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Analyzing Cowboys’ 3rd Down Run Trends Thus Far in 2010

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Jonathan Bales

A few months back, I published an article on the Cowboys’ 3rd down run plays from last season.  I did this to determine not only how successful the Cowboys were on these plays as compared to league averages, but also to learn if 3rd down runs held any strategic advantage over passes.

Here is a passage from that post:

In a recent post on why the Cowboys should pass out of “running” formations (and also in one on why teams should attempt a lot more 4th down plays), I spoke briefly about run/pass efficiency on 3rd down.  In short, NFL offenses fair much better when running the ball on 3rd and short (particularly 3rd and 1-3, but up until 3rd and 5).  Incredibly, running the ball is just as effective as passing up through 3rd and 10.  You can click the link above to read more about why this is so and view a graph displaying the conversion rates.

Nonetheless, I wanted to compare the Cowboys’ 2009 results with the league-wide numbers.  How effective was the offense when they ran the ball in “obvious” passing situations?  Note that these results (above) may be (very slightly) off from the numbers of Stats, Inc. or other unofficial stats companies because I did not use the televised ‘down and distance.’  For example, the televised version of a game may have mislabeled a play as ’3rd and 1′ when it was really closer to ’3rd and 2,’ and I have corrected for these mistakes to the best of my ability.

Notice the Cowboys’ yards-per-carry steadily rose (other than on 3rd and 6) as the yards-to-go increased.  This is obviously due to personnel and the game situation.  A defense which has substituted dime personnel on a 3rd and 10 is much more likely to yield a significant gain on the ground.  Of course, the yards-per-carry means nothing if the Cowboys are not achieving first downs.

2009 Third Down Conversion Rate

The chart to the right displays the conversion rate of all Cowboys’ 3rd down plays (of 10 or less yards-to-go) in 2009.  As you can see, the Cowboys were more efficient on 3rd and 1 or 2 when running the ball.  They converted 17/21 (81.0%) plays in these situations, compared to only 7/11 (63.6%) when passing.

As the distance-to-go increased, however, the conversion rate on runs dropped.  The Cowboys converted zero 3rd downs when running the ball with 8+ yards to go (although they attempted just four).

Interestingly, the conversion rate of 3rd down passes remained relatively stable, regardless of the distance-to-go.  You can see a very slight drop in the Cowboys’ 3rd down passing efficiency, but for the most part, the conversion rate was flat.  This is probably due more so to the team’s success in 3rd and long situations rather than an inability to convert on 3rd and short (when passing).

I give offensive coordinator Jason Garrett a lot of flack, but his 3rd down play-calling is generally outstanding.  I’d still love to see him run more on 3rd and medium (the ‘Boys ran just seven times on 3rd and 3-6 all season, compared to 42 passes).  Of course one would expect more passes in this range, but a slight increase in “surprise” runs would be in-tune with league-wide 3rd down conversion rates and could perhaps significantly aid the offense.

2010 3rd Down Runs

You can see above that the Cowboys’ 3rd down play-calling in 2009 fell in line with league averages: running was more successful than passing up until 3rd and 6.  I praised Garrett for his 3rd down play-calling last season, but I still hoped to see more 3rd downs runs this year.

So far, we are seeing those runs.  The chart to the left displays my findings.  Note that the sample size of plays is still small, so my mid-season and final analyses will be more statistically significant.  Still, it is interesting to see what sort of trends we can determine early in the season, if any.

Through three weeks, Garrett has run the ball a lot more on 3rd and 1-5.  In “true” short-yardage situations (one or two yards-to-go), the Cowboys have run on eight of nine plays this season.  That 88.9 percent rate is higher than last year’s 70.0 percent run rate in the same situations.  Further, the Cowboys are converting on a higher percentage of those runs.

On 3rd and 3-5, the Cowboys have run the ball twice this year.  That may not seem like much, but note that the Cowboys ran the ball just five times in that range in all of 2009.

Of course, we can’t be sure whether these numbers mean anything or not yet, but in combination with some of Garrett’s other early-season trends (which I will continue to detail throughout the bye week), it does appear as though the Cowboys’ much-scrutinized offensive coordinator is certainly using advanced statistics and game theory in a much more authoritative manner this season. . .and that is definitely a great thing.



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