The DC Times

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

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Projecting Players to Predict a Final Score for Cowboys vs. Chiefs

At DallasCowboys.com, I used the insanely awesome rotoViz GLSP model to project players for the Cowboys and Chiefs, then predict a final score using those projections. Check it out right here:

Tony Romo Comps

Earlier this week during the “On Air” podcast, I predicted a close win for the Cowboys. That was just my opinion before digging through the numbers (something I still haven’t done as I write this sentence). So let’s get into those numbers right now.

Looking at Romo’s comps, it’s clear why the Cowboys are the underdog in this game.

We can throw Rex Grossman’s 2010 performance out of this sample because he got injured in the game. For the other 24 comps, here’s the average stat line: 22-for-36 (61.1 percent) for 240 yards (6.67 YPA), 1.58 touchdowns, 0.83 interceptions.

That’s not horrible, but it’s certainly not Romo-esque. The most important number in there is the yards per attempt (YPA), which is really predictive of team success. At 6.67 YPA, Romo’s comps (four of which are Romo himself) have averaged more than a full yard less than his career average (7.91 YPA).

Breaking it down further, we can look at the probability of Romo reaching each level of efficiency.

Based on his comps, Romo has a 62 percent chance to not even reach 7.0 YPA. For whatever reason, he and comparable quarterbacks have struggled against Chiefs-like defenses.

And how about the probability of Romo throwing X number of touchdowns?

So even though he’s projected at 1.58 touchdown passes, Romo’s most likely outcome is probably just one touchdown pass, followed by zero! There is a fairly large deviation here, though, as exactly one-quarter of Romo’s comps have thrown for at least three scores and eight percent have tossed at least four touchdowns.

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Cowboys-Giants: Defensive Notes and a Look at the Win Probability Graph

At NBC, I posted my notes on the Cowboys’ defense:

– I thought Barry Church was the MVP for the Cowboys’ defense. He had eight tackles, a forced fumble, and of course the big fumble recovery for a touchdown. He has the potential to be really productive in Monte Kiffin’s defense.

– Opposite Church, Will Allen had a rough game. He had an interception, although that had more to do with Manning than anything else. Allen was targeted four times on the night, allowing three catches for 101 yards and two touchdowns. It’s really a shame that Matt Johnson is down for the year. The Cowboys need to find a way to cover up their weakness there.

At DallasCowboys.com, I broke down the win probability graph from AdvancedNFLStats.com:

Despite an 8-8 record in 2012, the Cowboys held a lead just 22 percent of the time. That’s really an astounding statistic and probably the biggest negative the team had heading into 2013. For at least one game, though, the Cowboys’ luck shifted.

Looking at data on win probability, we can visualize the ebb and flow of the Cowboys’ big opening night victory over the Giants. Using historic game data as a foundation, Advanced NFL Stats publishes visualizations that update in real time to display a team’s probability of winning a game at any point. Down 10-3 and facing a third-and-10 at the opponent’s 25-yard line with 3:20 to play in the second quarter? The win probability graphs can give you an indication of how likely you are to win, and an accurate one at that. I highly recommend monitoring them on game day.

The Cowboys’ win probability graph from Sunday night’s victory paints a picture we rarely saw last season, one with the ’Boys controlling the direction of the contest.

Due to a relatively fast pace from the Cowboys and a lack of rushing from both squads, there were an abundance of plays from scrimmage in this contest. And of those 133 plays, Dallas found themselves as an underdog on just five of them. That’s a sharp contrast from a year ago.

You can see the Cowboys were the favorites to win from about two-thirds of the way through the first quarter until the final second of the game. At its worst point, Dallas still owned a 40 percent chance of winning.

