The DC Times

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

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Chargers Analysis: The Tony Romo Illusion

I’ve spent a lot of time writing about Tony Romo and the Cowboys’ lack of aggressiveness today. In addition to a post that will be up at DallasCowboys.com later, I discussed the Tony Romo illusion over at NBC:

Tony Romo is gaming the system right now. With his 105.0 passer rating and 8:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, Romo has made it appear that he’s playing great football. He’s made it appear that he’s leading the Cowboys’ offense and that factors outside of his control are killing the team’s chances. He’s made it appear like he’s an improved decision-maker.

But playing quarterback isn’t all about minimizing turnovers. Yes, Romo has cut down on his picks. That’s awesome and, given interceptions or no interceptions, there’s obviously no choice.

But that’s not the real dichotomy, here. The real decision is between an aggressive, high-variance style of play that leads to interceptions at times but also creates big plays to lead the offense, or an ultra-conservative style of play that typically results in another form of a turnover—a punt.

On Sunday, Romo was again acting as Houdini in San Diego. A 73.0 percent completion rate. Two touchdowns and no interceptions. A magnificent 108.4 passer rating.

But here’s the dark side of his illusion: 6.60 YPA. No individual stat best predicts team success like YPA. Romo’s 6.68 YPA in 2013 is the lowest he’s ever posted. And it’s not even close.

Turnover minimization should be one of the Cowboys’ goals. It should be an important goal, too. But it shouldn’t be the only goal. The offense can’t continue to minimize turnovers at all costs, regardless of whether or not they move the ball. Open up the offense, let Romo get the ball downfield, and stop playing for another 8-8 record.

At ABC, I broke down a few of Romo’s throws:

Dez Bryant 34-Yard Touchdown

It’s not like Romo is never taking his chances, of course, but just that they’re very limited. He threw a beautiful ball into a tight window in the second quarter—a play that changed the outlook of the game at that point.

On a second-and-four at San Diego’s 40-yard line, the Cowboys used a heavy three-tight end package and lined up in a “Jumbo Ace” look. Bryant was isolated to the field.

Offensive coordinator Bill Callahan called for a play-action look—something that’s still way too underutilized. Romo came into the week with a 110.2 passer rating on play-action passes, yet the Cowboys ranked near the bottom in the league in play-action pass rate. We saw the same thing last year when Romo had a similar play-action passer rating, yet Dallas ranked last in the league in play-action attempts.

This play was particularly deceptive because it was used in a running situation with run-heavy personnel. Romo was given plenty of time to throw and even had Lance Dunbar open underneath.

He rightfully decided to bypass the sure thing to Dunbar in favor of looking downfield for Bryant. The window of opportunity was a small one, but the aggressive throw paid off. Bryant caught the ball in traffic and took it all the way in for the score.

And at Bleacher Report, I handed out position grades:

Tony Romo

You’re going to hear all week that quarterback Tony Romo “took what the defense gave him.” That was the case in both Week 1 and Week 2 as well when Romo, despite a high completion percentage, was quite inefficient in terms of yards per attempt.

On Sunday, Romo again padded his completion percentage, connecting on 27 of his 37 attempts (73.0 percent). Completions aren’t valuable in and of themselves, of course, and Romo managed only 244 yards on those passes (6.59 YPA). Let me save you the suspense—if that’s the sort of efficiency we can expect from Romo all year, the Cowboys will be lucky to go 8-8.

Romo is an outstanding quarterback and more than capable of leading the Cowboys as far as they want to go, but not like this. If the Cowboys don’t start throwing the ball downfield, there’s very little reason for fans to be optimistic. Yes, he protected the ball again, but eventually, the team will need to realize that the same style of play that can lead to interceptions is also what makes Romo a great quarterback.

The ‘Boys seem content to employ a low-variance strategy, through which Romo does everything in his power to not throw interceptions, even if it means not moving the offense.

Grade: D

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys vs. Rams: Key Plays for Dallas

At ABC, I posted a breakdown of a couple important plays for the Cowboys in Week 3:

DeMarco Murray’s 41-Yard Rush

Just out of halftime, the Cowboys faced a second-and-four at their own 26-yard line. They lined up in “Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace”—a formation they used 24 times in 2012. On the 11 plays on which they ran the ball from the formation, the Cowboys found a lot of success with 77 total yards (7.0 YPC) and a touchdown.

On this particular play, Romo issued a “kill” call prior to the snap. A “kill” call is an audible that allows the offense to change the play in just a second or two. This is the audible system that Dallas has used over the past few years, though we didn’t see it much in the first two weeks since Romo was given more freedom to change the play himself at the line. Romo issued multiple “kill” calls on Sunday, which might be a sign that the Cowboys are limiting his responsibilities just a bit.

