score a touchdown on six of these plays.

So, which team would you rather coach?  For us, the low risk/high reward results obtained by Team B are much more appealing (and much more strongly-correlated with winning) than those of Team A.

Thus, offensive coordinators could increase the expected points of their offense dramatically by throwing out conventional wisdom and opening up the playbook a bit on 2nd and 1.

As you can see in the graph to the right, Cowboys’ offensive coordinator Jason Garrett’s play-calling on 2nd and 1 was nearly identical to the league average (he called a run on 80% of plays, compared to the 78% mean).  With Miles Austin and the newly-acquired Dez Bryant both athletic play-makers who thrive at getting deep, we would love to see the Cowboys employ a more balanced 2nd and 1 approach in 2010.

The chart also provides the run/pass ratio for all plays with a distance-to-go of three yards or less.  You can see that Garrett rarely exploited the high-reward opportunity of short-yardage 2nd down plays.  In fact, the Cowboys attempted just three passes of 15+ yards all season in 2nd or 3rd and 3 or less (3.22% of all plays in these situations).

We would actually like to see the red and blue lines in the graph to the right alternate places in 2010 (or at least move closer together).  A higher pass percentage on 2nd and short and a higher run percentage on 3rd and short, we believe, would result in not only more 1st down conversions for Dallas, but also (more importantly) a much larger opportunity to score quickly on big plays.

For an offense that tallied the second-most yards in the NFL in 2009 yet failed to crack the top 10 in points (14th), maximizing upside through the implementation of high-reward plays in short-yardage situations (particularly on 2nd down) may be just what the doctor ordered for the ‘Boys.

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10 Responses to Cowboys Film Study: 2nd and 1 Play-Calling

  1. john coleman says:

    Is it reality for us to expect anything to change? I do think JJ is going to expect explosiveness with the weapons we have. Futhermore, IMO, there is no reason for us not to be the #1 offense in the league.

  2. There is definitely no reason to not be the #1 offense in the league. There is going to be a real problem if the Cowboys aren’t at least in the top 5 in scoring this season. We can’t expect Garrett to improve upon all of these mistakes, but we can expect improvement.

  3. john coleman says:

    IMO somebody like Shanahan would score about 40 a game with this talent. So we will see. I don’t think the yds/pts ratio was to good.

  4. Nope…2nd in yards…14th in points. Perhaps the worst disparity in the league.

  5. Vince Grey says:

    First of all, if I’m a DC, on 2nd and 1 I’m conceding a short run and protecting against the long pass just about every time.

    Second, all this stuff about play-calling is moot. If you’re good enough, as the 60’s Packers and the `91 -`95 Cowboys were, you can run the ball a lot, and run a very basic offense overall (Very few plays) and still dominate on offense.

    Execution is the key.

  6. Execution is incredibly important, but not to the point where play-calling becomes moot. Football is about percentages. A coordinator who consistently calls plays that have a 75% chance of succeeding is better than one who calls plays with a 70% chance of working. Over the course of an entire season, that small difference becomes huge.

    Now of course some teams have players that can execute better, but that is the OC’s job–to get the players to execute. So you are right that execution is key..but that doesn’t absolve the OC of responsbility and importance (and a lot of it at that).

  7. Vince Grey says:

    Perhaps “moot” wasn’t the right word to convey what I meant. To clarify, if the play calling is utterly predictable, but still highly productive, no one has any problem with it. The OC’s a genius for staying basic, minimizing turnovers, and concentrating on execution.

    If that very same play calling stops scoring lot’s of points, for whatever reason, suddenly the OC’s an idiot for being so “predictable”.

    Bottom line, IMO, play calling is overrated and execution is underrated.

  8. We just disagree on this. I think that execution is obviously a huge part of an offense’s success, but the deviation among offenses/defenses is relatively small. The difference between the best OC/DC’s in the NFL and the worst, though, is much larger, meaning a great offensive coordinator can have a huge impact on the success of his team (relative to the other OC’s).

    Look at what Rex Ryan did for the Jets in his first season (or even Wade in Dallas). Of course you need the players and proper execution, but both Phillips and Ryan are responsible in a huge way for that execution.

  9. Vince Grey says:

    Wow, we DO disagree. I’m of the exact opposite opinion. I think the difference in OC/DC’s is relatively small, and that it’s the player’s talent and team situations that make the large difference.

    Last time I saw Rex Ryan, he was watching Peyton carve his defense into little pieces. Let’s see what Rexy boy does this season when teams have another year of tape figuring out those max blitzes. He’d better find a couple of real pass rushers so he doesn’t HAVE to blitz every passing play. (I was impressed with Sanchez however. Looks like he’s going to be a good one if he keeps his head on straight.)

  10. Pingback: Cowboys Film Study: 4th Down Attempts and Game Theory - NFL Super Bowl Live Online

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