The DC Times

A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

Tony Romo Visits Six Flags with Chace Crawford

Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo spent yesterday at Six Flags Over Texas with his girlfriend’s brother (and actor) Chace Crawford.

Photos courtesy of TerezOwens.com

By Jonathan Bales

NFC East Rundown, Philadelphia Eagles: Is Kevin Kolb Ready?

Instead of doing a fairly sh***y (excsuse my language, but hey, that word could be “shoddy” for all you know) job reporting on the happenings from around the NFC East, I figured it would be best to speak with the people who actually cover the opposition.

For today’s installment of our three-part “NFC East Rundown” Series, I spoke with Jason B. of BleedingGreenNation.com to get the latest scoop on the Philadelphia Eagles.

Q:  Obviously a lot of the Eagles’ success this year will ride on Kevin Kolb.  How has he looked thus far in offseason workouts?

The reports on Kolb in the offseason workouts have been great. Everyone from Ron Jaworkski, Dick Vermeil, to all the local reporters have remarked on how crisp and accurate he is. All the young weapons on the Eagles offense have nothing but good stuff to say as well and seem genuinely excited about playing with a young quarterback. They collectively see themselves as the next generation and seem really anxious to show that they can play with each other.

Q: There are obviously a ton of weapons for Kolb on the offense, but how important will it be for him to limit his turnovers? Do you think he is at the point where he could perhaps pass on a big play opportunity in favor or protecting the ball?

We have so little game tape on Kolb to go on that it’s hard to make a lot of evaluations or predictions. Of course it’s always important for a young quarterback to limit turnovers and in Kolb’s two career starts we saw evidence of good and bad. There were instances in the New Orleans game where didn’t appear to see a roving safety, but there were plays in both that game and the Kansas City game where he smartly threw a ball away when nothing was there.

I do think it’s safe to say he’ll try to fit passes in places McNabb wouldn’t and that may very well lead to more turnovers than McNabb had. . .but given that McNabb was one of the most stingy quarterbacks in terms of turnovers in NFL history, that prediction is not much of a stretch.

Q: With Brian Westbrook gone, do the Eagles have enough firepower in the backfield to last the entire season? Is LeSean McCoy capable of handling 25 touches a game?

Well, Brian Westbrook was effectively gone last year, so we got a preview of what the backfield looks like without him then. LeSean McCoy had a solid rookie year finishing 3rd among rookie backs in yardage and Leonard Weaver was a pleasant surprise.

McCoy, who was a workhorse at Pitt, looks set to be the #1 guy. He needs to improve his pass blocking and there’s some ball security questions, but overall there’s really no reason to think he can’t handle a lot of touches at the pro level.

Former Saint Mike Bell will likely be McCoy’s primary backup. Bell actually led the Saints in carries last year and is considered a dependable backup/depth guy. The team also picked up power back Charles Scott from LSU in the draft this year.

Like I’ve said before, it’s not talent that will hold back the Eagles running game this year. . . it’s Andy Reid. I really think he’s got the horses to have a solid running game, it’s just down to whether he actually uses them.

Q:  Free safety is a concern in Philly just as in Dallas. With newly-acquired Marlin Jackson done for the year, what are the Birds’ plans at that position?

It’s second round pick Nate Allen’s job to lose. Macho Harris was moved back to his more familiar position of corner this year, so the training camp battle will be between Allen and Quintin Demps. While no one will be that excited about having to start a rookie at the position, most Eagles fans are relieved that the team at least appears to have a long term solution in Nate Allen.

The plan was most likely to have Marlin Jackson start the year to take some pressure of Allen, but it was always going to be Nate’s job eventually. It just happened sooner than expected.

Q:  Do you see Brent Celek having an even bigger role with another year under his belt and his buddy Kevin Kolb throwing him passes?

Not even a question.  I’ve been telling friends that Brent Celek is a huge fantasy sleeper this year for that very reason. He and Kolb hooked up well in Kolb’s two starts and as you said the two are good friends off the field. Plus, the tight end is always a security blanket for a young quarterback. Celek had a breakout season last year and his numbers will probably only improve with Kolb at the helm.

Q:  The Cowboys had success against the Eagles’ blitzes last year, primarily with bubble screens. Do you envision less blitzes being called in 2010?

I think it all depends on what you think the problem was. Was it the blitzes or the guys running them? The Eagles defense, particularly its linebacker corps, was hit pretty badly with injuries last year. Plus, the defensive line underperformed and the secondary was beat up as well.

