The DC Times

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

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Hey guys..Is Romo clutch or not?

At ABC, I wrote about the stupid 180 so many writers and analysts perform regarding Tony Romo’s ability in the clutch:

It’s amazing how quickly the narrative can shift in the NFL. If the Cowboys’ defense hadn’t managed to stop the Vikings on their second-to-last drive, writers across the great state of Texas and nationwide would have blasted quarterback Tony Romo for choking down the stretch.

Actually, because we live in a world of real-time updates, Romo’s late-game interception against Minnesota was indeed used as more evidence that he chokes down the stretch.

Look, I’ve already showed that the “Romo-folds-under-pressure” argument is one that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny; it either needs to be accepted on faith or, at best, on anecdotal evidence, i.e. which arbitrary games or moments can I recall?

If that’s how we’re going to examine and define “clutch play”—by handpicking games because they stand out in our minds (which typically ends up being the most recent ones)—it’s going to create a pretty flimsy foundation on which to stand.

It transforms into a situation in which every time Romo leads a game-winning drive, he just turned a corner. When he doesn’t, it’s this…

The Final Drive

With 2:44 remaining in the game, Dallas had a first-and-10 at their own 10-yard line, down by three points. Before breaking down any plays, I want to note that the Cowboys might have actually been in a better position if they were down by four.

Yes, you read that correctly. Teams play overly conservatively when they’re down by just a field goal, thinking “all we need is three points” when, in reality, “all they need is three points” to potentially force overtime and have around a coin flip’s chance of winning.

Down by four or more late in games, offenses play with far more urgency because they know they need a touchdown. And the numbers back it up.

Since 2000, teams in situations similar to the Cowboys—down by three inside of three minutes—have won 14 percent of the time. Teams in the exact same situation down four points, though, have won 25 percent of the time! That’s nearly double the win rate for teams down by four points instead of three.

It’s not that being down by four points is inherently advantageous, of course, but just that NFL teams are really horrible at understanding percentages. As we’ve seen with Jason Garrett time and time again, coaches freeze up in those late moments, opting to go conservative for the “sure thing” of overtime when they should press on.

And to be honest, the Cowboys looked like they were headed that route before a big catch from wide receiver Dez Bryant. But let’s start with the first play of the drive.

Read the rest.

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Cowboys-Vikings Preview Stuff

At ABC, I published some trends on the Vikings. Here’s one:

Blitz. A lot.

We’re not really sure who will start at quarterback for the Vikings—Josh Freeman or Christian Ponder—but both have been horrific against the blitz (five or more rushers). Using data at Pro Football Focus, I charted the passer rating for each quarterback against the blitz in 2013. Freeman’s numbers extend back to his time in Tampa Bay.

Neither Freeman nor Ponder have been able to compile a passer rating above 60.6 when defenses send more than four rushers.

The numbers are even worse when you consider their completion percentages.\

Freeman and Ponder have both completed less than 42 percent of their passes against the blitz. There’s no reason Monte Kiffin shouldn’t send blitzes early and often in Week 9.

And at Bleacher Report, I posted a Week 8 Primer:

What Must Improve: Pass Rush

If you knew the Cowboys would be starting defensive ends Kyle Wilber and George Selvie this year, you probably would have guessed they’d have trouble reaching the passer.

Selvie has been pretty good, but the Cowboys absolutely need to find a way to stop opposing quarterbacks. The Cowboys are one of only three teams to have allowed 2,200 yards passing this year, and they’ve actually given up 2,523! That’s the worst number in the NFL.

Using data from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), I charted the Cowboys’ pressure rate in every game this year.

You can see that, with 11 pressures against Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, Week 8 was the Cowboys’ second-worst outing of the year.

And how about this stat: In the games in which the Cowboys have generated a pressure on at least 30 percent of their pass-rushing snaps, they’re 3-1 and have allowed an average of 259.5 yards passing. In the games in which they’ve failed to reach the 30 percent pressure threshold, however, the ‘Boys are 1-3 and have yielded an unfathomable 371.3 yards passing per game.

Key Matchup vs. Vikings: RT Doug Free vs. DE Brian Robison

Vikings defensive end Brian Robison is perhaps the unluckiest player in the NFL through Week 8. See, Robison has just one sack on the year, suggesting he hasn’t gotten to the passer all that much. In reality, the defensive end has quietly been one of the league’s most efficient pass-rushers.