And at Bleacher Report, I took a look at some things to know going into Week 2:

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Cowboys Analysis: Game Plan vs Giants, Player Projections, and 8 Bold Predictions

A bunch of articles posted today. At Bleacher Report, I posted eight predictions for Dallas in 2013:

I’m all about making predictions because I think they convey true understanding. All writers should make predictions—lots of them—but here’s the key: They should be forced to revisit them at the end of the year. Good or bad, that’s what I plan to do with these 2013 Cowboys predictions, just as I did with my 2012 predictions.

When I’m making any prediction, I’m looking for cases where past results aren’t necessarily a reflection of reality. Jason Witten is a great example of that. Although he had 110 receptions in 2012, he saw a career high in targets because the Cowboys were losing so much. If Witten has a lighter workload, his bulk stats will decline in a big way.

So I’m really just searching for predictors of future play that aren’t necessarily represented in past results.

At Dallas News, I posted a breakdown of how Dallas can stop the Giants’ offense:

Limiting Victor Cruz

You’re going to see nickel cornerback Orlando Scandrick on Cruz quite a bit. Although he’s a poor tackler, Scandrick is incredibly underrated in coverage. Last season, he allowed a 51.3 percent completion rate, 5.7 YPA, and a 68.6 passer rating. That low completion rate is particularly impressive playing in the slot, where he can’t use the sideline as an extra defender.

And Scandrick was highly impressive against the Giants in particular last season. In two games, he was targeted six times, allowing just two catches for 30 yards. One reason for that is that Rob Ryan gave his cornerbacks safety help over the top. That’s important for Dallas because it will allow Scandrick and the other cornerbacks to really play aggressively underneath.

And at DallasCowboys.com, I used aggregate projections and past player comps to project the Cowboys’ skill players this week:

For the first time, I’ll be completing week to-week projections for just about every skill position player in the league. It’s primarily for fantasy purposes, but I think the projections could actually give us some unique insights into the Cowboys. There are many ways in which fantasy football is nothing like the NFL, but sometimes the numbers are meaningful; if we know Tony Romo will throw three touchdowns or that Jason Witten will catch eight passes, that’s useful information.

Here’s a screenshot of what I’ve done thus far for the wide receivers:

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Predicting Cowboys’ Takeaways in 2013

At DallasCowboys.com, I tried to project how many takeaways the Cowboys will have in 2013.

Predicting Interceptions

The ’Boys had seven picks in all of 2012, the fewest in the NFL. I think part of the reason for that is Rob Ryan didn’t put his cornerbacks in position to make plays on the football as frequently as he could have. Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr are one of the better play-making cornerback duos in the NFL, and I think Monte Kiffin’s scheme will more successfully allow them to show that.

To predict the Cowboys’ interception total, let’s start up front with the pass-rush. Dallas ranked only 20th in sacks and 23rd in pressures in 2012. There’s good reason to think the pass-rush will improve this year with Kiffin in town, but what can we realistically expect from Dallas?

Odds are they’ll have right around a league average pressure rate, meaning we can use the NFL average for picks, 15, as our baseline. Given the Cowboys’ switch to more zone coverage, their emphasis on undersized pass defenders, and the quality of their cornerbacks, we can probably bump up that projection just a bit. We’ll call it 17. For the record, that would have ranked them 11th in the league last year.

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Analyzing the Cowboys’ 2013 Schedule

At DallasCowboys.com, I looked at the difficulty of the Cowboys’ 2013 schedule:

Adjusted Net YPA (ANYPA)

ANYPA is a unique stat that has proven again and again to accurately predict team success. It’s the best individual stat that us geeks have, and we use it all the time. The formula to calculate ANYPA is as follows:

(Passing Yards – Sack Yards 20 * Passing Yards – 45 * Interceptions)/(Attempts Times Sacked)

So it’s basically an individual stat that penalizes quarterbacks for taking sacks and throwing interceptions. You might argue that neither of those acts fall solely at the feet of quarterbacks; the offensive line helps determine sacks, for example. While that’s true, both sacks and interceptions have proven to be far more dependent on the quarterback than the offensive line. Just take a look at Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. There’s a reason their offensive lines always seems to be the best in the NFL. Last year, those two both got the ball out in 2.5 seconds or less on their average throw, the two lowest marks in the league.