Before some plays, the offensive coordinator calls in two plays to Romo, who then relays both of those plays to the guys in the huddle. The plan is to run the first play, but if Romo sees something in the defense that suggests that play won’t work, he yells “kill, kill, kill” at the line, alerting the offense to run the second play. It’s an effective way to change plays in a hurry, which is often necessary when you’re calling two of them in the huddle.

On this play, Romo made the right read. When he handed off the ball to Murray, only tight end Jason Witten didn’t win his battle at the point-of-attack.

This is a theme for Witten, by the way. It’s popular to say that he’s the best receiving-blocking combination tight end in the NFL, but he’s not. He continually loses at the point-of-attack, and I’d argue he’s barely an average blocker anymore.

In any event, Witten did enough to stay in front of his defender, and Murray adjusted by cutting back on a play initially designed to get outside.

After cutting back, Murray was contacted just two yards past the line. He was able to slip the tackle to get into the open-field, ultimately galloping for 41 yards. This shows just how volatile each running play can be, though; had Murray been a fraction of a second late to the hole, he would have been tackled for a couple yards. The difference between a great rushing game and a horrible rushing game is often a handful of bang-bang plays just like this one—a reason to be optimistic that Dallas can continue their rushing success.

By Jonathan Bales

More on How the Giants Shut Down Dez Bryant

At Bleacher Report, I took a more in-depth look at how the Giants’ safeties were playing over top of Dez Bryant.

Stopping Dez Bryant

There was a play early in the game that really caught my attention in regards to how New York was defending Bryant.

Just over three minutes into the contest, the Cowboys faced a first-and-10 at their own seven-yard line. They motioned tight end James Hanna into a fullback position, showing a “Strong Right” formation before the snap.

I track every Cowboys play, and the ‘Boys ran this formation just 23 times in 2012—only once with this “12” personnel of one running back and two tight ends—and they motioned into it on 15 of those plays. They also passed on 12 of them, meaning it’s one of the true “balanced” formations that the Cowboys utilize.

They can both run and pass out of this formation with effectiveness, which is why they often use play-action when running it. Five of their 12 passes from “Strong” formation were play-action looks in 2012—a 41.6 percent rate that demolishes their overall rate of just 10.0 percent. Romo did indeed show play-action again on this play as well.

Screenshot2013-09-11at5

Cornerback Corey Webster was lined up over Bryant (top of the screen). That’s a huge mismatch that Dallas would normally want to exploit. Webster was targeted only six times on the night, however, allowing three catches for 25 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

One of the reasons that Webster and the other defensive backs were so effective on Bryant is that they could play really, really aggressively. On this play, Webster was lined up about five yards off of Bryant. The Giants did a good job of mixing up their looks, playing in a press position on one play and with off-technique the next. One of the benefits of this particular look is that the Cowboys couldn’t immediately back-shoulder Bryant since Webster could initially look into the backfield.

By the time Romo showed the fake and settled into the pocket, Webster was right on Bryant’s hip. Like most plays, he had safety help over the top as well. That allowed him to play ultra-aggressively, shadowing Bryant underneath without fear of giving up the big play.

Check out the entire analysis.

By Jonathan Bales

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:

By Jonathan Bales

How Victor Cruz Beat the Cowboys’ D

At Dallas News, I broke down Victor Cruz’s 70-yard touchdown:

Breaking Down the Victor Cruz Touchdown

With a first-and-10 at their own 30-yard line, the Giants rushed to the line-of-scrimmage in an effort to get off a play before the two-minute warning. The tactic seemed to catch the Cowboys by surprise. You can see that, just before the snap, there was quite a bit of confusion on defense as to what play they’d be running.

In a Gun Spread look, the Giants were able to snap the ball just before the two-minute warning with the majority of Dallas defenders unaware the play was even live.

The Cowboys had a zone blitz called with a quarters coverage behind it. It’s really not a “blitz” in the traditional sense since they initially rushed only four defenders—three down-linemen and Orlando Scandrick. You can see Scandrick near the bottom of the formation.

On the opposite side, DeMarcus Ware basically took Scandrick’s place by slipping into the flat. That’s why zone blitzes are typically safer than traditional blitzes with man coverage behind them; an atypical defender usually drops into coverage to take the place of a rusher, usually a defensive back. So on many zone blitzes, the defense is still rushing just four players.

The blitz didn’t work since the Cowboys weren’t really ready at the snap. Nonetheless, defensive tackle Nick Hayden slipped through to get initial pressure on Eli Manning.