Through Week 8, Pro Football Focus has tracked only one defensive end as racking up more than 26 pressures. It’s Robison, and he has 32 of them. Of the other six defensive ends with at least 22 pressures (a group that includes Cowboys defensive end George Selvie), the average sack total is 3.67.

I’ve found that a defensive end’s sacks tend to add up to around one-quarter of his pressures. With 32 pressures, Robison’s most likely sack total at this point in the season is closer to eight than it is to one.

Robison has rushed from the left side of the Vikings defense on 99.2 percent of his snaps in 2013, per PFF. That means he’ll be matched up exclusively on right tackle Doug Free.

Although it might be tempting to double-team veteran defensive end Jared Allen, the numbers suggest the Cowboys need to worry about Robison just as much.

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A Look at the Cowboys’ Poor Decisions vs. Lions

At ABC, I examined the Cowboys’ poor decisions against the Lions:

Fourth-and-Two

The Cowboys’ handling of the end game is consistently among the worst of any team in the league, and we saw that again in Week 8. I’ll get to that in a minute, but they might not have even been in that situation had they more appropriately managed earlier choices.

The worst of the bunch was a second quarter field goal try on a fourth-and-two at the Lions’ 35-yard line. Using the Fourth Down Calculator, we can establish some baseline stats for the situation. Again, these are based on how offenses have performed in the same situation in the past.

In attempting the field goal, the Cowboys lost 0.98 expected points. Another way of thinking about that is if the Cowboys were to play out that situation 1,000 times, they would score right around a full point more, on average, by going for it over kicking a field goal. The ‘Boys lost a decent chance to score a touchdown on that drive instead of coming away with three points—points that ultimately decided the game.

You might argue that kicker Dan Bailey made the field goal, justifying Garrett’s decision to kick it. I have a feeling many people within the Cowboys’ organization would propose that rationale, but it’s just wrong. It’s that sort of “ex post facto” thinking that has resulted in mediocrity in Big D.

Further, the numbers might be even more in favor of going for it when we factor in the specifics for Dallas. Bailey is 9-for-14 in his career on 50-plus yard field goals. This one was from 53 yards out, and we wouldn’t expect Bailey’s expected conversion rate to be much higher than the 50 percent used in the calculator. But even if we bump Bailey’s expected conversion rate to, say, 70 percent, the Cowboys should still have gone for it.

That’s especially true when you consider that the Cowboys have an above-average offense. They might have been playing poorly at that time, but it’s hard to think their chances of converting a fourth-and-two were worse than that for the typical NFL offense.

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Cowboys vs. Lions: Detroit’s Trends

At ABC, I posted some trends on the Lions:

Numbers never lie.

No really, despite what you might hear, they don’t. Math, as a flawless abstract concept, is pretty cool like that. The numbers, by their very nature, are perfect.

But people lie all the time. And so I can twist and frame numbers in pretty much any way that I want to get my point across. If I were born 20 years earlier and had an unusual fixation with “establishing the run,” I might point out teams are (insert awesome record here) when they run the ball (insert high number here) times, so you need to run the ball.

The numbers didn’t lie and they aren’t “wrong” in any sense, but I manipulated them in such a way that I could back my preconceived notions. I established a correlation but proposed a causal relationship that doesn’t exist. There’s nothing wrong with the math, just my interpretation of it.

Sorry, but Stuart Scott was wrong. Don’t hate the game, hate the player.

But I’m not in the business of using numbers to deceive people. Instead of framing math around my arguments, I want my opinions to be a reflection of the math. I want to properly interpret all of the data that’s so readily available these days to provide a deeper understanding of the Cowboys and the NFL.

One way that’s possible is by identifying predictive ability. The fake “establish the run” stat I gave you isn’t very useful—it’s misleading, in fact—because it’s not predictive of what wins. That’s why we see teams that pass the ball a lot early generally have a lot more success than the running teams (with the overall run-pass balance evening out as teams that are already winning run the ball and teams that are already losing pass it).

By establishing a stat’s predictive ability, we’re basically measuring how much it “lies.” That allows us to sort through the noise, like time-of-possession (also a result of winning), in favor of the signal.

Detroit Lions By the Numbers

I hear the Cowboys have a game against the Lions this week, so I guess I should stop ranting on the philosophy of math and take a look at that, huh? Okay, fine.

51.9: Lions’ first down run rate

You might have noticed that I tend to analyze first down stats quite a bit and third down stats very little. The reason is that, for the most part, first down is standardized. Whereas third down plays can be of any distance, around 95 percent of first down plays are the same: first-and-10, typically near the middle of the field.

