Why Cowboys Should Throw Out of ‘Ace’ (And Other Double-Tight Formations)
By Jonathan Bales
A few weeks back, we published a breakdown of every formation the Cowboys ran in 2009, including run/pass ratios, success rates, and big/negative play percentages. Included in that article was a double-tight (two tight ends) formation called “Ace”:
The Cowboys ran 29 plays out of “Ace” last season:
24 passes (82.8 percent)/5 runs (17.2 percent)
12 passes 10+ (50 percent), five passes 20+ (20.8 percent), two negative runs (40 percent)
“Ace” was the Cowboys second-most efficient passing formation, and they also had a ton of success passing out of other double-tight formations. Not exactly the statistics you were expecting from “run-oriented” formations? Me neither. . .which is exactly why passing out of it was so successful last season.
I hate to harp on it again (actually, secretly I love it), but run/pass selection is controlled in large part by game theory. In a nutshell, game theory is thinking one step ahead of your opponent. Why perform a surprise onside kick? Why run on 3rd and 7? Because your opponent will never be expecting it.
This latter scenario (running the ball on 3rd and medium to long) is one I’ve already examined. The graph to the left (from AdvancedNFLStats.com) displays the conversion rates of teams on 3rd down in various situations. The excerpt below is one I wrote in my article on why teams should attempt a lot more 4th down plays, but it explains the graph.
In 3rd and 1 situations, offenses obtain a 1st down on 70% of runs, compared to just 58% of passes. In fact, running the ball on 3rd down actually yields the most success (in terms of achieving 1st downs) up until 3rd and 5. Surprisingly, passing the ball never becomes significantly advantageous over running the ball in any situation up through 3rd and 10.
The reason behind this has to do with game theory. If defenses were to remain in their base personnel regardless of the down and distance, running the ball in medium-to-long yardage situations would be generally unsuccessful. Since defenses substitute their nickel or dime personnel and dial up a play designed to defend a pass, however, offensive coordinators could increase their 3rd and 4th down conversion rates by calling far more runs in those situations.
Another way to look at it is that the play-calling of other offensive coordinators around the league affects that of Garrett. The two are not independent of one another. Running the ball on 3rd and short-to-medium is the optimum strategy not because of anything inherent in the game of football, but because of the play-calling of other offensive coordinators. If other OCs suddenly started calling a bunch of 3rd and 4th down runs, defenses would adjust, perhaps making passing the ball in those scenarios the optimum strategy.
The passing success of the Cowboys out of “Ace” and other “running” formations is equivalent to the success teams have when running the ball on 3rd down. There is nothing inherently efficient about running the ball in these situations. Rather, the success comes from your opponent’s expectations.
Similarly, passing out of “running” formations isn’t an inherently superior strategy to passing with four wide receivers on the field. Instead, it works because of the defense.
Think of it like this. . .let’s say passing the ball out of a four-receiver set receives a hypothetical score of 80 points (this total is arbitrary and independent of a defense). Passing the ball out of a double-tight formation, on the other hand, is intrinsically worth just 60 points.
So, why would a team choose the latter scenario–a “sub-optimal” strategy? Because the strategy is only “sub-optimal” in theory. In practice, the defense makes substitutions to be able to effectively defend each formation. To counter the run against the double-tight formation, they knowingly decrease their ability to thwart the pass.
Thus, they may receive a pass defense score of 75 against a four-receiver set, but just 50 against double-tight. In that case, passing the ball out of double-tight yields a 10 point advantage for the offense, compared to just a five point advantage when throwing the ball out of the “passing” formation.
Play selection is dominated by game theory, meaning the actions of other offensive coordinators around the league really should affect those of Cowboys OC Jason Garrett. It is for this reason that I would love to see the Cowboys do the “unexpected”–pass more out of tight formations (and run more out of spread ones) in 2010. The theoretical value may be sub-optimal, but the actual value would be maximized.