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Are Cowboys' Play-action Passes Too Predictable? | The DC Times

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Are Cowboys’ Play-action Passes Too Predictable?

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By Jonathan Bales

A few weeks ago, I published five wacky stats from our 2009 Cowboys Play Database.  The first stat in that post dealt with play-action passes:

  • The Cowboys ran only four (FOUR!) play-action passes all season with 1-4 yards-to-go.

The number of plays on the season in that range: 132. Thus, Dallas ran play-action on just 3.03% of plays in situations with just 1-4 yards to go for a first down (situations with a legitimate threat of a run). I wouldn’t call myself an offensive mastermind, but that just doesn’t seem efficient.

With 10 yards remaining, however, the Cowboys dialed up 54 play-action passes (40.90% of all play-action passes came on this ‘distance-to-go’), making it the most frequent ‘distance-to-go’ for all play-action passes (relative to the number of overall plays from that distance).

The peculiarity of these numbers pushed me to research the Cowboys’ 2009 play-action passes a bit more in-depth.  Before I continue, I must note that I made a mistake in that last post (above).  The Cowboys did run 54 play-action passes with exactly 10 yards-to-go, but that number represents 59.3 percent of the total play-action passes, not 40.9 percent.

Nonetheless, the Cowboys ran so few play-action passes in short yardage situations that they actually ran one more play-action pass (five total) with 20+ yards-to-go than with 1, 2, 3 or 4 yards-to-go.  Like I mentioned above, the offense ran a play-action pass on just four of 132 plays (3.03 percent) with 1-4 yards-to-go.  The Cowboys were in situations with 20+ yards-to-go 100 less times–32 total–yet still ran one more play-action pass (the 15.6 percent play-action pass rate in this range is five times that in the 1-4 yard range).

I could be wrong, but defenses seem a bit more likely to jump up on play-action when there is a legitimate threat of run (as opposed to 20+ yards-to-go).

Not only did the offense run only four play-action passes with 1-4 yards to go, but they also ran just 18 play-action passes with less than 10 yards left for a 1st down.  Thus, just 19.8 percent of play-action passes came with less than 10 yards-to-go.

As I pointed out in a previous study on play-action passes (which I highly recommend), the Cowboys were not particularly successful (or terrible) with their play-action passes last season.  They averaged just 0.2 more yards-per-attempt on them as compared to regular passes, but they also yielded more sacks. The situations in which the Cowboys ran play-action passes are likely a major factor in their mediocre numbers.

Of course, two other statistics regarding play-action passes contributed to the offense’s lukewarm success when implementing them, both of which I addressed before.  The first has to do with a lack of downfield pass attempts:

Of the 83 playaction passes, only four, FOUR, were attempts of 20 yards or more. That is 4.8 percent of all pass plays. In comparison, the Cowboys threw the ball downfield 20 yards or more on 46 of the other 467 attempts, or 9.9 percent of all passes.

**Note that the 83 play-action passes mentioned above and in the previous article are non-sack plays.  There were eight sacks on play-action passing plays, adding up to the 91 total play-action passes.

One of the major reasons the Cowboys only attempted a pass downfield on 4.8 percent of all play-action passes was because of the high rate of screen passes:

The most shocking statistic of all, however, is the dramatic increase of screen passes used during plays when the Cowboys showed playaction. According to our film study, Dallas ran screen passes on 33 of their 467 non-playaction passes (7.1 percent). That screen rate more than tripled on playaction passes to 22.9 percent (19 of 83 passes).

While the increased rate of screen attempts during playaction passes may or may not contribute to the relatively low overall playaction pass average, it surely did nothing to reverse the perception of Jason Garrett as a predictable playcaller.

This ‘predictable’ label is perpetuated by the high percentage of playaction passes which were thrown to the same area of the field. Of the 83 passes, 53, or 63.9 percent, were to the right side of the field (compared to just 37.0 percent on other passes).

Ultimately, we would rate the Cowboys’ 2009 play-action attack as average.  One would expect a higher yards-per-attempt on play-action passes (due to the situations in which they are generally run), but the Cowboys averaged just 0.2 yards more per pass on play-action passes as compared to all other pass attempts.

However, the Cowboys threw the ball downfield (20 yards or more) just four times on play-action passes.  Meanwhile, they attempted screen passes following a play-action look at over three times the normal rate.  These factors surely contributed to the relatively low play-action pass average.

One final note

The Cowboys did have success with play-action passes out of one formation in particular:  “Ace.”  I’ve spoken before about why the ‘Boys should throw more out of “Ace” and other “running” formations.

