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Why the Cowboys Must More Effectively Manage the Play Clock | The DC Times

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Why the Cowboys Must More Effectively Manage the Play Clock

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Jonathan Bales

I alluded to the idea that the Cowboys must more effectively manage the play clock in my review of the Jets game, but I wanted to dedicate a few more words to the topic.  For several seasons (really since Jason Garrett has been calling plays in Dallas), the offense has continually allowed the play clock to dip down to one second before snapping the football.  Even worse, that number sometimes reaches zero and costs the team five valuable yards.  This is a problem that might not seem monumental but really has major consequences on how efficiently the offense can be run.

When Garrett calls plays into Tony Romo, he often provides the quarterback with two plays: the first is the play which is most likely to be run, and the second is a “conditional” play that the offense will run if Romo checks out of the first play.  Each time you hear Romo yell “Kill, Kill, Kill” prior to the snap of the ball, he is “killing” the first play, alerting the offense to run the second play that was dialed up.

If Garrett gives Romo instructions to call an off-tackle power play (first) and a screen to the left (second) in the huddle, for example, the offensive players will line up with the mentality of running the first play.  In the first scenario, Felix Jones will analyze the defense as though he is running off-tackle.  If the defense shows blitz from their left side, however, Romo might check out of the first play using a “Kill” call.  When this happens, the mental assignments of the players shift to the second play.  In this second scenario, Jones is now scanning the defense so as to be prepared to run the screen to the left.  This has a few consequences for the offense and defense:

  • The play clock tends to drop to just one second (or the offense gets a delay of game) because the long play-calls and extra pre-snap mental work required by the offense take time.


  • The offensive players may not be fully mentally prepared to run the second play.  Often times, Romo gives his “Kill” call and then snaps the ball almost immediately due to a dwindling play clock.  I have doubts the players can fully prepare themselves for their blocking assignments, routes, etc. with such little time.  Full comprehension of a defense’s intentions (as it relates to the new second play) may not come until a step or two into the play, and by that time, it is too late.


  • Perhaps most importantly, the defense can jump the snap.  Whether it is a defensive lineman or blitzing linebacker, it is a rather large advantage to “know” when a snap is coming.

Many of you know I track all kinds of information from each play of Cowboys’ games, from the distance of passes to motions to who stayed in to block and more.  I have never taken data on the play clock, however, and it might be a good idea to do so in the future.  If snapping the ball at the last possible second is truly detrimental to Dallas, we would expect it to be represented in the statistics–whether it comes in the form of yards-per-play, sack numbers or whatever.

Of course, allowing the play clock to drain may not even be necessary if the team’s “Kill” calls are not effective.  That is, if the advantage the offense gains from calling two plays in the huddle does not exceed the advantage the defense garners from the low play clock, there is really no reason for the Cowboys to call two plays in the huddle.  Luckily, I have two years of data pertaining to the team’s audibles.

In my 2010 Quarterback Grades, I noted that both Romo and Jon Kitna called audibles that, in terms of statistical significance, were not superior to non-checks.  71 of these 72 checks were “Kill” calls.  We saw a similar thing in the team’s 2009 Audibles , although Romo was slightly better with his checks, gaining 0.39 yards-per-play more on his audibles as compared to regular plays.  75 of the 79 audibles that year were “Kill” calls, meaning we can be fairly certain the statistics of all audibles (150) are representative of the success of “Kill” calls (145 of them).

2010 (72 checks)

  • Romo expected yards: 152
  • Romo actual yards: 143
  • Kitna expected yards: 223
  • Kitna actual yards: 234
  • Overall expected yards: 375
  • Overall actual yards: 377

2009 (79 checks)

  • Expected yards: 459
  • Actual yards: 490

2009-2010 (151 checks)

  • Expected yards: 834
  • Actual Yards: 867
  • Total advantage from 2009-2010 (33 yards on 151 checks–0.22 yards-per-play)

You can see that, as a whole, the Cowboys have “gained” 0.22 yards-per-play on checks over the past two years.  With 150 audibles, this result is significant enough to show us the offense does not acquire a significant advantage from “Kill” calls.  On top of this, the advantage the defense receives from the snaps on which the play clock runs down to one is likely more valuable than that “extra” 0.22 yards-per-play.  Remember, this defensive advantage comes not just on audibles, but on any snap on which the clock has run down due to two plays being called in the huddle.  Most times, the second play is never run, yet the clock still dips to one second.

Of course, the delay of game penalties over the last couple of years probably “make up for” the 0.22 yards-per-play offensive advantage on their own.  When combined with the ability of the defense to jump the snap, I think it is pretty obvious the Cowboys’ “Kill” calls are, at best, a waste of time. . .and at worst, detrimental to the offense.

