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By Jonathan Bales

Your Ultimate Playaction Pass Guide: Dallas Cowboys Style

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By Jonathan Bales

**Note:  This is a combination of two previous studies I have conducted on the Cowboys’ 2009 playaction passes.

As a team whose offensive core is a power running attack, the Cowboys should and do incorporate the playaction pass into their offensive repertoire. Teams generally have success running when the defense anticipates pass, and vice versa, and the playaction pass is one of the most successful tools a team can utilize in exploiting a defense which incorrectly guesses the play-call.

One might think, then, that the Cowboys would try to take advantage of an over-aggressive defense by running effectively and then taking shots deep using playaction passes.  As I studied the 2009 game film, however, this did not seem to be the case.

The Cowboys had no more success on playaction passes than on straight dropbacks. As the graph to the left shows, Romo averaged 8.3 yards-per-pass on playaction passes throughout the season, compared to 8.1 yards-per-attempt on all other pass plays.

This difference is not statistically significant, particularly when we take into account two factors.   First, the Cowboys gave up eight sacks on the 91 playaction passes, or 8.7 percent of all playaction pass plays, compared to 26 sacks yielded on the other 467 pass attempts (5.6 percent).   Thus, the .2 yard difference in average between playaction and non-playaction passes is negated by the increased sack rate.

The reason for the increased sack rate seems apparent enough.  With his back turned to the defense, Tony Romo is less likely to be able to elude defenders who may sneak through the protection.  Further, offensive linemen frequently fire off the ball during playaction passes as to resemble their blocking on run plays, and this difference in pass protection technique could be a factor in the increased sack percentage.

The second reason one might assume the yards-per-pass difference is not significant is because the playaction average should be higher (and by more so than just .2 yards) since the Cowboys are more likely to use these plays in situations where a big play can be had.  Playaction passes are utilized to draw linebackers and safeties up toward the line of scrimmage, opening holes behind them in which to throw.

But did the Cowboys really utilize playaction to take shots down the field?   Not at all.  In fact, 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.

It is quite apparent that Dallas did not take enough shots downfield on playaction passes, doing so at less than half the rate of regular dropbacks.  This surely had an impact on the sub-par yards-per-play playaction average.

The most shocking statistic of all, however, is the dramatic increase of screen passes used during plays when the Cowboys showed playaction.  According to my film study (stats shown below), 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).

Dallas threw an inordinate amount of screens and passes to the right when showing playaction.

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 play-caller.

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).

While Jason Garrett is certainly not always completely responsible for where the ball gets thrown, Romo’s reads are premeditated.   This stat shows that Romo’s first read, as called by Garrett, is generally to the right side of the field on playaction passes.  The massive differential between throws to the left and throws to the right is large enough for it to be statistically significant.

Ultimately, whether or not Garrett’s playcalling is indeed predictable, the fact that Dallas did not utilize the playaction pass to garner big plays appears indisputable.

Other Thoughts and Wacky Stats

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

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

The number of plays on the season in that range: 132.  Thus, Dallas ran playaction on just 3.03 percent 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 (59.3 percent of all playaction passes came on this ‘distance-to-go’), making it the most frequent ‘distance-to-go’ for all playaction passes (relative to the number of overall plays from that distance).

The Cowboys ran so few playaction passes in short yardage situations that they actually ran one more playaction 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 playaction 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 playaction pass (the 15.6 percent playaction 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 playaction when there is a legitimate threat of run (as opposed to 20+ yards-to-go).

Not only did the offense run only four playaction 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 playaction passes came with less than 10 yards-to-go.

As I pointed out in a previous study on playaction 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 playaction passes are likely a major factor in their mediocre numbers.

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

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