Of the 29 total plays out of “Ace” formation, 18 (62.1 percent) were play-action passes. This may be a bit high, but Dallas did average 10.3 yards-per-attempt on the plays.  Of course, everything seemed to work out of “Ace”–the Cowboys averaged 14.3 yards-per-attempt on non-playaction passes out of the formation.

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16 Responses to Are Cowboys’ Play-action Passes Too Predictable?

  1. Starred-For-Life says:

    This article is as illuminating as it is depressing. It’s a head scratcher. Why would you try to pull the dam*n thing when it is least likely to fool anyone, much more often than you would when it actually might fool somebody?

    It’s like threatening to turn the car around right now and go home, when you are actually pulling into the parking lot of Disneyland. 1) nobody’s kids are dumb enough to buy it, and 2) how much good behavior did it get you? (1.5 minutes?)

    That ploy only works before you are half-way there. That’s why I often promise to take my kids for ice-cream only to turn around and go home, making good on my threat, so they know never to question my will on a cross country trip.

    Jason Garret, please read this article.

  2. I sure hope this changed in 2010 as well. Less than 20 percent of play-action passes with less than 10 yards-to-go is absurd.

  3. Omar says:

    nice reading, i remember years before there was too much PA which, some leaded to Romo interceptions, so i think that’s why Garrett ran less PA plays last season, but i think he’s failing in the mixing job as well deciding when to run the plays

  4. Thanks Omar. Yeah, if you read all of our film study articles, the majority of our qualms about Garrett deal with randomizing. As crazy as this sounds, he could benefit from an actual play randomizer which decided whether the ‘Boys should run or pass (based on down and distance). Now I know he won’t do that, but all humans are actually incredibly poor at generating random sequences. Instead, he alternates in an attempt to appear random.

  5. percyhoward says:

    Have you compared our numbers in 1-4 yards to go situations with those of the league to find out to what degree this predictability hurt us–if at all?


  6. I have been looking for those numbers, so far unsuccessfully. It would be impossible for me to tally them all myself, obviously.

    Don’t forget though that while football itself is a zero-sum game (success of offense=failure of defense), offense v. offense isn’t zero-sum. We have obviously seen offenses become more and more efficient as time passes.

    Thus, the failures of other OCs don’t justify those of Garrett (not saying this is a failure, per se). Even if EVERY team was as poor at randomizing plays as Garrett, it wouldn’t mean defenses couldn’t adjust to the Cowboys and play better against them. Now, if EVERY team does it then maybe the overall negative impact on the ‘Boys is lessened, but it also means they would be missing a huge opportunity to be ahead of the pack (other offenses).

    Do you know what I’m saying? Perhaps I worded it poorly…

  7. BTW, excellent comment in CowboysZone. Couldn’t agree more, and I am trying to find those numbers…

  8. percyhoward says:

    I see what you’re saying about there always being room for improvement, but especially considering our high offensive ranking last year, you’re really onto something if you can find why we’re actually below average in a certain area. When you can say that 17 other QB’s had a higher YPA than Romo (as they did with 1-5 yards to go) it answers the “well it obviously didn’t hurt us any” response.

  9. I get your point…if you find any stats that are close, let me know.

  10. percyhoward says:

    the stats inc splits that everybody uses are limited to 0-2 yards to go, 3-7 yards to go, or less than 6 yards to go (the one I used to find 32 QB’s ypa). How much play-action did we run with exactly 5 yards to go? That alone will tell us something.

  11. The Cowboys had 33 plays with exactly 5 yards-to-go, four of which were play-action passes. All four were incomplete.

  12. percyhoward says:

    So there were 155 plays with 1-5 to go, including 55 runs and 100 drop backs with 3 sacks. (With 1-5 yards to go, Romo was sacked at only half his normal rate. Did any of the 3 sacks occur when we used play-action?) We did not use play-action on 92 of the 100 drop backs, and Romo’s YPA goes from 6th in the league down to 18th. Cause and effect?

    We threw the lowest percentage of 31+ yard passes of any team. Were we trying to go down field any less with 1-5 yards to go?

    Just to add, only one of Romo’s interceptions came off of play action. That was the last pick he threw in the first Giants game.

  13. triplets says:

    with the way we run the ball we should have more play-action passes. the word was that our offense was predictable. that needs to get better

  14. Definitely. I’m more concerned with the efficiency and timing of play-action passes as well.

  15. Pingback: Your Ultimate Playaction Pass Guide: Dallas Cowboys Style - NFL Super Bowl Live Online

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