As a quick side note (I promise I’ll talk about the game soon), that’s one reason that third down conversion rates are useless stats. Yes, you want a high conversion rate. Yes, third downs are really important in each game. But the goal for many teams is putting themselves in “manageable third downs” when it should be maximizing offensive efficiency.

Running the ball on first and second down to set up a bunch of third-and-three situations might lead to a high third down conversion rate, but it’s not beneficial to the offense. You know what’s better than converting a high percentage of third downs? Not facing third down at all because you didn’t run the ball on first and second down.

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How the Cowboys Stopped LeSean McCoy + Game Notes

At ABC, I broke down how Dallas stopped Shady:

Containing the Edges

The Cowboys halted McCoy because they played extremely disciplined run defense. McCoy is the “King of the Cutback,” so the ‘Boys did everything they could to not over-pursue, nearly always having a defender sealing each edge.

That was apparent early in the second quarter. The Eagles lined up in a Shotgun Trips formation.

They ran their patented read-option, with Shady flowing away from the “Trips” toward the boundary. The Cowboys did a good job of moving to the ball without giving McCoy room to cut back.

With defenders playing with outside leverage in both directions, McCoy had no choice but to keep it inside, picking up just a couple yards.

Just one play later, Philly ran the same concept to the opposite side of the field. They again lined up in “Trips,” this time using a tight end in-line opposite the three-receiver side.

Again, the edge defenders maintained their leverage so as to not allow Shady to bounce anything outside.

Again, he had nowhere to run.

This type of defensive concept is why we saw Sean Lee total 11 tackles while the starting outside linebackers combined for two (yes two) tackles. It was obvious that the outside defenders were playing not to make tackles at any cost, but rather to make sure McCoy couldn’t turn a would-be two-yard gain into a 40-yard run.

That idea is reflected in this pie chart.

Of the tackles made by the Cowboys’ 11 starters, only 15 percent combined came from the defensive ends and outside linebackers. Meanwhile, Sean Lee had 27.5 percent of the tackles by himself. He and the secondary combined to make 72.5 percent of the tackles. That’s what you’d expect when the perimeter defenders are playing disciplined run defense, extending plays instead of forcing the issue.

And at NBC, I posted some thoughts from the game:

– It won’t get much publicity since the Cowboys’ defense played well enough that the game was never really in question, but Jason Garrett punted three times in the first quarter when he should have gone for it: a fourth-and-one at the Cowboys’ 43-yard line, a fourth-and-five at the Eagles’ 36-yard line, and a fourth-and-one at the Cowboys’ 39-yard line.

– Using the fourth down calculator at Advanced NFL Stats, we can use past game data to calculate how many expected points the Cowboys lost by being so risk-averse. In total, the ‘Boys lost 2.7 expected points and a 10 percent chance of winning the game by punting three times. That’s just one type of decision in one quarter. But yeah, the team is totally fine as one of the only ones in the NFL without any type of analytics department.

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Philadelphia Eagles By the Numbers

I grew up an hour outside of Philly, so I think I know what the fuck I’m talking about when it comes to the Eagles. At ABC, I flaunted that knowledge (meaning I wrote down what I researched this morning):

61.1: Eagles’ first down run rate in the first quarter

There’s little doubt that the Eagles want to run the ball. They do it a lot early in games, with the rate of first down runs decreasing as contests progress.

Some of that is probably due to game situations, but it’s still noteworthy. It will be interesting to see 1) how the Eagles’ run rate changes with Nick Foles at quarterback and 2) if the offense can be as efficient with Foles, instead of Michael Vick, running variations of the read-option.

8: DeSean Jackson’s red zone targets

Through six games, Jackson is leading the Eagles in red zone targets.

It’s never a good thing when a 5’10”, 175-pound receiver is leading your team in targets inside the 20. There’s an extremely strong correlation between height/weight and red zone efficiency, so it’s no surprise that Jackson has converted just one-fourth of his 2013 red zone targets into touchdowns.

Jackson also has a career red zone touchdown rate of just 12.7 percent, which is horrific. In comparison, Dez Bryant has converted five of his eight 2013 red zone targets into touchdowns and 19 of 45 (42.2 percent) during his career.

If the Eagles want to target Jackson in the red zone, the Cowboys should be more than happy to let that happen. He’s certainly a player to monitor between the 20s, but he should never see a double-team when the field is condensed.

