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Cowboys' 2010 Play-Calling Based on Personnel | The DC Times

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Cowboys’ 2010 Play-Calling Based on Personnel

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Jonathan Bales

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)

11.46 yards/attempt

2.00 yards/rush

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.

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7 Responses to Cowboys’ 2010 Play-Calling Based on Personnel

  1. john coleman says:

    2 TE, 2 RB, 1 WR- Isn’t the increase there directly related to throws to the backs, screens and flares in the flat. If you think about it ,when we were in our heyday the “Moose” was a big part of what we were doing. I think we should let Gronk run it a few times a game as well.

  2. John..I checked the throws for you from this personnel..and I actually found some interesting stuff. Only one of the passes all year was actually a screen, although most were short passes (to either a TE or RB).

    However, 60% of the passes from this personnel have been PA. That’s quite a lot, and I think it’s a good idea considering the high run rate. However, only one of those passes traveled more than 15 yards (16 to Witten). I think a playaction pass with max protection and one receiver running a double-move or deception fade with this personnel on the field could be huge.

  3. Mark Watkins says:

    Do you think that Garrett is more predictable than most OC’s Jonathan? It seems like he doesn’t make good in game adjustments at times, based upon what the defense is doing. I think the Redskins game was an example. I know they were limited since two OL’s were out, but I just feel like they should have scored at least one touchdown, regardless of the fact that they hadn’t seen that defense. It was the Skins first game playing in it too, so it’s not like they were a well oiled machine. I remember when the Boys switched to the 3-4 and it took them awhile to adjust to it.

  4. Mark–I do think Garrett is more predictable than the average OC. Your point about his inability to adjust is a good one. It sometimes seems as though he feels his plays will work as long as the players execute, but each play only has a certain percent chance of working. It is his duty to maximize that percentage, and a huge part of that is in-game adjustments. He is doing A LOT better this season (despite the lack of success the first two weeks), so let’s give him a few more weeks here.

  5. Mark Watkins says:

    Thanks for your reply Jonathan,
    I’ve believed that for the last few years, but it’s good to have it corroborated by you since you do the detailed analysis and have the knowledge that you do. I wonder how good the Cowboys would be if they had someone like Norv Turner as their OC. I still think he’s much better suited to that capacity instead of a head coach.

  6. No problem Mark. I think Garrett has the intelligence to get it done, but intelligence is nothing without adaptability. He’s being more unpredictable this year, but in a “robotic” way (if that makes sense). I do commend him for his obvious use of statistics though. . .he’s certainly changed his calls to prevent some of last season’s blunders.

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