Cowboys 2010 Playaction Pass Analysis: Spread vs Tight Formations
Last year, I suggested that the Cowboys throw more from run-oriented formations (and subsequently run more from pass-oriented ones). Here is a bit from that post detailing why doing so would be optimal for the offense:
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.
When I analyzed the Cowboys’ 2010 playaction passes today, I expected to find numbers that were consistent with the ideas above, i.e. superior statistics when passing from tight formations as opposed to spread formations. The combination of a run-oriented look and then a run fake, I thought, would be a double-whammy on defenders and allow for much success with playaction passes.
In reality, though, the Cowboys actually had a lot more success on playaction passes from Shotgun and other spread formations. Take a look at the chart below.
You can see that the Cowboys were far more successful by a large margin on spread playaction passes than tight ones in 2010. Because the sample size of 27 spread playaction passes was a bit limited, I decided to take a look at the numbers from last season. As has been the case with a number of Cowboys’ stats in 2010, they’re remarkably similar to the corresponding 2009 numbers. The total 53 play sample of spread passes isn’t optimal, but it’s enough to label the dramatic difference of 3.44 yards-per-pass between all spread playaction passes and all tight ones as statistically significant.
But why is this the case? Why would the ‘Boys be more efficient when running playaction passes from pass-oriented formations? Personally, I’m not really sure. The down-and-distances seem to be comparable for the two sets of plays, so it isn’t as if game situations are playing a huge role here.
The only mentionable difference between the spread playaction passes and the tight playaction passes is the rate at which Jason Witten went out in a route. During spread passes, Witten was in a route just 44.4 percent of the time (compared to 59.8 percent on tight passes). In my 2010 Tight End Grades, I noted that the Cowboys were more successful in general on passes with Witten blocking (see below).
Is this difference enough to account for the discrepancy between playaction pass types? If not, what do you think is the primary reason the Cowboys are so successful on playaction passes from pass-oriented formations?