I honestly doubt whether less blitzes would have changed their fortunes that much against Dallas late in the year. I think the Eagles hope that any game plan they have will be better with their offseason additions like Brandon Graham, Ernie Sims, and the returning Stewart Bradley running them. While I’m sure that schematic adjustments need to be made against Dallas, I would tend to agree that an overall upgrade in talent will mean more than anything.

If the Eagles defense beats Dallas this year, it’s going to be because Brandon Graham can play, Nate Allen can play, Stewart Bradley has healed from injury, and Ernie Sims is an upgrade. . . not because they blitzed any more or less.

Q:  Is there any chance that DeSean Jackson gets a new deal this year? Could that situation become a potential distraction for the team?

I can’t see how he’d get an extension until a new CBA is done. The 30% rule more or less has his hands and the team’s hands tied. I also can’t see how it will become a distraction because he knows this. Both and he his agent Drew Rosenhaus have said that they know it’s a waiting game until the labor situation is resolved. In fact, he was again asked about the contract yesterday and talked about the CBA problems for the 100th time this offseason. He’s been asked about his contract so many times and given the same answer so many times that you get the feeling like the media is just dying for him to make it a problem.  So far, he’s avoided taking the bait.

Q:  Any final NFC East predictions?

I really can’t even hazard a guess without getting to see this new Eagles team play, the Redskins offense, and the Giants defense. There’s just so many huge questions in the division. I at least need the preseason to get a handle on it!

I will say though that it’s fair to call the Cowboys favorites. They clearly have the least amount of questions going into the year. For them, it seems like the question isn’t whether they can get to the playoffs, it’s whether they can finally do something when they get there.

By Jonathan Bales

Fantasy Football Mailbag 6/29/10: Wide Receivers in Rounds One AND Two?

Q:  You said 2010 is the year to draft a quarterback in the first round.  Which players would you select ahead of the No. 1 QB?  Would you still pick a quarterback that high in leagues that reward a point per reception?

Mark Clancy, Warren, MI

A: There are currently only four players I would select ahead of my top-rated quarterback (Aaron Rodgers)–Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, and Maurice Jones-Drew (in that order).

Incredibly, the numbers work out in this way whether the league is PPR (point-per-reception) or not.  Also, this is only for leagues that start one quarterback.  In two quarterback leagues, I might think about taking Rodgers as high as the second overall selection.

You can read more about why I will be selecting quarterbacks so high in 2010.

Q:  I have the last selection in a 12-man redraft league that rewards a point for receptions (standard starting requirements).  I am expecting the top running backs, a few of the top receivers, and one or two quarterbacks to be off the board.  Who would you suggest taking?

Bruce Pelligrini, Doylestown, PA

A: It really depends on which direction you see the other owners going in rounds two and three.  If you expect there to be a run on quarterbacks, you may want to be sure to grab a top signal-caller early (either Rodgers, Brees, or Manning should be available).

If you think the other owners will select primarily running backs and wide receivers in rounds two and three, I would bypass the quarterback position and select two stud wide receivers.  Two players out of this group should be available: Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Larry Fitzgerald, Reggie Wayne, Miles Austin.

I had a ton of success going WR/WR with a late draft pick last year.  The VORP (explained here) adds up in your favor, and with the nature of the running backs position changing and the stud RBs off the board, it makes sense.  Wide receivers, while inconsistent from week to week, are generally fairly consistent over the course of a season.

Plus, you can get a quarterback of comparable value to Brees or Manning at the end of the third/start of the fourth.  I currently have Matt Schaub, Tony Romo, and Jay Cutler all in that same tier.  Here’s a post on how to use tiers to gain maximum value.

Again, you must use game theory to determine what will be available for you later (here is an excellent article on how to use your opponents’ beliefs in your favor), but I would most likely go WR-WR-QB-RB.  Be sure to stack up on running backs in the middle rounds, of  course.

Q:  I am in a 12-man dynasty league (standard scoring/starters) and have been offered Reggie Wayne for Jamaal Charles.  I know Charles has a lot of upside, but Wayne is a sure thing.  Should I pull the trigger?

Troy Barnett, Dallas, TX

A: It really depends on the rest of your roster.  Are you loaded at the running back position?  If you have a replacement player of comparable value to Charles, then it might be in your best interest to make the trade.

