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The Ultimate Dallas Cowboys 2010 Playaction Pass Guide: A Must Read | The DC Times

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The Ultimate Dallas Cowboys 2010 Playaction Pass Guide: A Must Read

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Jonathan Bales

I apologize for failing to post an article yesterday, as I’ve been entrenched in the Cowboys’ 2010 playaction pass numbers.  I love studying Jason Garrett’s use of playaction, particularly because of the statistical “anomalies” that arise from season to season (although the consistency of these numbers actually makes them anything but anomalies).  The idea that such seemingly unique numbers can develop on such a consistent basis is absolutely fascinating to me.

I’ve already posted a couple of analyses on Garrett’s 2010 playaction use, including one after Week 16 which compared this season’s playaction statistics to those from 2009.  I’ve republished those results below with the Cowboys’ Week 17 game in Philly added into the totals. . .

The Oddities

  • Of the 109 playaction passes, 14 were thrown 20+ yards downfield (12.8 percent).

2009 Comparison: 4.8 percent

Analysis: Garrett certainly made an effort to get the ball downfield following playaction looks, but this was one of the only areas in which he improved.

  • Dallas ran screen passes on 53 of their 528 non-playaction passes (10.0 percent).  That screen rate nearly doubled on playaction passes to 19.3 percent.

2009 Comparison: 22.9 percent screen rate following playaction; 7.1 percent otherwise

Analysis: We see a bit of an improvement here, but that’s probably due to the higher overall screen rate.  The Cowboys did average a solid 7.76 yards-per-pass on playaction screens, due in large part to Felix Jones’ average of 15.0 yards-per-catch on those sort of plays.

  • Of the 100 playaction passes attempted, just 43 were to the right side of the field. **NOTE: There were only 100 playaction passes attempted due to six sacks and three scrambles, i.e. 109 total playaction passes called.

2009 Comparison: I say “just” 43 because 63.9 percent of 2009 playaction passes went to the right side.

Analysis: 2009 seems like an aberration.

  • The Cowboys still ran just FOUR playaction passes with 1-4 yards-to-go.  That is only 2.96 percent of the 135 overall plays in that range.

2009 Comparison: 4/132 (3.03 percent)

Analysis: Incredible.  These are the kind of numbers that get me excited (I’m a strange individual).  Seriously though, the EXACT same number of playaction passes with 1-4 yards-to-go on nearly the exact same number of opportunities.

The idea that Garrett doesn’t utilize playaction in “obvious” running situations is mind-boggling to me.  These numbers must change in 2011.

  • 62 of the 109 total playaction passes were with exactly 10 yards-to-go.  That’s a rate of 56.9 percent.

2009 Comparison: 59.3 percent

Analysis: Wow.  The similarity of those percentages alone is nothing short of amazing, but the fact that Garrett utilizes playaction so much in such a specific situation is just as incredible.  I’m not necessarily against this tactic, as the majority of these passes came during 1st and 10 situations when most defenses, mistakenly, are playing to stop the run.  Still, the rate should be a bit lower if for no other reason than an increase in short-yardage playaction looks.

  • The Cowboys again ran more playaction passes with 20+ yards-to-go (six) than with 1-4 yards-to-go (four).

2009 Comparison: Five playaction passes with 20+ yards-to-go; four with 1-4 yards-to-go

Analysis: For the life of me, I cannot figure out why Garrett calls playaction passes in such obvious passing situations.  It isn’t as if the Cowboys have been successful on them, averaging just 4.5 yards-per-pass.  Again, the consistency here is astounding to me.

  • Only 24 of the 109 total playaction passes came with less than 10 yards-to-go.  That’s just 22.0 percent.

2009 Comparison: 19.8 percent

Analysis: I feel like I’m stating the obvious in claiming that someone who has watched football for only a week would realize that, perhaps, more than one-fifth of a team’s playaction passes should come with less than 10 yards-to-go.

Spread vs. Tight

The other playaction study I published this offseason broke down the Cowboys’ playaction passes from spread and tight formations.  I noticed that, contrary to my prediction, the ‘Boys were far more successful on playaction looks from spread formations, averaging over four more yards-per-attempt in 2010.

I’m still not entirely sure why we see these numbers.  It’s possible that a small sample size is at work, although the large discrepancy in passing efficiency seems to make the 53 play sample size a bit more valuable.

My best guess is that the situations in which Garrett calls playaction passes (i.e. very few “obvious” running situations) is the largest contributor here.  If the Cowboys ran more short-yardage playaction passes, I presume the efficiency of playaction looks from tight formations would increase due to defensive expectations.  Short-yardage + tight formation = expectation of run.

