More Three-WR Sets for Cowboys in 2010? Analysis of Personnel Packages
There is no doubt Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett had a ton of weapons with which to work in 2009. There are differing opinions on his efficiency in utilizing Jason Witten, Miles Austin, Felix Jones & Co., as the Cowboys ranked 2nd in the NFL in total yards, but just 14th in points. Is this simply a fluke statistic that will “regress toward the mean” in 2010, or is there something more to it?
Our own film study has shown that the Cowboys offense is far too predictable in a variety of situations. To improve in 2010, we believe Garrett should vary the play-calling out of Double Tight Right Strong Right, send Witten out in routes on a higher percentage of passing plays, throw more play-action passes to the left, randomize 2nd down and 3rd down play-calling (particularly on 2nd and 1), run more to the weak side, motion less, improve initial drive statistics, run less draws, and run (a lot) more counters.
After listing a wide variety of flaws in Garrett’s play-calling, now is a good time to mention we don’t think he is a terrible offensive coordinator. Garrett does a commendable job of giving players sufficient freedom to make plays and, while we often critique his play-calling, Garrett is not the only offensive coordinator in the NFL with (what we would describe as major) flaws.
However, while football is a zero-sum game, offensive coordinator vs. offensive coordinator is not. OCs can collectively get better or worse, meaning the similar failures of others around the league do not justify Garrett’s shortcomings.
The addition of Dez Bryant to the Cowboys’ already potent offensive attack means Garrett will have to alter his playbook to better fit a changing cast on offense. Garrett appears to sometimes force players to adapt to his system (Roy Williams routes, for example), as opposed to bending the system to more appropriately utilize the skill sets of the players.
To further grasp how Garrett implemented players in 2009, take a look at the list of personnel packages to the right. Note that, while the Cowboys are often thought to implement two tight ends as their base offense, they actually trotted one tight end, three wide receivers, and a running back onto the field more than any other particular personnel group (they did use two tight ends on 485 plays, however).
The three-wide receiver set is one we would like to see utilized more often in 2010. There are a few reasons for this:
- It will allow the Cowboys to get Dez Bryant more involved. Who do you think represents a bigger threat to the defense, Bryant or Martellus Bennett/John Phillips?
- With Felix Jones as the primary ball-carrier, the need for a fullback is lessened. The Cowboys would be wise to run more counters and misdirection plays in which a third wide receiver (who can effectively spread out the defense) could be more valuable than a fullback.
- The running game in general could thrive out of three-wide receiver sets, as defenses generally implement nickel personnel (an extra defensive back).
We are not sure Jason Garrett agrees with that last statement. It is no secret that he loves to run the ball with either two tight ends or a fullback on the field.
Unfortunately, Garrett rarely ran the ball out of three-receiver sets in ’09 and it appears the efficiency of these packages was compromised by that improper run/pass balance. As you can see above, the Cowboys ran 310 total plays with three wide receivers on the field. Of those plays, just 54 were runs (17.4%)!
Now, we understand the Cowboys are a pass-first team and that three-receiver sets are perhaps ideal for passing, but spreading out the field to run is becoming a hot trend in the NFL. In fact, the Cowboys averaged a gaudy 5.85 yards-per-carry when running out of three-receiver sets last season. Whether this is due to a pre-snap open field or the defense substituting nickel personnel, there is no doubt the Cowboys ran the ball effectively in 2009 with three wide receivers in the game.
The incredibly high percentage of passes out of three-receiver sets undoubtedly caused the Cowboys’ yards-per-attempt on those plays to plummet. Still, Dallas averaged 7.08 yards-per-attempt on passes out of the package, compared to 7.79 yards-per-attempt in general (including sacks) in 2009.
We have a feeling if the Cowboys run the ball (significantly) more out of three-receiver sets in 2010 (35% or so), that 7.08 yards-per-attempt will rise. Not only does the team simply have better personnel this season, but defenses will be more apt to stay in base personnel to effectively shut down the run. This will allow the third wide receiver, whoever it is, to garner a big-time mismatch.
If defenses do shift into a nickel package, the Cowboys should be able to utilize their receivers’ above-average blocking skills, a more athletic offensive line, and the shiftiness of Jones to be quite successful in running out of three-receiver personnel packages.