Ultimately, the math has to work out in your favor.  Here’s how to use mathematics to ensure you are receiving good value in a fantasy football trade.

Of course, the fact that you are in a dynasty league complicates matters.  Charles is obviously the better long-term player, so the numbers really have to work out for you to make the deal.

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Be sure to check out our 2010 Fantasy Football Subscription!  You’ll receive my personal projections/rankings, cheat sheets, players to target/avoid, mock drafts, and more.

By Jonathan Bales

Dallas Cowboys 2009 Offensive Player Efficiency Comparisons

Last week, a reader suggested we perform a value-based statistical analysis (similar to our 2009 Player Grades) which could be used to determine the worth of one player over another.  For example, how much better would the Cowboys be if Felix Jones played every snap at running back (disregarding fatigue)?  How costly would an injury to Jason Witten be?  Essentially, how much does each player contribute to a win?

This task is easier said than done (and since it isn’t even particularly easily said, it sure isn’t easy to do).  As the reader points out, one would have to “normalize” the conditions outside of the player to determine his true worth.  This is rather easy to do (relatively speaking) in a sport like baseball where the circumstances are basically always the same.

In football, though, no two plays are ever really identical.  Statistical comparisons among players on different teams are rather pointless, as the nature of each player’s system plays an incredible role in his statistical capabilities.

Nonetheless, there have been some attempts to “normalize” outside factors and assign an objective value to players.  In fact, we are in the process of making such an attempt right now.  Until then, we wanted to take a look at the values of Cowboys players gathered by some other leading football statistics gurus (and compare them to our own 2009 Player Rankings).

One such source (and perhaps the most well-known) is Football Outsiders.  The primary FO statistic with which we are concerned is DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average.  FO describes DVOA as “representing value, per play, over an average player at the same position in the same game situations.”

DVOA is an excellent statistic to use to compare with our own player rankings, as both represent efficiency, not overall value.  For example, Roy Williams had a greater overall value to the offense than Kevin Ogletree in 2009, but most would argue Ogletree was more efficient during his snaps.

Another source of efficiency-based value rankings is Advanced NFL Stats–a site we refer you to a lot.  Advanced NFL Stats implements a statistic called Expected Points Added.  We’ve spoken about ‘expected points’ in the past, and ANS talks about it here.

In short, EP (expected points) is the value of a certain situation in football.  EPA (expected points added) is the difference between one situation and another.  If the Cowboys have a 1st and 10 at their own 30-yard line, for example, the EP of that situation is +1.0 point, i.e. on average, they can expect one point from that drive.  If Miles Austin catches a pass for 50 yards, the Cowboys’ EP shoots up to +4.0 (the expected points of a 1st and 10 at the opponent’s 20-yard line).  Thus, the EPA for that play is +3.0.

We are concerned with EPA/play–the amount of expected points a player adds to his team’s point total per play.

A final source for efficiency-based values is Pro Football Focus.  PFF is different from FO and ANS in that they do not necessary use the outcomes of plays to formulate rankings.  Instead, they break down each play and assign values based on their interpretation of how well each player performed his job on that play.  You can read more about their methodology here.

It is important to note that all three sites use a value of “0″ as a baseline for average play.  Players in the negative are worse than average, and players with positive values are better than average for DVOA, EPA, and PFF’s values.

Click to enlarge.

The chart above displays the rankings and values for the Cowboys offense from all three sites (Football Outsiders, Advanced NFL Stats, and Pro Football Focus), along with our own grades.  A few notes before we analyze the data:

  • NR=Not Rated (likely due to insufficient sample size)
  • The statistics circled in blue are a player’s highest rating; those in red are his lowest.
  • Comparisons among players at different positions are meaningless due to the nature of the data.

Observations

  • Only two players, Martellus Bennett and Flozell Adams, were unanimously voted as “below average.”

Shockingly, ANS rated Roy Williams as slightly above average.  We love Williams’ attitude right now, but we couldn’t disagree more about his 2009 play.

  • Tony Romo’s highest rating (from FO) put him at just 7th among all quarterbacks.  PFF had him all the way at 15th.

We had Romo rated as the 7th-best quarterback in the NFL in our 2010 Starting Quarterback Power Rankings.  We would have ranked his 2009 play, though, as top-five.

  • It’s unanimous: Felix Jones is one of the NFL’s most efficient running backs.  He was ranked 5th, 6th, and 9th, respectively.

