Should the Cowboys throw it deep more often? Analyzing how NFL trends affect team philosophy
I’m a big believer in being super-aggressive in football games, and part of that is throwing the football down the field. It’s very difficult to continuously drive the ball down the football field and then score a touchdown (as the Cowboys’ offense has exhibited over the last few years). Quick scores are incredibly advantageous to offenses.
Over the years, defenses adjusted as to not allow big plays–you see it in Tampa 2 schemes and even Coach Phillips’ defense. Make teams beat you again and again underneath.
If you’ve noticed, more and more teams have transitioned to spread offenses (like the Patriots, Saints, etc.) to combat Cover 2 schemes. The high-percentage passes that are a staple of spread offenses work because of the defenses’ philosophy–don’t give up the big play. Spread offenses are an answer to the Cover 2 scheme.
In recent years, however, I think we’ve started to see defenses adapt. Less and less teams are playing Cover 2, instead emphasizing aggressive play and forcing turnovers. The Saints are again the perfect example, as their scheme is one that will yield the occasional big play, but it creates big play opportunities for their defenders as well.
So, how does all of this relate to how often offenses should throw the ball downfield? I raised the previous points to exemplify that game theory dictates that there is no inherently optimal strategy, simply one that is best at any particular time against your opponent’s specific strategy. Thus, there is no “X” percentage of plays at which it is optimal to go deep, or run the ball, or anything else.
Think of it as a giant game of rock, paper, scissors. When the majority of the league is throwing a rock, it’s pretty obvious that you can take advantage of that by throwing paper. But as the league transitions, so must you. When Cover 2 defenses were in vogue (which is still the case with many teams), the spread offense exposed weaknesses. As more and more teams abandon that scheme, though, offenses must change. The first team to recognize trends and adapt will win. The NFL is really like a huge stock market.
This is one of the reasons I prefer a young, cutting-edge head coach for the Dallas Cowboys. To win, the Cowboys need to spot and analyze trends, adapt their own personnel and schemes to succeed against those trends, and perfect the execution of their new scheme–and they have to be one of the first teams to do it. Otherwise, there will be too many teams doing the same thing they do (which seems to be the case now), and it will be easy for the opposition to adjust.
The Cowboys’ 3-4 defense, for example, was initially successful because they were one of only a few teams in the NFL using it. In that way, Bill Parcells was very cutting-edge. He recognized a weakness in NFL offenses and exploited it. As more than half the league has transitioned into a 3-4 defense, however, its effectiveness has worn off. Offenses see 3-4 schemes all the time. So, perhaps it is time for a shift in defensive philosophy? A 4-3? A 3-3-5? An entirely innovative concept? The possibilities are endless.
And yes, I realize I still haven’t answered the question about throwing the ball downfield, so here you go. . .YES. Yes, I think the Cowboys should throw the ball down the field more often. Right now, defenses (as a whole) are sort of in a state of limbo. Some run Cover 2, some run aggressive man-coverage schemes, and so on. I think the general trend, though, is shifting from the former to the latter, meaning there are increasingly more opportunities for big plays.
I checked out the deep ball percentage (15+ yards) of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks on Advanced NFL Stats. Of the passers with a deep ball percentage higher than 23 percent, the average yards-per-attempt is 5.17. Quarterbacks in this range include Vince Young (leading the league in deep throws), Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, and Philip Rivers.
Of quarterbacks in the 20-23 percent range, the average YPA is slightly lower–5.00. Top passers in this range are Matt Cassel, Michael Vick, Matt Ryan, and Peyton Manning.
Of quarterbacks with less than one deep throw in every five passes, the YPA plummets to 4.31. Guys in this area are Matt Schaub, Tony Romo, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees.
Of course, there are certainly limitations to this data. First, I simply randomly chose the deep pass percentage parameters to create relatively even groups of passers (in terms of numbers). With a fairly small sample size, the final YPA stats could be altered by a slight change in parameters (although random selection is as “fair” as for what one might hope).
Secondly, YPA isn’t the only stat that matters in deciphering a quarterback’s value. Notice that a couple of the quarterbacks in the bottom tier–Tom Brady and Drew Brees–are two of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Their YPA may be slightly lower than other quarterbacks, but they also have fewer negative plays. Their completion rates are so high because of their accuracy and the nature of their offenses, meaning you might take a small hit in YPA in exchange for less incomplete passes (which create 2nd and 3rd downs which are difficult to manage).
Still, I do see an alteration in general offensive philosophy on the horizon. As defenses become more aggressive, look for offenses to do the same, throwing the football downfield at a higher rate. The future success of the Cowboys relies on their ability to recognize trends like these, determine the proper manner in which to proceed, and be the first to do it. The NFL is in the midst of a paradigm shift, and only the most innovative, forward-thinking teams will survive.
Please Jerry, bring in a coaching staff that has the knowledge and intelligence to recognize and analyze relevant trends, the creativity to discover innovative ways in which to proceed, and the (pardon my language) “balls” to trust their own judgment and enforce change.