Assessing Cowboys’ 2010 Red Zone Play-Calling
Before the 2010 season, I wrote an article detailing three ways by which the Cowboys could improve their poor 2009 red zone performance. In addition to targeting Jason Witten and simply getting to the red zone more often, I argued that then-offensive coordinator Jason Garrett should call more first down runs inside the opponent’s 10-yard line and more first down passes between the 10 and 20-yard lines. The reason for this was evidence from Advanced NFL Stats that the expected points of first down passes far outweighs that of first down runs on all areas of the field except inside the opponent’s 10-yard line.
While football minds have labeled the area inside the 20-yard line as the ‘red zone,’ the “real” red zone–the one in which play-calling must change–is actually inside the 10-yard line. Until that point, an offense’s strategy shouldn’t really alter. The graph to the left exemplifies the expected points of running and passing on first down. Notice that running only becomes a superior first down strategy around the opponent’s 10-yard line.
In 2009, Garrett called a first down run on 21 of 32 plays inside the opponent’s 10-yard line (65.6 percent). That number wasn’t horrible, and the Cowboys found the end zone on eight of those runs. Garrett did a nice job of running even more inside the 10-yard line in 2010, doing so on 20 of 27 first downs (74.1 percent). While the yards-per-carry in this area wasn’t tremendous (upside is limited), the Cowboys gained just one total yard on their seven pass attempts in the same vicinity.
I specifically wanted to see Garrett call more pass attempts outside of the 10-yard line in 2010, and he did. In 2009, the ‘Boys threw on just 12 of 29 first downs between the opponent’s 10 and 20-yard lines (41.4 percent). I called for Garrett to increase that rate to around 65 percent. He ended up calling a first down pass in this range on 17 of 26 first down plays–good for 65.4 percent. You’re welcome, coach. You can see in the graph to the right the efficiency on pass plays skyrocketed outside of the opponent’s 10-yard line (on the 13, 14 and 15-yard lines alone, the ‘Boys threw five passes for 50 yards and two touchdowns). Of course this leap is to be expected with more room with which to work, but even in terms of a relative scale, the Cowboys (and all NFL teams) are more efficient on first down passes than first down runs when outside of the opponent’s 10-yard line.
Note that the black line refers to the run/pass ratio and the red and blue lines indicate the yards-per-play. Kudos to Jason Garrett on following the statistics and altering his play-calling. It’s really no wonder that Dallas saw a gigantic leap in red zone efficiency in 2010.