Jones’ lowest grade would actually probably come from us.  He has a long way to go to prove he can hold up over an entire season, but as far as efficiency, he’s one of the league’s best.  We provided him a B+ in short-yardage running, an A in overall running, a B in receiving, and a B in pass protection.

  • Two out our three sources agree with us that Barber was about average last season.  FO ranked him as a top 15 back.  Meanwhile, Tashard Choice checked in with a higher efficiency rating than Jones from two of the sites.

We rated Barber as an average running back in 2009 (77.2 percent).  We were also very high on Choice, rating him just 2.5 percentage points behind Jones.  Choice would have ranked as one of the league’s top running backs on Football Outsiders and Advanced NFL Stats had he played more snaps.

  • Jason Witten was ranked all the way from the league’s top tight end to No. 11.

Witten was the No. 1 tight end in our NFL Tight End Rankings.  There’s simply no doubt about it.

  • Opinions on Deon Anderson varied from slightly below average to the league’s 6th-best fullback.

We tend to agree with the latter.  The Cowboys averaged nearly two yards more per rush with Anderson in the game (as compared to John Phillips) and .2 yards more per pass.  Click here to see our in-depth study on Anderson’s 2009 play.

  • Miles Austin has arrived.  He was rated from 5th to 9th.

We gave Austin the third-highest grade of any Cowboy due to his low 2.2 percent drop rate and incredible 10.4 yards-per-attempt.

  • Ratings of both Patrick Crayton and Roy Williams varied.

Two of the three sources had Crayton as a top 16 receiver (in terms of efficiency).  Williams wasn’t high on anyone’s list, but PFF had him ranked all the way down at No. 100.

  • PFF was the only site to rank individual linemen, but their ratings fell in line with ours.

We were a bit higher on Leonard Davis and Andre Gurode and slightly lower on Kyle Kosier (who they listed as the Cowboys’ top lineman last season).  We gave Davis and Gurode “A-” grades and Kosier a “B.”  All three linemen made our list of Dallas’ top 15 overall players last season.

Conclusion

There is obviously quite a bit of work left to be completed in the area of advanced football statistics, particularly objective efficiency rankings.  Still, the difficulty of the task is no reason to concede.  The more we learn which statistics contribute to a team’s success (and how much), the closer we will be to “normalizing” subjective factors in an attempt to acquire objective player ratings.

Up Next: 2009 Defensive Player Efficiency Comparisons

By Jonathan Bales

Lingerie Football League: Interview With Dallas Desire WR/CB Amber Ryan

A couple weeks ago, we profiled Amber Ryan as one of our Hot Cowboys Babes.  Last year, Amber played wide receiver and cornerback for the Dallas Desire in a league we want to learn A LOT more about–the Lingerie Football League.  We spoke with Amber to find out more about her time in the LFL.

Q:  What was it like playing in the LFL?  Was it as much of a thrill as other sports in which you’ve competed?

A: Playing in the LFL was a great experience. I had seen an advertisement for tryouts on the news and thought, “I have to try out.”  I had no idea what to expect going into it thinking, “Okay, its called lingerie football?” I had seen it in the past as the Super Bowl halftime show, but was curious to see how they would develop it into a season.

I grew up with my dad playing sports my entire life. When I was younger, I played football (safety on the boys teams), baseball (pitcher, second baseman and shortstop in the guys league), and basketball.  The chance to play a national professional sport that isn’t powder puff seemed like a great opportunity.

Q: How in-depth did your plays get? Did you learn a lot of specific routes/coverages?

A: Our team was very fortunate in having ex-NFL players as the coaches. They looked at us as a reflection of their knowledge so we definitely wanted to make sure we knew what we were doing. We had practices scheduled four times a week for three hours.  They definitely were not playing around. We learned a lot of routes (slant, boot, post etc…) and coverages.  As far as plays, we had a lot we would learn so we could mix it up, but like most teams we had our favorites.

Q:  What was it like getting hit by the bigger girls? Did you ever receive a “knock out” shot?

A: Being a 7-on-7, full-tackle sport with minimal padding, people are bound to get injured.  We had ACL tears, teeth knocked out, broken fingers, but that’s also what made learning the game and fundamentals that much more important. Our coaches definitely didn’t want to send us out there not knowing how to hit or fall.

