Cowboys Draw Plays: Running Them in Tight vs. Spread
By Jonathan Bales
I’m currently stuck at home sick, meaning I have extra time to sort through my Cowboys 2009 stat database. What, isn’t that what you do when you are sick too?
This morning, I decided to take a closer look at the Cowboys’ 2009 draw plays. Awhile ago, I completed a broad analysis of the Cowboys’ draws, noting that offensive coordinator Jason Garrett might be dialing up the play a bit too often. The chart to the left displays the numbers I found.
You can see the Cowboys averaged a full yard less per carry on draw plays as compared to all other runs. That disparity only changed slightly when discounting draw plays out of “Double Tight Right Strong Right,” a formation of which I have spoken ad nauseam in the past. Click the link above if you are unfamiliar with Dallas’ play-calling out of the formation.
The point of running draw plays is to fool the defense into thinking you are going to pass the ball. The play itself is slow-hitting and even perhaps inherently sub-optimal, but it works because the linebackers and secondary see pass and begin to drop into their coverages.
This same idea–running plays based on the defense’s expectations–was the basis of my articles on why the Cowboys should run more out of passing situations and formations (and on the other side of the coin, pass more out of running situations and formations). Calling a running play on 3rd and 5 might not be intrinsically optimal, for example, but it is statistically equal to passing in terms of efficiency due to the defense’s strategy.
After combining the two notions, I decided to sort the Cowboys’ 2009 draws based on formation. If my theory is correct, we would expect Dallas to have more success running draws out of passing formations as opposed to running ones.
But what is a “passing formation”? I defined it as any formation which implements 3+ wide receivers (3 Wide I, Gun Trips, etc). All of the “running formations,” on the other hand, utilized a fullback (Double Tight I, Full House, etc.). The chart to the right displays the results.
You can see the Cowboys were much more successful running the ball out of spread (passing) formations in 2009. The ‘Boys averaged nearly 1.5 times the yards-per-carry when running draws from formations which are generally considered “passing” ones.
A quick side note: I also thought the Cowboys would be more successful running draws to the left side of the formation, as they are less common and more difficult for a defense to decipher. Overall, Dallas averaged 4.96 yards-per-carry when running draws to the left, compared to just 4.31 yards-per-carry to the right. The sample size of plays isn’t tremendous, but there may (or may not) be a relationship there.
As far as running draws out of spread vs. tight formations, there are a variety of reasons the Cowboys may have accrued superior statistics out of spread formations (outside of those formations actually being “better” from which to run draws).
The most logical explanation is that offenses generally line up in spread formations during situations which are more suitable for running the football. The defense is more likely to allow a seven yard gain on a 3rd and 9 draw play as opposed to the same play on 3rd and 5, for example.
I computed the average down and distance for all draw plays from both spread and tight formations. The average down on spread draws was 1.65 with an average of 9.27 yards-to-go. For tight formation draw plays, the average down was 1.37 with an average of 7.82 yards-to-go. Additionally, the Cowboys ran 13 draws with a distance-to-go of 11+ yards, all of which came out of spread formations.
Thus, it is obvious the Cowboys ran draws from spread formations in different situations from when they ran them out of tight formations, but it is difficult to say how influential this disparity was on our results. It is my opinion, however, that the differential is not enough to account for the vast disparity in yards-per-carry for each formation type.
The primary reason for my opinion is that when we remove the draws which came during plays with 11+ yards to go (13 runs for 95 yards), the draw statistics out of spread formations (50 runs for 246 yards–4.92 yards-per-carry) are still far superior to those out of tight formations. Even after accounting for “outliers,” the Cowboys averaged 1.24 yards more per carry on spread draws than tight draws.
Ultimately, the Cowboys may want to attempt more running plays out of spread formations and during “passing” situations in 2010, particularly runs of the draw variety.