Overall Playaction Efficiency

You can see below that the Cowboys simply aren’t getting the job done on playaction passes.  The 6.29 yards-per-play is atrocious, particularly when you consider the situations in which playaction passes are generally run: ones with high upside.  With Garrett calling so many playaction passes with 10 yards-to-go (56.9 percent), we know the Cowboys are generally in “normal” down-and-distances–not short-yardage, and not too many 2nd or 3rd and longs.

The sack rate on playaction passes is down from 8.7 percent last year, but the sack rate in general decreased in 2010.  You can also see quite a nice completion rate on playaction passes, but looks can be deceiving. . .

Screen Passes Following Playaction

As I mentioned above, Garrett loves to dial up screen passes following playaction looks, doing so 19.3 percent of the time in 2010.  That’s about double the screen rate on non-playaction passes (and certainly a major reason for the high completion rate).

One of the reasons Garrett utilizes a playaction look before many of his screens is because, often times, he isn’t running “traditional” screen passes to the running back.  Instead, Garrett likes to suck the defense in toward the running back by showing playaction, then throw a quick screen or bubble screen to a receiver.  Actually, 71.4 percent of playaction screen passes went to a player other than a running back.  That rate dropped to just 40.0 percent on non-playaction screens.


It was relieving to see Garrett take some shots downfield following playaction looks this season, but I’d still like to see more than 12.8 percent of playaction passes travel 20+ yards.  The Cowboys could probably maximize their playaction effectiveness by stretching the field on closer to 25 percent of playaction passes.  At worst, the increased rate of deep pass attempts would open things up underneath.

It’s also obvious the ‘Boys desperately need more playaction passes in running situations.  A less than three percent playaction rate in short-yardage situations (1-4 yards-to-go) is a joke, as is the 22 percent of playaction passes with less than 10-yards-to-go, and the 56.9 percent rate of playaction looks with exactly 10 yards-to-go.  These numbers have remained uncannily stable from 2009, proving we’re witnessing something inherent to Garrett’s play-calling rather than an aberration.

Those of you who know me know I like the Garrett hire and I think he’ll improve considerably as a head coach.  He’s certainly shown the ability to adapt in other areas of his coaching, but he’s late to the table on this one.  Garrett is young, confident and aggressive, but if he doesn’t show the willingness to aggressively change his playaction calls, it will be difficult to reverse the team’s fortunes in 2011.

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25 Responses to The Ultimate Dallas Cowboys 2010 Playaction Pass Guide: A Must Read

  1. Mark Watkins says:

    Very interesting article Jonathan. It definitely seems like JG needs to mix things up a little more to avoid being predictable. I hope that these statistics are somehow brought to his attention (I wonder exactly what kind of information and breakdowns coaches receive), since it seems pretty obvious that some changes in the use of the play action pass could be beneficial to the offense. Maybe they should hire an experienced coach or analyst to try and predict what they were going to run and see where they could make improvements huh?

  2. JJ says:


    I doubt we’ll ever know why Garrett held back. However, for a team that historically (and I mean through many years of history) was poor at running screens, it seems Garrett hiked up the number of screens (you are the statistician so you may prove me wrong) trying to get Felix in space and were fairly successful. Perhaps, Garrett just became too infatuated with his screen success that he forgot about play action.

  3. Mont Seventeen says:

    Doesn’t use play-action in obvious run situations, what happen to JG calling more runs for Kitna excuse… Lemme guess, the play-calling excuse is exclusively for Romo-lovers only, again??? JG this, JG that… If Romo is fine with the play call when he supposedly reads the defense, what’s the big deal?

    So basiclly what you are saying if you are smart enough to know JG is wrong, what does that say ab the 30 year old QB, with the 67 million? Dumb and Dumber, or Romo just doesn’t give a shit…

    See how many times Romo checks into negative plays, and how many picks he has thrown when the defenses checks then compare those numbers to any QB. See what you get!

  4. john coleman says:

    I have to wonder if some of the play action calls are a forced hand because of questionable pass protection?

    Does Garrett simply use PA to slow the rush or to help protect the QB?

    If we fix the RT position will the numbers change?

  5. Scott says:

    I wonder how much they break down and analyze these kinds of numbers. you’d think they must, but then you’d think if they did it would show some adjustment from the previous season, when the numbers just don’t make sense like this, for what playaction is.

    great stuff as usual.