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10 Responses to Why the Cowboys Must More Effectively Manage the Play Clock

  1. Jonathan Bales Future says:

    Good evening this is Jonathan Bales! Coming at you from ESPN the ocho! We have a really good show for you today. Are surprise guest for the day folks. Hall of fame legend. The man with the magic legs and vision of a hawk. The Cowboys workhorse for many years Emmitt Smith! Also joining me today is the USDA man of the hour Matt Millen! What a great show! So Emmitt what did you think of Felix Jones performance against the New York Jets Sunday. I have many stats written down here so I already know the answer but let’s hear what you have to say big fella!

    Emmitt ” Thanks JB well as far as felix goes he run the ball well. I see him on the field running like he ran before. When you run you put your feet in the dirt and move your legs and I think he run the ball well against the Mets I mean Jets. Sorry I didn’t have as many knocks to the head as Troy but enough to make it so head is hurt so I confused sometimes.”

    Millen ” Well boys I think Felix is 200 percent USDA Millen Choice! That boy has a package on him and can get me going during games. I’m just waiting for that explosion! MILLEN!”

    JB “Well then excellent thoughts gentleman. I would like to detract my previous statement about this being a great show. It won’t be great until I pull out my stat sheet and calculator. Then the Ocho truly begins my friends. Emmitt I know now why you are no longer allowed on TV very often. I calculated your incompetence as an analyst and my stats show you are slightly better then a 7th grader at letting us know about the game. Millen interesting very interesting, I do have two things to say. Get help and come out of the closet. If all my data is correct which it always is you seem to have a deep attraction to meat and young black men’s packages.”

    JB” taking a break then we will be back to talk about Andy Dalton. Should we have drafted the Ginger or could McGee be the future once Romo is tired of all the Bullshit?

  2. Hahahaha courtesy of Jonny Danger ladies and gentlemen.

  3. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    Now that is freakin hilarious!!!!

  4. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    But, in terms of the article – very interesting…

    I’m wondering if the 1st play called is always (or at least more prevelantly) a run call and the audible used is AWAY from the run in favor of a pass. Reason for my wondering is the perceived need to audible to pass given Romo/Kitna’s thought about success against he current defensive configuration or just an “affinity” to want to pass.

    In the past 2 years, it’s always seemed the Boys chose to pass more than needed – especially when they had an effective 3 headed monster at RB.

  5. chris stallcup says:

    usually the kill is to a draw, or from what ive seen

  6. Jonny Danger says:

    Haha you can thank my boredom outside of class for that riveting interview. I had an even funnier one originally but blackberry wouldn’t send the damn thing and lost it. Anyways good read as always and one I was always curious about. This thought had always been on my mind as I watch not just Romo but other QB’s using the Kill command. Dallas always seems to wait till the last second to run something as you mentioned. I always had the thought if he is changing the play so late then wouldn’t that make it so the other players minds have to readjust rapidly? I never thought they had enough time to do so. Leading to mental mistakes and errors here and there in their assignments.

    So I enjoyed reading this for sure. Thank you.

  7. john coleman says:

    Quite the post I must say-JD.

    As mentioned in the article, when you are at 1 second everybody knows the snap count. How about 1st sound with 15 to go. I’m glad to see something on this. As I recall, the gang here talked about this very thing quite a bit last year.

    My question- How many times are we fooled into a bad audible by a defensive alignment? Generally D’s, especially Rex Ryan D’s, show multiple looks and overloads/blitzes on every play. Maybe, we call the darn play and run it. Ideally they move out at the last second and we hit on something.

  8. willis says:

    Great post. I was hoping this would go away w/ garrett as coach. I would also like to point out the misuse of timeouts in the second half. It seems we burn more unecessary timeouts in the second half. Can’t tell you howe many close games I have watched where a team uses all three timeouts, winning at the last second.
    I was hoping this would change w/ Garrett, but I’m wondering if its Tony. Wonder the differential between him and Kitna on wasted timeouts in the second half

  9. Willis..that’s a good point which I overlooked (the loss of TOs). I remember seeing a study that detailed how TOs are usually more valuable than five yards, so offenses (on most parts of the field and in most D&Ds, anyway) should take the penalty for DOG.

  10. JJ says:

    JB- I think there are two discussions at play. Have the audibles worked? You’ve clearly show they do not (although I wish someone would have audibled to have Choice run right when the Jets overloaded the left on the tragic missed 3&1). As for the delays, Garrett seemed to intimate that was due to equipment problems. Either way, it rendered the Cowboys ineffective with any surprise due to time expiring.

    I’m more concerned, this week, about no Newman, no Scandrick and the prospects of a gimpy Dez.

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