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By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys Red Zone Performance: Three Ways They Can Improve

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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.

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16 Responses to Cowboys Red Zone Performance: Three Ways They Can Improve

  1. Vince Grey says:

    I agree with a number of your points, particularly on the importance of QB accuracy, but I believe two points have been missed.

    For one, on some level, I think the O-line deserves some of the blame for lack of red zone success. At key moments, this massive line failed to play up to it’s potential, especially in the red zone.

    Second, and more likely the cause, I absolutely believe that, with the defense playing much better, as well as Jason and Tony’s desire to cut down on turnovers, made them far less inclined to take as many red zone chances as they had in the past.

    This certainly led to fewer turnovers, but it likely had the effect of having less success down there than in the recent past.

  2. Agree with both points. Unfortunately, I would have to say the O-line’s run blocking has taken a slight step back with the replacement of Flozell with Free (or Barron). Still, short-yardage running often comes down to “want to,” so I think we could still see an improvement in red zone blocking.

  3. Vince Grey says:

    Personally, I think, if the talent is relatively equal, a massive O-line helps more in the passing game than in the running game.

    For all the success Emmitt had behind our huge lines of the 90′s, I recall much smaller O-lines like Denver’s and Frisco’s having amazing success running the ball, often with backs that couldn’t carry Emmitt’s lunch, talent-wise.

    Free’s greater athletic ability and speed might lead to more sweeps and wide traps, opening up the running game even more.

    I’m not suggesting we switch to a bunch of 270-pounders, but having a little more speed and quickness in the O-line might not be a bad thing at all.

  4. I think you are going to see linemen across the league slowly come down in weight. As the game changes to a spread attack, the linemen’s splits become huge. They are asked more and more to work in space where athleticism and quick feet are key.

    I do think the ‘Boys need to alter the types of runs they call this year. I would LOVE to see more counters (A LOT more counters), more sweeps (as you mentioned), and less dive plays.

  5. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    Remember, red zone defenses usally contain “bigger” D lines (big packages substituted in) – especially around the goal line.

    Red zone running should be to the outside w/ Jones or TC. We have big receivers and tight ends who block well and fast backs who are elusive in open space. There’s no reason why any LB in the league should be able to get outside and catch Felix when he’s pitched the ball to the long side of the field.

  6. percyhoward says:

    Very interesting piece, and comments as well. I’ll add that we finished 31st in the league in short yardage plays (run or pass) in the red zone, and most of that was due to failures on the goal line. Most of our short yardage runs–red zone or otherwise–were behind center and right guard. That’s the big reason I have a problem with your “A” grades for Davis and Gurode, but that’s another issue. :)

    Keep up the outstanding work.

  7. percyhoward says:

    I forgot to add that the 31st ranking is first down conversion percentage.

  8. Thanks Percy…one of the reasons I didn’t lower the grade for Davis and Gurode was the frequency with which OC Garrett called dive plays in the “2 hole” (between those guys). In “Double Tight Right Strong Right,” for example, the ‘Boys ran a strong side dive nearly 80 percent of the time.

    When a defense basically knows a dive play is coming, it is hard for any linemen to effectively block.

    Good thoughts though, and I definitely see your point. I would have no problem with another grading them lower.

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