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Cowboys vs. Redskins Analysis: Film Study & Grades

At ABC, I broke down two important plays in the Cowboys’ Week 6 win over the Redskins, including the Terrance Williams touchdown:

The Terrance Williams Touchdown

Facing a second-and-10 at the Redskins’ 15-yard line with just under 10 minutes to play in the third quarter, the Cowboys held a five-point lead. They lined up in “Gun Trips”—a formation I’ve discussed in the past because the Cowboys simply don’t run out of it. Despite using it in situations like this when they could run, the ‘Boys have done so on less than one percent of their hundreds of snaps from the formation since 2009.

On this particular play, Williams was lined up at the bottom of the screen. The Redskins blitzed, rushing six defenders—everyone who was lined up in the box other than the middle linebacker, as well as the slot cornerback.

That slot defender—Josh Wilson—got in clean in Romo, who didn’t have a hot read on the play.

Romo’s only option was to either throw the ball away or try to avoid Wilson. He chose the latter, just barely eluding Wilson without going down to the ground.

Romo wasn’t done, though, gathering himself before firing to Williams in the back of the end zone. Williams wasn’t open, but Romo threw an absolutely perfect ball over top of cornerback E.J. Biggers. It was the quarterback’s best throw of the night, by far.

Romo didn’t play an outstanding game, primarily because he was under constant pressure from Washington, but this particular play changed the course of the contest. It gave the Cowboys a two-score lead—a lead they never relinquished—and set them up to head into Philadelphia tied with the Eagles atop the NFC East.

At Bleacher Report, I handed out position grades:

Tony Romo

Statistically, it was a putrid game for Tony Romo. Coming off of his record-breaking 506-yard, five-touchdown performance against the Denver Broncos, Romo was able to compile just 170 yards against Washington. He did it on 30 attempts, good for just 5.7 yards per attempt. That’s the sort of efficiency we saw from him when the ‘Boys were losing early in the season.

In his defense, Romo threw just one pick on a tipped pass and had really poor protection all day. The Cowboys couldn’t give him time to throw, even when he wasn’t looking downfield.

Actually, offensive coordinator Bill Callahan did a good job of moving to five-wide and other spread sets once 1) running back DeMarco Murray was injured and 2) he realized the offensive line couldn’t give Romo time to throw. By spreading the field, Callahan made Romo his own blocker, giving him the option to throw hot at times. It wasn’t overly successful, but it ironically allowed him to avoid sacks.

Ultimately, the Cowboys got the win. But we can’t grade Romo, or any quarterback, solely on team wins. A good question to ask is this: “If he plays like this again, will the Cowboys win?” Against the Broncos, the answer was a resounding “yes.” Not so much this week.

Grade: D+

And at NBC, I posted a few other random thoughts:

– Rookie running back Joseph Randle had 11 carries for 17 yards and a touchdown. His efficiency will inevitably increase, but by how much? Probably not a lot considering he’s a light back with poor speed. I didn’t like Randle before the draft, I didn’t like him after it, and I don’t think he’ll offer the Cowboys much long-term value. It was smart for Dallas to wait on a back in the draft, but not one with a horrific weight/speed combination.

– Prior to the season, I argued that Barry Church will have a big 2013 season. Still, I projected him at only 80 tackles in the preseason and 98 tackles after Week 1. He’s currently on pace for 125, which is remarkable. Church still needs to improve in coverage, but he’s playing some good football.

– Orlando Scandrick has undoubtedly been the Cowboys’ best defensive player in 2013. He’s been a lockdown player inside, and he was rewarded with an interception on Sunday night. Who could have seen this sort of play coming from Scandrick? Me, when I graded him as the top player on the team last season. He’s also the most underappreciated.

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Is RGIII the same player in 2013?

At ABC, I broke down Robert Griffin III’s play through four games:

Washington is easing their young quarterback into games by keeping him in the pocket more than ever. That means fewer designed runs, which is reflected in RGIII’s per-game rushing average after each contest.

Whereas RGIII’s 2012 rushing yards eventually leveled out at between 50 and 60 per game in 2012, he has yet to rush for more than 37 in any game this season.

In addition to fewer designed runs, Griffin is also 1) scrambling less and 2) getting rid of the football quicker.

Through four games, RGIII has stayed in the pocket an average of 2.77 seconds—down three-tenths of a second from his rookie year and the exact same number Tony Romo posted in 2012.