  6. Mark- Yeah, I think it’s a misnomer to think that EVERYONE in an organization needs to be a football expert. IMO, mathematicians can be extremely valuable to a team, if for no other reason than, like you said, limit predictability. Similarly, the Cowboys and other teams could learn A LOT about other teams by conducting similar studies.

    JJ- You’re right. We saw the “flare screen” from Double Tight Right Twins Left Ace quite a bit this season in an effort to get Felix the ball on the perimeter.

    Mont- No one is making excuses. This has nothing to do with Romo or Kitna. And I don’t think Romo has the time during the season to conduct fairly in-depth stat analyses and report back to Garrett on, say, the team’s PA passes with 1-4 yards-to-go. Just a hunch, but I’m guessing he’s busy, you know, actually playing football.

  7. JC- That’s certainly possible. He might want to stop with the increased sack rate.

    Scott- Thanks. You’d THINK they’d realize these numbers can’t possibly be helping them, but why aren’t they changing? The year-to-year consistency is astounding to me.

  8. JJ says:


    As a change up for this sleepy and boring period to football, do you have a sense of what potential FAs may be available to the Cowboys should they falter in improving their team with immediate help in the draft?

    Specifically, at FS, SS, DE, CB, RT. I get a feeling that the club will gamble with their current corners and move Ball to 4th CB if they don’t get one in the draft. However, the safety position, DE and RT concern me greatly. When answering, feel free to use any data that may suggest a player is on the rise as he enters free agency. And, while most people will ask, “why would any club let young talent go,?” There are the Woodens, Harrisons, Welkers out there that seem to get away some how. We have a few former Cowboys that are starting for other teams and could be considered upgrades from what the team has now in certain spots.

  9. Mont Seventeen says:

    So Romo-lovers excuse for Romo not being as smart as Romo-lovers is he is too busy playing football… That’s fair, considering Romo has 1 Super Bowl win.

  10. JJ says:


    I understand your desire to make your point but why the sarcasm? Particularly aimed at Jonathan. Unless this forum has changed, there are many other outlets for rants. We get it…you dislike Romo.

  11. Mont–Your expectations for Romo are silly. If you want to criticize his lack of playoff success, fine, but the fact that he doesn’t perform stat analyses in his spare time in an effort to subsequently undermine his head coach? Silly.

  12. JJ–I’ll try to take a look at FAs this week in an article. I do have some opinions on which positions Dallas will target in FA.

  13. Tyrone Jenkins says:


    If you haven’t noticed this is a site based on statistics. That means quite a few things – let me break it down for you…

    First and foremost, this isn’t your average site. Not being elitist, but if you don’t understand basic statistic and how they work ( not to mention Normal, Chi square, and the like type of distributions), then you’re not going to be able to get much out of this. Not trying to insult your intelligence here – just stating the obvious.

    Second, whether you agree w/ Jonathan or not, there really isn’t a need for bitterness, sarcasm and straight out ridicule. It is very easy to tell someone that you think they’re wrong but it takes a certain degree of intelligence and charisma to voice a contrary opinion w/o being insulting – usually it speaks better of yourself to include some stats (hard data), not just unfounded opinion to backup your point.

    Lastly, your obvious dislike for Romo doesn’t bode well when the team has the amount of success they’ve have had w/ him at the helm. If you can stand to read about the stats I was referring to in my 2nd point above…

    Romo took over for Bledsoe in Oct 2006 vs. the Giants. That year, the Cowboys finished the season 9-7 and went to the Playoffs. Since then, the Cowboys season records have been 13-3 (2007), 9-7 (2008), 11-5 (2009) and, of course, his record last year was 1-5. The teams record w/ him starting is 38-17. More important, Romo’s career QB rating is 95.5 – 14 points better than Aikman and Staubach and 5 pts better than Bledsoe. His completion percentage is significantly higher than all three as well.

    Whenever anything is mentioned about Romo, we can only speak about the offense. There have been many games which the offense was able to score enough points to win but lost due to defense or special teams (or better yet, bad coaching). Case in point – I would think that you might agree that Philip River’s is a good QB (perhaps even better than Romo). San Diego was #1 in the NFL with the most offensive yards per game this past year and #1 w/ the lowest yards per game allowed on defense. Philip Rivers was had a QB rating of 101.8 – 2nd best in the NFL. Those ARE the stats associated w/ the team this past year according to NFL.com. Yet they didn’t even make the playoffs. Why – poor special teams play and turnovers (they had as many fumbles as they did INTs – 13). The QB is one player in a game that has 22 on the field at all times – and he plays only 1/2 the time.