It’s also worth noting that Sean Lee came after Manning as well, although he wasn’t supposed to be part of the blitz. Lee initially hesitated because he appeared to be in coverage, but took off for the quarterback when he saw running back David Wilson stay in to block.

Check out the rest.

By Jonathan Bales

All of my Cowboys-Giants analysis in one place: Dez Bryant, Position Grades, & More

So what’s up? Anything new going on with you guys? Not sure if you knew, but the Cowboys played last night. Won, too. Here’s some analysis.

I recently joined WFAA.com (ABC Dallas), and my first article takes a look at how the Giants really stifled the Cowboys’ offense.

A Look at Cover 2 Man-Under

Over the past few seasons, the Giants have played Cover 2 and Cover 2 Man-Under on nearly every snap against Dallas. Most are familiar with Cover 2—a true zone coverage—especially now that Monte Kiffin is in town. In Cover 2, the safeties play the deep halves and are responsible for the deepest receiver in their area. The cornerbacks play what’s known as “curl to flat”—a fancy way of saying the underneath zone near the sideline.

In 2 Man-Under, though, everyone other than the safeties is in man coverage. That means when a receiver goes deep, he’s effectively double-teamed. No wonder the Cowboys couldn’t secure any big plays on the night; the Giants made sure they kept everything in front of them, particularly when it came to Mr. Bryant.

One of the interesting tricks the Giants employed was mixing up their looks with the cornerbacks. Even though they played a lot of Cover 2 Man-Under, the Giants didn’t always place their cornerbacks in a press position. Instead, they often played off even when in man coverage, as you can see below.

Bryant, isolated at the top of the screen opposite the Cowboys’ “Trips” formation, was able to get a clean release because the cornerback was playing off. But there were advantages for the Giants in playing with off technique, too.

I’ll be doing a bunch of cool stuff at ABC this year, so definitely check it out.

At NBC, I posted some initial thoughts on the offense:

- I absolutely love that we saw the Pistol from Dallas on Sunday night. Not only that, but we saw it multiple times. The Pistol can allow for Tony Romo to be in Shotgun while also giving the Cowboys the freedom to run any play. DeMarco Murray doesn’t need to delay before taking a handoff, so the Cowboys can have the best of both worlds.

- I need to break down the film, but it was obvious that Dallas didn’t have much play-action success. It was still good to see them using it, though. Last year, Romo compiled a 109.1 passer rating on play-action. It can really be an effective tool in their offensive arsenal, whether the running game is working or not. They’re starting to realize that.



At Bleacher Report, I gave grades for each position:

DeMarco Murray handled 20 of the Cowboys’ 21 carries by running backs, and that’s a great sight to see. At nearly 220 pounds with 4.41 speed and past NFL efficiency, Murray is so much better than Phillip Tanner and Joseph Randle that it’s not even funny.

Murray averaged 4.3 YPC, thanks to a few nice runs in the fourth quarter. He also caught eight passes, showing he’ll be a staple in Bill Callahan’s short passing game.

Grade: C

And at Dallas News, I explained why I think Monte Kiffin’s defense wasn’t that good:

We can and should give the defense some credit for being in the right place at the right time, but we also can’t expect them to force more than a couple of turnovers in each game. And when those disappear, where does that leave this team? Had the Cowboys not gotten some fortuitous bounces against the Giants, this game could have been a blowout.

Again, I’m a fan of Kiffin and I even predicted the Cowboys’ takeaways to increase substantially just before the Giants game. But the ability to force turnovers is about one part skill for every three parts luck. I’ve heard people argue that it doesn’t matter because the Cowboys won the game, and in some ways that’s true, but it does matter if we’re looking to the future. And I don’t know about you, but I’m more concerned with the next 15 games than this single victory.

 

By Jonathan Bales

This pass to Dez Bryant is a great sign for Dallas

At Dallas News, I broke down an innocent pass to Dez Bryant and why it’s such a good sign for the Cowboys.

On a first-and-10 at their own 47-yard line, the Cowboys lined up in “Tight End Trips Right” with Bryant isolated on the left side of the formation. Dallas lined up in “Tight End Trips” on 59 plays in 2012—right around four per game—passing the ball on only 17 of those snaps. It’s the one spread formation from which they really like to run the ball, as they planned to do on this play.

The Raiders were in an unusual alignment because cornerback Mike Jenkins (top) was lined up 10 yards off of Miles Austin and actually sunk back farther before the snap, yet cornerback Tracy Porter was less than five yards off of Bryant. The reason was that Porter was supposed to blitz on the play.

As you can see below, Porter started to blitz as Romo took the snap. With Bryant slanting in, Romo pumped but pulled back when he saw Porter. The cornerback actually stopped rushing when he recognized that Romo was throwing the ball to Bryant.

