Tony Romo vs. Peyton Manning in 2013
First Down Pass Rate
One area of game management in which the Cowboys should be mimicking Manning, but aren’t, is first down play-calling. There’s probably no aspect of play-calling through which NFL teams could improve more than their first down calls.
Defenses still play to stop the run on first down—a major mistake in today’s NFL considering that offenses are averaging 7.5 YPA on first down passes, but only 4.0 YPC on first down runs.
Yet the majority of NFL teams still want the much-sought “balance” on first down. As a whole, teams have passed the ball only 51.6 percent on first down, and that’s actually way up from previous seasons.
The Broncos are one of the teams that comes out aggressively on first down to start games. The Cowboys aren’t.
In the first quarter alone, Dallas has passed the ball on only 35.7 percent of their first down plays. Compare that to 60.7 percent of first quarter first downs for Manning’s Broncos.
By the end of the game, you can see that Denver’s first down pass rate plummets while Dallas’s soars. I wonder why? The “balance” that tends to follow winning teams is an illusion—a byproduct of efficient early play rather than a cause of success.
And if the Cowboys really want to be more balanced, they should actually ditch the early first down runs. Because nothing screams “we’re going to pass” like facing second-and-11 all day long.
In the Red Zone
As a final non-Romo, non-Manning aside, take a look at the career red zone touchdown rates for the receivers in Sunday’s matchup.
We all know how dominant Bryant has been in the red zone, but Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker has been even better. He’s converted 42.5 percent of his red zone targets into touchdowns. Before you say that’s the Manning effect, don’t forget that Decker spent quite a bit of time with Tim Tebow as his quarterback. Decker’s red zone dominance also dates back to his college days at Minnesota.
Newly acquired Wes Welker will help move the Broncos up the field, but it’s Decker the Cowboys need to worry about most in the red zone.