Read more.

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My Cowboys-Broncos Analysis: Tony Romo, Big Plays & Position Grades

At ABC, I broke down Tony Romo’s interception and explained why he’s still a clutch quarterback:

Tony Romo: Clutch Quarterback?

There are a few problems with the popular opinion of Romo being a “choke artist.” First, it’s based on anecdotal evidence. Romo has had some really big fourth quarter and late-season mistakes, for sure, but outside of team wins—a horribly ineffective way to judge a quarterback—there’s not really much to support the “Romo chokes” theory other than “well, he had this one bad throw in this big game, and then he had this other poor throw in another game, so clearly he sucks when the chips are down.”

Second, “choke artist” isn’t exactly an objective term. If you’re of the opinion that Romo collapses in high-pressure situations, you need to provide some sort of guidelines through which we can test the theory. That’s kind of how stats (and science) work and why they’re pragmatic; instead of arguing in support or against a player or team with vague, potentially meaningless concepts such as “lots of heart,” “a strong identity,” “savvy play,” and other untestable qualities, we can acquire a deeper, more meaningful understanding of football and its players through stat analysis.

If Romo’s interception in Sunday’s loss is to be used against him, then we also need to include other performances in similar situations. So let’s do that.

Since 2000, no quarterback in the NFL has a higher fourth quarter (and overtime) passer rating than Romo. Aaron Rodgers is second, but he’s still nearly five points behind Romo.

And it’s not like Romo’s rating is inflated by some fluky touchdowns, because he’s also averaged 8.5 YPA. That’s 0.7 yards more than Rodgers and a full yard more than the third quarterback on the list, Peyton Manning. Romo’s 60-to-23 fourth quarter touchdown-to-interception ratio is a whole lot better than Manning’s 90-to-42 ratio, too.

But it’s pretty clear that Romo racks up stats in meaningless situations, such as when the team is down by 21 points, right?

Uh, no. Romo’s fourth quarter passer rating in one-score games is a few points lower at 100.1, but his YPA (more strongly correlated with team wins) is slightly higher at 8.7. He has 31 touchdowns and 13 picks in such situations.

So this is really where we are—a juncture at which we can either blindly accept the notion of Romo folding under pressure or analyze the stats to understand that our memories are clouded from a few highly covered and oft-discussed plays. It’s faith versus science, and I’m on the side of the argument that can actually be both tested and falsified.

At NBC, I broke down some of the game’s biggest plays:

Tony Romo’s INT
Romo’s interception was obviously costly, but here’s how much; prior to the play, the Cowboys owned a 67 percent to win the game. After it, the odds dwindled to just 16 percent. And in reality, it was probably worse than that because generic win probability numbers don’t account for specific game situations. Neither the Broncos nor Cowboys could consistently stop one another, so the game was bound to be a whoever-has-the-ball-last-wins sort of contest.

Allowing a Touchdown
Should the Cowboys have allowed a touchdown on purpose when the Broncos faced third-and-inches at the Cowboys’ two-yard line? I don’t think so. It’s a close call, but there was still hope that the defense could make a stop in the backfield and hold Denver to a field goal try.

In my opinion, the coaches should have told the defense to try to make a tackle for a loss, but if you don’t immediately get a push into the backfield, let the running back score. Allowing a first down but not a touchdown was the worst possible outcome for Dallas, although I don’t think the coaches made a horrible decision in telling the defense to play it straight up.

And at Bleacher Report, I handed out position grades:

Romo set a career high with 506 passing yards and five touchdowns. He also through a crucial fourth-quarter interception that led to Denver’s game-winning score, but it’s difficult to get on Romo about it since the Cowboys wouldn’t have been in that position without him.

In terms of pure stats, Romo outplayed Manning in every way. He had nearly 100 more yards on six fewer attempts, averaging 14.1 YPA, compared to 9.9 YPA for Manning. They scored the same number of touchdowns with Manning tossing four and running one in.

If your inclination is to say this is “the same old Romo,” in regards to his fourth-quarter interception, you’re just wrong. Romo actually has the highest fourth-quarter passer rating ever. It’s unfortunate his lone pick came so late in the game—and it was clearly a poor decision—but this was still one of the best games of Romo’s career.

Grade: A

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Tony Romo vs. Peyton Manning in 2013

At ABC, I broke down some numbers for the Cowboys’ and Broncos’ offenses 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.

Check out the whole analysis at ABC.