The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

Is Jason Garrett Too Aggressive? Actually, Stats Say He’s Not Aggressive Enough

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Jonathan Bales

One of the things which irks me most during the football season comes on Mondays after a loss, when all of the Dallas-area analysts come out of their holes and (usually) discuss why Jason Garrett’s “wild” and ultra-aggressive play-calling cost the Cowboys a victory.  How can the ‘Boys win football games when their coach is going for it on 4th and 4?

I agree with the writers at ESPN, Dallas Morning News, and the other stupendous media outlets that the level of aggressiveness in Garrett’s play-calling and decision making needs to change.  Specifically, Garrett needs to become (much) more aggressive.

One aspect of what is generally considered aggressive play-calling is going for it on fourth down, although this can be somewhat of a mislabel.  In many situations, going for it on fourth down (say, 4th and 3 at the opponent’s 40-yard line) is far and away the correct call, so labeling it as ‘aggressive’ is a bit of a misnomer.  It is aggressive only insofar as it flies in the face of “conventional” football wisdom.  Don’t confuse being aggressive with being risky.  In reality, punting the ball in such situations is almost always the true risky play.

I often discuss how Garrett’s unjustified fourth down punts cost Dallas points (and wins).  I recently came across some numbers which show that Garrett is not only not as aggressive as people believe, but also that his decisions are decreasing the team’s win probability in a significant way.

Over at Football Outsiders, the 2011 Aggressiveness Index is up.  There, you can see how often NFL coaches went for it on fourth down while in opponent’s territory this season.  Garrett’s rank: 25th. . .not as aggressive as you thought, I am assuming.

Of course, game situations can alter coaching strategy, particularly with a somewhat limited sample size of fourth down attempts in a single season.  Garrett isn’t off the hook just yet, though, as Advanced NFL Stats recently displayed some fourth down numbers as well.  Unlike at Football Outsiders, ANS takes game situations into account.  Brian Burke writes:

But because every situation is unique in terms of distance, time, and score, we can’t make any judgments about the aggressiveness or timidity of any coaches yet. The next table totals all the WP forfeited by each team on 4th downs when the numbers said go but the coach said kick. Also listed are the total number of 4th down go opportunities as well as the WP forfeited per opportunity. The higher the WP Forfeited number, the greater the sum of the 4th down errors.

According to the numbers, Garrett forfeited 0.74 wins in 2011 due to poor decision-making on fourth down–the seventh-worst mark in the league.  The teams worse than Dallas are Arizona, Denver, Seattle, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Cleveland. . .hmmmm.  Among the league leaders (i.e. best fourth down play-calling) were San Diego, Detroit, New England and Green Bay. . .another hmmmm.

On top of that, the Cowboys had only 36 fourth downs all year when they “should have” gone for it, making the win probability Garrett forfeited per opportunity (.021) the second-worst mark in the NFL.  So for those who are claiming the Garrett and the Cowboys need to “cool it” with the aggressive play-calling. . .you’re simply mistaken.  In all practical terms, Garrett was actually the second-most conservative coach (in terms of fourth down decisions) in the entire NFL in 2011.

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4 Responses to Is Jason Garrett Too Aggressive? Actually, Stats Say He’s Not Aggressive Enough

  1. Greg says:

    The old Spinal Tap line of “there is a fine line between clever and stupid” applies to Garrett this year, or any year, really. “Aggressive” does not mean throwing a predictable pass into a Detroit defender’s hands when the team should be running. “Aggressive” does not mean throwing into coverage because pass plays are not effective in deceiving the defense at all. “Aggressive” does not mean attempting a downfield throw that takes so long for the WR routes to develop that the QB gets bludgeoned. “Aggressive” does not mean using vanilla formations and vanilla routes because the OC/HC thinks that the opposing defense is going to expect something complex. No, those are stupid. Those decisions are not aggressive, they are not clever, and despite the failures game after game, they are repeated. Sure, the yards tell one story that seems to contradict this, but watch the film and see how much Romo, Witten, Austin, Dez, and Robinson actually do to make a poorly designed play, succeed. Dallas was a laughing stock this year, and no amount of yards that the offense amassed can erase the record of the team, the lack of points in critical games, the Sportcenter highlights of stupid decisions that Garrett made with the entire team – particularly producing and maintaining point totals.

  2. Mont Seventeen says:

    The Romo/Jerry fan club can come up with some whoppers! JG is a rookie head coach, the fan club thinks this teams problem is that he doesn’t go for it enough?

    The sophistry has reached an ALL-Time high with the fan club… Gone are the days of its TO’s fault or Camp Cupcake, the rationale of “Peyton didn’t win a playoff game” or this is only “Romo’s 5th years starting” has to give way to something new.

    Anyone that thinks going for more on 4th down is not being realistic… Are they? I have never heard a fan base say we didn’t make the playoffs bc we didn’t go for it enough. Just sad how far this teams fan base has fallen…

    I would think if you are the head coach of a team with an aggressive defensive coordinator and an inferior secondary, your #1 priority would be not to risk points. Let alone with a QB like Romo that is known for choking and throwing pick sixes to Barboie Carpenter. Oh and let’s not forget the stellar line play that is highlighted by a Center that can’t long snap and an OG playing LT. Never-mind the injury problems at RB, yes, its easy to trust Tanner to make a 4th and 2 in early February!

    I know its hard for the Jerry apologist and the Romo sycophants to comprehend but its really not that hard… As a Head Coach you need a QB that can overcome mistakes by his teammates, a GM that can replace players… JG is not the greatest but rippin him for not going for it is not the problem. When a child acts up in school you don’t blame the clothes his parents bought for him.

    This team can’t compete bc its lack of leadership from the QB position and not much substance from the GM position.

  3. moses says:

    Actually, Garrett is no rookie HC, he was a co head coach for awhile.

    As far as rookie head coaches go, what about Harbaugh in SF? He was a true rookie coming out of college.

    Romo ran for his life most of the time. The OL did not hold up.

    One of the things that JJones neglects is the OL/DL. He loves the skill position. NYG have solid OL/DL and they won the SB.

  4. Vince_Grey says:

    JB – Can’t really disagree, especially with a defense like we had that couldn’t hold a lead late. If we had a dominant defense, then I’d be more inclined to say “play it safe” and let the defense do it’s job.

    One other thing I’ve seen (Or rather, NOT seen, from Garrett is any “trick” plays. We NEVER seem to do any of those. Both Jimmy and Tom liked to pull a few “exotics” every year, just to keep opposing teams thinking and I wish JG would incorporate some of that.

    One thing to all of this, however, is that fans need to understand you can’t have it both ways. If we want JG to be more aggressive, we can’t pile on the next day if doesn’t succeed.

    Mont – Apparently nothing will convince you, even obvious stats, that Romo is NOT a “choker” and has a real clutch-gene late in games, so I’m not even going to try. I would like to ask however, what’s your opinion of past Cowboy QB’s like Staubach, Aikman, and Danny White. Clutch? Great player(s)? Overrated? Choker(s)?

    Moses – I wouldn’t say the Giants have “neglected” their skill positions. Eli cost them a lot of picks in 2004. Nicks was their number one selection in 2009. Manningham was a third rounder in 2008, and Moss and Steve Smith were both 2nd rounders in 2006 and 2007.

    What you CAN say about the Giants is that they’ve spent some prime picks on the DL, and that, overall they’ve drafted better than Dallas, though they’ve had some iffy picks as well. They picked DB’s in the 1st round in 2007, 2008, and 2011 and none of those players have made even one Pro Bowl between them.

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