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By Jonathan Bales

More Three-WR Sets for Cowboys in 2010? Analysis of Personnel Packages

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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.

Note: RB is either Barber, Jones, or Choice, while FB is Anderson.

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.

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13 Responses to More Three-WR Sets for Cowboys in 2010? Analysis of Personnel Packages

  1. john coleman says:

    I agree completely with three wides. I’m saying that just based on personnel. With a rotation of Austin,Williams,Ogletree, Bryant, and a fifth/sixth of anyones chosing. You would have Crayton,Hurd,Holley,Johnson,and Ryan to chose from, not counting rookies. I noticed Johnson couldn’t get seperation on Newman on OTA film, but it could have been the route. Let’s give Holley and Ryan a try. Also more 3 wide sets further decreases the need for a FB. Keep Sicko as a fourth TE/FB. Felix makes this feasible because he can make people miss. Hopefully Garrett makes the adjustments necessary for the new people. Maybe, Bennett and Williams break out this season.

  2. Now, are you assuming Anderson will get cut? Would you still keep Sicko if Anderson makes the squad?

    You also said “Hopefully Garrett makes the adjustments necessary for the new people.”—–that’s quite a big wish haha.

  3. Kevin Keithley says:

    I agree that the 3WR set is best. We can pass or run out of the formation without tipping our hand to the defense. That said, I was surprised that we ran so little from that formation. Although we really never know whether a pass or run was called in the huddle only to be changed at the line of scrimmage by Romo based on what the defense indicates. With the rule changes it has become a passing league. With the exception of points scored, it is hard to find fault with the offenses production.

  4. john coleman says:

    I don’t think I’m alone in thinking Anderson gets cut. A player like Sicko provides blocking,receiving, and potentially long snapping. Although I don’t think they make a change at LS this year. Ultimately, that’s three roster spots in a year or two. I know you are an advocate of saving spots where possible. IIn regards to the would I, yes I would for the afore mentioned reasons. I think other teams would scoop him up, if he hits the wire. However, without cutting Anderson it would force us to put another good prospect out there. Teams like Buffalo are going to want to pick up some guys that will make their squad. Lastly, Garrett needs to forget 92,93 and put the 2010 players in the best place to make plays.

  5. john coleman says:

    Also I think it goes without saying that Garrett feels the pressure same as Wade. At times that may cause the conservative approach. Plus you are who you are, and he seems to be a close to the vest type of guy. He’s definitely not a riverboat gambler.

  6. Hey Kevin–You are right that it is hard to find fault with production levels other than points, but that is a huge deal obviously–the only stat that matters. Garrett (and the offense) must find a way to put the ball in the end zone. The yards/pts ratio could also be aided by a few more takeaways by the D.

  7. John–You aren’t alone at all–I would say the majority of people believe he will be cut. If the Cowboys look at the same numbers I am looking at though, I personally believe he will still be on the team this season.

    Now, it all comes down to a possible suspension. If the NFL decides he should be suspended 4+ games, Sicko will probably be the guy. The vast difference in lead blocking ability, though, makes me think the Cowboys know how important Anderson is to the running game. Don’t forget how effective the offense was with him on the field last season.

  8. Vince Grey says:

    I think the Cowboy’s red zone issues stem from a few various sources:

    - It’s said that those who attempt to do too much often accomplish too little, and IMO that was part of the problem. I think JG tried to get too “fancy” for want of a better word, especially in the red zone.

    - Romo did a very commendable job of reducing his turnovers, but I feel that, along with better play from the defense, led to him being perhaps a bit too conservative in the red zone. Of course, in past seasons, when our defense was more sporadic, I think Tony felt he had to put up 30 points a game minimum, in order to win. Obviously, there has to be a “happy medium” there, and I’m confident they’ll find it.

    - The O-line and our red zone RB, MBIII, have to accept some of the blame, if there is any. Sometimes you just have to man up and power the ball in and we failed in doing that much of the time.

    - And, sometimes, it’s just football. Some years, for whatever reason, your red zone offense is just out of sync a bit, and that’s often enough to foul up an otherwise strong offense. Perhaps we just need to see if the trend continues or not before ringing any alarm bells.

  9. Agree with all your points, particularly #1 and #4. I think Garrett needs to call “regular” plays when he gets into the red zone. I’m sure the Cowboys will be doing a whole lot of practice in that area, so let’s hope all the extra time doesn’t make Garrett think he has to get crazy with the calls.

    The primary reason for the failures (hinted at in #4) is that, even if you DO have a good red zone offense, the sample size of plays is small enough that you COULD have a poor year. Even the best red zone team in the NFL has a decent shot to rank middle of the pack in any given year. There ARE some issues with the Cowboys’ red zone offense, but I don’t think it is as bad as people believe.

  10. You are not alone. I agree with you greatly. It is impossible for Cowboys to do things like that,

  11. Pingback: Cowboys Film Study: 2009 Formation Breakdown | Dallas Cowboys Times

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