On top of that, for the purposes of projecting the strength of a schedule, it doesn’t really matter who’s at fault on a particular play. We just want to use numbers to predict something in the future. If the numbers can do that accurately and consistently, then they have pragmatic value.

ANYPA for Cowboys’ Opponents

Below, I listed the opposing quarterbacks for the Cowboys this year, along with their 2012 ANYPA.

Week Opponent QB Adjusted Net YPA
1 Giants Eli Manning 6.59
2 at Chiefs Alex Smith 6.76
3 Rams Sam Bradford 5.64
4 at Chargers Philip Rivers 5.45
5 Broncos Peyton Manning 7.89
6 Redskins Robert Griffin III 7.47
7 at Eagles Michael Vick 5.27
8 at Lions Matthew Stafford 5.81
9 Vikings Christian Ponder 4.99
10 at Saints Drew Brees 7.17
11 BYE
12 at Giants Eli Manning 6.59
13 Raiders Matt Flynn 7.56
14 at Bears Jay Cutler 5.37
15 Packers Aaron Rodgers 7.33
16 at Redskins Robert Griffin III 7.47
17 Eagles Michael Vick 5.27
Average 6.41

You can see that the Cowboys’ opponents averaged 6.41 ANYPA in 2012. That’s actually significantly more than the league average of 5.89. Even if we take the top 32 quarterbacks in 2012, the mean is still only 6.15. So in regards to the most predictive stat in football, the one that can best predict overall team success, the Cowboys’ schedule is much harder than average.

On top of that, don’t forget that ANYPA actually doesn’t account for quarterback rushing. With one-quarter of their games against RGIII and Vick, the Cowboys’ road to the playoffs might be even more difficult than the numbers suggest.

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Plays Cowboys Should Avoid in 2013

At DallasCowboys.com, I broke down some of my least favorite plays.

Every year, I break down every Cowboys play into right around 50 different categories. I track things like motions, pass length, routes, checks, formations, blitzes and so on. Here’s a small screenshot of last year’s data:

To give you an idea of how large these files can grow, consider that the image above represents under three percent of the data I tracked in 2012. This database is why I’m able to say things like “The Cowboys need to run more play-action passes and counters” and have some numbers to back me up.

Last week, I published an article that used the data I’ve collected to argue for specific types of plays the ’Boys should call more often. Those included the aforementioned play-action passes and counters, along with runs from spread formations, passes from tight and running back screens. Today, I’m going to look at just the opposite – plays the Cowboys run that haven’t necessarily worked that well.

Quick Screens to Wide Receivers

I’m a big proponent of many types of screens, primarily because they can hold back pass-rushers. The Cowboys ran 24 screens in 2012, only eight of which went to running backs. That’s one running back screen every two games. I’d love to see the number of running back screens skyrocket, and it looks like that might happen under Bill Callahan.

Quick wide receiver screens, on the other hand, are a different animal. In certain situations, they can be useful as extended handoffs. But the Cowboys don’t use bubble and tunnel screens in the same way as many spread offenses. Romo has typically determined pre-snap if he’ll be throwing a quick screen to a wide receiver, and most of them have appeared to be designed runs on which Romo pulled up to hit the receiver on a “look.” In 2012, 15 of the Cowboys’ 24 screens were quick to receivers. They went for 86 total yards or 5.73 yards per attempt (YPA), with all but three of the passes totaling nine or fewer yards.

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The Top 10 Players on the Cowboys Heading Into 2013

At DallasCowboys.com, I ranked my top 10 Cowboys for the future. Here’s No. 10 through No. 7:

10. CB Orlando Scandrick

This will probably be the most unpopular pick on here. No Jason Witten, no Anthony Spencer, noJason Hatcher, but the stat dork has Orlando Scandrick in his top 10!? I think the perception of Scandrick is warped a bit because, as mentioned, he has a hefty contract. He probably hasn’t lived up to that, but I ranked Scandrick as the top cornerback on the team in 2012.