No, no one got a knock out shot on me.  Don’t get me wrong though. . .I got knocked around pretty good a few times (laughs).  I felt really lucky being on the Desire team because we had a very strong team so having to go against some of the strongest women in the league each day at practice definitely helped come game time.

Q:  Did you feel the fans were there to actually see you compete, or just check out the girls? What percentage of fans were guys?

A: Initially I think the sex appeal got them there.  Most were just there to check out girls, but I think after watching the game the majority of the response we received was “Wow, you girls can really play.” I would say the majority of our fan base was guys, but there was a good amount of women who would come out and support us or bring their guys.

Q:  What was the most physically demanding part of playing in the LFL? The funnest? The worst?

A: The most demanding part of playing in the LFL was the time. I was definitely ready to commit to practices and games, but never imagined four times a week for three hours. It started in April when the first game wasn’t until September.

The funnest part was game day, traveling with the girls to go play, and interacting with the fans.  The worst was only getting paid a percentage of ticket sales.  When you are asked to invest that much time and only have four games, it isn’t enough.

Q:  What things about the LFL do you think should change?

A: I would be happy to hear that the girls are being taken care of better. The league demands time, commitment, and sacrifice.  I don’t think the girls’ love of the game should be taken advantage of. Without them out there, there would be no league, no LFL.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part II: Marcus Spears vs. Stephen Bowen vs. Jason Hatcher

By Jonathan Bales

In the first part of my Training Camp Battles Series, I analyzed the nickel linebacker position.  Today, I will take a look at defensive end.

Coach Wade Phillips loves to rotate his defensive linemen.  The chart to the left displays the percentage of snaps each of the defensive ends played in 2009 (it adds up to 200 percent since there were always two ends on the field).

Notice that Igor Olshansky led the group at 62.8 percent of snaps, but that wasn’t even twice as much as the player with the least snaps (Jason Hatcher at 38.2 percent).  Marcus Spears, the starter opposite Olshanksy, played just slightly more (51.6 percent of all snaps) than  his backup Stephen Bowen (47.4 percent).

With Spears’ and Bowen’s snaps so evenly distributed, you could effectively call them starters 1A and 1B.  Spears is the run defense guy (53.2 percent of his snaps came against the run), while Bowen is the Cowboys’ pass-rush specialist at end (79.6 percent of his snaps came against the pass).

In case you are wondering, 50.5 percent of Olshansky’s snaps came against the run, while just 32.2 percent of Hatcher’s came in the same situation.

A lot of questions have arisen of late regarding this snap distribution.  Is it time to provide Bowen and Hatcher (Hatcher in particular) with more snaps?  Spears, Bowen, and Hatcher are all restricted free agents.  There is practically zero chance of the Cowboys retaining all three players, particularly with seventh-rounder Sean Lissemore waiting in the wings.

Spears is by far the most likely candidate to leave Dallas, and there still exists an outside chance he is traded before the start of the season.  If not, however, you can still expect a tremendous battle for playing time at defensive end during training camp.  Spears’ probable departure only adds to the likelihood of Bowen and Hatcher receiving more snaps.

In my view, it is time to transition Bowen and Hatcher into the lineup a bit more.  In our 2009 Defensive End Grades, Spears, Bowen, and Hatcher all received nearly identical grades (all around 80 percent).  If the Cowboys coaches also view the players as interchangeable (which appears to be the case), then it is time to slowly scale back Spears’ snaps.  Let the players who will be here in 2011 play now.

Scouting Reports

  • Marcus Spears

Spears has never gotten the credit he deserves because fans had unrealistic expectations for him.  As a run-stuffing 3-4 end, he was never going to put up big numbers.  He is an intelligent, hard-working player who still has a role in Dallas.  His lack of pure pass-rushing ability, though, will limit his 2010 snap count.

  • Stephen Bowen

Bowen is the player most likely to pilfer some of Spears’ snaps.  His sack and quarterback hit percentages led all defensive ends, so he will surely once again be the Cowboys’ nickel end.  If he can show he is capable of holding up against the run, he could steal Spears’ starting gig.

  • Jason Hatcher

Hatcher is a personal favorite of mine and a player I labeled as one likely to bust out in 2010.  Despite playing significantly less than the other defensive ends, Hatcher racked up the most quarterback pressures.  Pressures, in my opinion, represent a players’ future sack total better than any other statistic.  It wouldn’t surprise me to see Hatcher (assuming he receives enough snaps) rack up six to eight sacks this season.

Pros/Cons of Starting. . .