    If you want to compare him to Aikman, any true fan of the Cowboys knows that the offensive line that Aikman had most of his career (Nate Newton, Erik Williams, Larry Allen, Mark Stepnoski and Mark Tuinei) was far better than that of the past 5 years. Troy’s offense also had Emmit Smith, Mike Irvin, Jay Novacek and Moose Johnston. Their defense saw the likes of Rod Woodson, Jim Jeffcoat, Ken Norton Jr. and Russell Maryland. In 1993, the Cowboys sent 11 players to the Pro Bowl. Additionally, Aikman was the 1st overall pick (the very 1st) of the 1989 NFL draft. Romo was an undrafted FA.

    Given the expectation level of Romo, the offensive line he had to work with, the lack of a pro-bowl running game and the fact that there have been 3 different head coaches in his 5 years of starting at QB, I’d say he’s not that bad. Perhaps you might be able to say that too…

  14. chris stallcup says:

    why is mont even bothering to comment on this site if hes dead set on bashing? and not even looking at this site for in stat standpoint. if thats the way he goes about his business i suggest he go back to nfl.com where there are many others like him

  15. willis says:

    I feel like I lost IQ points reading Mont’s second post. Then I gained them back reading Tyrone’s and was further validated in my opinion by chris.

    Now that we have that out of he way , JBales could you do an analysis of Fairley? Since he was smaller than projected at the combine there is now a slight chance of him dropping to the boys.

  16. Tyrone–Well said. Your rebuttal, Mont?

    Willis–Fairley analysis completed and will be posted tomorrow.

  17. willis says:

    Hey, this is Tyrone. Jonathan, Willis’ info is populated in my leave a reply space – I guess the internet snafus continues.

    Willis, I will deliete your email addy.

  18. Geez sorry about this guys…I just installed a new version of WordPress that I thought would fix the problem. If it happens again, please let me know.

  19. Mont Seventeen says:

    If You Romo-apoogist say the same thing, IQ of the fans have nothing to do with Romo’s playoff record! If I have the power to lower ur IQ, I don’t envy you? But I digress…

    Use the staple excuses that apply to Romo, in JG case. JG went 5-3 with a 40yr old QB. A consensus of all Romo-lovers claim the worst defense in Cowboys history and an offensive line that couldn’t block Rita Leblanc… Not to mention Jerry Jones’ coaching staff, let alone without the great Top 5 QB in of all-time. …yet u ppl wanna sit and stew ab playaction in the regular season ?m teams that didn’t even make the playoffs.

    in defense of Romo, these stats, like Romo’s QB rating, never tell the entire story, without situation management of down and distance faced by the game manager, they are baseless… breathe a collective sigh of relief and assign blame for Romo’s lack of success in 2010. You did this after Romo lost his huddle to Team Obliterater in 08, its the same thing you did when Steve Denise called them a bunch of losers b4 the Saints game….

    You can dress thses lil exercises in futility up anyway you like, pretend ppl don’t understand the nuances of football, but its all still homerism…. It won’t change the fact that JG, will be the playcaller and if anyone is going to have a positive effect on the way he calls plays from a strategic advantage, its Romo!

    The truth is, JG is trying to hide Romo’s flaws with his playcalling and limited by Romo’ arm strength and ability to read defenses. Outside of any changes that pertain to Romo’ preperation, don’t expect to see any changes next season, but that’s what you want… The JG excuse is your comfort zone when u talk ab the Cowboys failures. See, when you call plays for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations, you don’t use all ur bullets in the regular season against inferior teams… Sorry, you just don’t do that!

    No amount of statistical anomalies will justify Romo allowing play-calling to be responsible for his failure to big games… No other fans of Top 5 QBs use that excuse!

    If Romo can’t go to the coach and point out what you consider, the obvious, what good is he? If play-action by JG is an issue… Shouldn’t you expect Romo take care of it? Shouldn’t Romo take it upon himself to ameliorate what perceives to be such a simple issue among great football minds? Shouldn’t JG play-action in run situations be a fore-gone conclusion, when you have a QB like Romo?

    If u truly had confidence in Romo as a leader…. This wouldn’t be an issue, you wouldn’t put the onus on JG alone. Actually, your grasping of straws, just confirms that you don’t know what defenses are doing to neutralize Romo, you couldn’t care less, you just don’t want it to Romo.


  20. Mont–Until you made this post into a Romo thread, it really had nothing to do with Romo specifically. It was simply a study pertaining to Dallas’ playaction calls in 2010. This isn’t an excuse for Romo…it is a stat analysis.