Playing in the slot, a much tougher spot to play than outside, Scandrick allowed a 51.3 percent completion rate, 5.7 yards per attempt (YPA) and zero touchdowns. He’s a poor tackler, but the 68.5 passer rating he allowed last year made up for that.

9. RB DeMarco Murray

As the 2013 season approaches, I’m becoming more and more bullish on Murray. We all know he can play; he’s averaged 4.8 yards per carry in his two seasons and was on pace for 67 receptions last year. The problem has been his health. As I’ve explained in the past, however, there’s no way we can tell at this time if Murray is truly injury prone or just unlucky; the sample of injuries has just been too small.

I’m betting on superior health in 2013, and a really big year. It’s not like the league is littered with young, 220-pound backs with 4.41 speed who can catch passes. Here’s more on why I think Murray will break out.

8. CB Brandon Carr

Carr was decent in 2012, allowing a 58.6 percent completion rate and 7.4 YPA. I think he’ll have more opportunities to make plays in Monte Kiffin’s defense. He’d be higher on this list if he were a few years younger than 27.

7. LT Tyron Smith

Smith has taken some time to develop, but that’s to be expected from a player who came into the NFL at the age of 20. Think about this: Third-round pick Terrance Williams will turn 24 a few weeks into the 2013 season, but Smith won’t be 23 until December. That’s a reason we should expect Williams to produce early in his career, but it’s also a reason to not be so concerned about Smith. He’s an elite talent who’s basically a “rookie” with two years of NFL experience.



See the rest right here.

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The Play Types We Need to See More in 2013

At DallasCowboys.com, I continued to pad my virtual resume for the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator position with the play-types we need to see more in 2013.

Expect the Unexpected

Thus far through two preseason games, we’ve already seen a change in the Cowboys’ play-calls. Although they’ve expectedly stayed “vanilla,” the ’Boys have still run the ball way more often to the perimeter and thrown more screen passes than what we saw in 2012. Those play-types suggest that Callahan is at least taking opponents’ actions into account when picking plays – a rudimentary form of game theory.

So without further ado, here are the “unexpected” play-types, the plays that might be sub-optimal in a vacuum but most beneficial in practice, that the Cowboys should consider running more often in 2013.

  • Counters

There’s no single type of play that I’d like to see more in 2013 than the counter. Counters take a long time to develop and there’s a bigger opportunity for negative yardage than on a dive or other quick-hitting run, but there’s also a (much) larger probability of hitting a home run. From 2009 to 2011, Dallas averaged over 7.0 yards per carry (YPC) on counters! They ran only six of them last year, however, likely due to concerns about the offensive line.

And as mentioned, weak-side runs are usually best. The Cowboys have actually increased their rate of weak side runs, which was as low as 19.5 percent, every year since 2009. In 2012, it was nearly double that.

  • Screens

Everyone seems to believe that the Cowboys need to run the ball more often to take pressure off ofTony Romo (which is a form of game theory itself), but why not run more screens? Screens are high-percentage passes that can hold back pass-rushers, generating the same effect you’d want from a handoff (risk minimization), but with higher upside.

Dallas ran only 24 screens in all of 2012, and 16 of those were to receivers. Those aren’t the screen passes I’m talking about (although they can be useful at times). Rather, the Cowboys look like they’re going to run more running back screens under Callahan, which shouldn’t be difficult considering they called an average of one every two games last season. With exceptional pass-catching backs, there’s no reason that we shouldn’t see more screens in 2013.

Check it out out at the team site.

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Star Magazine Feature: Tyron Smith

In a past issue of Star Magazine, I published a feature on Tyron Smith. It’s posted now on DallasCowboys.com, so check it out.