  • Marcus Spears

Spears is still fairly stout against the run, so he is by no means a liability for Dallas during early downs.  The problem is that everybody and their brother knows Spears won’t be in town in 2010.  If Bowen and/or Hatcher’s play is comparable, shouldn’t they get more reps?

  • Stephen Bowen

Bowen has a legitimate shot at starting, but he recorded only 13 tackles all of last season and played less than 100 snaps against the run.  Is he ready to hold up against the offense’s “big boys” during early down work?  How will that affect his pass rushing?

  • Jason Hatcher

Hatcher appears primed to break out as a pass rusher, but I have some doubts about his ability to consistently hold up against the run.  His tackle rate of 1.81 percent last year was the worst on the team.

Advantage

Right now, I’d give Spears the slight advantage as the projected starter.  As is the case with so many positions in football today, however, the label ‘starter’ really doesn’t mean much.  More crucial is snap distribution, and I think you will see that change in 2010.

Listed to the right is my 2010 defensive end snaps projection.  The big “loser” is Spears, who would see his snap count decrease by about 10 percent.

I think you’ll see Spears begin the season as the starter, again playing on only running downs.  Bowen may get substituted in a bit more to start, but I could see the initial 2010 rotation as similar to that of last season.

As the season progresses, you’ll likely see the playing time of both Bowen and Hatcher increase.  This is dependent on play, but the Cowboys are likely eager for both players to see more action, particularly on some running downs during which Spears would normally be on the field.

All of this could change with a spectacular camp from either Bowen or Hatcher, of course, making this an awesome battle to monitor this summer.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Poll: Which training camp battle are you most excited to watch?

By Jonathan Bales

NFL’s Top 10 Centers: Where Does Andre Gurode Check In?

Click to see our top quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, QB/WR tandems, tight ends, offensive tackles, guards, and cornerback duos.

1.  Nick Mangold, New York Jets

How good is Mangold?  He could be the Jets team MVP. . .for real.  No other center in the NFL even comes close to reaching Mangold’s level of dominance.

2.  Ryan Kalil, Carolina Panthers

See the video below.  Enough said.


3.  Jeff Saturday, Indianapolis Colts

Yes, Saturday gets to block for the quick-throwing Peyton Manning, but he is still one of the NFL’s best in pass protection.

4.  Matt Birk, Baltimore Ravens

He’s been really good for a really long time, particularly in run blocking.

5.  Andre Gurode, Dallas Cowboys

Gurode received an “A-” grade from us.  He is a major reason the ‘Boys are able to run inside so often, but a lot less fun to watch since he improved his Shotgun snaps.

6.  Shaun O’Hara, New York Giants

O’Hara’s pass protection numbers (one sack, five hits, and 10 pressures yielded) are nearly identical to Gurode’s, but Gurode is probably a slightly better run blocker.

7.  Jamaal Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles

Jackson will need to show he is capable of returning to form after a late-season knee tear.

8.  Olin Kreutz, Chicago Bears

Kreutz used to be the head of the class.  He’s still great in pass protection, but his run blocking was shaky last season.

9.  Dan Koppen, New England Patriots

The entire Pats line is pretty good, but Koppen didn’t let Tom Brady get sacked a single time in 2009.

10.  Alex Mack, Cleveland Browns

Mack’s rookie play was reminiscent of Mangold’s.  He will probably shoot up this last after the 2010 season.

By Jonathan Bales

Top 20 Dez Bryant Photos With Dallas Cowboys

Courtesy of Dallas Morning News

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Red Zone Performance: Three Ways They Can Improve

By Jonathan Bales

It is no secret the Cowboys must improve their red zone performance in 2010.  The offense was second in the NFL in yards gained, but just 14th in points scored, tallying the worst points-to-yards ratio of any playoff team.

There are a lot of the theories regarding how to succeed in the red zone.  Some coaches run the ball more, knowing the “upside” of passing plays is limited.  Others believe an accurate quarterback is the key to red zone prosperity, as the field becomes “squashed” and more ‘spot-on’ throws are needed.

Personally, I believe the red zone is basically no different than any other part of the field.  Sure, some teams perform much better in the red zone (compared to their play outside of it) and others worse, but that is to be expected with a sample size of 32 teams.  Further, all of the stats show red zone performance is fluky due to small subsets of data.  That is, there’s really no difference between the opponent’s 20-yard line to end zone as there is to, say, in between the 40s.  Random data fluctuations are to be expected in such small sets of data.

