The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

Why Cowboys Should Throw Out of ‘Ace’ (And Other Double-Tight Formations)

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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)

11.46 yards/attempt

2.00 yards/rush

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.

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15 Responses to Why Cowboys Should Throw Out of ‘Ace’ (And Other Double-Tight Formations)

  1. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    Jonathan, you’re a big brained dude. Because of that, I ask you this…

    Is there any (statistical) way for you to incorporate the abilities (or lack thereorf) of the personnel engaged in the game and include that in your anaylsis? For instance, lets say a particular play or formation produces 5 yards on the average given a personnel scheme of the starting offiense. What would be the production of that play/formation if Felix Jones were inserted at RB or better yet, Dez Byrant at WR.

    Basically, this is what video games do in that they attribute a value to each person. The success of that person and of the play is based on that value.

    I ask this because I’m wondering the VALUE of Roy Williams as well as what to expect for next year w/ regard to each formation. We’ve all speculated that he’s not very good but I’d be curious to know if a rookie WR might fair better – on average – with the brunt of plays the Boys run.

    I would think to do this, you might need to “normalize” each play w/ a value given Roy’s value and insert and arbitrary value for Dez and see what your high powered computer comes up with.

    Essentially, I’m asking if you’re capable of doing any predictive forcasting (based on a scientific forcast model)? I was an Ops Research major in college have forgotten most of it given my job is in another field; as such, I know that it can be done.

  2. Hey Tyrone,

    It can certainly be done, although we must remember the “objective” result would be the result of subjective values. That is, even with all of the stats and such I have gathered, each player is in the game in different situations and with a different task. While I try my best to compare players, it is tough.

    Having said that, something like it is definitely possible. Advanced NFL Stats calculated a player’s WPA (win probability added) and EPA (expected points added) http://wp.advancednflstats.com/teamyear.php?year=2009&team=DAL
    They do an excellent job at it.

    I could always combine their numbers with my own and formulate some sort of power ranking system for the players, then perform the tasks above which you mentioned. I will take a look at it. Thanks for the idea. More are always welcome.

  3. john coleman says:

    Success passing out of running formation is no surprise as you have well documented. It was surprising that we already do it 82% of the time. Furthermore the game theory concept may be the reason for us crying wolf over Garrett’s play calling. You probably stated the game theory before but I missed it. He as well as all others are somewhat locked in to what they do. So as stated by Romo on more than one occasion, it comes down to execution. I’ve heard Garrett say the same thing. I’m not giving a free pass to be predictable, but the defenses dictate are large portion of what should work. BTW shouldn’t Roy’s lack of production factor in his favor this year. On the outside he would be the 3rd option, behind Austin and Witten. If Bryant or Ogletree or both step up, he could be lower than that. Bottomline is that both he and Crayton could benefit from other options.

  4. Well, 82% of the time out of Ace. There are plenty of other formations (particularly with two tight ends lined up on the same side) where the Cowboys run the ball an exorbitant number of times. I would (hopefully) look for more passes out of these formations as well in 2010.

  5. Kevin Keithley says:

    its easy to see why running out of this formation is not very successful. it allows the defense to easily bring 8 men into the box. also the defense more than likely would not play a nickel or dime package against a traditional running formation. ACE puts LB’s or at best a strong safety against a TE, a clear mismatch. Also 1 WR is going to be in single coverage, advantage offense. Now, Johnathan, is it possible to break down the ACE passing plays to see the pass distribution by player? is it evenly spread between WR and TE? my guess is that a higher percentage will be to the TE, basd on this being a short pass due to so many defenders so close to the line of scrimmage.

  6. Hey Kevin,

    I checked for you….one was to Phillips for 23 yds, five were to Crayton for 70 yds, nine were to Austin for 127 yds, three were to Ogletree for 32 yds, one was to Bennett for 6 yds, four were to Williams for 13 yds, and one was to Jones for 4 yds.

    Only two of the passes were to tight ends, and NONE were to Witten. Shocking. Witten was only out in a route on 10 of the 24 passes out of Ace.

  7. Kevin Keithley says:

    Johnathan, thanks for breaking it down. So much for my analytical skills. surprized by the results.

  8. No problem…I was surprised by the results too. I would have guessed the same as you.

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