With all of the offseason attention Jason Garrett received over the Cowboys’ play-calling situation, it’s easy to overlook that since Garrett became the head coach in late 2010, there has been a radical shift in the organization’s philosophy regarding personnel. Rather than collecting individual talents and lumping them together, Garrett has attempted to build a team, a true cohesive unit, whose worth is greater than the sum of its parts by emphasizing oft-overlooked traits: intelligence, character, drive, and perhaps most importantly, selflessness.

In his search for the “right kind of guys,” the Garrett-led Cowboys have landed a number of values through the draft. Those players – Bruce Carter and DeMarco Murray, among others – have been able to excel on the field by combining elite talent with the “intangibles” every team covets.

But perhaps no player reflects the traits Garrett seeks, perhaps no player is more of the right kind of guy, than third-year left tackle Tyron Smith.

On the field, Smith has quickly become one of the NFL’s most promising offensive tackles. He allowed only three sacks in his first season at left tackle and Dallas running backs averaged a full yard per carry more when running behind him than the other linemen. Even better, Smith will enter the 2013 season at just 22 years of age. At a time when most players are beginning their NFL careers as rookies, the USC product has already proven himself as one of the game’s up-and-coming young talents. With what he calls a “major difference” in comfort on the left side this year as compared to last, Smith is prepared for a major breakthrough in his third campaign.

But all of the on-field accomplishments, the development we’ve witnessed on Sundays, are a small part of what has those within the organization so excited about Smith’s future. It’s the off-the-field traits that attracted Garrett and the Cowboys to him in the first place – his intelligence, commitment to the team and ability to overcome adversity – that ensure Smith’s future in Dallas, as a player and a person, will be a bright one.

The whole story is right here.

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A change in the Cowboys’ running game philosophy

At DallasCowboys.com, I broke down what I liked about the Cowboys’ running game in the Hall of Fame Game:

While it was great to see Dallas run the ball with some success, it was even better to see the types of runs they used. Specifically, the Cowboys ran the ball to the perimeter more often than usual, finding creative ways to get the ball into space. Bill Callahan called a stretch from a tight formation on the very first play of the game. Two plays later, the Cowboys lined up in a simple “Tight End Spread” formation, as pictured below.

This has been a semi-regular formation for the offense; I tracked them as using it on 49 plays in 2012, about three per game. They ran the ball on just 15 of those plays, 30.6 percent, but they had some success, rushing for 73 yards or 4.87 yards per carry (YPC).

Running from “Tight End Spread” and similar formations can be really valuable for Dallas. First and foremost, it spreads out the defense. For so long, NFL offenses have tried to run from tight formations, but that really just increases the number of blocks you need to make for a play to be successful. Running from tight formations can be useful in certain situations, such as goal line, but it’s not optimal for many other scenarios and certainly not for the acquisition of big plays.

And if you look at how the Cowboys have performed when they run the ball from spread formations, the data backs up the idea that they should consider flexing players out wide when they want to keep it on the ground.

The Cowboys totaled 4.6 YPC when running the ball from spread formations, compared to 3.3 YPC from tight formations. Some of that effect is due to a play bias – the offense uses primarily tight formations in short-yardage situations, for example – but the average distance-to-go on spread runs was less than a yard more than on tight runs, so it’s not as great of a disparity in situations as you might think.

And if you want an idea of how frequently the Cowboys used certain types of runs in 2012, take a look at this.

  • Bootleg: 0.5%
  • Counter: 2.5%
  • Dive: 57.2% (3.27 YPC)
  • Draw: 14.8% (4.36 YPC)
  • End-Around: 1.5%
  • Power: 18.2% (2.95 YPC)
  • Sneak: 0.5%
  • Toss: 4.3%
  • Trap: 0.5%

Well over half of the Cowboys’ runs were dive plays up the middle. Most of those were from tight formations with heavy personnel.

This is one of my favorite posts of the year so far, so definitely check out the whole article right here.