Nonetheless, there are likely a few ways for the Cowboys to improve upon their red zone performance.  The first?  Get there more often! The Cowboys ran the second-most plays in the NFL inside their own 20-yard line last season, but were just 17th in red zone plays run. For an offense that has the potential to be explosive, that ranking must (and will) improve.

As the sample size of red zone plays increases, the team’s success will “regress to the norm,” i.e. they will get better.  I feel fully confident in saying the Cowboys red zone performance will improve in 2010 even if they make zero changes to their offense.  Statistics always win out.

One way to secure more red zone plays, of course, is to force more turnovers on defense.  The success of the defense goes hand-in-hand with the offense, but that topic is probably best saved for a later post.

The second method by which the Cowboys can become more dominant in the red zone is to alter 1st down play-calling.  I came across a very interesting study which analyzes the expected points of both runs and passes inside the red zone.  The results? Running the ball on 1st down inside the opponent’s 10-yard line yields better returns than passing.  From the 10 to 20, however, the field becomes elongated and the superiority of 1st down passing returns.

While football minds have labeled the area inside the 20-yard line as the ‘red zone,’ the “real” red zone–the one in which play-calling must change–is actually inside the 10-yard line.  Until that point, an offense’s strategy shouldn’t really alter.  The graph to the left exemplifies the expected points of running and passing on 1st down.  Notice that running only becomes a superior 1st down strategy around the opponent’s 10-yard line.

So how did Jason Garrett and the Cowboys fair in their 2009 1st down red zone play-calling?  About average (at least in terms of play selection).  Inside the 10-yard line (the area where running the ball is a statistically superior strategy), Garrett did a nice job of utilizing the run.  The Cowboys handed the ball off on 21 of 32 1st down runs in that area.

Most importantly, the Cowboys scored a touchdown on eight of those runs, compared to just two of the 11 passes (Tony Romo also threw an interception).  With yardage totals limited inside the 10-yard line, touchdowns are perhaps a better determiner of success than yards-per-play.

From the 10 to the 20-yard line, I’d like to see the Cowboys throw the ball a bit more.  They attempted 12 passes out of a possible 29 plays (41.4%) on 1st down.  If the Cowboys can increase that rate to about 60-65% in 2010, they should find a bit more success.

The third and final way by which the Cowboys can improve their red zone performance (and perhaps the most important) is to get tight end Jason Witten more involved. Twenty-one tight ends had more touchdowns than Witten last season.

If you’ve read some of my previous work, you know I think touchdowns can be fluky.  Yes, some players are more apt at getting the ball to paydirt, but the small sample size of red zone opportunities (for all teams) ensures that there will always be a lot of variance among players’ touchdown totals.

So what is the best way to make sure Witten scores more this season?  Simply give him more opportunities.  I’ve already completed a study detailing the effectiveness of the Cowboys’ passing game when Witten is in a route.  Last season, the Cowboys sent Witten out in a route on about three-quarters of all pass plays (77.1%).  They averaged nearly two yards more per pass when Witten did not stay in to block.

I looked through our database, and for whatever reason, Witten was out in a route on just 50 of 72 (69.4%) red zone pass plays in 2009.  For the Cowboys to have more success inside the opposition’s 20-yard line, Witten must be given more opportunities to succeed.  If anyone can succeed in a tight, congested area of the football field, it is the Cowboys’ big, sure-handed tight end.

Conclusions

Red zone performance is similar to field goal accuracy in that, while it can vary greatly from year to year, it is still extremely important to a team’s win total.  It is imperative for the 2010 Cowboys to improve in the red zone this season.

In my estimation, there are three ways by which they can complete this task.  First, they must simply get there more often.  They ranked just 17th in the NFL in red zone plays last year.

Secondly, the offense could benefit from continuing to call a lot of 1st down running plays inside the 10-yard line (where the upside–in terms of yardage–is limited).  Outside of the 10-yard line, the Cowboys should think about dialing up more pass plays on 1st down, as statistics show this area of the gridiron is really no different from, say, midfield.

Finally, the Cowboys absolutely must get Witten more involved in the red zone this year.  Last season, he went out in a route on just 69.4% of red zone pass plays–about 8% less than his overall rate.  His touchdown total will probably increase in 2010 from chance alone, but giving him more red zone opportunities will ensure it.