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A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys 2010 Pass Rates from Specific Personnel Groupings

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Jonathan Bales

Game theory dictates that offensive coordinators should increase (or decrease) the frequency of any particular event (runs, passes, draws, counters, playaction, etc.) until its efficiency and overall production are maximized.  For example, in my analysis of the Cowboys’ 2010 weak side runs, I noted that the Cowboys have been significantly more successful on weak side runs than strong side runs or runs from balanced formations.

Jason Garrett adjusted accordingly in 2010, running to the weak side on 22.8 percent of all runs–up from 19.5 percent the prior season.  Still, the ‘Boys could benefit from an even higher rate of weak side runs, as the 4.72 yards-per-rush number when running to the weak side was significantly greater than that of strong side or balanced runs.  But how does Garrett uncover the “perfect” weak side run ratio?  I addressed that problem in the past:

Game theory suggests Garrett should slowly increase the number of weak side runs until the average yards-per-carry is maximized.

But how will we know when that number is reached?  The answer would be simple if we assumed those people drawing up plays to try to stop the Cowboys offense–the opposing defensive coordinators–were perfectly rational.   In that scenario, the defense would call an increasing number of weak side blitzes until they minimized the overall yards-per-carry.   They would in effect create their own Nash equilibrium.

Of course, defensive coordinators do not always call plays in a rational manner. Their knowledge is not unlimited, and so sometimes they may call too many weak side blitzes or not enough.  Perhaps sometimes the number of weak side blitzes they dial up has no correlation at all with the offenses’s weak side running rates or successes.

Garrett’s job, then, must be to take into account the thoughts and tendencies of defensive coordinators (perhaps easier said than done), and then adjust his play-calling accordingly.   If Team X calls an inordinate amount of weak side blitzes, for example, then the Cowboys own Nash equilibrium will be shifted to include more strong side runs (and vice versa).

Thus, play-calling (or effective play-calling anyway) is not simply about knowing your own players.   It is about successfully predicting the calls of defensive coordinators by knowing their tendencies.   This may sound extremely difficult (and it is from the standpoint of one individual play), but aberrations tend to flatten out over the course of a game in such a way that, despite not knowing individual play calls, a team can assume a “regression to the mean” of sorts where a team’s overall tendencies will always eventually shine through.

For Garrett, this means being one step ahead of the game.  Instead of simply knowing what you want to do, you have to know what your opponent thinks you are going to do, then adjust accordingly.  When playing against a really stealthy coach, you may have to know what he thinks that you think that he thinks about what play you are going to call.

If you are an offensive coordinator and have called three straight weak side runs in a row, for example, your natural inclination may be to deviate from this tendency.  You might do this in an effort to “mix it up.”   But game theory suggests you should take into account the opposition’s thoughts before making a decision.

Perhaps you know that he is thinking that you are thinking that he will call a weak side blitz to combat your recent success. Knowing this, you would assume he may call a strong side blitz (or none at all), and you would be correct.   Thus, despite three straight weak side runs, the best play call is yet another weak side run.

Being “unpredictable” isn’t about changing play calls just for the sake of changing the play, but about adjusting your tendencies according to your opposition’s tendencies to create an environment where potential success will be maximized.

This same sort of method can be used as the rational behind a plethora of play-calling alterations.  One such change we could potentially see from Garrett is the run/pass ratio from specific personnel groupings.  In the chart below, you can see Garrett’s 2010 pass rates based on personnel, along with the relation to his 2009 rates.

In much the same way that weak side runs can be optimal for an offense, so too can passing the ball out of “untraditional” personnel groupings (or, on the other hand, running the ball from pass-heavy personnel packages).  There’s a reason the ‘Boys have found a ton of success when passing out of “running” formations (and with “running” personnel).

The passing success of the Cowboys out “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.

When analyzing Garrett’s personnel-based play-calls, we see that he is generally improving.  When the Cowboys implement two tight ends, two wide receivers and a running back, they are generally a balanced team, passing the ball 58.6 percent of the time.  This is down from a 71.9 percent pass rate in 2009.

Garrett is also calling more passes from run-oriented personnel packages (such as two tight ends, one receiver and two running backs), and less passes from pass-oriented personnel groupings.  The only exception is the one tight end/four receiver package, which the Cowboys implemented only 25 times all season.

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).  If Garrett finds a way to efficiently run the ball without a fullback on the field and continue to throw the ball well out of two-tight end looks, the Cowboys will take huge strides in becoming a much more unpredictable, and potent, offensive football team.

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4 Responses to Cowboys 2010 Pass Rates from Specific Personnel Groupings

  1. Eddie Hushfield says:

    This is the kind of analyzation a person can sink their teeth into. Gotta love it. This looks like a coach with a lot of smarts did up these stats. I need this kind of stuff. Going to be taking stats for the High School defense next year.

  2. Eddie–Thanks, and welcome to DCT. You’ll get all of the stats you need here, I’m sure.

  3. percyhoward says:

    Here’s what I wish we’d do more of. After a shaky start, Romo has been outstanding from 4WR sets, with no difference in his sack rate. (318 career attempts)

    Romo’s Ratings w/4+ WR
    2010: 125.5
    2009: 107.3
    2008: 102.5
    2007: 104.7
    2006: 72.2

  4. Percy–Nice stats. Where did you get them? According to my 2010 numbers, Romo was 11 for 18 for 123 and 3 TD in 4WR sets…passer rating of 121.1…not far off from yours, but different.

    But I agree there need to be more 4WR sets….We know Romo excels at throwing “hot” against the blitz….and spreading the field with receivers, even if the defense doesn’t blitz, sort of mimics the blitz. Rushers will get in easier (which ironically seems like a “good” thing for Romo), but he has plenty of options of where to go with the ball.

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