    You claim that the numbers are baseless without down-and-distance analysis, but that’s exactly what I have provided. In what way is dialing up only four playaction passes all year in short-yardage situations protecting the quarterback? If JG truly wanted to maximize Romo’s potential, wouldn’t he allow him to air it out in situations with high upside, such as 2nd and 1, 2nd and 2, 3rd and 1, etc?

    Further, you’re one of the few people who would label a rather harsh critique of Garrett’s playaction calls as “homerism.” In what way is critiquing the head coach homerism? I’m baffled by that claim.

    Finally, your repeated argument that Romo should “take care of JG’s poor play-calls” is absurd. Romo’s job isn’t to call plays or perform stat analyses of his offense. It is to run the called plays and, from time to time, check into a superior play…not completely alter the coach’s offensive philosophy by doing whatever the hell he wants back there. And if he did freelance to that degree, I’m sure you’d be the first person to dismantle him for not sticking to the script and putting himself above the coach.

  21. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    Actually Mont, I think I see your point. But let me make sure that I do – you wrote: “No amount of statistical anomalies will justify Romo allowing play-calling to be responsible for his failure to [win] big games… No other fans of Top 5 QBs use that excuse!”

    From that quote, I glean that you’re saying that Romo should have the awareness to know that whenever Garrett calls a certain play, he (Romo) will KNOW that the play just called is statistically a good or bad call for the situation and if he should or should not call an audible. And, anytime it is mentioned on this site or anywhere for that matter, that the play calling could be better, the REAL fault lies w/ Romo as he should have known the play called was poor for each situation? Further, you’re suggesting that not only should Romo know this, but Top 5 QBs obviously do and that is what separates Romo from them. Is that what you’re getting at?

    If that is truly what you’re saying, then I’d ask you for a couple of small things to back your point. First, how do you know that top 5 QBs know this? Is there some information you’re able to gather from Manning, Brady, Brees and other QBs that show they have audibled OUT of plays that statistically have a low probablility of success into ones that have better chances? Second, how do you know that Romo ISN’T going to JG and talking to him about the plays and is just being told to shut up and go run the plays that he’s given?

    Lastly, do YOU yourself have the time, resources and access to be able to decipher JGs play calling all season, break them down into categories, compare them to each other and see which ones have proven to produce more yards than the others? Can you say, as you read this post, what the most successful play for the Cowboys to run when they’re facing a 3rd down and 6 on their own 32 yard line against a nickel package defense w/ 8:40 to go in the 2nd quarter?

    I’ll be the 1st to admit that I can’t. I have no idea.

    But, a website like this one can tell me that calling a draw to Felix Jones (with approximately the same down and distance remaining) should produce X number of yards against that defense (all other things being equal). Not only that, further analysis can show you and me both the average # of times that play was called, the # of yards produced, the 1st and 2nd standard deviation of yards produced and the probability of each. If we dug a little further we could develop a 95% and maybe even a 98% confidence interval of yards the play should attain.

    If you read the post Jonathan started with, it’s a simple breakdown of the play action passes for the past year. In the discussion, Jonathan mentions that the Cowboys called six (6) play action plays with more than 20 yards to go but only four (4) w/ less than 4 yards to go.

    If you look at that small snippet of information, that should stand out at you. More than 20 yards to go is an obvious pass situation yet the Cowboys called a fake run pass play? At the same time, when a run seems more likely, a fake run pass play was called less often?

    No, until this page was posted, I (and probably you) didn’t know that. To be honest, I had NO IDEA how many PA passes were called in one game much less all season. I certainly didn’t know or bother to keep track of the down and distance and/or the yards gained from each attempt.

    But now I do – and so do you. I don’t know about you but I think that’s a good thing. I like having that information (call me a nerd if you want).

    And since I do, I”m not gonna hate on the guy who made it available – even if I don’t agree w/ the points he makes about the data (which sometimes happens). It’s obvious you don’t either but until you can answer those questions I posed to you above, your opinion is exactly that – an opinion. It’s backed by nothing more than someone who seems to dislike Romo. I’ll be honest, I’m not the greatest Romo lover either but I know a fairly decent QB when I see one.

  22. Thanks for the kind words Tyrone…Mont, the floor is yours.

  23. chris stallcup says:

    mont to be fair with your argument about how JG went 5-3 with a 40 yr old qb just look at the oline play before and after JG became head coach…….another reason i would never compare kitna and romo this season

  24. chris stallcup says:

    and also, when i see romo run the 2minute offense i usually see good things happen….imo its JG that seems to not trust romo to let him be more creative.

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