The play might have looked like a busted slant, but it was actually a run. You can see Jason Witten stayed in-line to block and the other receivers both jogged out leisurely to block the defenders lined up over them. DeMarco Murray hesitated behind the line-of-scrimmage, indicating that this was a designed draw.

When Romo decided to forgo the handoff and throw to Bryant, he was executing what is known as a “sight adjustment.” On many running plays, quarterbacks have the freedom to pull up and immediately hit a receiver—typically on a slant or quick screen—if they see something that suggests a pass will be successful.

It’s pretty standard, but something about this play really stands out: Romo didn’t decide to throw the football until after the snap. Typically, the quarterback makes that determination before the snap. But even with the odd coverage, I don’t think there’s any way that Romo could have anticipated Porter blitzing. The cornerback did nothing to show it; you can see him lined up well off of the ball in a traditional position just before the snap in the first image.

By Jonathan Bales

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.

By Jonathan Bales

New York Times: Tony Romo’s Final Interception

At the New York Times’ Fifth Down blog, I broke down Tony Romo’s final interception of the 2012 season.

I tracked 8 of Romo’s 37 passes as being off-target — about twice his normal rate — and all three of his interceptions were mostly his fault. Despite playing at a near-elite level over much of the second half of the season, Romo will have to suffer through another off-season of torment for failing to perform against the Redskins in a prime-time game in the national spotlight. More specifically, he’s going to have to relive one particular play again and again.

With 3 minutes 7 seconds remaining and time ticking away, the Cowboys were in hurry-up mode. Down by 21-18 and fresh off a touchdown drive and subsequent Redskins three-and-out, the Cowboys actually had a bit of momentum. From its 9-yard line, Dallas lined up with “12” personnel — one running back, two tight ends and two receivers — in “Gun Tight End Trips Right.” It’s a formation the Cowboys use frequently in hurry-up situations and one they used 11 times on the night.

Before the snap, the Redskins showed blitz, something they did on 16 of the Cowboys’ 61 offensive snaps. Washington had brought pressure on Romo throughout the night, often lining up in conservative base alignments and sending unexpected rushers. All told, the Redskins sent five or more rushers after Romo on an incredible 52.4 percent of the Cowboys’ plays.

Interestingly, the Cowboys had tight end James Hanna in the slot with receivers Dwayne Harris and Kevin Ogletree split out wide. That’s not exactly the same threat as Dez Bryant, a player Romo could potentially target regardless of coverage.

Washington ended up rushing six of the seven defenders who were lined up within two yards of the line of scrimmage at the snap. The blitz was an aggressive one, but it at first appeared to be an all-out blitz. Outside linebacker Rob Jackson initially rushed up-field toward Romo before dropping into coverage.

Check out the whole post.

By Jonathan Bales

Cowboys-Saints Film Study

At DallasCowboys.com, I posted my thoughts from the Cowboys’ Week 16 loss to the Saints.

  • It’s easy to look at the Cowboys’ 45-to-11 pass-to-run ratio and say that head coach Jason Garrett should have dialed up more runs, but I’m not sure that’s the case. It’s so tempting to criticize such a ratio because the Cowboys lost, but they were a weird bounce of the ball away from us praising Garrett for “sticking with what was working.” Tony Romo was on fire for most of the game, averaging 9.67 yards per attempt (YPA) over 43 attempts. As much as Drew Brees diced up the Cowboys’ defense, even he totaled only 8.42 YPA. Meanwhile, DeMarco Murrayran for just 3.63 yards per carry (YPC) on the ground. Remember, the Cowboys have historically won around 50 percent more often when they pass the ball very frequently in the first three quarters of games.
  • If you recall, Garrett called 45 passes and only 19 rushes (two of which were Romo kneel-downs) last week. That game against the Steelers was very similar to this one, except a remarkableBrandon Carr interception altered how we perceive the two games. In both contests, Garrett was extremely pass-heavy; with the way Romo has been throwing the ball lately, that’s a good thing. If we aren’t going to criticize Garrett’s play-calling in a victory last week (which we shouldn’t), then we can’t do it this week.

Read the whole article

I also did the same at NBC.

Prior to the game, I suggested that Garrett continue to increase the rate of play-action passes and downfield throws. We saw four play-action passes and five deep looks (thrown at least 20 yards past the line-of-scrimmage) from Dallas. Romo completed two of the play-action passes for 74 yards and a touchdown. He was even better on deep passes, connecting on three of the five for 118 yards and two scores. Against the Redskins’ porous 30th-ranked pass defense, it would probably benefit the ‘Boys to give Bryant a handful of extra deep targets on which he can win in jump ball situations, regardless of the coverage.

Check out the whole post here.