The largest flaw in Jason Garrett’s play-calling, in my opinion, is his tendency to call a specific play (run or pass) based on the personnel on the field. For example, take a look at the Cowboys’ 2009 pass rates with specific personnel.
Note that, no matter the personnel grouping, the Cowboys passed or ran the ball nearly three-fourths of the time out of all two-tight end, three-receiver, and four-receiver sets. We’d of course expect certain personnel groupings and formations to be either run or pass-oriented, but Garrett could probably find more success by calling the “unexpected” a bit more often. That idea is something I talked about a few months ago in my article on why the Cowboys should throw out of more double-tight end sets:
A few weeks back, I 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.
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.
So, what are the numbers telling us thus far in 2010? While they are far from optimal, it seems clear Garrett is altering his play-calling to becomes less predictable. Check out the chart below.
You can see that, outside of four-receiver sets, the Cowboys are at least slightly more balanced in each grouping. Note that Dallas has implemented four receivers just nine times all season, so you can expect that percentage to change as well.
I’d still love to see the Cowboys run the ball more in three-receiver sets and pass more out of 2 TE, WR, 2 RB (one of those “2 RB” is usually a fullback, by the way). Garrett is doing a fine job throwing out of two-tight end sets (55.3% of all plays with two tight ends on the field are passes), but the Cowboys are doing the throwing out of a specific type of two-tight end sets, i.e. with two receivers on the field.
With the receiving ability of fullback Chris Gronkowski, you can expect the Cowboys to throw the ball more with a fullback on the field in the coming weeks. If Garrett finds a way to efficiently run the ball without a fullback on the field as well, the Cowboys will take huge strides in becoming a much more unpredictable, and potent, offensive football team.